Cosmos Club Writers Room

Wednesday, March 20. It is the day of the Equinox. Everything is in balance. But there is a full moon looming—a super moon. Does it mean anything? Portents? Well, there are some daffodils open in the warehouse gardens. One day is winter. The next is spring.

(Clif and I are rolling down Interstate 270 toward the city. House calls in DC are tough. Lots of traffic and lights and one ways. We are stuck in traffic now. Stop. Go. Slow. Fast. I’ve been on this highway as a child and man thousands of times. It is now 8 lanes and they are discussing widening it.)

Since my Irish friends and colleagues left last Friday, things have not slowed down a bit. I worked the weekend mostly rummaging through carts of pre-1940 books and other exotica that are set aside for my final review. Most are easy. Most old books are just old books. Those can be quickly handled and sent to the stores or internet or, most often, to Books by the Foot. The stores will get nice editions of literature. Poe, Wordsworth, Keats… As well as some attractive or important histories and biographies. The internet will get unusual titles—town histories and other narrowly focused subject titles. Books by the Foot will get the broken sets, the Grosset and Dunlap reprints, obsolete non-fiction, forgotten authors like EP Roe, Marie Corelli, F Marion Crawford, Winston Churchill (the American novelist)… unless those are very nice first editions in which case I will send them to the global audience. Someone in the world may want a first edition of EDEN Southworth. I feel a bit of duty to keep some of these obscure or forgotten novelists’ flickering flame alive.

(Stop, slower. Stop. Go. Fast. Stop. We are now in the stretch of I 270 that is 10 lanes. It nearly 10 am. Why so much traffic? I can’t imagine a life of commuting on this highway. How many hours a week do some of these folks spend in their cars? Stopping, starting slowing, speeding up.)

The weekend was also spent answering questions. Two journalists sent inquiries about what we do. One from The New York Times. One from Fine Books & Collections. Some of the questions required some research, and some required a lot of thought. If we make stories in either or both, I really don’t want to look foolish or say something inaccurate. Fine Books sent me a list of interview questions. It was like writing a long essay. Some of it was raison d’être stuff. Some were nuts and bolts questions. The Times journalist had interviewed me over the phone. It was mostly about why people like to have books around them as beautiful physical objects as well the eternal underlying power of potential every book has between its covers (well, almost all books.) She followed up with more questions about the history of book decor and instant libraries. I racked my brain trying to remember some of the great or quirky collectors in history.

I recalled Benjamin Gladstone—a four time British Prime Minister—was an inveterate book collector. Long ago I read an anecdote about how he would have his personal library swapped out periodically. Was it in one of his mansions—maybe the one London? Apparently, an unscrupulous bookseller would replace the books with the same books that had been removed the previous swap. I did some online searching. Where was that anecdote? And what about the wealthy collectors who would have their books all bound in matching bindings? Essentially “Books By Color.” Most books published prior to the mid 1800s were rebound. Books were made into beautiful objects. Some very wealthy people—royalty for example—would have their own personal binders. Robert Riviere, one of history’s finest bookbinders was employed by some of the great book collectors of the 19th century. Then there was Andrew Carnegie who, upon learning Lord Acton was in financial distress, bought his 60,000 volume collection in its entirety. He let Acton keep the books until his death a dozen years later. Carnegie then donated the collection en masse to Cambridge—The Acton Collection. Then I recalled Napoleon had custom libraries made for some of his campaigns. He ordered hundreds of books be bound for him in uniform duodecimo leather. These books were housed in custom boxes so Napoleon could have the library travel with him. In his exile to St Helena, his books were to be one of few comforts:

Napoleon had plenty of time to read on St. Helena, and he developed a large library there. He brought with him on the Northumberland “six small mahogany cases containing what was called a field library, provided by M. Barbier, the Emperor’s librarian. These crates consisted of good works, and were of great assistance in fighting the boredom of such a lengthy crossing.”

This was supplemented by the arrival, in June 1816, of the bulk of Napoleon’s library. Emmanuel de Las Cases reports:

The Emperor sent for me about three o’clock. He was in the topographical cabinet, surrounded by all the persons of his suite, who were engaged in unpacking some boxes of books which had arrived by the Newcastle. The Emperor himself helped to unpack, and seemed to be highly amused with the occupation.

