Approaching Zero

Snowy Hearse


There were a lot of them last week when Wonder Book “bought the farm” in downtown Frederick (Maryland’s second largest city.) Over the weekend, I purchased a nice old dining room table and about 15 chairs. Now there is a place to sit when I meet with the architect, engineer, brokers…friends.

Or I can just go there and sit and dream.

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This is the first version of an artist rendering of what “could be.”

That would be fun! But, oh, the rules and regulations that I anticipate. And all the future “zeroes.” If it isn’t “fun” going forward…well, I don’t want to tie myself in knots for month or even years.

But it has generated a lot of excitement and interest from many different quarters. THAT is fun.

To have only beautiful and special books in that fine old farmhouse would be fun! I’d be proud of that. So how do we get from here to there? Time. Money. Experts.

Zero… Tuesday it began to snow in the afternoon. I’d taken Merry and Pippin to the warehouse. It was too cold to leave them outside. I’d driven the Ford Expedition in. It is 4-wheel drive but not very good in snow. Going home when I started up my steep drive, it began sliding. Backwards! Yikes. I inched down until I could pull off to the side. I hadn’t been expecting problems. I was wearing clogs. Brilliant. I hiked up the 1/3 mile to the top. It was a steep, slippery and snowy slog. Merry and Pippin were not pleased either. I changed into outdoor work clothes and plowed and plowed.

Wednesday. I awoke to more snow. I plowed. I drove the good old Ford F-150 pickup to work. It has big nubby tires that work great in snow. A deep freeze was in the forecast. But Wednesday afternoon wasn’t bad. I decided I should go ahead and do the house call I had canceled Tuesday due to snow.

Almost a month ago, I got the following email:



I am writing to inquire if you would be interested in buying our large book collection.

We are located in Gettysburg, PA and while it’s not all that far to the Frederick store from here, I have an injury that prevents me from driving distances greater than a few miles.

My father was a Civil War historian and he passed away leaving hundreds of books on the subject. He also loved the paranormal, legends, etc. so there are many books on those subjects too. We have removed many, many crates of our own history, art, poetry, and sci fi books, along with SO MANY DVD’s from our shelves to make room for the books of Dad’s that we want to keep. I don’t have the exact number but in last count it was 500+. The books were all kept in main living areas on bookshelves until recently when my Mom downsized to a smaller home.

I hate that these books are in boxes and crates in my family room and not being enjoyed by someone. I have reached out to few local places thinking they may like the Civil War books (it is Gettysburg after all), but they either don’t get back to me or insist I bring them to them even as a donation…

These sounded interesting, and I responded.

I don’t go on many house calls myself any more. It has to be intriguing…or I need to be in the mood. Otherwise, I send folks from the warehouse, or I reach out to scouts.

Time passed and emails were exchanged. I get a LOT of emails. I guess I wasn’t paying attention after the 4th or 5th exchange. I agreed to come out Tuesday, January 29th between 4:30 and 5:00. That got aborted when the nasty snowstorm became very likely. So much time had passed I asked if I could come out the next day. I feel guilty postponing appointments.

So, 3:45 Wednesday I headed north on US-15 in one of the Wonder vans. I really didn’t think weather would be an issue although the temperatures were dropping. The roads were clear…in Maryland.

Another reason I wanted to go was the location. I lived in a circa 1830 stone farmhouse on 7 acres just north of the Mason Dixon Line from 1980-1990. I loved it there. No lights. No neighbors… Both my sons were born in Gettysburg. Great times. Hard work and little money. Wonderful memories. I couldn’t bear to sell it until 2000! This house call was not far from Natural Dam Rd where that seminal home had been.

I’ve mentioned before that when too much time passes between the initiation of a book buy and its realization it often is a bad sign…

I lived in Pennsylvania for almost 30 years. I had forgotten they don’t treat the snowy roads the same as Maryland does. When I got off the highway and began following the “woman in my phone’s” directions, I was immediately on narrow two-lane roads. If the road was exposed to open land on either side, snow would have invariably blown over. I HATE driving an empty 2-wheel drive van over ice and snow!

Over hill, over dale, I drove “white knuckled” over white snowy trails…

The phone finally told me I was approaching and then that I had “arrived at the destination.” Of course it was a snowy farm lane. I backed in gingerly and only went as far as absolutely necessary. I HATE driving the van in snow!

When I got out, I saw an old hearse backed up to the side of an outbuilding.

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“This is not going to end well…” I thought.

“Te He”

Ah, my Book Muse.

“Here to tease?”

“I was nay payin’ attention. Sorry…”

“Wasted trip, I’m almost sure.”

