A Lifer

Wild Mountain Raspberry Old Fashioned

The Fourth of July!

Fireworks at the New Market Plains Vineyards last night.

After it was over, we sat and watched the smoke roll over the vineyards. I love the smell of gunpowder. Maybe it reminds me of the fireworks I used to smuggle from Canada when I was a kid. My dad would have been furious if he had found out. I would hide them under the backseat where the border guards would never look.

It was a fun and memorable evening.

Wine and laughter.

Monday morning, Travis and I drove down to Gaithersburg to cull some old dead stock. As with a garden, pruning is always necessary. It is also therapeutic. It opens things up for new growth.

The holiday traffic is light right now. I don’t know if it will be busy later with people returning to the city from their travels.

The stores are open. My philosophy has always been that the bookstores should be there when the customers want us, not just when we want to be there. No one is made to work holidays—you can’t “make” anyone work any time anyway—people work out what they want with what the books need, and things get sorted so everyone is as satisfied as possible. The book enterprise, the people who keep it alive and the clientele who support everything all have their parts to play…

So the books can survive another day.

The weekend was the usual for me. Carts and carts and carts. I did make progress. I forced myself to do some old dusty carts laden with very difficult material. I keep trying to remember “One Touch.” If I put anything aside, I know it just means I will have to pick it up again someday. Of course, I did put things aside to decide what to do with them in the future—but the percentage is far less than in the past. I’m releasing cool stuff to the stores that I never used to. I’m taking the chance they will get misplaced to mishandled. It is paying off in some ways. The sales of the antiquarian books—sold in open stock mostly for their “publishers’ bindings” are up dramatically. So are the sales of ephemera and oddball little thing we offer in clear plastic bags pinned to the wooden endcaps (a.k.a. “Bag and Hang.”) I know this because we reviewed the sales figures at all three stores on Friday afternoon. Gaithersburg had a nice bump from June 2021—its best June ever.

The other two were down slightly.

Why? Who knows? Gas prices? A lot of our customers come from a distance. Many have seen a dent in their savings from inflation and rising commodity prices and the losses in the stock markets.

But we take the long view. 2021 was boom year mostly. We think it was the relief people had when they could get back out and shop again away from COVID fears and lockdowns. (Remember lockdowns? Crazy.)

We throw 2020 numbers out.

Looking back at 2019, all three stores are now up on another level. It is heartening to see the brick and mortars becoming more relevant again. But, then, costs are way up as well.

Vigilance and attendance and maintenance. When I went down to Gaithersburg with Travis to see how things were going, the store looked great. We have been on a purge binge in the last month or so. We’ve been pulling old or duplicated or marginal stock off the shelves and sending it to Books by the Foot. It was on this trip I noticed how large the “New Arrival” section is. When we expanded and renovated while we were COVID closed in the middle of 2020, it made sense to leave a large section to fill with recently priced books. I’ve never really looked at it since.

Oops! I should have looked sooner.

‘I’ll come back Monday and do a purge,’ I thought to myself. ‘We can create a CD new arrival section, as you must pass those shelves on the way to the large CD and LP room. We can begin shrinking the New Arrivals and use some of those bookcases to enlarge a deserving category or three.’

That evening, I went to Smoketown Brewery on Carroll Creek. David was there and had the time to go out to dinner and catch up. I don’t think we have been out since January. His work involves a lot of nights. And he has had some big projects in the works. I’ve been pretty busy too. And my travels have had me absent as well.

We left his place and walked down the Carroll Creek Promenade. It was surprisingly quiet.

“Where are all the people?”

It was a beautiful Friday evening with just a bit of spring left in the air. The walkways and benches and footbridges should be full of people and kids and dogs.

“Hmmm… makes no sense.”

We made our way to Market Street—Frederick’s classic main shopping and dining thoroughfare.

The street was soooo quiet!

