Abandon All Hope*

Armory Doors

I’m lost in the love of you
Lost in the love of you…
And gone, gone in the love of you
Lost in the love of you

It is probably poor form to begin a story with two quotes. The title is, of course, Dante. More on that later.

The opening lines are from the song written by Livingston Taylor—a younger brother of James Taylor. More on this later as well.

The past week was more blurry than usual. So, I’m afraid this will be yet another “Week in the Life of a Bookseller” story. But each week here is different; I hope that is not tedious.

Today I am writing this in between pickups of Charlie and John from Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway, Ireland. They have visited annually for a number of years. They visit each of the three stores and the warehouse. They buy a lot of books for us to ship over to them. A LOT. Thousands. They arrived yesterday afternoon. They will finish tomorrow afternoon—Friday.

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We deliver dozens of plastic tubs to the store they will be visiting. We park an empty van at the curb. They ravage the store of titles, authors and subjects they need in Galway. The tubs are wheeled out to the van. When they are done for the day at that store, we pick them up and deliver them to the next store. We try to make buying as easy as possible for them. Doing the legwork for them frees them up to spend more time buying books.

It has always been part of my business philosophy to make it as easy as possible for people to spend money at Wonder Book.

Brilliant, eh?

Next week we will add up the price of their books and deduct a huge discount. We will box and palletize them. When everything is ready, a truck will back to a loading dock. The pallets will be rolled onto it. The driver will take them off to a consolidator in New Jersey who will fill a container with our books and others they have purchased this trip. The container will be put on a ship which sails the books to Ireland. I would smuggle myself over there with them, but that might be uncomfortable. Maybe I will go the traditional way this year. The west of Ireland is stunningly beautiful. Just maybe I’ll see some fairies or a muse or catch a glimpse of Tír na nÓg through the fog out to sea in the West.

The two evenings they are here we will wine and dine and tell book stories…well, not so much wine as beer. They enjoy our craft beers as much as I enjoy their Guinness and other traditional Irish beers.

The beer is always “greener” on the other side?

I touched on their annual visits before in the book story—Ireland To & Fro—about a year ago.

So, that is how this week ends. Friday they will visit the Gaithersburg store last. They will drop thousands of books into plastic tubs. When they are finished, relatives will pick them up. They will fly back Sunday. St Patrick’s Day. They say they won’t mind missing the festivities. I guess they’ve seen enough of them.

My week began last Friday in Pittsburgh of all places. My elder son was scheduled to be sworn into the Bar by the United States Circuit Judge he is clerking for this year. So, I left at the crack of dawn and made the nearly 4 hour drive out there. The ceremony was held in a beautiful courtroom in the Joseph F. Weis, Jr. US Courthouse. It is a gorgeous Depression Era/WPA building—inside and out.

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He wanted an appropriate Bible to take his oath upon. I brought my 1607 Geneva Bible that I found at a country auction long, long ago. It has become a “part” of me for many reasons some of which were enumerated in this early book story: A Country Auction, the Muse and the Bard.

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After the ceremony and a wonderful lunch with the judge, the other two clerks and their families at the Carlton, I rushed back to Frederick.

Why the rush?

The SHOW. The ABAA’s 60th Annual International New York Antiquarian Book Fair was held March 7-10. The show has been held for many years at the Park Avenue Armory: 643 Park Avenue, New York between 66/67 streets.

Here’s a description of the edifice:

The Armory’s 55,000 square foot drill hall, reminiscent of the original Grand Central Depot and the great train sheds of Europe, remains one of the largest unobstructed spaces of its kind in New York. A marvel of engineering in its time, it was designed by Regiment veteran and architect Charles W. Clinton, later a partner of Clinton & Russell, architects of the Apthorp Apartments and the famed, now demolished, Astor Hotel.

