Good homes wanted

October 05, 1995|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Locked in the fireproof vaults of the 19th Century Shop are some of the world's most valuable manuscripts: Saint Thomas More's "Utopia" printed in 1516, Ernest Hemingway's first book of short stories, and a copy of the Bill of Rights that just sold for $350,000.

And if you're really into authors, you can get a piece of Edgar Allan Poe's mahogany coffin, paired as a set with an 1845 business receipt signed by the master of macabre himself. Asking price: $20,000.

"For those who really appreciate the genius of Poe, even something distantly related to the great man is interesting," says shop owner Stephan Loewentheil, who travels throughout North America looking for rarities and entertains buyers from as far away as Japan.

Mr. Loewentheil, 45, opened the Southwest Baltimore shop at 1047 Hollins St. about 10 years ago, after becoming interested in books through his fascination with Poe.

He is also part owner of the nearby Mencken's Cultured Pearl Cafe and has been a developer of residential properties in the neighborhood.

The shop is about four blocks from the Amity Street house where Mr. Poe lived 160 years ago, and its ec- lectic catalog of merchan- dise is as bizarre as Poe's legacy.

Along with the coffin fragment, other items that have passed through the shop include a carving from a 16th-century mulberry tree once planted by William Shakespeare and a pair of gloves that had been worn by Abraham Lincoln.

"In order to find the great books for our customers, we travel a great deal and we often find ourselves in homes of people with great taste," Mr. Loewentheil said. "There are all kinds of fascinating things out there."

Once, he said, he bought a 3-foot model of a whaling kayak made by Eskimos, who presented it to Adm. Robert E. Peary, the American who discovered the North Pole. "It was something we just had to buy," Mr. Loewentheil said.

"You can find some very wonderful things there," said James O. Edwards, a 52-year-old book collector from Potomac who has bought from the shop two Shakespeare folios, a copy of Samuel Johnson's dictionary, and a collection of Charles Darwin's writings.

"I ended up trading the Darwin collection back to him for a very rare collection of poems by Elizabeth and Robert Browning," said Mr. Edwards, who noted the Browning books are worth over $100,000.

Among the other items are an 1868 Valentine's Day note written by Samuel Clemens ($10,000), an autographed photo of Leo Tolstoy ($3,500) and an 1879 folding map of New York City's west end ($1,250).

But perhaps the most intriguing item is the Poe coffin fragment, which legend has it came from the writer's casket when it splintered in 1875 as gravediggers moved his remains from the rear of Westminster Cemetery to the front.

A few Poe historians question whether the workers moved the right corpse.

"Some people think they didn't get the right body. The graves weren't clearly marked in those days," says Carol Peirce, president of the Poe Society of Maryland.

Jeff Savoye, the Maryland Poe society's secretary treasurer, said there are several known Poe coffin fragments. The Poe society has one -- which has been fashioned into a pen-holder -- and the Enoch Pratt Free Library has another, he said.

"They're not unique. There are four or five of them out there," said Mr. Savoye, who said he believed the diggers found the right grave. "It's very likely they got the right body."

Authenticity is key to the credibility of the 19th Century Shop. Mr. Loewentheil guarantees the items and offers some type of proof with them.

In the case of the coffin fragment, which he bought at an auction, he offers as proof an inscription from a former Maryland Historical Society member.

"Piece of Edgar Allan Poe's coffin, taken from Westminster graveyard when his remains were taken up and transferred," the inscription says.

An article in the defunct Baltimore Evening News of Oct. 1, 1875, tells of the coffin raising: "On carefully raising the coffin to the brink of the grave, [the coffin lifter] discovered that it was partially broken in at the sides, and the lid near the head was so much decayed that it fell in pieces on the ground.

"The flesh and funeral robes of course had crumbled into dust, and there was nothing left but the bare bones and a few clumps of hair attached to the skull to tell that a body had once been there."

Mr. Loewentheil said he has no doubts, and said the Poe grave story adds to the mystique of the piece.

"Having a mystery regarding Poe's grave is a fine memorial to ...|...|TC man of great mystery," Mr. Loewentheil said. "But as always with Mr. Poe, the truth is very elusive."

The tiny Southwest Baltimore shop has a wrought-iron staircase that spirals alongside a 12-foot-high bookshelf.

Among the literary flora and fauna is an autographed letter from Albert Einstein -- written to a friend named Inga Stern, whom he helped escape from Nazi oppression -- that reads:

"Only a few of us will be lucky enough to celebrate a life without worries. Gladly would I have joined you [for your birthday], but other work and worries created partially by Hitler make it impossible to accept any invitation of a private nature. Looking back, life looks remarkably short."

But what most appeals to Mr. Loewentheil are books and finding suitable owners for such works as Malthus' "Population" and a 15th-century compilation of plays by Aristophanes.

"Part of my job is to find a good home for these books, which represent the original workings of man's imagination and invention," he said. "They've been preserved in some cases for centuries. I want them to reach people that will cherish them and love them."

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