A colleague reminded me of a classic American novel that showcases decorative books. William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham. There is a scene Mrs. Lapham and her daughter visit the binder to select colors. They bought many standard sets of, at the time, important works. But the books’ contents must be attractively bound for their new mansion. So the dialogue with the bookbinder is all about choosing the right colored leather bindings to match the furnishings.

So a large part of the weekend was also spent chasing numerous book stories down the wormholes of Google. It was fun but time consuming.

Some time ago, we (Wonder Book, Books by the Foot and I) were under assault for the controversy of offering books as decor. So, I’m still a bit defensive and try to support what we do with historical precedents as well as the constant reminder that for almost all the books we offer on Books by the Foot, the only other option would be oblivion.


I wrote about those times in the book story Slings and Arrows.

(We are on the DC Beltway now. 495. Inner loop—which goes clockwise. Stopped, looking at all the red brake lights in front of us.)

This house call we are going on has been percolating for a few months. I was contacted by the Librarian at the Cosmos Club who wanted some books removed. They didn’t look that exciting from the images, but you never know… plus I really want to see this venerable institution. For some reason I’ve never been invited to be a member. For that matter no member has ever invited me to lunch or dinner there. So I will get into the Cosmos my first time as a tradesman. A club that has its own librarian…how cool. I hope we get a tour. I hope we get there on time. We were given an arrival time window. They don’t want non-members in there when there is meal service going on. We left in plenty of time for a 10 am arrival. If we get there too late, will we be told: “Sorry, no tradespeople are permitted during the luncheon hours.”?

(Connecticut Avenue at the National Zoo. Not a lot of traffic. But a lot of stoplights. I love being in downtown DC but I don’t like getting here.)

The visit turned out ok. We are on our way back. I told Clif let’s make a quick stop at DC’s best wine, liquor, cheeserie, deli—Calvert Woodley. Now back north on Connecticut Avenue. It is 12:45. There are about 80 boxes riding behind me on the bed of the van. Turned out a lot of these were signed by member/authors or guests. Nothing great that I saw…so far. But who knows? This call was not about profit but about service. We will do ok. Plus I was able to multitask—writing this during the drives…and I’m bring home some food booty:

Blue D’Auvergne $7.99 per pound
Mousse du Perigord $8.99 per half pound
Serrano Ham—sliced super thin $19.99 per pound
Sottocenere al Tartufo $12.99 per pound…

And a little wine and gin and beer.

I am a man of many tastes.

They get some wonderful deals and exclusives on wines and liquors and beer. No wonder it is always the “Best” in DC.

That’s yummy multitasking.

Plus, (I need to emphasize) Calvert Woodley IS on the way. If it’s on the way, it has always been a “Must” stop for me. Always. As toddlers on “Daddy Day” trips to the museum or zoo or monuments, my children had a bit of trouble pronouncing Calvert Woodley.

As I said, I rarely get down here. But I was also here a couple weeks ago for an astounding house call for which I bid 5 figures. That visit I bought a lot of wine. A LOT Rosé Bordeaux were on super special…and some single malt scotch and unusual gin and… They have guys that will box your stuff and roll it out to your car in their parking lot. Just give them a couple dollars tip.

Over the weekend, I got an updated list from the professional helping with this estate. They created a spreadsheet listing a lot of the books which were signed by important people or had other enhancements. I wondered why they went to the trouble after I had already put in my bid. But I reviewed the list. Most everything on it I was aware of. They listed US Grant’s MEMOIRS as being signed. That would be astonishing as the set was published posthumously. That facsimile signature has fooled many folks I’ve dealt with over the years. One item I had missed put me back on my heels.

“Can you send me a couple pictures of the HG Wells?” I texted.

The picture she sent was of a not so great copy of The First Men in the Moon.*

No wonder I had overlooked it on my inspection.

* The First Men in the Moon is a scientific romance by the English author H. G. Wells, originally serialized in The Strand Magazine from December 1900 to August 1901 and published in hardcover in 1901, who called it one of his “fantastic stories.”