There was also another VERY important reason to get to Manhattan…

So, it was a rushed trip back from Pittsburgh. I had wanted to get to New York early since I was only there Saturday and Sunday. I had booked a 5:48 AM train on Saturday morning. This meant getting back from two long drives Friday and getting ready to leave Frederick about 4 AM to catch my train. I packed and slept for a few hours. I awoke. Of course, it had snowed—not enough to need a plow—but enough to make the steep descent a bit of a white knuckle affair.

I had also packed Merry & Pippin, my Jack Russell companions. I dropped them at the warehouse where they could romp while I was away. A friend would come and walk them later Saturday and on Sunday.

Then I was off to the BWI Amtrak station in the cold dark early morning.

Soon I was rocking and rolling, jolting and swaying, bumping and rattling north on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional. The train took me through the dreariest parts of Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia. After a few stops in New Jersey, I knew this train would soon dip into blackness under the Hudson River.

But before the Hudson, the train rolls through the marshy fens of the Meadowlands. When I was a kid commuting back and forth from Maryland to Connecticut College on I-95, this part of New Jersey stunk so bad. To me it was like passing through the swamps of the dead outside of Tolkien’s Mordor’s Gate. The Dead Marshes. They have cleaned them up a lot now. It no longer smells. Gone are the paper mills or refineries or whatever the factories were that poisoned that land.

They are still pretty dreary though.

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Soon the world closed in near claustrophobic blackness around the train. We were in the tunnel under the river. Then there was a bit of light ahead. The train resurfaced in the dingy bowels of Penn Station.

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This part of the trip makes me feel even more like I’m in Mordor. I almost expect to see Orcs hammering away on steel weapons at forges in the charcoal blackness. Could this place be pressure washed and decades of soot rinsed away? It is a foreboding way to enter the city. Maybe even a bright sign stating “Welcome to New York” could be installed. An escalator took me up to the next underground level of Penn Station. That is full of people waiting or milling about as well as shops and bars… Another escalator took me up to street level. It was now a brilliant and cold Saturday morning. My hotel was only a couple blocks away. I became one of those people who pull their suitcase behind them along the streets of Manhattan. It was about 9 am. Of course it was too early to check in, but I was able to leave my bags and go back out to begin my day.

I headed east to Madison Avenue and then north to the Morgan Library. When I arrived there was a line of about 100 people. It wouldn’t open for another 15 minutes. We were all there for the same reason I believe.

The Tolkien Exhibition.

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THAT was the second reason I NEEDED to get to get to New York. It is only there until May. If I didn’t push it and get there now, I might not have a reason to go again before May.

I knew I was exhausted, but I had hints of what I would see inside. I couldn’t miss this opportunity. I can sleep some day in the future.

It was stunning. Tolkien’s artwork and manuscripts and photos and… covered the walls of the gallery. The usher had explained there was no requirement to see the exhibits in any order.

“Move around and look at anything you please.”

So I could wander from display to display as serendipity (and the absence of any other attendee to bump shoulders with) led me.

I was soon in a dreamlike state.

Tingles of being in love flowed over me.

I was lost; lost in the love of the books which had shaped my youth and adult life.

My brother, Jim, had introduced me to Tolkien when I was 9 or 10. He passed by my bedroom in Buffalo and tossed some battered paperbacks onto my bed.

“You might like these. They’re full of dragon spit and elfin snot.”

“?!” was my reaction.

He was 10 years older. Soon he was off to Greenwich Village to become a rock and roller.

I recall vividly the first time I read them. I couldn’t put them down. I would read them late into the night by flashlight; under the covers so my parents wouldn’t catch me up late. I’ve reread them every 4 or 5 years ever since.

The rooms housing the Tolkien material soon became very crowded. That kind of spoiled the experience a bit—but still—I saw things I’d only seen tiny reproductions of in books. I saw plenty of things I never knew existed.

If you have a chance, GO. This opportunity may never happen again—or maybe not for a generation.

When I had had enough immersion in Middle Earth and Tolkien’s life and work—as well as too much proximity to human strangers—I went back out to Madison Avenue and flagged down a taxi. I still taxi more than Uber. Old fashioned maybe.

“Park Avenue and 66th please.”

