My phone brought up this photo on its own volition. It wanted to remind me of my golf trip to Wales just a few years ago.
I’m not sure I like my phone prying into personal things, but I like the photo. I look so young, carefree and happy. I don’t look like that now. I blame COVID.
It is the earliest of morning on the first day of summer. Or is it the second? It changes every year. It is Tuesday, June 22nd today, that I know. It is just 1 a.m., and I awoke and picked up a volume of one of the best history series I’ve come across. I read the George MacDonald Fraser books when I was very young and learned more about the 19th century from them than out of the textbooks or “real” memoirs I’d studied in school. His writing is completely politically incorrect. His “hero” a total fraud and coward. But then the people in those times said and did things that would never be accepted today. History can be ugly. Its lessons good and bad should not be forgotten.
I had been such a history buff until that buffoon of a high school teacher slapped it out of me with the wooden yardstick he always wielded. I suppose there was some Freudian aspect to the big stick. Maybe it made him feel superior. Maybe it made up for some deficiency. He would ramble through the old classroom in Rockville and periodically bring it down on a formica desktop.
Sometimes it was to emphasize a point. Sometimes to terrify a student thought to be daydreaming or dozing. Sometimes it was just his swagger stick. An impotent symbol of power.
Why he disliked me, I don’t know. Maybe it was my bright-eyed idealism and passion for learning. I was starving to learn how we’d got to the 1970s from wherever his history lectures began.
He did impress on me the knowledge that horrid creatures can sometimes have power over you. It was a cautionary tale, and I avoided circumstances where I could be at the mercy of such a monster ever again. It has been a successful strategy…most of the time.
He was memorable though. I have never forgotten his inner and outer ugliness.
What got me up this night?
Pain and worry.
I’d some bad news at the eye doctor. I’ve never had any symptoms, but he cautioned me that things would need surgical attention eventually. Like my dentist, I hadn’t seen him since 2019. COVID. He seemed to have aged ten years since then. Maybe it was his mask. His office was very strict. (The day before the dentist office had been mask optional.) In the waiting room, I was seated in a corner 10 or more feet from the nearest other waitee.
“Mr. Roberts, please make sure you nose is completely covered,” a severe caution came from the sliding glass window frame the reception presided behind.
I pulled my mask up to my eyes. My reading glasses fogged up.
Soon I was led from little room to little room. Each with a different complex mechanical device. Some emitted bright flashes. Some showed rows of letters and numbers to read. The lines got smaller and smaller. Another took pictures of what’s inside my head. One had an image of a red balloon flying high in a sky. Faint dots of light appeared sporadically around the scene. My exposed eye was pressed against the lens. I was instructed to push a button for each light I saw. It was the ones I don’t see that counted against me. Was my peripheral vision okay? In another yellow dye was dropped into each eye. “It may burn a little. We’re dilating you.” Yet another room. “We’re going to measure your pressure. Look straight at the blue dot. Don’t move.” Another room. “The doctor will be in soon.”
“How was your year—the book business?” The doctor is short, tacit, professional. Exudes confidence and competence.
I told the short version of the downs and ups.
“Look left. Up. Down. Right. Now the other eye. Left. Up. Down. Right. “
He held a 3-inch crystal in one hand. Is it a prism to allow him to see inside my eye at oblique angles? Or is it some magic talisman to cure, diagnose and ward off evil spirits? I must ask him next time.
“Do your eyes bother you?”
“Your cataracts have worsened. Some day you may have trouble seeing to drive at night. Or you’ll find you need brighter light to read. We can take care of them then. But you don’t have ‘old person’s cataracts.’ I’ll see you in a year. We’ll test you in six months. Call us if anything changes. Good to see you.”
“It is good to see you.” And I meant it. Some experts you know they know what they are doing.
He shuffled slowly out of the room, barely raising his feet. His white coat, black-trousered lower legs, his very short now white hair with the mask straps pressing into his scalp—all disappeared around a corner.
I stepped out into impossibly bright sunshine. I was forced to squint my way to the car. I fumbled for sunglasses which I rarely wear. I waited as my comprehension adjusted to the dilation.
When I can see everything comfortably, I drove away with another mortal blow.
I blame COVID. At least I have a young person’s cataracts, whatever that means.
I’ve noticed many older friends and acquaintances have emerged—or are emerging—from the Plague in an oddly quiet contemplative way. Many look much older than they did before 2020.
