And then Brother Age slipped up behind me
He put his hand upon my shoulder
I knew the war was over then
Battles I’d fought my whole life were moot
The end had never been in doubt
Just the duration of the conflict
It is a razor’s edge between defiance and despair
I defied the foul fiend until the cliff’s edge loomed before me
Now there is only despair as the drop comes closer
We are heading east on I 70 to Ellicott City and Columbia, Maryland.
Clif and I.
Another journey, another adventure.
We have done this hundreds of times in the 31 years he has been at Wonder Book.
I’m very lucky to have so many people who have stayed with the company for so many years. There are five of us that have been here since 1990 or before. That includes me.
One inspection. One pickup from my old friend and bookselling colleague Michael Osborne.
It is a brilliant October day. Azure sky. Calm. 70 degrees.
One of the handful of perfect days we are blessed with each year in Maryland.
Ellicott City—I have some happy memories there. Now I wonder what the downtown looks like. It had been ravaged by a couple of deadly floods that nearly destroyed the beautiful downtown in 2016 and 2018.
There was talk of abandoning some of the early 19th century sections. It was a town of antique stores and boutiques and crafty places and a bookstore or two. Some say the recent floods—which poured down from above the town rather than the river below rising—were a result of overdevelopment and poor planning. There were no controls to the runoff in the big rains. Too much new pavement. Too many wooded areas which used to absorb water turned into rooftops.
I recall a wonderful meal after a house call 5 or 6 years ago. The fancy restaurant was in a former home on the main street. There was a garden room at the rear with light and plants.
It all made sense then.
Now not so much.
Back to the present…
The first stop was to inspect part of a collection for which a man was trying to negotiate a trade.
I haven’t done any “trading” for many, many years. It is just too complex and time consuming.
We buy and sell.
One and done.
That is much neater.
But the man’s emails were persistent.
Then he mentioned a Sherlock Holmes collection. That piqued my interest. I asked for images.
They looked good. There were a lot of them. You can’t tell because the aisle was so narrow he couldn’t shoot more than a handful at once. The downside was they were all modern. Most modern books are a dime a dozen because of the internet suppressing their value.
Supply and demand.
Sellers willing to work for pennies.
I never understood it. When the internet began killing prices (and bookstores) in the late 90s and early 2000s, I was appalled.
“That’s a $50 book!” I would contend.
Not anymore. It is now a $5 book. Postpaid.
Well, you have to adapt to the market or be destroyed by the competition.
But it WAS Sherlock Holmes. And the books were beautiful.
I collected Sherlock Holmes books and pastiches at one time. I still have a bunch of them… somewhere. I even bid on some at some Pacific auction in the 90s. That was very expensive. Buying at auction can be extremely costly. Especially if you need the books shipped. Auctions houses typically don’t want to mess with that extra hassle.
I actually subscribed to the Baker Street Journal for a few years way back when.
And I really enjoyed the buzz when Laurie King’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice came out in 1994. That was a hypermodern sensation, with prices going up to $500, if memory serves. It is still collectible, although it looks like you can find signed copies for $100 or so.
Watch out for “bargains” though. Searching Via Libri for 1st editions yields a few cheap “almost” “first editions.” One is:
First Edition With The Number Line Indicating A Fourth Printing.
Ummmm… that is not a “first edition” in my opinion. It is a reading copy.
A lot of the other Sherlock Holmes pastiches were dreadful. Hack writing using Doyle ‘s creation to try to sell dreck to completists—as I was once upon a time.
An “inspection”… this is another thing I almost never do. That demands a second trip if a deal is made. Most collections are not worth two trips…
But they were so pretty. And they tugged at my heartstrings like an old love not quite done.
I said I would try to stop by and look at them.
The game was afoot!
Michael Osborne… I’ve written about him before.
He’s an excellent bookseller and former ABAA member.
He lives in Hobbits’ Glen where many of the streets are named after Tolkien type things.
He’s become a friend and advisor over the years.
Illness has slowed him down to the point where selling books is no longer a viable thing.
I knew Michael would need me out there in the near future. And I have a duty to take care of him.
After my last visit for a relatively small pickup in July, he still had a house full of books. He’d made small talk about selling the hosue or…
It is so hard to let go. I’ve seen it so many times.
