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Featured Exhibitor: Will Baker

The long, lively path of twists and turns booksellers take to work in their field leads to an inclination to explore and discover. Rare booksellers and ephemera dealers work with historical treasure troves that strengthen their capabilities to research and explore.

Will Baker, a prolific bookseller, who got his start in the rare book trade in 2004, is no exception. He is the founder of W. C. Baker Rare Books & Ephemera, a Brooklyn-based firm "specializing in printed and manuscript materials relating to avant-garde literature, social movements, and unusual currents in science, religion, and the performing arts," Baker states in his firm's website. After finishing his studies in religion at Carleton College, he moved to New York to complete his Masters in Museum Science from New York University. Baker worked for famed late sword swallower and magician Johnny Fox while completing his master's thesis on Fox's Lower East Side museum, Freakatorium.

"In grad school, I spent a lot of time researching in archives and special collections and became increasingly interested in rare printed and manuscript materials. I learned from curators and librarians that it was becoming harder and harder for them to devote time to original research on these materials themselves and that they often relied on the rare book dealers they purchased from to provide that research.”

Baker began speaking to the director of the museum studies program about a career in the rare book trade. The director provided Baker connections, including booksellers and marine map sellers, who encouraged him to attend the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. Baker shared that being an alumnus of the Rare Book School and the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar was beneficial to forming connections and relationships within the rare book business. The founder of Rare Books Schools, Terry Belanger, connected him with his start in the rare book business.

Baker began his journey in the rare book trade as a cataloger in Americana for the William Reese Company in New Haven, Connecticut. He has appreciated finding the value of overlooked items and learning about the people connected to the material.

" “What I most enjoy about bookselling is being able to work with a wide variety of fascinating people: curators, collectors, and, often, the families of collectors who have died, who are now learning about the interests of their loved ones in new ways." Baker said.

Baker perfectly illustrates this by emphasizing the importance of the collectors' scholarship and vision as much as the actual material.

Baker recounts a standout collection of outstanding scholarship and intellectual curiosity that belonged to the late husband of one of his appraisal clients.

"He was a Mexican doctor and scientist and collected everything from 17th-century natural history in Mexico to 20th-century radical social movements. His family donated his collection to the Hispanic Society of America.” Baker said. “There was one incredible set of letters written to the Mexican president Porfirio Diaz by hundreds of women from across the country in the early 1900s, petitioning for the right of women to vote. What was just as exciting was finding an article the collector had written fifteen years ago about these women’s efforts – based on this archive that he found at a small Texas auction – now widely cited by scholars.”

Few people can say that after decades of experience in their work, they still feel rushes of excitement routinely while working.

Will Baker is an exception.

His eyes gleamed, and his smile widened as he mentioned the most recent rush of excitement he got from discovering a photograph of a Boston seashore storm discovered at a Maine antique fair. The photograph has no credited photographer, and one is left to let their imaginations run wild as they see a man seemingly trying to outrun a storm.

"I get most excited when I see something with a story that has not been told before." Baker shares and wonderfully concludes the sentiments of rare book fair attendees worldwide.

Written by Samourra Rene on September 30, 2022.

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