“Perhaps ye should be payin’ more attention to yer correspondence…”

The seller came out to greet me. She was very pleasant! From where I’d parked, I had to cross some snowy lawn to get to the front door. I followed her inside. A little black and white pug immediately started yapping loudly and bouncing up and down like Tigger. Up a few steps and off to the right, I saw a pit bull lunging at a flimsy wooden gate across the kitchen door. A young teenage girl had hold of its collar with both hands. She was straining with an equal and opposite exertion to the dog’s.

The woman assured me the pit bull was not out for blood, “He’s friendly. I’m just afraid he would knock you down.”


The little bug-eyed pug was bouncing as high as it could against my legs.


To the left a living room opened up. Or it would of if it wasn’t filled with boxes and plastic tubs. A full third of the far end of the room was a solid mass of containers stacked atop a pool table. How many pool tables in the world are covered with “stuff”?


The pit bull behind and above me was scrabbling to escape. Its claws were clicking and scraping against the linoleum floor. Deep-throated “Woofs” escaped its lungs when there was a little slack of its restraining collar.

“The books are in these boxes.”

Each step I took towards them was accompanied by about 3 bounces against my legs and the frantic bug eyes appealing, yearning, aching for…what? Attention? Petting? No, I think it was just insane.


It was a sad little pile of boxes. Maybe 15 or 16. Some were UHaul boxes. Others were beer boxes. I was deflated. I could tell more than a few were only half full. I was expecting a “big collection.”

“WOOOOOFFFF.” Click, click, clickety, click, click, click. I looked back over my shoulder nervously.

I bent to open the top box nearest me, and the little bug-eyed monster began leaping toward my face. Its eyes were frantic and maniacal. Although it was small, its maw was a big gaping pink void relative to the size of its head.


The first box was modern stuff. A couple art books and beneath those trade paperbacks. The next box was a set 24 or so thin hardcover volumes of The History of the Second World War. Each book had the exact same titling on its spine. The only difference was a different number at the base.

Yawn…impossible to sell.

Many of the other boxes had kids books her children had outgrown.


It was hard to concentrate or converse with the incessant yapping and bouncing.

“Are these all of them?” I asked. Maybe there was disappointment in my voice. Maybe resignation.

“There are three boxes of DVDs and LPs over here.”

DVDs are getting harder and harder to sell. We get thousands every week. We even buy them by the ton from mega charities in the city. I peered into the top box. A couple dozen Baby Einstein DVDs looked back at me. Most of the rest of the box was kids stuff too. I didn’t even bother to look at the second box or the box of LPs at the bottom of the stack.


Bounce Bounce Bounce

“Wooofff!” Clickety click click.

“I thought there were going to be more books, and there would be some of your father’s collectible books,” I spoke over the din of the dogs.

“My last email said about 20 boxes.”

It was all very positive and polite. I wasn’t going to look at the email chain on my phone. The exchanges that had ended up with me standing here in the Pennsylvania countryside.

“Well, I can take them, but I can’t pay anything for them, I’m afraid. It took an hour to get here, and the trip will offset any value. Do you want me to start carrying them out?”

“Nothing? I was hoping for some offer.”

Did I vaguely remember “donation” in our emails? Or was I confusing this with someone else? It was not worth debating. I was very positive. In fact, I was more than willing to NOT carry 20 boxes out through the snow-covered lawn. I was wearing clogs after all. Brilliant.

“No. I’m sorry. It is no problem. I had a nice drive up here.” That last sentence was a lie.



The little demon dog was getting to me. But I stayed positive. I would have stuck the thing in another room if I had a maniacal mutt imposing on a visitor.

“My husband should be here any minute. Can I ask him?”

I recalled being told he was going to help me load all the many, many boxes per one of our exchanges.

“No problem.”

I really just wanted to leave. I started looking at my phone for messages and check our Instagram accounts. (#wonderbookandvideo, #booksbythefoot, #merryandpippinlotr)


He soon arrived, and she explained the situation. She told him, “I really don’t want them to go for nothing. We can take them to the auction with the rest of the stuff.”

So she really didn’t need him to make the decision after all…and did I not recall that there were illness problems that had prevented them bringing the books to us? (Where we WOULD pay something for all of them at any store every day of the week.)

“No problem. Good luck with them.”

“YAP! YAP YAP!” the hideous creature bounced up and down against me the whole way to the front door.

Outside I collected myself. I was completely fine going back empty. Maybe it was a teachable moment—but I really should be all taught up by this time. I walked across the snowy grass to the van. Fortunately, I had no problem driving out of the snow-covered driveway. I opted to take a longer route back. I went through the town of Gettysburg where the streets were not covered with snow.