I first visited his house about 6 years ago when he had called me out to clear out a storage unit which was adding to the cost of the books inside with each monthly rental check.
I’d gone out to see him in the spring and early summer of 2021.
I picked up rather small loads each time.
“Let me know if I can help…”
I sure didn’t need any books, but when someone I know and care about needs us, I will reach out and do whatever is necessary.
About a month ago, I emailed him out of the blue subject line, “How are you doing?”
“Not so well.” He explained he’d been in and out of the hospital most of the summer.
“Let me know if I can help…”
A few weeks ago he emailed: “Got books” was the subject line. “…about 30 boxes…”
Usually I wouldn’t send anyone out for that quantity. I certainly wouldn’t take half a day and do it myself.
Except for someone like Michael.
Some days later, he emailed there were more boxes. He sounded stressed.
So Clif and I went on the road on Wednesday.
The first stop was Ellicott City. The gentleman with the Sherlock Holmes books led us down into his basement.
Packed with beautiful books. History. Military… All meticulously shelved and in perfect condition.
But they weren’t for sale.
He only wanted to trade for the fiction. The Sherlock stuff.
I counted a few shelves to get the average number of books per shelf. Then I counted the number of shelves and multiplied. Maybe 550 books. Mostly Sherlock Holmes books.
The two books of mine he was interested in came to about $2500.
I really shouldn’t even consider it.
But they are so beautiful.
I told him I’d think about it. Clif and I climbed the stairs and headed for Hobbits’ Glen. I hopped out and guided Clif backing in.
When the garage door opened… WOW!
I’m glad I didn’t come by myself this time.
Clif rolled boxes down the steep drive on a hand truck—the boxes stacked about 5 high. He leaned the stack against the bumber and slid the two-wheeler out. I lifted the boxes onto the bed of the van. When I could get no more on, I clambered up and began stacking them toward the front. At first, I went three high. Then four. Then five.
I’m glad it was a pretty cool day.
I was surprised at the quantity. He’s really starting to let go, I thought.
He led me down into the basement we had discussed clearing out 6 years earlier.
“The house is sold. I’m having surgery in mid November. I have to have everything out by [a few weeks.]”
He wanted to keep this and that. He was taking some of the best stuff to his new much smaller home.
The walls in the house were mostly bare. Small black dots marked where the picture hangers had put holes in the dry wall.
“Michael, I’m out of town in the middle of November. If you really want us to clear out the basement, I’d like to be present for it. But I can send a crew down when you’re ready.”
“I’m ready. How about next week?”
A small favor had turned into a big production.
Well, I’m committed.
On the way back, Clif and I chatted about old times and other house calls, former coworkers who had left on good and not so good terms. When we got back to the warehouse, I asked him to make sure whoever unloaded the van would segregate the H L Mencken archive Michael had parted with. I’d marked all those boxes “HLM.”
It had been a lot more work than I planned on. My shoulder was aching. I called the doctor’s office to see if I could have it looked at.
When I went home, I dug up more redbud treelings. I also dug up more bleeding hearts.
I planted and watered until dark. Indeed, it was night by the time I got the last in, working on my hands and knees with the headlights of the pickup illuminating my work area.
I guess I’m possessed. The baby Judas trees are doomed. Dozens sprouted in the gravel border along the edge of the paved driveway. If I don’t dig them up… they certainly can’t mature there. It is hard getting a shovel into the packed gravel. I have to wiggle and stomp and be gentle so as not to snap the taproots.
I picked out spots to plant them, thinking of what they’ll look like in ten years… if I’m still there.
They’ll be beautiful accents in the beds I’ve created.
I don’t know how many more I’ll dig up.
Then there are all the daffodil bulbs to put in.
I was struck with a severe attack of melancholy earlier in the week. AGAIN. Who knows why? Chemistry flowing through my body, I suppose. It was overwhelming, soul sucking. I felt utterly hopeless, worthless. I left work to get away. I had a shopping list:
Hardly urgent. Hardly worth making a special trip for. At Walmart, I passed the flower bulb display. They are anxious to get the Christmas stuff up. The bulbs were marked down severely. Only pennies apiece, really. I bought about 500. That folly seemed to shake off the depression.