We decided on Hootch and Banter. It is a narrow two-story townhouse with great food and drinks. It has a kind of retro/throwback feel. Somewhere between a speakeasy and an upscale vintage NYC gin mill. They had just reopened from a month long renovation closure—perhaps even that day. It was good to catch with my old friend—business and family. We each had a couple Manhattans and oversize toasted bar sandwiches. (I took 3/4 of mine home.) We talked about our business and things that were going in the region. It was a classic evening. We walked back up Market and crossed the bridge over Carroll Creek and made our way past the quiet restaurants and bars and breweries.


Why? Where are the people?

That Saturday morning, I awoke from a vivid dream. I was showing a guy I knew through my house, only it wasn’t my house. There were boxes everywhere. We started up a stairway and boxes blocked the way.

“We’ll have to use the other stairway.”

It wasn’t really my house. And I can’t recollect who the guy was.

But when I awoke, I groggily put this down:


Box Dreams

Boxes on the floor
Boxes on the stairs
Boxes everywhere

I dream of boxes
Stacked in corners
Boxes by the doors
Boxes block the windows

Boxes piled too high
Stretching to the sky

Boxes filled with books
Each box opened
demands a look

Boxes down below
Boxes shelved above
Boxes in the bath
Boxes on the bed
Boxes in the shed
Boxes fill my head
Boxes on my mind
Boxes, boxes, boxes

I got in Saturday a little worse for wear, but my work is very behind. I sat upon the stool and faced cart after cart. I sit so I can be eyelevel with the books. Speed is of the essence, but accuracy is the utmost goal. Treasures must not escape the wide net we cast. When I finish one side—three 3-foot shelves—I spin the thing around to process the other. When I’m done, I push that cart toward the loading docks. Then I step to the next cart and push it to the stool. I take my seat and begin scanning, starting with the top left most book. I’ve gotten to be very fast.

“Brrrrrrrrdddddttttt…” is the sound I think the synapses make as the eye transfers the images to the brain. The hands are poised to make a grab should the title or binding merit it.

If a cart is mostly books with printed titles on the spine, I can scan them quickly. A good title I can make an instantaneous decision on will get slipped off and dropped into a bankers box to be priced at the stores. A potentially valuable book gets dropped into a yellow plastic tub or set onto another cart for Madeline or Annika to research. Others may get onto a third cart in stacks at fixed prices to be added online.

This process is constantly evolving as more and more books are sent my way.

There were some great finds. This first edition Schliemann about his discovery of Troy (Ilios) is in great shape.

This Robin Hood with incredible drawings is signed THREE times by the artist.

Look closely at this image. It snakes along, showing the progress from idea to this printed book.

Song of Robin Hood

This is an especially lonely time of the year. There is no European soccer until early August. I may put golf on—the European Tour until PGA events come on in the afternoon. Lately, I’ve been playing Pandora on my phone as well. You can create your own “channels.” The Ralph McTell channel will play his songs as well as other works the Pandora algorithms feel are in the same ballpark. I’ve also been listening to my “Pentangle Channel” as well as the “Ralph Vaughan Williams Channel.” If there wasn’t something else going on in the background, the silence while the books rush by might drive me crazy.

Ummm, crazier.

Speaking of crazy, my nephew Gerry arrived at the end of the day. I told him he could come after 4:30. He is a sweet guy—almost like a little brother to me. He is only about 10 years younger. He is a picker and a painter in Annapolis. He paints houses, and that gets him into estates that are going on the market. He has a good eye and has made some great finds. For himself, he likes old bicycling things, comics… He pleaded to visit. He’d had a bad breakup recently with a longtime partner. That hurt him badly. Also, he said his bank account had been drained. He wanted to talk with his wise uncle. He wanted money from his uncle as well.

