A Bookseller Never Gets Beyond the Prime of Life

Laurence Gomme Quote

Letterpress courtesy of Brick Row Book Shop.

A bookseller never gets beyond the prime of life.

Laurence Gomme, 1st President of the ABAA

Hmmmm… I’d like to think so, but lately I am not always sure. I can still grind through thousands of old books a day, but there’s something different lately. I blame COVID.

A dun colored moth flutters above my bed. My eyes follow it about in the dawn’s light.

“How did you get in here, little fellow? Follow me through the door last night?”

Its wingspan is a couple of inches. I’ve read their erratic flight is a survival instinct. Their movement is unpredictable to predators.

“I’ll open the window and hope it heads for the brighter light outside.”

September. Summer’s end. It started out so promising. Then? Well, here I am back where I’ve been these last few years.

Ok. Put one foot in front of the other and move on.

Fall will be a busy season. London and Oxford. A son’s wedding. Eastern Europe and Berlin. Southern Spain.

And books. Hundreds of thousands of them. They will pass through Wonder Book and move on to new homes.

It is good work. Hard work mentally and physically. Daunting sometimes. Frustrating others. It can be thrilling. And unlike burgers and fries or hammers and nails, you never know what is going to be in the next box, behind the next door.

It is what I do. A lifetime of books. From my parents reading Peter Rabbit in bed to tiny me so often that I had it memorized and pretended to “read” it myself—telling them when to turn the page—to managing millions of books in a vain quest to save them—or as many as is humanly possible.

And there is no slowing down, lest the devil catch me.

I wonder, what is next? Perhaps my muse could tell me, but she is not talking.

There must be a “next.”

I will just have to be surprised. Until then, I’ll continue the routine of a bookseller of some scale by day. A hermit and monk by night.

What were last weekend’s finds?

A Boston colonial imprint.

Boston Colonial Imprint

An early 17th century book bound in vellum about husbandry, including winemaking and beekeeping, with a lot of woodcuts.

A book-like menu from Shanghai printed in the 1930s, I think.

And the Cotton Club!

Cotton Club Rhythmania

(I’m not showing the front cover because of a racist caricature of the doorman.)

Imagine being in any of those places and times.

And there were thousands of other books and items as well.

I have a little collection of menus. I like restaurants and the memories of good times at places now long gone. Last night at the end of a Perry Mason episode, Perry and Della were returning to a fancy French restaurant that had featured earlier in a criminal matter.

“Why are we going there?”

“I want to see what they put in the coffee to make it worth a dollar!”

A dollar for a cup of coffee! More like dime back then.

Of course, the payment then could have been made of silver. When I was a kid, the dimes, quarters and half dollars were silver. A scrap silver dollar is going for about $30 dollars today.

$30 for a cup of coffee would be shocking today. But maybe not next year.

Restaurants and menus and memories.

Tonight, I’ll go to Lightfoot just across the Potomac in Leesburg, Virginia. It is to celebrate my older son’s birthday. I love that place. So many happy memories with so many different companions. It will be memorable.

One of my old-time favorites was Haussner’s in Baltimore.

Haussner's Menu

We lived for a short while on the grounds of Fort Howard. It had once been a real fort defending the port of Baltimore. It was a large VA hospital when we were there. My dad had taken the position of Chief of Medicine. It was at the end of a peninsula in Chesapeake Bay. Gated and fenced to keep people out because the community outside was pretty rough. Steel workers and other rowdy folk. The huge Bethlehem Steel Sparrows Point plant was on the next peninsula east. It glowed at night and spewed smoke constantly. There was always orange dust on the windowsills.

I was not allowed out of the fort. It wasn’t safe. Inside, it was a kind of secret garden. There were only a handful of kids of various ages living in what had been officers’ houses near the shore.

Baltimore was a rough city. (Not as rough as it is now.) But we would venture out occasionally. One place was Haussner’s (est. 1929.) It was a venerable classic place. All the walls throughout the meandering building were covered in classic art imported by the family from Europe over the decades. When it finally closed in 1999, they auctioned the art off, and it brought $10 million.

