Bookstore Dreams

Dr Dolittle Drawing

Last Friday’s story marked week #156. So this is the first story of my 4th year of stories. 3 X 52 = 156. Sadly, it is more of the same.

I feel trapped by the virus and upheaval. There’s nowhere to go. It’s been 5 months since the LA Bookfair.

I want to go somewhere! Somewhere NEW!

I realize how lucky I am that I CAN go to work. And that my job entails discovering new books every day. It also entails a good deal of grinding grunt work.

I’m getting tired of grinding and grunting 7 days a week.

Goes with the territory.

I worked all last weekend—mostly on carts of old and or problematic books set aside for my attention. I did make good progress, however. The “Chuck” cart census is way down. But there are still those in the middle of the building—taken away during the space making in spring for social distancing. They are hidden in a kind of corral. Surrounded by pallets with various types of books atop them. Some piled high with boxes. Some laden with books tossed loose into Gaylords.

But I know they are there. Nagging for my attention. They are the toughest of the tough. Many of them distilled to material I JUST HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO MARKET!

Some day…

By Sunday evening, I had created many yellow plastic tubs filled with books. Many of these I priced using my “little bookseller brain.” Sending them for the computer to price would not work on this kind of material. Sending that many to “Research” would add to the mountain of “to do” work in that room already.

So, I just “wing it.” But since I have handled millions and millions of books via not so little bookseller hands, and since I have seen millions of books sell at first in the brick and mortar store and now online—I feel my “gut” is pretty reliable. If I price them too low, there are never any complaints. If someone feels a price is too high, well, eventually it will be marked down…again and again and again until it finds its new owner.

I labeled every tub.

Labeled Tubs

I rolled cartloads of collectible books to the front end of Data Entry so senior catalogers would get to them right away. Most every book on those carts has a Post It on it with the price I’ve chosen and sometimes with notes that I feel the cataloger should be aware of.

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Sunday evening I met a friend, and we walked from Smoketown Brewery down the Carroll Creek Promenade to the Wine Kitchen.

(Sound familiar?)

Before the Plague, getting an outdoor table there overlooking the creek on a weekend evening would be very unlikely without a wait. This evening the outdoor seating area was only about a quarter full.

I had a Vesper*


* The drink was invented and named by Ian Fleming in the 1953 James Bond novel Casino Royale.

‘A dry martini,’ he said. ‘One. In a deep champagne goblet.’
‘Oui, monsieur.’
‘Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?’
‘Certainly monsieur.’ The barman seemed pleased with the idea.
‘Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,’ said Leiter.
Bond laughed. ‘When I’m… er… concentrating,’ he explained, ‘I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold, and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I think of a good name.’
Casino Royale, Chapter 7: Rouge et Noir

Fleming continues with Bond telling the barman, after taking a long sip, “Excellent… but if you can get a vodka made with grain instead of potatoes, you will find it still better,” and then adds in an aside, “Mais n’enculons pas des mouches” (English: “But let’s not bugger flies”—a vulgar French expression meaning “let’s not split hairs.”)

Bond in the next chapter, “Pink Lights and Champagne,” names it the Vesper. At the time of his first introduction to the beautiful Vesper Lynd, he asks her name in an interrogation indirecte, “I can’t drink the health of your new frock without knowing your Christian name.” He receives her name then enquires more from her with a look. “I was born in the evening, on a very stormy evening…” The idea strikes Bond her name is perfect for his recently invented special Martini and tells her his search for a name is over if Vesper will permit him her name for it.

A Vesper differs from Bond’s usual cocktail of choice, the martini, in that it uses both gin and vodka, Kina Lillet instead of the usual dry vermouth, and a lemon peel instead of an olive. Although there is a lot of discussion on the Vesper, it is only ordered by Bond once throughout Fleming’s novels—although Bond drinks the Vesper in the film Casino Royale—and by later books Bond is ordering regular vodka martinis, though he also drinks regular gin martinis. Felix Leiter ordered a Vesper for Bond in the novel Diamonds Are Forever, albeit with Cresta Blanca in place of Kina Lillet, which Bond politely remarks is the “Best Vermouth I ever tasted.” It may be that Fleming decided not to have Bond order a Vesper again due to the way in which Casino Royale ends.