The next morning, I stopped in on the way to work and bought another 500 or so.
I guess I’m possessed.
It is a gentle madness.
I wish we were back in that garden room at the back of the old restaurant in Ellicott City—before the floods ruined everything.
Well, there’s no going back.
The bulbs are all sold out!
The sunrise continues moving south.
It is dragging the autumn leaf changes behind it. There’s just a bit of color on the mountain.
Before long, it will be a riot. Yellow, red, orange, gold.
Then they will fall, and winter will come from the north and pour over the land.
I haven’t had the first fire in the woodstove yet. But I have been picking up dead falls of kindling-size branches and laying them near the front and side doors.
Last weekend was exciting.
Much of it was sorting through carts laden with books. Blue slips of paper protrude from each side, CHUCK.
English Premier League soccer played on my laptop nearby. If something exciting happened, I’d look up.
Periodically, I’d go out back to the dockyard and give the dogs a treat. Then throw golf balls skidding and bouncing across the asphalt. The two Jacks tear off after them, often sprinting a hundred yards or more. If a ball hit an object—a piece of equipment or fence—and rapidly changed direction, they’d put their brakes on and slide until their feet got traction so they could pivot. I’ve never had to trim their nails. The pavement is their emery board.
Early on Saturday, I came across some big books on a cart set on their sides. Usually this means Bibles or other religious tomes. The first few were view books. Picturesque America, for example. That fat two-volume set used to be instant revenue. Nowadays, the demand has lowered—unless the bindings are sumptuous leather.
Then a big tall leather bound volume. It was in great shape. The leather spine label was a bit darkened, but looking closely, I read, Holbein’s Portraits of the Court of Henry VIII.
I opened, and the plates took my breath away.
There was a Hogarth in calf with a black spine label. Opening it, the pages were perfect. Flat, bright, unfoxed. Here’s what Hogarth thought of aliens. Odd, I didn’t know aliens were in the dialogue back then.
There were some other nice ones. I haven’t bothered opening them yet. The day wore on.
At the end of the day, Travis handed me a box set of Route 66.
“You still looking for this?”
I had given up. Forgotten long ago.
How did he remember such a casual request?
That’s a COVID series now. It had been something my older brothers liked. When I came across Season 1 in the dark days, it provided some relief for a couple weeks. A bit of time travel to a world that looked like the one I grew up in. I wrote about here.
I took it home with the last of the warehouse-grown tomatoes. I made some tuna salad (my secret is lots of dill.)
I began bringing some of the porch plants in for the winter. These are just the small and immature ones. The big prickly ones are on the front porch.
Sunday, I was back for more. More soccer. More dog play. More books on carts. We have people who finish up their main duties then work on unloading pallets of books onto carts for me to inspect. It’s something useful for them to do, but it creates a lot of extra work for me.
I settled onto my stool. Empty boxes for store stock on one side. Yellow tubs on the other for internet stock. An empty cart behind me to put books I want Annika to research. Another yellow tub for Madeline books. My laptop is talking to me, set atop a stack of boxes on a nearby pallet.
Cart after cart after cart…
In mid afternoon, I went out and retrieved a cart that held mostly SciFi paperbacks.
I’d assigned my old friend Debbie to cart up a pallet. She’s been here since 2000. I knew it had vintage paperbacks on it. It has been here since BC. Before COVID. I’d walked past it every day as someone had parked it near Dock 4 right along the main path in and out of the building. I think they’d been dropped off by a surviving brother. I’d been putting it off because the collection had looked dreary. The old white boxes had been sealed with paper packing tape for many years. Paperbacks don’t excite me much. Vintage SF paperbacks used to be avidly collected. Now those collectors are reaching a certain vintage themselves, and it is time to let their books go. The books are striking. The artwork can be lurid. Or it can be fantastic. Or it can be dated—because that science fiction concept from the 40s or 50s is now fact.
I sat before the first cart and began pulling the books off. About half were other modern. The vintage books were in great shape, but unless it was Philip K Dick or Lovecraft or a “PBO”*, it would likely just go to the store for $3.95.
* Paperback Original—a book that was first published as a mass market paperback rather than in hardcover.
There were some hardcovers on the lower shelves. Novel size.