What was it on her list that piqued my interest?

It was signed on the front free endpaper.

No. Not by Wells.

By Neil Armstrong. He added “Apollo 11” after his signature.


I texted back that I wanted to increase my bid by 20%.

Fingers crossed. I bid very aggressively on this library.

Fingers crossed…

Each day that has passed has me worried. Should I up it again?

We used to have a sign in the store. It was an aphorism I was taught many, many years ago:

“The only book you regret is the one you didn’t buy.”

Back to the Cosmos house call…

I had called the librarian when the phone told us we were about 10 minutes away. He had emailed directions and a bird’s eye view map of where we were supposed to park. He said he would be outside to meet us.

We parked in an alley behind the club which is also directly behind the Phillips Collection, a wonderful art Museum. It was on a visit to the Phillips a few years ago that I had an epiphany. I was given new eyes. Walls and rooflines were no longer shapes and objects. Suddenly they were “design.” I’ve had those eyes ever since. I was so lucky…I looked longingly at the museum. A favorite. It has been too long since I’ve been there. A wave of sadness poured over me.

“Oh, well,” I thought.

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There was a man in a charcoal gray pinstripe suit by the Cosmos entrance. That must be the librarian.

Clif and I got out of the van. We made our introductions. He led us to a stainless steel door in the exterior brick wall. It was an elevator which opened up onto the alley. Twenty feet to the right was the members’ rear entrance.

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“Let’s take some boxes up with us.”

Clif and I each stacked 9 bankers boxes on hand trucks and rolled them onto the elevator with the librarian. He took us up to the 2nd floor. The inside door opened to reveal…the kitchen.

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We got off and wheeled our carts of boxes through the kitchen. Oh, if I could only describe all the wonderful scents we passed through numerous times on our trips back and forth going up and down. I dropped some hints, but the pastry chef ignored them. I was not given a popover or a pastry or… I just got lots of “free haute cuisine smells.”

On the other side of the kitchen, we got on another elevator up to the 4th floor. That’s where the books were. The Librarian introduced us to the Cosmos Archivist and the Cosmos Art Curator in their offices on that floor. I asked to use a restroom and was shown into the Writers Room. I’m not sure what function the room serves, but it is a beautiful space.

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Certainly the Cosmos Club has had many, many members who are writers. Maybe if inspiration struck at a luncheon, an author could get up to the 4th floor and type away in private before the moment was gone. What a great “club” to have a Librarian, Archivist, Art Curator and Writers Room. And so far, I’d only seen the service elevator.

We were shown two loaded bookcases. They were the mostly modern books I’d seen in the images.

I assumed the bookseller position of adoration and packing—on my knees. At least the hallway we were in had plush carpeting. We packed and packed and packed. When we had 5 boxes loaded, one of us (usually Clif) would tip the pile and slide the tongue of the handcart beneath them. Down to the kitchen and across it. Then down to the parking lot and over to the van.

(Racing up 270 to Frederick. No stops or starts and no slows so far either.)

When the last of the books were packed and taken down to the van, we went back up to the 4th floor and met the librarian. He had said he could show us around parts of the building—including the Library.

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There were parts of the building he couldn’t show. Neither of us tradesmen were wearing a collared shirt and jacket. You can go online and tour the place yourself. It is a stunning mansion with expansions over the years. Maybe one day I’ll get invited through the front door.

So, that trip ate up Wednesday pretty much. It is Thursday now, and I’m tapping away on this. I’ve got to leave soon for a cocktail party hosted by the Chamber of Commerce for Frederick’s Top 50 CEOs. I have never looked at myself in the mirror and thought of that person as a CEO. I’m just a “book guy.” I don’t like looking in the mirror, regardless.

Today I asked one of the sorters to put the Cosmos Club books on carts. I wanted to see what we got. I warned her many would be signed.

“Put any signed ones on a separate cart. If you think anything might be collectible or of special interest, put them on another cart. Common stuff you can put onto a Books by the Foot cart.”

They have a very cool bookplate.

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I know people that collect bookplates.