It was a typical NYC cab. No shocks. Every bump or pothole we hit sent a shivering jolt up my spine.

We arrived, and I paid the cabbie by credit card. They have it set up now that the lowest tip you can default to is 20%…20%!! Old fashioned, I guess.

This is where the “Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here” quote comes into this story. Dante’s vision using these words was of entering the Inferno—Hell.*

* https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/abandon-hope-all-ye-who-enter-here.html
Dante passes through the gate of Hell, which bears an inscription ending with the famous phrase “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.”

For me the quote in this instance means something far different.

The building is a classic. You walk up a number of stone steps to the landing at the entrance. The doors to the Armory are enormous and imposing.

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When you pull the massive door open, it moves rather easily actually, you enter into a small dark foyer. There are more stairs. Stairs up into the darkness; up into a vast, dimly lit, airy lobby.

But far above and ahead of you, you see a golden light. The open doors to the show floor are a golden portal.

I got my pass and passed into the light. The light of the show floor.

It was then I abandoned all hope. I was lost in the love of books.

I wandered lonely as a cloud. All at once I saw a crowd. A host of gorgeous tomes.

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It is a veritable museum of rare and collectible books. It is a museum where everything is on offer for sale. It is a museum where, if you ask politely and show respect, the booksellers will show you their treasures. Sometimes you can even hold and peruse them.

I wandered up and down the rows of bookseller booths. Some only have a few glass cases with only 75 or 100 books propped up face out. In that situation you can expect most or all the books to have 5 or 6 or even 7 figure selling prices.

I searched for friends. I knew if I entered a booth of someone familiar, I was sure I to get grounded. My feet would touch the earth again.

Someday I will try to better describe The New York Book Show. Right now it is too daunting. I may as well try to describe Ginevra de’ Benci or a sunset or being in love…

The show closed at 7. I’d agreed to meet some bookseller friends, who were working the show, for dinner. They chose Donohues on Lex a few blocks south. It is a classic bar and grille restaurant. You feel like you’re in a (slightly) colorized episode of Perry Mason.

Here’s part of a New York Times story about the place:

You see all ages and all socioeconomic brackets in there,” she added. “There’s the neighborhood drunk living in a fifth-floor tenement sitting at the bar watching TV and Henry Kissinger in a booth, and no one looks twice at the either of them.

Famous or anonymous, they blend right in, as in a sense did a Mr. Ellsworth, who died last August at 85. If he was known only to a select few for most of his long existence, that all changed this month when his name became tabloid fodder after a New York Post headline blared the news that he had left tips in his will amounting to $50,000 apiece for his two favorite Donohue’s servers.

That’s the kind of place it is.

I had two classic Gin Gibsons. I ordered the Maryland Roast Turkey. I’ve lived in Maryland most of my life, and I’ve never seen that dish anywhere else. It must be a long-lost classic. It was essentially sliced turkey, giblet gravy, dressing, cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes. I was having Thanksgiving Dinner in March!

The 8 of us exchanged war stories. We spoke of book buys and book sales and book customers and other booksellers—living and dead.

The evening wore down. How was I even vertical?

Did I really suggest to two young friends that I had introduced to The Show that we move on to Bemelman’s Bar in Carlyle Hotel about 10 blocks away?

I must have. For soon we were there. A small crowd of beauty and wealth were just exiting the Cafe Carlyle across the hall from the Bar. Suzanne Vega and her band had just finished playing.

We entered the dim bar. When our eyes adjusted, did I hear an audible “Ooh!” from my companions? Most likely I did not imagine it.

Bemelmans Bar—where all the walls and pillars and even the lampshades are covered with original art by Ludwig Bemelmans.

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He is of course the creator—writer and artist—of the Madeline stories among many other books for adults and children.

And here is a bit about the Bar from the Carlyle Hotel site:

The Bemelmans Bar is decorated with murals depicting Madeline in Central Park painted by Ludwig Bemelmans. Bemelmans is the namesake of the bar, and his murals there are his only artwork on display to the public. Instead of accepting payment for his work, Bemelmans received a year and a half of accommodations at the Carlyle for himself and his family.