Thus began an hour of otherworldly experience. As unexpected as any plot twist.
I peeked inside the first one.
NOT a book club edition as they so often are.
One after another after another after another…
Bradbury. Heinlein. Asimov.
The Martian Chronicles. Starship Troopers. I, Robot.
More and more.
I emptied that cart and went for the other tedious “paperback” cart.
The jackets were brilliant. Unfaded. Unnicked.
I peeked inside a few. At least a couple were signed by Heinlein.
It took my breath away. I sat on the stool in awe. I was in a kind of bubble with them. The world outside had retreated and was small and insignificant.
See any you recognize?
The day was ending. I was tired. Larry appeared with 94 boxes. I was not pleased. It was the end of the day. I was tired. I was drained. He asked for help. I reluctantly paged Travis—the only other person in the building.
I was now grumpy. Travis has more important duties than unloading vans.
I had worked hard all weekend, and I was ready to leave.
But when you’re the last man, you can’t walk away.
I left a lot of carts for Monday.
I always do.
That night I went down to Virginia. The “coming home” traffic was horrendous. But my two sons had a soccer game. One boy was playing. The other was reffing. It was cold. The high school field was unfindable for my phone. I had to walk through unlighted wooded paths past baseball fields and other abandoned places. Going back to the car alone, I thought I was a perfect target for mugging or murder. But I got through with my iPhone light guiding my feet over the rough terrain. It was fun to see my sons at the top of their games. The younger boy is on some pro teams—tier 3 or 4. The older boy is being called on to ref university games. A few weeks ago, he was the sideline for Georgetown versus Princeton. Those things are pretty cool—as I was their first coach so many years ago.
The week walked by with its ups and downs.
I picked up my travel packet for the Italian trip in November. It looks like an interesting adventure. Knock on wood, my knee and heel are all… BETTER! A little miracle. I pray it lasts. I’m telemedicining with my doctor this afternoon about the shoulder. I wonder if I’ll get a remote cortisone shot. Maybe nowadays we can shoot ourselves.
One afternoon when Brother Melancholy swept over me at work, I decided to take a walk out in the sun. I’ve had traps out for the groundhogs.
Yep. They’re back. The demon whistle pig found a way under the edge of the big boulder I was sure had plugged its portal to hell (or China on the other side of the world.) I had “hired” a very elderly guy and his old daughter to trap one at the “Farm.” They caught it and took it away for $25. I bought a couple of steel traps and learned how to set them. The old timer had used an apple as bait.
Sure enough, there was a beast in the trap eying warily and, I think, with no little anger.
We’ve caught a few and just drive them out into the woods where no one lives and let them go.
Part of the problem is that things are going so well at the warehouse and the stores. On the mountain there’s plenty to do but no emergencies.
There’s actually space in the warehouse!
The people at the warehouse and stores seem to be happy and productive. We are closed to being all hired up in many categories.
Maybe peace and tranquility are not healthy for me. If I have the leisure time to think… well, it all comes back to that.
I need to be driven.
And maybe the COVID Era took a lot out of me.
I had so much energy and motivation during the dark days.
I had to. We were fighting for survival.
There was the “gun to the head”—aspect to the times.
Now I’m tired so often. And motivation… I work hard… and long hours… but without the fear… I am tired so often.
I wonder if COVID didn’t take something out of me that will never come back.
I’ll never be fully cured from that experience and the insanity it engendered.
That’s when it gets you.
A sense of security. Is it false?
Now’s the time I should be getting into things I’ve been putting off. Paperwork. My cluttered office. The huge rare book collection from the Catholic university. Organizing the inside of the house.
The sunrises continue. Maybe another week before they’ll be out of sight—in the forest.
Yes. Lots to do.
And I should write. Not that I don’t write these things every week. 223 weeks in a row… a gun to my head every Friday.
I should write at leisure. Try to create something.
I’ll make a note of it.
Rain and wind woke me in the black night about 1 this morning. I’d left some stuff outside that shouldn’t get wet. A bag of cedar shavings for the doghouses. A couple of tools. I put a towel over my shoulder and strode out into the cold rain. At least, I thought, I won’t need to water all the seedlings and baby trees I put in this week—when I wake up this morning.