I would have to put on a suit to go. I would have been 12-14. It felt like a royal place to a young kid. Staff wore livery. We would be seated in a “family room” where there were no nude paintings or sculptures. I believe ladies weren’t permitted in the nude rooms, although the art was nothing you wouldn’t see at any museum. I was permitted to order anything I wanted. A shrimp cocktail was extremely exotic. They had dozens of entrees to choose from. I experimented once and ordered hasenpfeffer. That became my favorite. Then my dad got called up to active duty at age 61. The Army was desperate for doctors because of Vietnam. That caused us to move to the DC area, which was another wasteland for a kid who had started life in a very wonderful neighborhood of established good schools and tree-lined streets and loads of friends who were smart and interested in things like books.

Anyway, when I look at my Haussner’s menu, I am transported to another time and place. Happy memories. I wish I could go again… with Mom and Dad… maybe if there is a heaven.

Haussner's Menu


It has been so hot lately. Right now it is in the mid 90s. In the next hour, a storm is predicted that will lower the temp 20 degrees. I hope so. We need the rain. I’ve never seen a sunflower die like this before.

Dying Sunflower

The rest seem fine.

That is, until the storm blew in and knocked a few over.

Ahhh, the vagaries of being a gardener.

A bookseller from Maine visited. He brought a carload of boxes—things he wanted to cast off. A set of D A B *—lacking one volume. It would be unsellable even if it was complete. Once an important tool for Americana research, it is now yet another obsolete reference set. But who knows? Information on the internet is so fungible as to be unreliable. If it is printed on paper, the facts are immutable. Do I trust the information on Wikipedia? More than mainstream media for sure, but I do see a lot that seems to be written by the subject or their family and, therefore, as reliable as an autobiography. Wikipedia entries can change any day and be bent by the political winds blowing at the time.

* Dictionary of American Biography

I gave him the “tour”, and he seemed impressed. Then I turned him loose in the collectible rooms. A couple of hours later, he emerged with a few items. We shook hands goodbye, and he headed across town to shop the store.

We had six surprise deliveries during the day. One was a charity drop off of 256 boxes. Another was library sale leftovers—316 boxes. The others were more manageable. Plus, we had emptied several of our own vans. The day started with a bit of space out on the loading docks. The day ended, and we were stuffed. 35 or more new pallets of boxes of books. I don’t like surprises.

This made me grumpy. We will have to ramp up things to dig ourselves out. I had other plans.

I went home and laid some stone my older son “gave” me—that is, he wanted me to haul it away. It was leftover material and broken bits from a patio project he had done at his new house a couple of years ago. I despaired what to do with it, as it didn’t match the limestone and granite I use. Then I thought it might prevent the occasional washouts where the paved driveway intersects with the dirt path that crosses below the house and winds up to the north side. It is the only way to get a vehicle to the other side of the house. I don’t think it looks too odd, do you? Anyway, the stone will eventually sink into the earth as the earthworms continuously excavate around them. There are millions of earthworms up here that thrive on the leafy mold of the forest floor.

Laid Stone


Ernest and I are heading up to Hagerstown again. This may be the last big “purge” for a while. Most of the categories are being moved and re-sized. It would be a waste of time and space to move dead stock. Another reason is I enjoy the physical activity. Mostly, I’m bored at the warehouse. I can’t “do my thing” on weekdays. Too many people and too many interruptions. The only work I can do there is dreary stuff. I’m good in avoidance of the dreary.

Before work, I gathered together my London and Oxford guidebooks.

Oxford Guidebooks

I couldn’t find the copy of Walking Literary London a friend gave me a few years ago. Imagine not being able to find a book in my house! It’s ok. I can’t find her either. So, I had to order one from someone else. We didn’t have any in stock. Imagine! Me having to buy a book from another bookseller!

The trip is still some days off, but I am ready. I’ll be walking in the footsteps of Tolkien!

I long to walk and walk and walk. And look and look and look. And explore.