We keep the warehouse locked on weekends, so no one wanders in. The big sign on the building includes the word “book” is a magnet to some. Also, Google sometimes directs people here rather than the retail stores. We have signs all over the entrance doors and sidelights, “Not Open to the Public.” So he called when he got here. I got off my stool and trudged across the building to meet him. He didn’t have any books or autographs this time, but he had to bring something to sell.


He unwrapped one after the other from the old t-shirts he had used to protect them.


‘I don’t want them, Gerry’ was my first thought, but I didn’t say anything.

“Tourist junk, Gerry, I’m pretty sure,” was what I said.

He looked crestfallen, so I feigned interest, picking up one after the other and looking for a “Made in China” stamp. There was nothing obvious to discredit them. They couldn’t be real, could they?

“I talked to a guy who said this clay pot was real-old Native American…”

I told him what I would pay—too much.

He was disappointed but took the check.

I’d been wanting to return to New Market Plains Vineyards. I thought sitting out in the field would be a good place to chat, so we headed there. It was a beautiful early summer afternoon. They have picnic tables with umbrellas set out in the meadow. There’s a large tent near the winery building. Beneath it, a couple of guys were playing bluegrass. There is music every Saturday. There were only a handful of guests lingering this late. I bought a bottle of red, and we sat down. He poured out his sad tale to me. I commiserated as a sage uncle. I gave him the best advice I could think of:

“Talk to your mom.”

“I can’t.”

“She’d love to help you. Parents like to feel useful, especially after being irrelevant for so long. “

The bluegrass duo played Peter Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight” and family ties and memories welled up inside me. We got up and joined Howard, who owns the winery with his wife Sue, at a table in the tent.

It was an idyllic couple of hours. I bonded with my nephew more than we had for decades.

Then I drove him back to the warehouse. I went home and did some pruning—lots of pruning. I walked from bed to bed, tree to tree, snipping off errant branches or bending to pull up weeds.

It is now “lily time.” Early July brings the year’s last waves of blossoms. After this, there are flowers but not the “species” concerts of the spring and early summer. The blackberry lilies which started with one plant up here are now hundreds.

Blackberry Lily

In the fall, I often pull the little black balls off the seed heads and spread handfuls in new spots. These plants have three good attributes. The foliage is nice. The dainty 3-inch orchid-like flowers are enchanting. In the fall, the seed heads look much like very large blackberries.

There are tiger lilies everywhere—even some double ones.

Tiger Lily

And I’ve planted a lot of oriental lilies. Some get 6 feet tall and have huge man-eating flowers—nearly two hand spans across.

It is a pleasure to wander around the gardens making discoveries and performing little tasks. When you make a garden, you feel like you have done something useful and beautiful.

That night, a big storm blew through. I curled up in the dark and listened to the winds and the raindrops splatting against the windows until I was swept off into strange dreams.


Larry had dropped off a load late Saturday. He segregates the antiquarian books into separate boxes. That way, he is assured of getting credit for them as the rest of the books he brings in usually get sorted, just like almost all the other anonymous books here. That big storm that blew through got some of the boxes wet even though they were under cover. I had Dylan cart up the antiquarian books separately. He made three carts of them. When I glanced, there were dozens of 19th century books on firearms, ammo, ordnance and other weapons. I’m not into the stuff myself, but I know others will be. When I got around to them, I pulled off the too common or otherwise valueless antiquarian books and put them on carts for Books by the Foot. But there were plenty of juicy ones left. That collection was part of the reason Annika had 6 carts—or was it 7—to push up front to her research room on Monday morning. That was a record, I think. This is what her workroom looked like during the week.

Annika's Workroom


Or would it be a dream for you to work in such a place?

I worked hard and fast all day. I got to another of the carts we pulled out of Michael Osborne’s home last year. He is a fellow bookseller who retired and moved to smaller quarters. When we first got them, I had about a dozen carts loaded for my inspection. The material is so difficult that I put those carts aside—avoiding the very difficult paper things they were laden with. As usual, this one had a lot of the city planning monographs, books and pamphlets. That was one of his specialties. It also had a long run of pamphlets about books and libraries and booksellers. Some would be impossible to list online but were very cool to look at. Those I sent to Terry, who has been here since 1989. She has taken on the task of labeling and bagging ephemera, which we can then hang in the stores. The rest… most will be very difficult to sell online, but I decided to invest in them—a duty more than a prudent business decision.