It was a wonderful evening of conversation, drinks (2 more Gibsons for me), art and music. An accomplished jazz trio played well into the night.

It was time to go. We cabbed down to Midtown. I made it back to my hotel room. I must have because that is where I woke up on Sunday.

I checked out about 11 and left my luggage with the Bellmen at the historic Hotel Martinique.

I walked east to Madison Avenue and north to the Morgan. I had to visit the Tolkien exhibit again. It was less crowded. I looked at every picture, manuscript, object… on display. I read every caption. When I was done, I went through the rest of the mansion and library. It is a stunning building, book and art collection.

I visited the shop and bought…Tolkien books and stuff. Yes, I even bought boxes of tea—Bilbo Baggins Breakfast Blend and Gandalf the Gray Tea. I’m Hopeless!

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If you can’t get to the exhibition, consider ordering the massive catalog by mail.

I asked them to mail my purchases to me. It was too much to carry the rest of the day.

Back out to Madison and a taxi to The Show. Up the steps, through the dark and into the light.

I bought some books. Here are a couple that have arrived already.

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The Wind in the Willows is another seminal book in my life. When I saw a copy that had been signed—and therefore touched—by author Kenneth Grahame and artist Ernest Shepherd, did my eyes spin like Mr. Toad’s in the Disney version when he first saw an automobile? I HAD to have it. (“Poop, poop!)

I was lost. Lost…

My train home left Penn Station at 5:05. I was back at the BWI Station around 8:30. The drive to Frederick took an hour. I stopped at the just opened Anchor Bar. The original Anchor Bar is in Buffalo—where I was born. Buffalo Wings were invented there.

On March 4th, 1964, Dominic Bellissimo was tending bar at the now-famous Anchor Bar Restaurant in Buffalo, NY. Late that evening, a group of Dominic’s friends arrived at the bar with ravenous appetites. Dominic asked his mother, Teressa, to prepare something for his friends to eat.

They looked like chicken wings, a part of the chicken that usually went into the stock pot for soup. Teressa had deep fried the wings and flavored them with a secret sauce. The wings were an instant hit and it didn’t take long for people to flock to the bar to experience their new taste sensation. From that evening on, Buffalo Wings became a regular part of the menu at the Anchor Bar.

The phenomenon created in 1964 by Teressa Bellissimo has spread across the globe. Although many have tried to duplicate the Buffalo wing, the closely guarded secret recipe is what makes Frank & Teressa’s the proclaimed “Best Wings in the World.”

Then back to the Wonder Book warehouse where I gathered up Merry and Pippin (who are named after Hobbits, of course.) Back home up the mountain. The snow had all melted.

I must have fallen into my bed because the next thing I recall was waking to a wondrous sunrise Monday morning.

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I was going to tell the various stories that made the week melt away…but it is payroll Friday…plus I will need to go to Gaithersburg and bid farewell to my Irish collegues.

Also, last night, Thursday, Charlie, John, an aspiring bookseller and I went out for food and drinks. We each only had a couple beers or wines, and we retired not too late. However, when I got home, I stayed up late chatting on the phone with a friend about books and bookselling…and drinking a “leetle” too much Bordeaux Rose.”

Clif, Steve and I did go on a house call Monday morning in Frederick. The buy had been percolating for months as two sisters debated over the disposal of their deceased parents’ books. So many emails had been exchanged. That is never a good sign. Pictures of the books were sent. One sister was sure there were very valuable books there. I didn’t see anything in the images. They sent images of specific books the one sister wanted evaluated separately. A big old (but not that old) dictionary and a two-volume 19th century folio Shakespeare were among them. The dictionary is something we get in almost every week and cannot sell or giveaway. The Shakespeare would have been ok. It was loaded with copperplate engravings. The bindings were shot. All four boards were detached and the spines’ leather coming off. It would cost $500? $1000? to rebind nicely. That would be far more than the value of the books.