I’m ordering flower bulbs now! My version of “retail therapy.”

Bulb Catalogues

I have spots picked out for planting on the mountain. Also, the new garden beds at the warehouse need to be bulbed.

When I get into a bulb catalogue, I go a little crazy. Like Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows. My eyes start spinning. I see a pretty picture of a daffodil, and I’ll order 50. If it has an evocative name, make it a hundred!

I’m looking forward to fall. Cool weather. The retreat of plants back underground. Millions of colorful leaves being shed. The woodstove ritual beginning. When will I have the first fire? Mid October is my guess. And bulb planting. I’ll likely go overboard and complain about how many I need to plant.

Another bookseller is coming this afternoon. That will break the monotony.

We are here. Hagerstown.

A beautiful day. Mid 70s. Partly cloudy.

This summer was going to be different. Some of it was just plain weird.

In an hour and a half, we have pulled another vanload of books out of the store. I think that is 5 in two weeks. You can’t tell. Do they multiply at night? We just have to keep culling until we reach equilibrium.

And we need to stop sending crap that will never sell to the stores. It wastes time transporting, stocking and then culling and bringing them back.


Well, I need to think of another way. We are almost back, and I don’t have a clue.

When we pulled into the dockyard, I saw there was an 18-wheeler backed to one of the docks.

“Picking up or dropping off?” I wondered.

When I got inside, it was dropping off 420 Gaylords that we will use to ship books out in. Where will we put them?

Gaylord Delivery

Then the forklift carrying one of the huge bundles bumped one of the heaters that hang from the ceiling and damaged it.

Now I am really grumpy.

To top it off, I have to go to the lawyer and the accountant tomorrow. We will have a meeting to go over the August sales figures that afternoon.

My head was getting ready to explode.

At 4:30, I headed out to meet my old friend the doctor at the Anchor Bar. We sat and reminisced about our departed friend, John Adams. They had Hofbrau on tap. That got us reminiscing about Munich and the original Hofbrau House there. I started to decompress a little.

Doing things I don’t want to do. Doing things I hate to do. It goes with the job. It can’t always be amazing finds and successes. But this summer has been full of “don’t want to’s” and “hate to do’s.”

This summer was going to be different. I was going to go out for fancy meals and meet new friends and…

Well, there was some of that at the beginning and then it all went awry.

But my health is good. No chronic pain. The strained back is better. The shoulders are ok. The heel spur that was close to getting major surgery has magically disappeared. All those podiatrists and orthopedic surgeons, and none thought to prescribe prednisone?

Count your blessings.

Dad’s Dante

Going through books at home, I’ve started a section of old family books. I don’t know why. I just can’t bear to get rid of them. I created slips of paper that will identify them as family “heirlooms” when the time comes. Without those slips, they are just “books.”

Family Books

Going through some old boxes from the “Move”, I found a copy of Dante that my dad had inscribed long before I was born.

Dad's Dante

He graduated college in Texas at a very young age and went to New Orleans for medical school at Tulane. He stayed on as a lecturer in anatomy until he got a PhD as well. He collected medical artifacts when he was young. I guess he acquired this because it was translated by an M.D. John A Carlyle. New York. 1851. Harpers.

I walked in my father’s footsteps last year on my first visit to New Orleans.

I have hundreds of hostas up on the mountain.


Sadly, some are already turning brown and wilting.

But some are still blooming. Hostas are noted for their varied foliage and sizes and shapes. Almost never are their blossoms anything special. But this charmer caught my eye when so little else was in bloom.

Hosta Flower

They are almost 3 inches in diameter. That’s huge for a hosta flower.

The end of summer.

I still have so many seedlings to transplant—treelings and perennials. Fall will be busy.

Suddenly we are swimming in old comics!

Old Comics

That will keep us busy for a while.

6 Comments on Article

  1. Victoria Breeden commented on

    Your last few musings had me worried about you, as did this one at first, but reading that your health is good and you’re finding joy in your mountain oasis was reassuring. Thank you for all that you do to save books and related historical treasures. Be well and content. ❤️

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Victoria!
      The summer sure didnt turn out well!
      I hope autumn will be better.
      I’m looking forward to a break!
      I really appreciate your taking the time to write!