Bookseller Cart

Some were very evocative. Long dead legendary booksellers’ works passed through my hands. What will I leave behind? Will these stories survive?

What Kind of a Business is This?

Jacob Zeitlin. A legend. I glanced inside, and he waxed philosophical near the end. “We all write about the great finds we make, but…” Was there a tinge of sadness? Longing?

The workday ended, and I hurried about, making sure all my work was labeled, so on Monday, the crew could get everything where it belongs. I was alone in the vast warehouse. I went out to the dockyard and sat in the sun and typed out a few poems—including the Boxes above. Then I went inside and printed off two copies of each. I had time to kill, so I laid down on the red sofa in my office and read a while.

Time to go.

I headed out and met friends at an Italian place. We had pizza, pizza, crab cakes, pasta and a grilled salmon Caesar. Then we headed to the vineyard. Howard and Sue had invited us for fireworks. We got there, and there were 50 or 60 people there. It was a festive atmosphere. Many were vineyard crew with their family and friends. The vineyard is near, but not too near, an amusement park. Howard gave a group of us a little tour of the vines and the winery. There was a beautiful sunset.

Vineyard Sunset

Then we settled down on chairs to watch the show. It was magical. Perhaps a fitting end to the COVID era. Perhaps an annunciation of a new beginning.

After the crescendo, we sat in a daze at the sudden calm and silence. A long low cloud of gunpowder smoke slowly rolled through the woods and across the vineyards toward us. The scent preceded, and the scene evoked what a Civil War battlefield must have looked like after the firing stopped. There were battles everywhere around this region. Then the smoke gently enveloped us. We lingered and chatted with Howard and others, drinking more of his excellent sparkling wine. He had brought out at least a few cases of the stuff during the evening. We finally left, and I headed to the warehouse to get the dogs and go home.

When I laid down, I felt at peace as if—everything—is going to be alright.

After work Monday, I went straight home and laid down and wrote and read. I just had water and rested from the weekend’s excitement. When I awoke Tuesday, I got on the scale. More COVID pounds gone! More clothes will fit again. I’m down 25 pounds from the darkest days of the plague. That is one thing to be happy about. Tuesday, I went to the Frederick bookstore and did a lot of therapeutic culling. Wednesday, Clif and I drove to Hagerstown and did culling there. We pulled 35 large plastic tubs. There was some dreadful old stock as well as some dreadful recent stock.

“Who would send these? No one would ever buy 30-year-old medical guides.”

I’ve got to remind them at the warehouse to only send stuff that people might actually buy. I’ll remind myself as well.

The key to a living bookshop is fresh stock. To take fresh stock, the shop needs room on the shelves to put it.

I sent a memo to the managers of all three stores. I wrote it as much for myself as them.

Price and stock.


The only true rule for maintaining or increasing sales at a bookstore is fresh stock.

We have and will continue to cull. Faxes are great, but if you don’t get results, my EMAIL is right here.

All the stores have been “trying to help” by hiding old stock and dupes in new arrivals, top shelves…

If the books are “hidden,” we can’t cull them (for BBTF or pulp)

Don’t spend time doing this.

You KNOW if I see books on the floor, we will be there soon to jump on it.


The mantra that has always worked.



We have discovered some weird displays and changes.

At Rt 40 someone adjusted metal bookcases to create “tiny” shelves only 6 inches high. No idea when or why. Or who.

Books will always sell better where they belong.

(Except Premium and Vintage and Counter Area—which sell themselves on designated cases.)

Setting odd books on “Display” in random areas is just “hiding.”

