Out in the blackness, the winds sing a lonely hollow winter song. Rising. Falling. Nearly howling. Then whooshing through the forest and around the house. Rain occasionally hits the windows, pattering and splatting against the thin glass that separates me from the wildness outdoors. It is Friday the 13th. 5 a.m. The glass doors on the woodstove glow orange in the next room. Warmth. Protection. Safe as a house.
Sleep fled a couple of hours ago. I wish it had stayed til 6 or even 7. But there you are. That is the way of life in these times. In this place. At this age.
It is a pensive time. The flurry of the holidays is a memory. There is only winter ahead.
I ponder on the past year. It was full and active, but ultimately empty as well. Egypt, Sicily, Scotland, London, Quebec, Oxford, Central Europe, Spain. An enormous building project. A trial. A constant leitmotif of books always and everywhere. A son’s marriage.
The winds pick up. They nearly whistle. Warm under many layers. The bedside light like a single candle in the vast forest around me.
The year ended with the loss of a good friend and mentor. An advisor. A yin to my yang. Gone like a candle snuffed. But that flame can never be relit.
I would like to turn the light off. Roll on my side and be transported to another land. A timeless land. So many dreams lately. But though it is too early to be awake and working, it is also too late. It is that brief period between night and morning.
What is there to look forward to? Winter. Cold. Storms. Barrenness.
Travel. Projects. Books.
It is half January. One twenty-fourth of the year is gone already.
The first flower of 2023 opened this week.
An odd exotic small amaryllis. Why did I buy those bulbs? Maybe they looked different in the catalog. Just… odd.
The house is infested with plants. Maybe eighty now. I potted up some other amaryllis before Christmas. Those will be tall with large brilliantly colored blossoms in March. Every ten days or so, I make the rounds and pour water in each pot in one, two, three, four, five rooms. They will fill the house until May when they will go outside again. I gave some away at Christmas. I should give more away. Unburden myself and my home.
I am tired. A bit sleepy. But is too late for rest.
I will rise and make tea. Open the dampers on the iron stove. The fire will brighten. The pot of water atop it will softly hiss. The metal will “tick, tick, tick…” as it expands.
Time will pass. The sun will rise behind the storm. The landscape will brighten just a little.
So many dreams lately.
It all goes by so fast
Hours, days, weeks and months
Years pass. Decades.
Teens twenties thirties.
Will I see seventies?
How will it be
to see with these eyes
from a body shriveled
weak, frail, bent
Looking back on decades
Recalling years when…
When, when, when…
When did I…
Why did I not…
Falling. Falling. Falling.
up to an end
where I will be born anew
When I look back with sunken eyes
on decades, years, moments
will I smile at it all?
The kettle whistles. Then it screams insistently. I must unwrap myself, rise and tend to it.
I would rather sleep. Maybe dream. But it is too late for dreams. I would just lay in the dark. No difference whether my eyes were open or closed.
The wind rises to a roar, and I am glad the roof is so firmly attached.
I did turn out the light. I let the tea go cold. I was wrong about my mental state. I rolled onto my side and drifted away quickly. There were dreams. They seemed like snippets.
Then my phone buzzed somewhere in the bedclothes. 7:58. Who texted me? I don’t care. I’m glad they did. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have found my phone. It was buried and wound in a cover.
I’m glad I had the second sleep. Maybe I won’t feel as miserable all day.
Travis is driving us down to a pickup in Bethesda. It is only 19 boxes. But the woman was nice and referred to the Cosmos Club. I guess she is a member.
From there, we will head back to the Gaithersburg store. We need to pick out some books for a charity.
6 boxes Foreign—heavy on children’s books
4 boxes Mystery
4 feet Sci Fi
4 feet Classic Lit
Then some for Books by the Foot.
6 feet Biography
5 feet Business
10 feet History
1 box Paperback Romance
2 boxes Paperback Literature
Turns out this house call is WAY down in far Bethesda—near the Potomac River. There goes Monday morning…
Oh my! The weekend was so hard. The influx of books has slowed due to the weather and holidays. So, we are getting into difficult things that were put aside for the “future.” The future is here for some of those collections.
In the fall of 2020, when COVID was still raging and there were body counts every day as well as constant new rules and guidelines and many things were closed, a bookseller acquaintance fell or jumped or was pushed off a cliff above the Potomac. I don’t know if the actual cause has been determined. He had an unusual way of acquiring collections. He would go to high-end schools and institutions and solicit the collections of professors. Flyers would be placed in their mailboxes and perhaps under their doors.