All the way back, I had visions of the little monster, and its incessant yapping and bouncing. My blood pressure and stress level settled a bit with each mile traveled.

When I backed the van to the warehouse Dock #2, I was a bit relieved I came back empty.

I was working on this story on the big red sofa in my office on Thursday afternoon. Clif knocked on my door and said: “There’s a lady here with a truckload of books. She said she had been in touch with you.”


Is my memory failing?

“Oh, and all the books are loose in the truck. No boxes.”

“I’ll come look.”

At Dock #1, a 24 foot UHaul box truck was backed up. Indeed there were 2500-3000 books scattered loose on the truck’s floor!

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“Odd. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this before,” I thought.

I didn’t recognize the woman. I asked, “Can you remind me what we discussed?”

It turned out I hadn’t actually spoken with her. She had called our receptionist, Kelly. She had asked if we could give her boxes. I told Kelly to call her back and say she could pick up all she wanted. This was a week or more prior, so this visit was completely off my radar. She had never picked up any boxes. Obviously.

She explained she was moving out of state and wanted the books to have a good home. I peeked in the truck and they looked fine. Common modern stuff but most were in good condition.

“I can give you $200 for them.”

She agreed, and two guys set to loading the books into tubs. That was going to take a LONG time, and the temps were in single digits. I recruited two more guys to start packing in the middle of the truck to speed things up.

About 10 minutes later, one of them found me working on the warehouse floor. He had a half dozen books in his hands.

“Chuck, they are all from the Book Thing.”

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The “Book Thing” is an organization in Baltimore. They get donations of books, and those they don’t want to sell they stamp (brutally) “NOT FOR RESALE. This is a Free Book.” That defaces the book and makes it unsellable…forever. It is a “Forever Stamp.” We get them occasionally.

“All of them?” I asked.

“Every one I opened.”

I laughed. “Well, they are already paid for! Nothing we can do but keep unloading the sad skanky things. I NEVER would have thought that a whole truckload of decent looking books could be worth nothing. ZERO.”

There was no reason to bring it up with the woman. Intentional or not, it was a fait accompli. We just packed them and segregated the pallets until we could try to think of some use for them.

It is now Friday morning. I got up early to write some more of this. The temperature had risen a bit. It is in double digits this morning. 10 degrees. I arose to stoke the wood stove. A flock of about 20 Junkos as well as a couple dozen representatives of other assorted species were pecking away at the sunflower seeds and suet cakes I’d put out on the porch roof just below the bay window that looks out over the Frederick Valley and beyond.

I climbed back in bed and propped my laptop up against my knees and thought. Had everything been “zeros” this week?

On Wednesday, I had gone to tiny estate sale run by liquidators I’ve worked with before. They had texted pictures of some books. They were all pretty exotic books on tractors. The guy had been something of a hoarder I was told. Most of the books were in filing cabinets. Books generally don’t do well at sales and to pull them all out would clutter up all the bric-a-brac and “collectibles” and tools and stuff that does sell.

“Do you want me to come make an offer on all the books?”

It was brutally cold Wednesday. About 5 degrees and windy when I pulled up the driveway next to an old brick “Sears” house. The garage had almost as large a footprint as the house. I went in there, and the floor was packed with tables stacked with boxes and boxes of toy tractors.

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“Don’t touch the wood stove in the corner! We’re trying to get some heat in here.”

There were a few books set out here and there and a few plastic tubs stuffed with them on the floor. Three walls were lined with metal filing cabinets.

“All the drawers are full of books,” I was told.

I opened a few here and there. Really exotic treatises on tractor brands and factories and…”farmy” stuff. Many of the filing cabinets were blocked in by other stuff. Some of the drawers were either wedged shut or were so full I couldn’t pull them out.

“Let me show you the house. There are books everywhere.”

We started in the basement—actually the old guy had turned it into a den of sorts. Dingy-once-white 12″x12″ gypsum ceiling tiles. Lauan paneling. Shag carpet. Everything screamed 1960s to me. There were a couple bookcases. All the books were shelved butt end out so he could squeeze more books on each shelf. There were a lot of old 3 ring notebooks stacked on tables and shelves. Oddly there was a piano down there with a flat screen TV atop it.

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The notebooks all contained hundreds of photos he had taken…of tractors.

Upstairs there were more collections. Nutcrackers—the Christmas kind. “Aunt Jemima” figurines. Glassware…and books. All the books upstairs were boxed in tubs or boxes or baskets. I had zero idea what was in them, and I didn’t have the time or inclination to root through them.