  2. Ken Jacobs commented on

    Yes, there is a heaven.

    Later this month we are going to a wedding PA and I have added the Hagerstown store as a stopping point. Should I rent a U-Haul? Have a fun trip! I traveled to the UK about 40 years ago and got to meet James Herriot. I happened to bring All Creatures Great & Small to read on the plane. My host took me to his vet office. It was funny because all those people waiting for an autograph had new books of his in a bookstore bag. They CRACKED when he opened them. I handed him mine and apologized that it was a bit worn (read several times). He replied that it certainly looked well-read! You know that had to please his writer’s heart.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks writing Ken!
      Hope you find some treasures.
      That must have been great to meet him – especially after just rereading his work.
      Good memories…

  3. Dear Mr. Roberts:

    Well, today we crossed that one off the bucket list! It was a real treat to top off my latest WB haul of cds and postcards by meeting one of my current inspirations, the one and only………YOU!

    So why the gushing fawn, one of your customarily fantastic staff members might have been wondering. A “Renaissance Man?” Isn’t that laying it on a bit much?

    No, not in context. Let’s see, I enjoy breezing through your travelogues, but I’m glad that it’s you and not me. Never liked to travel; exposes on bedbugs in hotel rooms and infrared applications that revealed the disgusting stuff that was left on the unwashed comforters only served as exclamation points. “They were cumbersome and breaking our machines, so we had to resort to spraying them, hope that’s okay,” was their explanation for all that leftover DNA belonging to the last party held in your room. Sorry, not o.k.

    How about all the fine food and drink you indulge in and write about. Nah, I don’t read anywhere that you got it for 50-75 percent off.

    And as far as books go, these days I have to use reading glasses AND a magnifying glass, AND only in a well lit room. Reading has actually become a nuisance, so now I’m mostly a cut to the chase skimmer.

    So what makes you a Renaissance Man?
    It’s the sum total of EVERYTHING you’ve got your hands into. The message I take from your blogs is a meta one, it’s fill in your own spaces, but get off your rump and get stuff done.

    Your blogs are further amplification or reinforcement of the path I embarked upon during the first summer of covid. Doors shut tightly against all of us. The abject cruelty and salem-like ignorance of padlocking parks where they could get away with it, dismantling or sanding in playground equipment. I knew the safest place for all of us was…….out there. How is it “they” didn’t know. Perhaps they just pretended not to know.

    I took to the streets. No one joined me. It was rare to see even a child, let alone one playing. I couldn’t believe how long it would take for people to comfortably emerge from their homes. By the time they did, the typical forcasted covid 10 weight gain became more like covid 50 or more. I literally walked my ass off and in doing so, turned my metabolic clock back twenty years or more, and now I eat what I want without consequence….as long as I keep moving.

    So my plate is full with “stuff” to do, and yet it all remains just a fraction of what you accomplish every day. I can’t imagine your other readers NOT being in awe of what you’re putting out, as am I. (I do hope your apparent repetitive use maladies don’t evolve into issues more serious, moving forward, suggest structured evaluation and strategy. Physical therapy? Exercise plan with personal training? You know you need to address things….)

    When first I started reading your blog, I was already engaging in the above, but still at home when it rolled in at around 10 AM. I would consider it a personal failure if that occurred today, so typically, by 10 AM, I’m well into the day, probably wrapping up things at the gym.

    So yep, you’re indeed a Renaissance Man, and it was a real pleasure to shake your hand today!

    Take care, Steven Rodgers

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      It was a great surprise to run into you in the store.
      Thank you so much for the compliments!They really made my day.
      You are in great shape!
      Maybe that will inspire me to be more proactive.
      Thanks reading and commenting.
      I hope to see some Renaissance things in the next couple weeks.

      PS Come visit the warehouse sometime. I enjoy showing people around.Just email me to set a time

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