In actuality, the book version of the Vesper was created by Fleming’s friend Ivar Bryce. In Bryce’s copy of Casino Royale Fleming inscribed “For Ivar, who mixed the first Vesper and said the good word.” In his book You Only Live Once, Bryce details that Fleming was first served a Vesper, a drink of a frozen rum concoction with fruit and herbs, at evening drinks by the butler of an elderly couple in Jamaica, the Duncans, the butler commenting, “‘Vespers’ are served.” Vespers or evensong is the sixth of the seven canonical hours of the divine office and are observed at sunset, the ‘violet hour,’ Bond’s later chosen hour of fame for his martini Vesper.

However, the cocktail has been misrecorded after mishearing the name in several instances, resulting in its being alternatively named ‘Vespa.’

My friend and I talked for a few hours about books, life, the Plague, the universe and…everything. I am not a “talker.”

I had a second Vesper, and then we headed further down to the city’s main drag—Market Street. Frederick is a very old city and has taken care of its historic district quite well. The old buildings—many are Georgian architecture—achieve the dual purpose of continuity with the past while being mostly occupied by upscale shops, restaurants and boutiques. This evening the city had a bit of ghost town feel to it. They have blocked off Market Street on weekends for a long stretch, so restaurants can seat people outside on the pavement.

There were not many people out eating or strolling. And it was a beautiful summer evening.

We stopped into the Tasting Room and asked to sit at the bar. Their bar is usually SRO. We were the only ones there.

I had a Negroni. My friend had something…weird with a funny name.

Negroni & More

Last week’s story had some very, very kind comments from readers both on the site and directly.

Some were concerned the troll I’d had the week before had actually hurt my feelings. I was pretending to be a snowflake. I guess I was a too subtle. That is a sign of poor writing on my part.

I actually felt sorry for that person. I got the impression she (?) “Jan Do”—Jane Doe? was young. She was chastising my knowledge of history but cited a pretty incompetent “Pop History” book as something I should read to gain a true understanding of American history.

My guess is the person had been taught using that book.

There’s a severe problem in education today, I believe. It seems to be way out of balance. Skewed.

If the last and current generations are getting taught “facts” from stuff like that—and there’s no counter balance…well, that may explain a lot of things.

I partly addressed that last week. “Read uncomfortable books.” Read the books your teachers tell you not to read. Watch and read news from sources that you’re sure you will disagree with. At least you will learn what the “other side” is up to.

But thank you, readers, for your concern and your kind words.

It means a lot when I hear from anyone reading these.

Otherwise, I am just writing in a vacuum.


Sometimes I record dreams. I must do this soon after I become conscious. If I wait til morning, the dream is invariably gone to wherever dreams go. Odd, they don’t stay as retrievable memories. This one below I can see vividly right now only because I wrote it down in the wee hours of July 13th. I felt I was really visiting these long ago bookstores. When I record them, these dreams always come out as “verse” (if you can call it that) scratched out on legal pads kept near the bed. If you care to read it, ignore the “lines” and just read it as a story.

It is not a “po—em.”

Bookstore Dream

At an old strip mall in the 80s
Dusk’s light shows the dust
upon the plate-glass windows
Two steps up and in
through an aluminum-framed glass door
Crowded shelves crowd about me
They rise high to the drop ceiling
Stained 2 by 4 acoustic tiles
Tired four bulb fluorescent fixtures
flicker and buzz dull gray light
Old technology even then
A friend is behind his counter
Set on a stool behind stacked books
he has just pencil priced
Dark red buckram spines
with yellowed paper labels
He is as he was then
I am as I am now
We chat as I shop
Drawing books out
Sliding them back in
New Hampshire Avenue
a mile or three from the Beltway
I ask him to inscribe a book
He pencils his name and regards
onto a toned flyleaf
A memento mori

Then I’m miles away
in Silver Spring or old Bethesda
Down eight steps
Black painted iron pipe railings
The wooden door is half glazed
He sees me descending
and buzzes me in
A few more steps down
and through the door
A few more steps down
to his ground floor
I cross to his counter
He is standing
books piled high before him
His ginger beard is closely cropped
We greet one another
His better books are shelved behind him
I strain just a bit to read their spines
A voice behind and above me speaks
It’s! …
Standing at a railing a few feet above me
(I can’t remember his name even then)
He’s a fixture in the regional trade
A collector who sells sometimes
Usually an unwanted dupe
when he’s acquired a better copy
Black trousers, black suspenders over a maroon shirt
I turn and go to him
“How are you?!”
I reach to shake his hand
but pull back and we air bump elbows
in the Covid Era touchless manner