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So, in the garage and throughout the house, I hadn’t inspected a fraction of what was there, but I had a feeling…

“I’ll give you $2000 for all the books and paper and notebooks.”


On Friday, it snowed all morning, but they wanted me to come get the books that were out in the open so others attending their tag sale wouldn’t try to buy any.

It was Payroll Friday, so Clif and Ernest were out on the road delivering empty vans and paychecks to the three brick and mortar stores. That meant I would have to go and pack and tote the books in the snow. I corralled a helper, and we went and packed and toted. The steps and the walks and driveways were slippery with slush and snow. Of course, I was wearing clogs. Brilliant.

But the books were great. Tractor aficionados around the world would want these—at hefty but fair prices online. I felt as though I was going to have every tractor book in the world!

AND we hadn’t even gotten into the filing cabinets. I had “zero” idea of what was behind drawer #1, #2, #14, #67, #124… I’ll find that out Monday when we return.

The toy tractors on the tables in the garage? Guys were buying them in stacks. Many were $30-75 each. Crazy.

We were loaded. The driveway was on a short but somewhat steep rise. I could just see the van sliding down and out on to the busy street. I asked my helper to go down and let me know when no traffic was coming. We got out, and here I am back at work. The Tractor King—at least the Tractor Book King.

Two more fun finds stand out from this miserably cold sloppy week. A regional bookseller has been selling us old leather and cloth—mostly junk books for our Books by the Foot division. He’s told me, “I used to throw all that stuff away.”

I get the books staged on carts, so I can total them up rapidly. I also look at each one quickly to see if it is possibly valuable in its own right. I’ve found a few sleepers that would have been tragically disposed of had I not caught. There was one sad battered small thin volume. Most of its spine was gone.

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I passed it over and moved on, but something drew me back to it. I slid it out and opened. Wonderful William Blake engravings opened before me.

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Why did I look inside that mangled tome? Maybe there was some divine inspiration? The book is not worth a lot of money but boy are the engravings beautiful! #bookrescue.

I’d let one of the senior sorters look at modern books the dealer had also dropped off. One was a common title about Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame. She had stuck a little white “Signed” slip in it. I assumed it was signed by the author—practically worthless. When I opened it, I saw names from my childhood. The book had been signed by baseball stars like Harmon Killebrew, Warren Spahn and Bobby Doerr—all Hall of Famers. My first Little League baseball mitt was a (used) Warren Spahn model.

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Not worth a lot of money. But worth a lot of memories. Another a good “catch.”


Over the past year, I’ve recorded a lot of my dreams as poems. This one is sort of “Bookish.” I hope you don’t mind. Feel free to skip it.

Mt 7/31/2018


I was among a group of a dozen young men and women
We were there to apply for a job
Waiting outside a vast warehouse
Each had an empty shopping cart
Each had their two hands upon the cart’s handlebar
A woman’s voice from inside said “You may enter”
Half of us moved toward the building
The others held back and then began to disperse
When we got to the door, it opened of its own accord
Those behind me stropped, but I rolled in
The space went as far as I could see
There were neatly stacked books on the floor
Knee high to hip high piles as far as I could see
I looked down at one
Three titles stacked next to one another
Each had a slip of paper indicating the number of copies in the pile
I walked until I found an escalator
It took me up to another vast level
This had furniture and building supplies and anything you could think of
And books. Miles and miles of books
I walked on and on
Wondering if I should take the job in the limitless books

5 Comments on Article

  1. Michael Dirda commented on

    I still can’t get over your astonishing combination of business acumen and poetic sensitivity.
    Every time I read about one of your visits to a house crammed with books in boxes or stacked on tables in basements and garages, I start to cringe. The public spaces of my house are fine, but the basement and attic are another matter. In fact, last week I decided I needed to cull my books by a third. We’ll see how this goes. . . .

    1. Chuck replied on

      Thank you so much Michael! I hope the “tractor pull” Monday turns out as well as I imagined. Good luck with the purge…start with baby steps 🙂
      Come visit. I have a few things set aside for you. Best,

  2. Debora Green commented on

    I suggest you get a small duffel bag and keep grown-up shoes in your vehicle.

    1. Chuck replied on

      Youre right. The grown up thing is the hard part.
      Clogs are for a heel spur I dont want surgery on…
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Chuck commented on

    You are right!
    The grown up thing is the hard part.
    Clogs are for a heel spur I’m reluctant to get surgery on…
    Thanks for reading and commenting!

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