Be sure you APPROVE any projects like these in advance. After, check on their progress.

Walk through every part of your store daily if possible and look for issues.


That said the stores look GREAT. All are in far better shape than pre-COVID.

We want to build on that.

I’m writing this in bed Thursday morning. My phone is ringing at 7:30 a.m.? The call is from Uniontown, NJ. Spam most likely, but I answer it. I use a tentative voice when I suspect a bogus cold call.


“I’m calling from [such and such] books.”


“We need to pick up two pallets of books for Kenny’s in Ireland.”

I withheld grousing, “Why are you calling my cell phone at 7:30 in the morning?!”

“You’ll need to call the warehouse and speak with Jessica. Here’s the number…”

“Can you tell me the weights and box counts?”

“No. I won’t be there for another hour or so.”

“If you’re not there, how can I get a bill of lading?”

“Jessica can help you…”

Groan… I hate it when the books send their tentacles up to my sanctum sanctorum and demand attention.

But I’m glad those pallets are finally going off. Some friends of theirs dropped them off months ago, and we’ve been storing them ever since.

I’d like to go with them… Galway is a magical place.

I contacted my travel agent.

“Quebec… in late July?”

“$1297 airfare. Very limited availability.”

The new normal. Inflated prices and supply issues.

Where else could I go?

The contractor texted an hour later. He wants to come—TODAY. He will put up about 20 birdhouses and spread 100 bags or so of mulch. I’ve brought home 3 pickup loads of bags. I want to cover the dirt drive that goes from the paved drive to the north side of the house. It is kind of ugly and sprouts weeds since it gets driven on when I need to access those gardens. I laid down hundreds of old newspapers that came into the warehouse as weed block. I had tossed the bags atop the papers to keep them from blowing away.

(The mulches don’t match due to supply chain issues.)

When I got into work, a fellow ABAA bookseller was just coming in to shop the collectible book rooms in the warehouse. I took him to them and explained the procedure. When we stepped in the first one, there were five carts overflowing with old books. Blue paper slips with my name on them were protruding from between books on them all.

‘The “kills,”‘ I thought. No one told me they had been pulled.

We constantly need to empty shelves to make room for new arrivals. These sections have all been marked down numerous times until the price is so low the books are near breakeven prices or worse. When all hope is lost on selling the books, Clark “kills” the section. A section could be a few shelves or 10 bookcases. This situation is unusual in that it is rare for us to kill a rare book section.

I got a helper, and we rolled the carts out to the sorting area where I will spend a lot of time going through the dusty crumbly old things this weekend.

Old Kills

Groan… hard work. Unexpected hard work.

I will look at each one and determine if it is worth marketing online again or if it should be sent to the stores or Books by the Foot. I will have to inspect each one inside and out to make the proper determination.

Then I sat at the conference room table and began studying the bank statements. Some premonition had me worried that something was wrong. I had to make sure there was enough in the right accounts to cover some huge checks that were going out tomorrow.

Friday is check mailing day, payroll day and book story day.

First, I signed the folder of checks and returned them to the office. There were some whoppers going out. Among them was the $58,000 roof repair that had disrupted things here for a while. I carried the folder back to the business office and set them on a desk to be put into envelopes and mailed.

Back to the statements. We have 8 accounts. Some pages were missing for the main ones. The 3 international accounts had not been printed yet, so I couldn’t get to the bottom line.

Oh, and my laptop stopped charging. It was at less than half. Clark would look at it when he gets in. He has rescued it before. We are trying to nurse the battered old thing along until the new model comes out next month. So, I couldn’t access emails or other data.

I needed to get away from the irrational fears. I headed down to Gaithersburg to swap vans but especially to check the progress of the New Arrival reorganization. It was a nice cool day for a change. But all the way down I worried.

Are things going bad? Have we been hacked? Is this the end?