Then I’m sitting in the tiny yard
out behind the shop
I’m on a backless bench
leaning against a wooden stockade fence
His wife puts her head on my shoulder
in sadness and weariness
There’s an unforeseen future ahead
A few biker friends emerge
one at a time from the shop
They pass us and disappear
back behind the fence
They smoke and drink and mumble softly
We talk about him and his many troubles
He joins us in the dark
I tell him I was just at…
I can’t remember that shop’s name
nor the owner’s
They fill those in to our conversation
Pale yellow incandescent light
glows softly through the back door
The barred window is mostly blocked
by books stacked on the sill inside

We are back inside at the counter
The stack I’ve chosen is before me
I ask them to inscribe a book for me
I don’t watch them write
I’m reading the titles over their shoulders
on those better books behind them
We go up to the street
Two winos shuffle by in shapeless clothes
We talk under a street light
Darkness everywhere in a radius
just a few feet away
in every direction
I consider painting “Bookstore”
on the street pavement before us
A dedication and advertisement
Something all should see
A message
It will be a complex trip home
A bus downtown and a cab from there
They turn and tread down the steps
I see the counter and books beyond them
through the glass and across the little room
On the bus I look at the book I took
His inscription is wordy
centered on the endpaper
Hers tiny near the edge
Two words and her first name
Mementos mori [sic]

I’m sure the images are an amalgam of stores I used to visit in the old days—pre internet—when there were well over 100 in the DC Metro region. Almost all are gone now. The few that remain have adapted to the new marketplace. The dream was a kind of time travel. Only somehow I knew what I know now when I visited my “friends'” stores. I knew their days were numbered.

Tuesday. July 14th.

My birthday!

I sure don’t look forward to them anymore. At all.

The day before I had stopped at a big box store looking to buy some hostas for the new garden beds I am putting in.

The plants were sad. Half dead. Or all dead.

Dead Plants

Worst of all, these shopworn things were not discounted. If they had been, I would have bought and revived them. I can deal with a plant being in bad shape. I’m confident I can nurse it back so that next year it will be a proud specimen.

Quite early on my birthday morning, the memory of a hosta specialty nursery about an hour north in Pennsylvania crept into my mind. I vaguely recalled seeing roadside signs for it on US 15. I googled it in bed and decided I would make an expedition as a birthday treat.

Hosta Hideaway.

I went to work for a couple hours and then headed north. Up 15 along the Catoctin mountain ridge. Past Camp David (which is hidden on the mountain ridge), past the Catholic Shrine to Mother Seton and the Grotto of Lourdes, across the Mason Dixon Line, past the numerous Gettysburg battlefield exits until the phone told me I should exit.

I had no idea what to expect. When I got to Sequoia Court and turned onto it, I was disappointed. It was a 1960s tract development residential street much like where I grew up in Rockville—on 4700 Levada Terrace.

Hosta Hideaway

This would be someone’s yard?

But I pulled in the driveway and parked on what had once been the front lawn.

The front yard was covered with mesh-framed enclosures to keep the direct sunlight off the shade-loving hostas. There WERE a lot of them. The wife-and-husband team oriented and showed me how the plants were priced. (According to size of the pot they were growing in primarily.)

“Put the ones you want on the tables,” I was instructed. “There are more around back.”

Boy were there!

A thousand plants. 2? 3? …

400 varieties?

The backyard was maybe an acre descending downhill toward woodland.

It was like a grotto. There was a European feel to it. Rainforest as well.

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Paths wended their way through dozens and dozens of hosta varieties.

Like Mr Toad in The Wind in the Willows, I lost all control. If my eyes were spinning, the owners didn’t say anything about it.

Hostas come in so many varieties. Here they were labeled with (sometimes) romantic names to add to their allure. Also, the plants were labeled for their ultimate size. Miniature, Medium, Large and Giant.

Hostas can get up to four feet or higher and ten feet in diameter.

Of course I had to take a Robert Frost.

Robert Frost Hosta

My plants were loaded onto an ATV from the various spots where I had chosen them and brought up to the parking area.

They seemed quite happy with the unexpected Tuesday windfall.

I was a bit embarrassed.

I had chosen about 30 plants?! Miniatures to Giants!