“There are some older books in bad condition. Their only value is the bookplate. Put those on another cart.”

Nose to tail bookselling.

#bookplaterescue … lol.

Tomorrow we are going on another house call. I guess they come in clusters. I really don’t go on many. But this one is under the deadline of an estate closure and the executor is only in town a couple days. I had gone there some months ago. It turned out to be Mary O’Hara‘s last home. It is in Chevy Chase. Her grandson walked me through the place. There were a lot of books including editions of her works in many languages mostly My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead and The Green Grass of Wyoming. The home also had a lot of Flicka memorabilia from the 1940s film and the 1950s TV series.

(Friday. March 22. Interstate 270. 930 AM. Slow, stop, start, speed up, slow… Hundreds of red brake ahead of us. Why? A big accident in the 4 lanes across the New Jersey barriers. Fire trucks, ambulances, cops. Our 4 lanes are moving now. Now the lanes opposite us are stopped. Hundreds of white headlights facing us. Ernest is driving me. Clif and Kevin are in a van behind us somewhere. We will go to Mary O’Hara’s last home. I don’t think there are two vanloads there. We will assess and pack one in a hurry. Ernest and I will head back to Frederick. Clif and Kevin with drop their van at the Gaithersburg store for this weekend’s buys. Friday’s are always a juggling act of vehicles and boxes and store needs. The warehouse closes today at 430. No one will be there this weekend but me…and Merry & Pippin—my Jack Russell companions.)

(We are on the Beltway. It gets a little hairy shifting lanes to get over for the Connecticut Avenue exit. I need to put this aside and navigate.)

(On the way back. Smooth sailing up 270.)

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I had forgotten how many books there were at O’Hara’s home. I’m in a Ford van packed front to back; floor to ceiling with boxes of books. There are 3 boxes of books between the front seats. I pulled these aside because I thought they were intriguing. Of course most of the books were up a narrow winding flight of steps to two small gabled rooms in the attic. One was an office. The other was “stuff.” There 7 or 8 bookcases. We packed many, many copies of My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, The Green Grass of Wyoming and the O’Hara titles that are less famous. We took about 1000 copies of The Devil Enters by a North Window that were in the original boxes. The blurb on the back states “…More than 3,750,000 copies of Mary O’Hara’s previous novels have been sold in hardcover…” That was over 30 years ago.

The Washington Post calls it: “…outstanding in its tremendous imaginative power…”

The Library Journal: “…the plot evolves with consummate skill…Thought provoking, challenging. Recommended.”

The Boston Herald and Chicago Tribune also liked it.

What will we do with a thousand of them? Dunno…

There were more books in boxes down a narrow flight of stairs in the basement. There were some in second-floor bedrooms.

It will be a lot of work, but I know we will find some surprises. I found a first in jacket of an unusual Enid Bagnold (who wrote another famous horse book—National Velvet.) Mary wrote her name inside it. Not thrilling, but I like those kind of associations. Evocative.

A couple real nice Doctor Dolittles and a Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle in jackets. I packed them in too much of a hurry to check if they were firsts. John Cheever’s first book in jacket. Does anyone care anymore? It used to be a big deal. Allen Ahearn had it for $850 in Book Collecting (1989.)

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Clif and Kevin were left to mop up the last of the O’Hara books.

I chatted briefly with the grandson. He told me his mom had been descended from landed gentry in England. Her father was Lord Savile. The family once owned Sherwood Forest. I love that kind of stuff.

I’m back in the office tapping away at this. Trying to figure an end that doesn’t dangle too much.

I’m glad we pulled this off. Mary O’Hara deserves to have her books treated well. When I first visited, there were some manuscripts. I told him those should go to her archives which are at the University of Wyoming. Of course, O’Hara and her horse stories are all about Wyoming.

The son told me when I first visited months ago that no one else would even come out. Crazy. Or am I the crazy one?

We will do ok. There are some old sets in leather and cloth per for Books by the Foot.

Nose to tail bookselling.

Catching my breath on the red sofa in my office. It has been a whirlwind couple weeks. Months? Years?

