In some of our past bulletins recording the nefarious dealings of Edward Baker, who called himself the ‘ most expert bookfinder extant ‘, but who we prefer to dub ‘The Demon Bookfinder General of John Bright Street’, we credited him with what today might be regarded as generosity. He had the habit of selling quality deleted books, including works by Oscar Wilde and Dowson, at knock down prices that in today’s market might sell for decent profits. After all, because a book is deleted it doesn’t follow that it loses its value. Thomas Hardy was deleted, as were many other celebrated novelists. On the debit side, however, as a buyer Baker was niggardly to the point of criminality.
Let’s start with what he was prepared to offer for one of the rarest titles in American literature. Edgar Allan Poe is now regarded as a key writer in the American Romantic idiom. ‘The Raven ‘ is a staple of most Americans’ childhood education, and his creepy tales were pioneer works . He is even credited with inventing the detective story. Poe’s debut, Tamerlane and otherPoems ( Boston, 1827) was privately published when Poe was just 18. The edition was around fifty, which made it so rare that today perhaps only twelve copies have survived. In 2009 one of these fetched $662,500, a record for a work of American literature. In 1907, when he offered just £2 for a copy, Edward Baker, who knew the book was a great rarity , would not have expected to buy a copy in Birmingham, but being a shark, he offered a ludicrous price anyway. If he had been a better businessman, an offer of £20, might have interested someone in Europe. To compound his criminal offence Baker offered a measly 25/- for The Raven and other Poemsand the same price for Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. We at Jot HQ would love to know if Mr Baker ever managed to acquire any of these incredibly rare Poe firsts.
It gets worse. Today, Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell isa rarity that most Bronte fans would love to acquire. It is nothing like as scarce as Tamerlane,but today you’d need to shell out at least £2,000 for a decent copy. .In 1909 Ed Baker would give you 25/-.There are more horror stories. Baker seemed to have a penchant for Shelley, or at least one of his well-heeled clients did. Perhaps one of them was A.M.D. Hughes , author of The Nascent Mind of Shelley, who later became a professor of English Literature at Birmingham University, just down the road from Baker’s shop. There are twelve very rare Shelley titles in Baker’s ‘wanted ‘ list, but only two of these ( the Adonais, which was printed in Pisa following Keats’ death, and Queen Mab(1813), would he give more than £3 for. Today, many Shelley firsts will fetch up to £2,000, some much more..
It goes on. Baker thought so little of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence andExperiencethat he felt that 10 shillings was the right offer for the two works. At auction in London these titles were fetching much, much more. Did Baker think that Brummies were fools?
Baker was also miserly with regard to two classics of English literature. For a first of Samuel Johnson’s Prince of Abissinia(1759) he’d give you a princely fifteen shillings; for Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock(1714) you’d get a rapacious 20 shillings. Today, the Johnson will cost you £3,000 and the Pope £2,250!!
And yet….Baker was prepared to pay handsomely for titles that today we might consider outdated, overrated, or just plain dull. He’d give three pound notes for Swinburne’s Queen Mother and Rosamund , five shillings for an odd number of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, £10 for one of Tennyson’s hand-printed pamphlets, and £5 for Rossetti’s Collected Works.