Chuck's Many Hostas

I’d brought tubs in case I got lucky, and I was soon loaded and on my way south to Maryland. I stopped at home after bumping up the mountain. I set them on the driveway. I didn’t want them stifling in the SUV.

Then I bumped down in my pickup to load up on bagged soil and compost.

Soil and Compost

My Fang Garden turned out pretty well.

Fang Garden Before
Fang Garden During
Fang Garden Completed

Next year it should fill out nicely.

And these beds are incredibly low maintenance up there.

The other bed I am working on is below my bedroom window. There’s another established bed above it, and it is a pleasure to look out upon it in the morning.

Hosta View

OH! I bought this life-size stone fox as well. I’m not sure where he will stand yet. He is pretty intimidating. I hope helps scare the deer away.

Stone Fox

Actually, I don’t get deer close to the house, though the woods are loaded with them. I think the presence of Merry and Pippin in their outdoor chalet helps—as does their scent deposits around the yard.

That night the family came to Frederick, and we dined outdoors at Monocacy Crossing. It’s a lovely rustic “inn” type place in the woods not far from the Monocacy River.

Yes. I had a Vesper. Maybe two.


Just like almost all booksellers, remainder houses sometimes run out of room. Fortunately, the system we have developed at Wonder Book usually has us in a kind of equilibrium. We rarely get so full that we need to make tough decisions about books to make space. This is especially important here as there are rarely outlets for anything we might want to part with in bulk.

For many of the books that come here, we are the last resort. If we can’t do anything with them, the next stop is the “Farm.”*

* Oblivion. I don’t know about your parents, but when it came time to put down a pet, I was told the animal was being taken to a “Farm.”

So, periodically we get emails from the remaining remainder companies:

“Can we send you some samples?”

Unless space or money is tight, we say yes, and soon a box or 30 arrive. We ask them to send hardcovers that will mostly go to Books by the Foot to help supplement the used books that get #BookRescued by that program. We are most interested in certain spine colors that because of supply and demand we sometimes run low on. But we will look at most colors as long as the book is “politically correct.” Many of these books go into public spaces and our clients don’t want a hot button title to set someone off and generate a complaint. We also solicit remainders of art, architecture and design titles. We frequently get requests for those subjects and sometimes run low on our internally generated supply.

Recently an old friend who runs a large academic remainder company sent us a lot of samples. A LOT! Maybe a thousand.

As we always do, the books are staged on rolling carts. Jessica scans the books. She puts the ones she wants most on a different cart. A list of those books is generated from the invoice that came with the order. That list includes the number of copies of each book the sender has left. If the quantity is manageable, we will make a bid on all of them. This is to help them because at this point they want ALL of that title to disappear from their warehouse. That will free a spot up for fresh stock. That quantity can be less than a hundred, sometimes just a handful, or thousands. I mark prices next to each title on the list showing how much we are willing to offer. The price reflects the desirability of the color mostly. Sometimes thickness is a consideration. After all, we do sell “by the foot.” A book that is only an inch thick is worth far less that a fat 3 inch biography!

Bid Carts


What about the books Jessica rejects? I give those books a cursory look. Usually it is readily apparent why she passed on a title. Sometimes I’ll ask. It may take a few seconds, but she will soon flip the book open to a provocative image or words.


What happens to the books we pass on? I suspect they are eventually sent to the “Farm.” Many deserve it. No one cares about a Bush or Clinton or Obama era scandal that was published 10 or 20 years ago. They are not so much history as yesterday’s tabloid “news.”

Occasionally, I’ll pull out a title or 10 and try to order a lesser quantity for online and store stock.

This current crop of rejects is especially troubling. My friend sent me some great books that were not appropriate for interior design purposes. I’ve walked past the two carts of rejects for over a week now. Each time I steal a glance and consider: “Should I look more closely?”

Reject Carts

Here’s a run of titles by an excellent publishing house on esoteric medieval subjects. Will these go to the “Farm” if we don’t buy them?

Medieval Titles

Wonder Book can sell one copy of virtually anything. We can move 10 copies of most things. But selling a hundred or a thousand copies of some obscure history or biography…I have been stuck with too much of a good thing too often in the past.

What will I do?

I’m thinking of generating a second order. 10s and 20s of things I feel would do ok online or help fill chronic gaps in the stores.

It is likely a folly. Work and books we don’t “need.” I don’t need.