He would bring us books occasionally. These were books he’d rejected for his online catalog. Often it was dreary dreadful material. Journals and other periodicals in obscure foreign languages. Crumbly ex-library books—again heavy on exotic languages and subjects. He was a nice guy, but I was not thrilled to see him. Still, part of our mission is to bring “everything” in and then try to figure out how to find these things a new home.
After his demise, his family reached out about his books. He had 20, 30… 40 thousand? Who could tell? He had a novel way of storing them for sale. He kept them in large lidded plastic tubs. Hundreds and hundreds of tubs. When he got an order, he somehow knew what building the tub was located in and in which room and in which tub the book could be found. I went and visited the three, or was it four, locations he had. It was impossible to tell what was there. Everything was in lidded tubs—often stacked four high. Some were sent to auction, and the results were poor, I was told. The family needed to get the books gone, as the locations all were rentals.
Wonder Book would take everything. They always do.
The family would drop loads of tubs off—often after hours.
Tubs, tubs, tubs…
We got into the first loads.
Finally, we were full. I told them we could take no more. The building was filling with problematic poor selling material. Books with a future were being displaced.
They were dealing with loss, financial problems, an enormous unwanted burden, and we could not help any more.
I don’t know how much left they had. Nor do I know what they did with whatever remained. I only know I now regret turning them off. In recent weeks, Ernest has had a mission to kill off this collection. Since the regular incoming books have slowed and we have a full staff of very good sorters, he could devote himself to the seemingly infinite tubs.
“Just make them go away.”
He filled carts for me to review.
“This stuff is dreadful, Ernest. Just like I remember it.”
A few weeks passed. I dreaded facing those carts, but I urged Ernest to continue while we had the opportunity to get rid of them.
He was decidedly grumpy.
Last week, so many carts appeared. On the weekend, I set to them. I worked hard and long. Come Sunday evening, I was exhausted. There were many, many carts left. Unusual because if I put my mind and body to it, I can get through most or all the carts that are left by Friday.
I’d noticed Ernest making stacks of uniform gray tubs with lids stacked inside the top one.
“We can sell those. They are like new. Send a few stacks to the Frederick store. They can put them out on the sidewalk.”
The difference last weekend was the carts were uniformly good. Almost all antiquarian books. The carts were stacked full. Four shelves.
I needed to inspect almost every book. Closely. That is slow work. Usually I can cherry-pick the small percentage that need my attention. The rest get tossed in boxes for the stores or are pushed up to Books by the Foot on the carts they didn’t merit being picked off of. These I would check if they were first editions. Enough were signed that if the book was even halfway decent, I would look inside for an autograph. I made several full carts for poor Annika to slog through. Prettier ones that might make it to the glass cases at the store I put in yellow plastic tubs for Madeline. I made a number of fixed price carts to be added by people in data entry. Those I “guess” an offering price using my experience and instinct.
I took a few dozen and set them on Madeline’s desk. I put my name on them. I wanted these looked at first. And I wanted to review the results.
There were so many left when I departed Sunday evening.
On Monday morning, I told Ernest, “Stop doing those tubs for a while. I’m way behind. What happened? The books are so much better.”
“Ok. Those small gray tubs must have been his good stock.”
“They’re still torturous. But now they are torturously good. Give me a break though, so I can catch up.”
I found Clif and asked him, “How many of those tubs are left?”
He found me a little later.
“There are only a few left in the trailers that had been filled with them. I found about 5 more in the back. That might be all.”
Travis and I got to the home in Bethesda. It was a perfect house in a perfect neighborhood. A genteel woman answered the door and let us in. The interior could have been in a design magazine. 19 identical white copy paper boxes were on the floor in the dining room. They were perfectly packed. Peeking inside, they were mostly modern books on history. Excellent taste.
“Let’s stack them on the stoop, so we don’t leave the door open so much.”
The work went quickly.
“I can send a check after we go through them. But the cost of the pickup might offset their value.”
“Oh, I don’t want anything. They are a donation.”
She closed the front door gently. Travis and I carried the boxes down the long winding brick walkway.
We headed back northwest. We got off on the Shady Grove exit. The Gaithersburg store was gorgeous. We pulled a lot of the books on the list and headed back to Frederick.