Some walk around with distant looks in their eyes—like they are seeing something others don’t. Perhaps I do as well—look much older and have eyes focusing far away. I haven’t checked. I don’t want to know.
I went to a bar this afternoon. I wanted to avoid an office meeting about masks. They could do it without me. There were people I didn’t want to see this day. It was cool and dark. I had beer from Belgium. The European soccer championships were on TV. I was watching Finland versus Belgium on one TV and Russia versus Denmark on another. The vast green plain of grass in St. Petersburg was so far away but seemed so close. It was only a few feet away and above me.
There were a few older guys on stools.
“I’ve been retired twenty years.”
The young buck contractors would be in a little later. They start early and quit early.
One did limp in during my first beer. He was an old friend with the buxom bartender. She was concerned as only one still in love after many years can be.
“A lanyard fell on it. A hundred pounds. Busted three bones across the top of my foot.”
“Whatever am I going to do with you?!”
Every other step she flashed a bright eyed smile at him.
The rest of us were invisible. Ghosts.
I got up, walked to the end of the counter and pulled a short green “golf course” pencil from a short thick cocktail glass. They use them for betting games or dart or pool scores.
I was thinking of my buddy John Adams. He died suddenly last summer. Not COVID.
We’d often had beers over the decades in such places.
I began writing words on a napkin about him. And me. And the past. And the future.
It is a rough bar. Lots of pool tables. But very civilized and friendly.
The chef wandered out and filled his plastic cup from a hose dispenser where you can push one of 8 buttons and a different liquid will foam out of the same hole.
“You want a wedge salad?”
They know me there. I’d long ago asked if he could make me a wedge salad. It is not on the menu. He makes an excellent one. (And the best ribs.)
“Nah, too early for me. I’m just having a beer.”
“What are you writing?”
It is NOT the kind of place where I would answer honestly, “A poem.”
“Just some stuff about a buddy who died last summer.”
Adams. We’d talk about books all the time. He had to read them for his job as a national rep for Random House, Knopf, Penguin… I had to read them for my job.
But we both loved books and reading.
We loved the epic historical fiction of Hornblower and Patrick O’Brian and Flashman.
Thinking of him, with a Belgian beer before me and eastern European soccer above and the cool dark air enveloping me while the world outside sweltered in the 90s, got me a bit lachrymose.
But then, if you know me, a lot of things make me that way.
Still…I miss him. All the years we spent together—even though apart. And I’ll never hear him say, “Let’s get a cold one,” again.
I had a second one. This one a hazy IPA from New York where we’d both been born and grew up.
At home, Flashman is about to be swept up in the Battle of Little Big Horn. In the first part of the book, he’d been an accidental pioneer in one of the first caravans headed for California in 1849. He was also in the Charge of the Light Brigade. The Sepoy Mutiny. And…
I especially love the pages and pages of footnotes at the end which explain the historical facts and cite the sources in his fictional narrative.
Here’s what I scratched out on the napkin in the bar:
Tree green grass in Russia
So cool and distant
I am in summer in Maryland
Linked to that continent by satellite
Young men in bright uniforms
Sprint, leap, kick, crash and fall
A glowing golden beer from Belgium in Belles’ Bar
sets between me and the scene across the world
The big flat screen is hung high on the wall
above the bottles and taps, glasses and cocktail devices
It is Monday afternoon
There are 7 old guys spread along the rail
They sit in groups of two or three
Hands on their beers, they lean in and chat softly
The dark wooden bar construction juts into the room
It is like a proscenium stage
A couple of actors serve us drinks from within its border
The rest of the cast are seating long its outer perimeter
Our roles are as cast as well as audience
I am absorbed in the distant game above and before me
I sip the golden elixir slowly
Life around the world
We are live here
They are live there.
I wish I could talk to John
My beer and book and life buddy
“Let’s get another cold one!” he would say
Lively life and conversation would continue
Gone a Plague year ago
Is he somewhere cool and green?
We are both gone
I just have not left yet
‘I am a ghost too, buddy,’ I think to him.
‘Dead to almost all.’
I am alone, seated against the stage
Watching young men run, turn, slide, grapple and play
So alive thousands of miles away
So cool and dim in here.
Beyond the plate-glass windows the world bakes
“I’ve been retired 20 years,”
one guy says breaking the fourth wall
Those are his only lines
The drama in Europe plays out
It was a two-beer performance
I rise and head to the door
I step out and the heat beats me with physical force
Last weekend it was carts, carts, carts.
Having been away the week prior, they were very many. Very many waiting for my attention.