But the orphan titles we are rejecting call to me each time I pass them. I will likely go through those carts this weekend and select some of these as a kind of “forlorn hope.”


Somebody somewhere wants them. It is our job to get them on the worldwide web and market them so those niche buyers can find them.

Yep. I’ll be ordering, er…bidding on books this weekend.

My friend Alan James Robinson sent the original Borges artwork this week.

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I love it. One of his best ever, I think.

I’m proud to say much of the design concept is mine.

Those books extending into infinity, for example. The Universal Library.

I’m sending it back to tweak a bit so those shapes look a little more bookish.

Paper Life

It is a paper life
Pages, leaves stacked neatly
Cut to uniform sizes
That is the text block
Bound together with thread or glue
It will be covered in cloth or leather
Or simply wrapped in heavier paper
One edge fixed together
Three sides loose
Free to turn, fan or flip
A simple machine
Technologically virtually unchanged
for a millennium
Instantly recognizable
to a time traveler from Beowulf’s time:
“That is a book.”
Once put together
the words are immutable
Its story cannot change
Given modest protection
it will last forever
(or as forever as we can comprehend)
Enduring. Abiding. Waiting.
to be picked up
Cradled in hands unchanged since…forever
Opened so it can mutely speak
to eyes unchanged since…
Fragile to fire flood riot
Powerful enough to change a life
or a culture
or a world
Gentle enough to subtly caress
and salve a troubled mind
It has been a paper life.

We sent out the food we’d collected for charity. Over 800 pounds. Not bad considering the stores are still a little slow.

I put an order in for fall bulbs from Van Engelen/Scheepers. Over 1400 of them coming. And I may order more. If you like spring bulks, order the Pheasant’s Eye Daffodils. They are the latest blooming I have found. And the Dogtooth Violet (or Trout Lily / Erythronium Pagoda.) They are easy and delightful. And Drumstick Allium. And…

No real exciting finds dropped in this week. But then I haven’t spent much time looking at books during my birthday week.

I’ve been tied up. Busy doing business things.

But here’s an original Hugh Lofting Dr Doolittle drawing. I had it framed and will be hung this weekend.

Dr Dolittle Drawing

5 Comments on Article

  1. Tawn O'Connor commented on

    Re “Run of titles” photo–please not the farm! Someone must make a movie about a professor of medieval literature who is gifted in languages, codebreaking, and the significance of symbols (thus Shakespeare’s Play within Play). He’s called out of a comfortable academic post to assist with exfiltration of an asset in, say, Turkey or another problematic country. This is his office bookshelf.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Run of titles? Email me . I’m not sure what you mean!
      Does that story have anything to do w Dante?


    2. Charles Roberts replied on

      Ahhh, I see now. And I only write it a couple days ago.
      We ordered 400-500 hundred titles?
      A handful to 2000 copies each.
      Some will get to the stores.
      Maybe 100,000 ? books.
      We couldn’t take the rest in in.
      They couldn’t help Wonder Book or Books By the Foot I’m afraid.
      We will likely get the scholarly Medieval things to the stores – but some are ERTEME niche books!


  2. Rick Banning commented on

    Chuck, down 8 steps in Bethesda? Was that the basement bookstore on Woodmont? Just south of NIH? When they went out of business (sigh), I bought a huge, very colorful Soviet (North) Polar Atlas. Later got one page photocopied onto cloth and made a doll for a Teesha Moore art project out in the Seattle area. Didn’t matter that I don’t read Russian. The doll didn’t either. Possible art project: a book listing dc area bookstores, with a song or drawing for each one. Though come to think of it, Gibbs Smith did a version of that a few years ago, for the U.S. Paintings of the front of each store. Politics and Prose was one. But he had to skip many stores. Though more likely he only painted those he had a liking for. Rick Banning

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Hi Rick,
      I can’t place either of the dream stores exactly. The strip mall type like the first one was rather common especially in the suburbs.
      The other was in an old building so likely a city place. Maybe Adams Morgan. Maybe the one you mention.
      Wonder Book has always been “too far out” to be on some lists. But that’s fine. I’ve written a couple stories on DC region stores and should do more.
      I’ve posted images of the WABA directories w 100 or more member stores.
      Hey, that first store could be a bit of Andy Moursand’s Georgetown Books final location!
      We had a LOT of those atlases when we cleaned out Kamkin’s ! (There are 2 Kamkin stories I think.)
      Thanks for reading and writing!

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