I’m a bit tired. I stayed out late after the cocktail party chatting with a friend over dinner at Monocacy Crossing. We lingered over a bottle Gruner Vetliner. 2015—which may have been a little old. It was kind of straw colored. But it was fine. And it was the wine and it was the words which mattered—mostly about books. I was told an anecdote about a mystery customer that defaces Sarah Palin dust jackets with pornographic drawings. I was shocked! My concern was: “What the hell are we doing with Palin books at the stores? Old, old news…who cares either way?”

This weekend I’ll look through the Cosmos carts.

I wonder what I will find.

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I’ll go through the 3 boxes of O’Hara books and try to think of what we will do hundreds of Flickas in German, French, Sanskrit… I’ll come up with triaging guidelines for the rest of the books from that house. I know there will be surprises.

I’m glad we went but, gee, whiz, it was hard going up and down all those narrow steps. Clif and Ernest aren’t getting any younger… I’ll need to hire some young “backs”… lol…

But, oh, what will we do with All the Pretty Horse books?

“Think outside book.”

Ah, my book muse.

“It’s been awhile. You’re wearing me out.”

“Pish! It’s good for ya.”

“I’m having fun again. I just wish my left heel wasn’t poisoned.”

“I know…but I heard ye laughing out loud last evening.”


“‘Tis a good thing…”

“Yes. It’s been awhile. Sarah Palin…who the hell is still sending those to the stores? Heads will roll! What’s next?”

“Ah, that would be tellin’, and I don’t see that much, anyway.”

“I reckon there will be books involved.”

“Ye shoulda been careful what ye wished for.”

“Wouldn’t change it for anything. It’s all for the best in this the best of all possible worlds.”

“Pangloss! Ha! Old Voltaire was quite a card.”

“You knew Vol…”

“Ye better explain yer title. Ta!”

Oh yeah. “AEG” means “All Edges Gilt.” I wasn’t sure why I titled it that.

Here’s what says about “gilding”:

Gilding is an age old art which consists of applying gold in powder or thin sheet (gold leaf) form to an object – in this case, a book’s pages or even cover boards.

The gold in gold leaf has typically been mixed or alloyed with other metals such as silver or copper. But there are other options, and not all that glitters is gold. Some cheaper editions simply have gold-colored paint, which can dull quickly, while at the other end of the spectrum are firms like Easton Press, who still accent editions in genuine 22kt gold.

It’s common to see page-edges of books, particularly antiquarian books, shining with gold. Often it’s just the top edges, but front and bottom edges can be gilded, as well. The gilt is beautiful and eye-catching, but also serves a practical purpose – applied in conjunction with glue, it helps to protect the page edges from browning, moisture and dust. They should be treated with care, however, as they are susceptible to physical damage and easy to scratch.

While gilt is most prevalent on page edges, and you may often see terms applied to antiquarian books such as aeg (all edges gilt), or teg (top edge gilt), but the edges aren’t the only parts of a book to be given the gold standard – the spine is often decorated as well, with titles and text, and raised bands often being gilded. And gilt can make for spectacular patterns, designs and illustrations on the boards, or covers of a book.

Maybe I was thinking that books with AEG are surrounded in gold. And…by extension booklovers and booksellers are also surrounded by gold.

6 Comments on Article

  1. Tobi commented on

    As a book lover I love the thought of being surrounded by gold, by extension. You have the most interesting adventures!

    1. chuck replied on

      Thanks Tobi. We are the lucky ones that “get it” – about books. Thanks for reading and commenting. It is nice to hear from you!

  2. Vanessa commented on

    I really do enjoy reading your blog. It is full knowledge and full of heart.

    1. chuck replied on

      Making me blush! Thanks Vanessa! Chuck

  3. Michael Dirda commented on

    Strange synchronicity–I’m going to the Cosmos Club tomorrow for brunch. A friend of mine is a member and he has a dining group that meets there once or twice a year. I’m surprised, though I shouldn’t be, that the library deaccessions its books. Save me something cool with the Cosmos Club bookplate! –md

    1. chuck replied on

      Will do. They have many books coming in all the time- from members, guests, speakers, donors. Culling is a necessity.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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