And so many books are flowing in. Good books. No one else is buying. The charity sales are still not accepting books. The bulk sellers—our competition—are refusing old books. They only want those with barcodes or ISBN numbers.
The family of the bookseller who flew from a cliff last October continues to bring his online inventory. The items are so problematic. Almost always in plastic tubs. Lots of foreign journals and unsaleable material. We are just tucking them back in to the far corner of the building.
Hundreds of tubs.
They dropped a load Friday and Saturday. I had Dylan—who is no longer a high school kid—cart them up for me. The family said they had been presorting them—”taking out the magazines.” I wanted to see these first hand. I would hate to tell them, “No more.” But then we can’t afford to store and become stuffed with and pay for things we will likely never get around to.
They weren’t great. They weren’t terrible. Just work. I am grinding away at barely profitable laborious books.
I won’t refuse further loads.
I also had Dylan cart up books from pallets loaded with “Wonder Vintage” boxes delivered from Capitol Hill Books. (They reopened June 1st! COVID…)
So, I created even more work for myself.
But it felt good to be in the trenches. It gets my mind off personal and business and other problems.
Come Sunday evening, the work looked like this.
I’d gone through books on most of those carts. I should try to count them. It feels like I set some kind of record.
And all those yellow tubs and boxes. I filled them all. Each labeled in my hand with a different price and destination.
I’d reviewed one cart of old books that someone else had processed. 5 or 6 jumped off into my hand.
‘Too good for Books by the Foot,’ I thought. I carried them into where Annika will work Monday.
“Do these first please,” read the note I left set into one.
It had been a long Saturday and Sunday. It is hard work—physically and mentally. But I enjoy it. It is my own one-man soccer match. I compete against myself. The books on the carts and in the tub are the scores. Thousands go to Books by the Foot. Thousands go to the stores or internet or to be researched.
I stepped out into the fenced dockyard to play with the dogs. Merry, Pippin and Giles. The former are my 10-year-old Jack Russells. Giles is a lanky Terrier mutt I babysat this weekend. He is quite goofy.
There’s a corpse of groundhog on the pavement. The destructive rodent is ugly in death. I tossed the body over the fence. Vultures will have it recycled in a few hours. I wonder how it got in. I’ll have to walk the perimeter of fence and check to see if a hole has been dug under it. Otherwise it is impenetrable. I’m not happy about it. Although the thing is vermin, it is nearly as big as the Jacks. But their breed has the instinct for quick kills bred into them.
When I returned from San Francisco, I went to water my porch plants brought outside in April and May when the freezes ended. I keep some in and atop wooden wine crates. When I got to the one with the Wandering Jew from Barbara atop it, I had to lift the hanging vines to get to the epiphyllum cuttings I bought through the mail in early spring. I sprung back as a little brown flutter burst past me. I looked into the box, and there were little piles of brown leaves in each corner.
Wren nests! Likely Carolina Wrens with the little white bars above their eyes. I love these tiny beauties. Usually two or three nest in the barn—in the woodpile or on a shelf next to tools I won’t be using until they are done breeding and fledging. I’ll have to be very careful watering the cacti. They seldom need water. I can just quietly slip the long narrow spout in at night every couple weeks.
The week flew by unexpectedly.
Clif was out on Tuesday. The warehouse loading dock was gridlocked with pallets of books and carts. We were unable to unload the vans. I put myself into my spatial Tetris mode and went looking for creative ways to get space somewhere. It was desperately needed. I had some helpers.
“You take these 7 and squeeze them down there.” “These can be stuffed into Emily’s sorting station. She’s on vacation this week.” “Take all the carts to far side of the building—I know we said we weren’t doing that anymore. But there’s more space there than here. The folks in shipping can barely move.” And on and on…looking for nooks and crannies to hold a pallet or ten.
It worked. I’m proud of that talent. I don’t think it would be of value in just about any other job.
Wednesday our contractor had a surprise opening and arrived at the Frederick store prior to opening. I let him in. We’re going to move whole rows of wooden bookcases. The videos no longer need excessively wide rows. In the old days, the aisles would be packed on Friday nights and weekends with people renting VHS and then DVD movies.
Thus began a day of banging and screwing.
It was a mess.
Fortunately, I didn’t need to be around for much of it. Unfortunately, I had an appointment with my lawyer. I like my lawyer. My dentist. My accountant. But I don’t like going to see them. It always hurts and is very expensive. It looks like we will reluctantly take this to trial. Groan.