So, it was with a bit of reluctance that we went to the call. One sister was living in the house and was going to renovate it. The other was living out of state. I thought the odds were 50-50 that the deal would tank, and I would leave empty handed. I had advised the sisters to put aside any books they were concerned about for separate evaluation. But I warn that the three of us couldn’t debate too long over too many books. Every minute Clif and Steve stood around would cost me money. Plus they had had an appraiser in who had told them the books had minimal value.

We arrived, and I was toured through the various rooms in the home that had books in them. The renovation was in progress so most of the books were in piles.

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In one room there was a family photo on the wall. An older man with a gray handlebar mustache looked back at me.

“I knew him! Your Dad was a good customer!”

“Yes. A lot of the books here came from Wonder Book. I feel in some ways I almost grew up in your store. Our parents would take us there so much.”

About 50 books were set aside on the kitchen table that the out-of-state sister was worried about.

I made an offer on all the other books so that, if accepted, Clif and Steve could start packing while I inspected the kitchen table books.

“I’ll have to call my sister.”

Would the deal blow up? It didn’t matter if it did. The books were uniformly nice but average.

The woman made the phone call.

“I’ll put her on speaker so you can talk to her.”

The other sister answered the phone sleepily down South somewhere.

There was a little debate. But there were also about 1500 books that neither sister wanted to keep. I looked at the kitchen table books while they went back and forth.


Most old books are just old books…these were all just old books…

No brainer.

“You should keep these. I really can’t make any offer on them. They can remind you of your parents and your trips to bookstores.”

Clif and Steve started packing. I returned to the warehouse to catch up on the work I hadn’t done Friday through Sunday.

I can’t go on about how the rest of the week flew by. Certainly Wednesday until now—Friday noon—were mostly occupied working and playing with Charlie and John. Wednesday evening I introduced them to Anchor Wings and “Beef on Weck.” That is sliced roast beef on Kimmelwick rolls—a Buffalo classic.

I’ve got to get this to my editor and guru if it is going to be put out today.

I’ve got to get the payroll down to Gaithersburg, bid farewell to my Irish colleagues and bring their vanload of books back.

Oh, and I just spent a delightful half hour being interviewed on the phone by a New York Times journalist. I hope I didn’t say anything stupid.

When I shake hands with Charlie and John in an hour or two, I know just what I will say:

“I hope the next time we meet it will be in Galway.”

4 Comments on Article

  1. Michael Dirda commented on

    As always, I marvel at the sheer romance you bring to your weekly life as a bookseller and collector–the interesting books, the travel, the friends, the dinners, the bars. I still can’t imagine being able to function after a few hours sleep, a day of the Tolkien exhibit and book fair, and four Gin Gibsons. It makes me envious.
    As it happens, I received the Boydston Prize from the Association for Documentary Editing for an essay on two annotated editions of “The Wind in the Willows” I wrote. I share your love for the book–and so did Robert Silvers of the New York Review of Books.–md

    1. chuck replied on

      Michael, Your comments are heartening. I write these stories to record what we book people do in these and not long past times. This one was a bit rushed and will be edited and revised this week. I certainly reacted to the Wind in the Willows book like Mr Toad when he first saw a car. Did my eyes spin and did I say : “Poop, Poop! Oh, poetry of motion! Ohh, the bliss! Ohhh… poop, poop!?”
      I’ll have to ask the bookseller I bought it from.

      4 Gibsons over the course of a fairly long evening are manageable.

      Burning the candle at both ends and the middle ? Well, not every week has this many demands as well as opportunities. Which one could I have skipped?

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

      Congrats on the prize. Which editions? And where can your essay be found?


  2. Margaret Minton commented on

    Reminded that the Mary Poppins book I borrowed from the library recently had illustrations by the daughter of E. L. Shepherd, Mary Shepherd. The style is reminiscent of the Winnie the Pooh drawings.

    1. chuck replied on

      Yes! Wonderful drawings in all those. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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