Once back, I met with Clark and Jessica. Books by the Foot has had a few bad months. It could be the economy. But it got our attention. Things had been going so well for so long. You don’t go looking for problems when you’re too busy making sales.
Our online listing had gotten messed up. The first number a visitor would see before going to the site was $159.99 per foot. Our prices start at $6.99 per foot. Worse, a competitor had launched “ads” using our name, “Books by the Foot.” Those ads would appear above our listing—The “Real” Books by the Foot. People in a hurry could click on them, thinking it was us. Damn! It is always something.
That night, I went home a little early and planted the rest of the flower bulbs. So, that labor is over.
What was I thinking…
(There were about 600 aconite tubers left. But they are hard pea-size things, and I can just push them into the ground with my thumb.)
We decided to meet in Hagerstown to figure out what the problem with that store is. Clark and my son were there when Ernest and I pulled up. Ernest set to pulling orders for Books by the Foot. We walked around the store inspecting.
It looked great!
Bright. Inviting. Well organized. Interesting displays.
“There’s nothing wrong here. Why aren’t sales reflecting that?”
“Let’s try a grand reopening.”
When I got back to Frederick, I was checking my emails.
“Chuck, [xyz corp] is interested in the second warehouse building. They want to meet next week.”
Wow! A blue chip company. The big box buildings could be fully leased before the walls go up!
The night before, I had butchered the rest of the Serrano ham I’d gotten for Christmas from Costco. There was still about three pounds of fatless meat I could easily carve off. Wegmans sells Serrano ham slices for $27 a pound. The whole 10-pound haunch had cost $99. It was fun to be with the boys and their spouses, slicing off bits just like I’d seen in Spain. I gave up getting more and set the leg in the dog pen.
The dogs were daunted by the size and just studied it.
When I got home Wednesday evening, I got the chainsaw out and cut the thing into six pieces. I felt like an axe murderer. Bits of fat flew onto my boots. The saw ground through the bone with a crunching noise. I hate to waste things… Later, I went out into the dark. I got on my knees in the damp soil and pressed a few hundred aconites into the earth. My sweat pants were soggy and muddy when I went and peeled them off.
Thursday, I reviewed the books I’d tasked Madeline to research.
There were some pretty exciting finds. Account of the Russian Discoveries Between Asia and America during the 1780s with nice foldout maps. An early On the Origin of Species that I nearly overlooked because it had been rebound in cheap modern buckram by a library. A fine first of Life on the Mississippi in beautiful red leather with gilt steamboat decorations in each compartment on the spine. Himalayas. Siberia… Some nice autographs.
Exciting, though no home runs. But with all the carts I’d sent to Annika and the tubs to Madeline, there were surely more sweet things—books that would have been lost if we hadn’t forced ourselves to keep cramming them in.
I spent much of Thursday going through carts, so the weekend burden wouldn’t be so heavy. It will still be daunting.
That evening, I met two friends at Hootch and Banter. We toasted one another with martinis and great food. They had some great news, and if it all goes well, I may be able to visit them in Italy. Sadly, they are still planning to move this year. More friends gone. The losses since 2020 are horrendous. After dinner, we walked around the corner to the Weinberg Center. Wonder Book was sponsoring The Thin Man on the big screen in the classic 1902 theater that had hosted vaudeville and silent movies. We walked in just as the credits were starting. A first edition of the book in the iconic dust jacket was in the background as the names appeared before it. That book used to command $10,000. Now it appears more of a $5000 book, unless it is signed or immaculate. The theater appeared pretty crowded. I avoided looking around though. I didn’t want to make any eye contact. Shy… We took the open seats in the 6th row, and I leaned to one my friends, “Wonder Book did this.”
The movie was wonderful. So much more to see on the big screen. The olives in the martinis. (LOTS of martinis for Nick and Nora and their cohorts!) Oysters served on silver to each of the dozen murder suspects gathered around a dining room table.
Friday 11 a.m.
When I pulled into the parking lot, there was a huge orange crane towering over it from the building site on the other side of the warehouse.
I drove up the hill and parked. I got out of the Explorer and walked toward the erosion fence. There must have been 50 workers in hardhats. The black steel joists had been delivered. The crane was actually pumping concrete high into the air via a hose. Then the slurry stuff would be pulled back to earth via gravity. A dozen people in bright safety jumpsuits were guiding the nozzle and filling in… places… that needed filling in for the first tenants’ specs.
‘Books did all this,’ I thought. ‘Books and people. I’m lucky I got on board all those years ago.’