Thursday I met with Clark and my son at the Frederick store. We had gained space for up to three new rows of bookcases.
Or…one row of LP flip bins and one row of cases.
We are going to put a row of glass cases down there. The collectibles in the Frederick store’s 50 or so cases are selling very well. They are the only books in any of the stores that are online. This is because we can control them under lock and key. Having them in the retail store means the public can come see them. And they do! And sometimes they buy them!
We sketched out various scenarios and agreed to mull them over for the best results.
Big changes are afoot at the venerable old bookshop. It has been there since 1990. From 1980 until we moved there in 1990, the bookshop was also on West Patrick St. At first in an 1800 square foot spot. Then to a 3500 square foot spot.
When I first stepped into this new and unfinished building, the words, “Wonder Land” spilled from my lips. It was an 11,000 square foot blank palette on which I could perhaps paint my masterpiece.
It is Friday morning. 69 inside. 62 out. Birds are singing and chirping and whistling and calling. The woodpeckers are rat-a-tat-tatting. The view out my bedroom window is gray, black and brown tree trunks, a vast green leaf canopy and bits of blue sky peeping through here and there.
I’ve got to get this off to my editor.
But first let me tell you about the books we rescued this week. Some were “re-rescued.” That is, they had nearly slipped through our net.
There was this big slipcased folio on Hiroshima.
Annika had found it to be quite unusual and pretty valuable. What bothered me was the long inscription in Japanese on the endpaper.
I sensed it could be important.
But we don’t have anyone with the talent to read it. Do we?
I asked Eric—a top manager who is evolving into an excellent bookman if he had any ideas.
“I can try.”
I’ve used the translating apps on my iPhone with very mix results. The words vibrate and shift and frequently change when the phone hovers above a printed Asian character.
He found it was an inscription from a survivor of the nuclear explosion.
It is a long inscription signed by foreword author Takeshi Araki on the front endpage. Araki was mayor of Hiroshima City from 1975 to 1991. He was also a hibakusha—a survivor of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
That gave this book an entirely new dimension. The book was a survivor signed by a survivor.
The books I’d plucked from the cart that were being relegated to Books by the Foot? A few were $30-45.
One was a George MacDonald first American edition. Not one of his fantasies, unfortunately. But still a nice find.
MacDonald is the trunk of the lineage tree from which many great authors are scions.
Take a look at this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_MacDonald. It is a literary Who’s Who.
Then there was this little red religious tract.
I think I found it on a “Chuck” cart. 99.9% of old religious books have no market. This one’s author had the letters D. D. after his name. “Doctor of Divinity.” Kiss of death. But under his name were the words Harper’s Ferry. And there was something else…
“Annika should see this.”
On Monday, I stopped by the lonely back room that is her domain. It is a quiet spot, and she just looks up information on books I send to her day after day.
“It’s a slave memoir, Chuck. And quite unusual.”
My Book Muse pulling my strings?
Searching WorldCat, there are mixed and confusing listings. There are a lot of 2012 reprints and digital copies. One listing shows just one holding of this 1922 edition at Howard University. Another shows there MAY be 17 copies of the first edition held at various institutions.
Via Libri appears to show only one copy on the market currently.
Another survivor written by a survivor.
And then I checked in on Madeline. She also does excellent research. Has for decades. She chooses the books that go on display in the Frederick store cases.
“Look at this.”
The prettiest copy I’ve ever seen of Roald Dahl’s first book. It is a Disney book of all things. Gremlins!
Thursday we also had an emergency order for a TV show or movie. Jessica was off, so I had to negotiate it with her assistant.
These orders have to be “just right.”
The set is a newsroom in 1992.
What kind of books would one find there?
dewey decimal system (maybe abridged versions?)
sears list of subject headings
library association directory of library books
old lexis/nexis computer manuals (doubt you have these, never hurts to ask)
thesaurus & dictionaries (if you had 15-20 of each that’d be amazing—don’t need to match)
various journalism books
investigative journalism books
photo journalism books
maybe some poetry & prose
handbooks and style books
They MUST ship today.
I grabbed tubs and a van and went to the Frederick store to pull 20 linear feet of what I deemed appropriate. I checked whenever necessary to be sure every book I pulled was pre-1992.
June is ending.
Month #2 of the 144 productive months I plan (and hope) to have left to me.
I think I’m off to a good start. Or is the beginning of a good finish?
Tonight I’ll reward myself with a Martini. Not this big, and certainly nowhere near the proportion of Vermouth Glenda Farrell is pouring.