Poe, Mencken suddenly hot

Collectors selling

rare-book dealer can't explain it

August 23, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Collectors of Edgar Allan Poe and H.L. Mencken are roiling the Baltimore rare-book world during these dog days of August like stockbrokers dealing blue chips in a sell-off.

"During the last three weeks almost on a daily basis people have just been lining up with books to sell," says Teresa Johanson, the proprietor with her husband Don of Kelmscott Bookshop on 25th Street. "Monday the phone rang all day. [Last] Friday was so insane I could hardly fill orders."

She doesn't think it's the heat. But she doesn't have any real explanation for the spike in selling. There's no Alan Greenspan influencing the rare-book market.

People sometimes start moving in August and sell their books, she says. But she's been offered collections big and small and even private libraries accumulated over many years. And they're not $5 or $10 books either. Several rarities are worth thousands of dollars.

"A fellow I know may be selling Poe," she says, "including a first edition of The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym."

That's from 1838. In the original cloth binding, it can be worth $5,000.

"This is leather-bound, probably worth $2,000."

The same person has the first printing of Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, which appeared in Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in 1839. Johanson says that can be worth $400 or $500.

She's been offered several choice Mencken collections in the past couple of weeks. A collector in Florida offered four books Mencken had given his Uncle Charlie, all with inscriptions and small drawings, including one drawn when he was 14.

The current surge in selling may have some urgency, too.

"He wanted his money immediately," Johanson says. "He wanted the money wired."

She produces a very nice signed copy of In Defense of Women, a first edition from the Free Lance Books collection Mencken edited. He'd sent the book to a hostess "to recall a charming evening." The inscription is adorned with a small drawing of a foaming beer mug imposed on a cross, an emblem Johanson says Mencken occasionally added to his signature.

She says Mencken collectors are not really interested in fancy editions. They're readers, she says.

"Most Mencken collectors are very practical, like him."

One was liquidating a library collection made over 20 or 30 years that contained every one of Mencken's books, virtually all signed.

"I'm 79," he told Johanson. "I want to pay my taxes."

Most Mencken collectors tend to be 50 or older, Johanson said. She has one 28-year-old collector who wanted a book from of Mencken's Prejudices series.

"But he's the only one of his age," she says.

Mencken's not taught much in the schools any more, she says. His views on religion especially are simply not politically correct. He's an equal opportunity offender.

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