Poe's bookcase stands in North Raleigh

Staff WriterMay 27, 2009 

In 1849, Edgar Allen Poe staggered to a drunken and delirious death on the streets of Baltimore, scattering to history some of the creepiest stories ever written -- the black cats and beating hearts that still scare children awake at midnight.

And now, by an odd chance, you can see a sliver of Poe's literary life standing seven feet tall in Eliza Kraft Olander's sunny office, looking out on a cheerful garden of lilacs and roses.

She keeps paperback copies of Deepak Chopra and Anaïs Nin on the walnut shelves where Poe once stacked his own volumes. Though there's nothing tortured or black-hearted about North Raleigh, you can't help but picture his ghost floating past to flip through the pages.

"If it is haunted," Olander said, "I have a lot of religious stuff, too. I collect crosses from French cemeteries."

Eight years ago, the North Raleigh philanthropist bought Poe's bookcase on a tip from a Wilson antique dealer, who got it as a castoff from Poe's Baltimore museum. Ted Fulford can't fully recall how the piece wound its way south, but it's fun to imagine it being lost as last-chance stakes in a beggar's dice game, then tossed onto a gypsy's wagon alongside a collection of antlers and brass horns.

"Somehow we acquired it," Fulford said. "Probably late at night."

Olander isn't a Poe fan, particularly. She read the staples while she was in high school. But she never stayed up past midnight, reading "Murders in the Rue Morgue" under a blanket with a flashlight.

She founded a company that established Burger King and Applebee's restaurants in the Triangle, and when you ask to see her favorite books, she reaches for Ayn Rand.

But Poe's case adds to the playful hodgepodge that covers Olander's 55 acres on Mount Vernon Church Road. Her driveway is lined with fiberglass wolf sculptures and huge stone butterflies, and whirligigs as tall as silos spin on her grass.

She likes her furniture both sturdy and ornate, and Poe's shelves span an entire wall of her office with their gothic carvings, less likely to tip over than a brick wall.

The writer's times

Poe didn't live to see 40, but this year marks his 200th birthday, triggering a wave of tributes. He persisted among the young nation's first professional writers, and his years were marked by frequent pennilessness, lost jobs and a nationwide financial panic that rings all too familiar today.

"He lived in hard times, dark times, up-and-down times," Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker magazine last month. "Indigence cast a shadow over everything he attempted. Poverty was his raven, tapping at the door."

You'd expect Poe's bookcase to be a ragged thing; slabs of splintering wood propped up the dusty volumes it was made to hold. But he must have known some comfortable years to afford such a prize.

He must have valued his books above everything else, and he must now appreciate Olander's keeping it safe -- not to mention an occasional whiff of the rare cognac she collects.

Olander lives in a peaceful home full of whimsical art and lovingly restored relics.

But you wonder if on North Raleigh's darkest nights, a pounding noise rises from the walnut shelves in her office, building slowly until the whole house shakes with the power of a poet's heart.

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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