I got there and did a quick inspection. Things look great. I need to come back and do some heavy culling. Maybe Monday.

There was a need to rush back. The contractor had arrived on the mountain and needed to know where the birdhouses went, as well as some other instructions. The van was heavy with books and didn’t enjoy the steep slopes to the house. We walked around and I set the houses before the trees I wanted them to be attached to. He is so tall he won’t need a ladder to get them 8 feet off the ground.

Back at the warehouse, Clark had my laptop charging. The bank statements were laid out for me. I sat down and began reading them to see where the money went.

“Ahhhh… that huge six figure IRS payment in May. How could I have forgotten that?”

That explained most of the dent. There were plenty of other unusual one-time expenses as well.

Phew! Not dead yet. But we need to start rebuilding the reserves. There are more big expenses coming.

The bookseller was just leaving after 5 hours of shopping. He had a full cart. I’ve always liked dealer visits. Then tend to buy a lot—they net more than offsetting their trade discount.

I spent the rest of the day doing… carts.

On the mountain, it is also wild raspberry time.

There are hundreds of bushes along the roadside. I stopped on the gravel slope and filled a cup with them in a few minutes. When I got home, I transferred them into a crystal tumbler. I covered them with bourbon and set the glass in the freezer to chill. Then I walked outside to inspect the work. It looks great! If it ever gets to the point where I am housebound, I can check out several dozen birdhouses with binoculars from the windows.


There’s still so much to do. I’ll put off more redbud transplants until the fall—when the leaves are off and the trees are dormant. But there are so many perennials that have self propagated and can be moved. On Tuesday, I planted 6 store bought hostas in a waste area below the deck. I also added about a dozen lungwort volunteers. I was dripping wet with the humidity and heat, but it was worth it. It will be a pleasure to look down on this from the deck or as I pass by it on the stone pavers.

I went back inside and got the chilled Wild Mountain Raspberry Old Fashioned from the freezer and set out to tour the grounds some more. Anything with that much fruit in it has to be healthy.

Wild Mountain Raspberry Old Fashioned

It was a good walk. And a good drink.


I was called at 7:30 again this morning. I was in bed writing this. I was jarred out of my reverie. It was the recycler. His truck was at the warehouse to take away the trailer filled with 40,000 pounds of pulp paper. He was locked out of the dockyard and asked if I could let him in.

I called down to the warehouse and got it open.

We had 2 false fire alarms this morning. Loud sirens go off and dozens of strobes flash. Everyone dutifully marched out. I checked every room. Nothing.

A manager discovered the zone on the panel.

Nothing in that room.

The fire department came, even though we canceled the alarm.

We called the company that services our fire alarm. Hopefully, they’ll come out today and find the problem.

I just want to play with books.

But I need to accept all the duties that come with my job, so I can play with books.

The insurance agent emailed this morning, pushing the sale of life insurance. The exam…

My wonderful estate lawyer (She really is!) followed up that I should get more life insurance. A LOT more. She thinks that if I was to die—say crushed by an elephant folio—the new buildings might be in jeopardy for my heirs. I’ll try to lose that last 10 pounds, so I’ll look better to the actuaries. It will cost a fortune!


I just want to play with books.

6 Comments on Article

  1. Andy Moursund commented on

    “I just want to play with books.”

    Chuck, you’re like Uncle Scrooge in his money bin. I know the feeling.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Yep … definitely some of that

  2. Terry commented on

    This has become a morning thing, to read these posts. I’m glad to see the B&H are selling. I wondered how they might be doing.
    Continue writing, I’m sure there are many who enjoy reading.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Terry!
      I really appreciate what you do.

  3. Ann Rice commented on

    I like all your bluebird houses but am concerned that snakes can slither up the tree trunks and get in them to eat the eggs or babies (I speak from experience). Perhaps you should investigate putting some sort of metal baffle around the tree trunk below the house to deter the monsters.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you for reading and writing!
      I will check into it.

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