Borrowed Time—Journal of a Plague Year, Part 17

Dolls in Store

Last week’s story related a feeling of my book life being trapped in Maryland. That hasn’t changed.

I am still trapped. Many of us all over the country trapped.

I dare not go anywhere outside Maryland for fear of being trapped there by a sudden quarantine decision or if whatever destination I choose gets on Maryland’s “Hotspot List” and I’m required to self quarantine upon return.

“Hotspot” used mean good things for many destinations.

I look at my beloved Manhattan. How could they have possibly allowed this to happen to such a marvelous human achievement? When will I ever go there again?

I began the story of our new doll collection at Wonder Book but was too rushed to finish.

It all started before COVID-19.

I am trying to diversify what we offer for sale in the stores. Don’t get me wrong, we are still and always will be a bookstore! However, some of our other lines have slowed. We started renting videos in 1983, I think. I did this mostly because other video stores weren’t getting the movies I wanted to see. Things like Ingmar Bergman and Dr. Strangelove and the Marx Brothers…

So, selfishly I began acquiring videos that were not “Blockbusters” to rent. Wonder Book became Wonder Book & Video…

It worked out ok. For long periods, the video rentals were so strong they helped subsidize the book sales and permitted Wonder Book to grow even if the books were going through a less than profitable spell. But now after all these years, rentals have slowed.

There’s a regional firm that does estate clearances. I’ve mentioned them in other stories in the past. They don’t get a lot of good book estates. I believe this is because most estates don’t have many or sometimes any books.

But one of the nicest collections in years came from them. The Ashburn collection. Unfortunately, we haven’t sold a single one yet. They are still boxed. “Airing out” until the odor of mothballs has completely dissipated. They’re just about ready. Last time I put my nose in one of those boxes, the smell was 90% “Old Book Smell.”

I know they often have many things left after their online and tag sale at the home has ended.

“What do you do with the leftovers?”

“We donate them to Goodwill and dump some of it.”

“What if I came at the end of the sale and made an offer on what was left?”

(I am such a junker some times. But I do often have good instincts.)

I sort of made a deal to come look at the remnants of an estate in early February, I think. But something kept me back.

COVID-19 hit, and the notion was pushed from my mind.

They were actually shut down for quite a while, I think. But their sale announcement dropped into my email a few weeks ago, and I reached out.

I had looked at the images of things they had. There were books, but they looked like mostly modern mass market mysteries. There was lots of other stuff.

Why not?

I was getting claustrophobic spending every day in the warehouse.

EVERY DAY…since March “something” and maybe even before. The last months are a blur.

The sale was going to end at 2 pm July 19th. At that point, they lock up the house and leave.

“Come by about 1:30 and see if you want anything,” I was told.

That was a Sunday. It felt good to escape the warehouse weekend drudgery. A friend joined me, and we drove out into the middle of nowhere northeast of Frederick.

It was a nondescript clapboard house. I’ve visited so many like it. It had clearly been neglected. Most likely by an elderly person who could no longer keep up with things. The foundation landscaping was overgrown—bushes covered the windows in many places. A rotting wooden ramp allowed handicapped access to the front door.


There was a massive pile of filled lawn bags piled up outside the garage on the ground. Clothes, I think, from the shapes.

‘Hoarder,’ I thought.

We masked up and went in the front door. There were tables set up in the front room—the living room. Bric-à-brac was piled atop it. I greeted my friends and went exploring. I knew there were a lot of dolls from the online gallery.

I stepped into a spare bedroom—or what had once been a bedroom. Hoarders tend to pile stuff on flat surfaces with good intentions of “getting it organized.” The nice old double bed with the turned wooden headboard and footboard was piled high with bolts of cloth and bags of ribbon and skeins of yarn. Crafty stuff. I turned to look around the room and the large shelved closet was loaded with bodies and body parts.

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Dolls have always creeped me out. Especially the one with lifelike eyes. They are often more like deathlike eyes. It was all very Ray Bradbury-esque. Like being in a funhouse which is not at all fun.

Room to room. Hoard to hoard.

There were lots of books. It was impossible to estimate how many. Some were in plastic tubs in closets. Others haphazardly stuck on shelves. Boxes. Piles. Caches…

But, for once, I wasn’t there for the books. I was there for diversity. Stuff.

It is hard to imagine what it was like before the trash and old clothes and unsellable stuff was removed. I was wandering through after 4 days of online sales and who knows how many pickers coming through, reducing the number of “things” to the state I was here inspecting.

There was still lots. LOTS.

I pulled a figure out of my head. They countered. I agreed.

“Can I take some things today?”

“Sure. The sale is over.”

I headed back into the various rooms. I saw them negotiating with the cleanup guy, the guy with a big truck who will gut the place so it can be prepped for sale.

I began setting things in tubs and boxes. My friend saw some things she wanted or thought were special enough to warrant first attention for the stores. Some nice Notre Dame (Paris) cast iron bookends, for example. And other bookends. Have I ever mentioned I collect bookends?

Monday morning, I surprised the crew by announcing we were going out on a house call first thing.

The Monday routine usually involves getting the vans ready to make deliveries and swap out at least one full van from each of the three stores.

“How many boxes?”

“Not many. Maybe 50. But bring a hundred tubs.”


We don’t use tubs for books.

Soon our little convoy of two big vans and my Ford Expedition were heading north and east into a part of Maryland that is still mostly farmland dotted with small tracts of older homes built in the Baby Boom after World War II.

Once there, I guided one van to back up the slope on the front yard as close to the front door as possible.

I was given the code to the lockbox on the front door, giving me access to the key.

Once inside, we toured the house as a group getting an overview.

“Pack anything you think we can sell,” I instructed them. “Especially the dolls.”

A couple hours later, the two vans were filled, as was my SUV. I’d asked two of them to retrieve the old concrete Madonna in the back yard. I think she was overseeing a pet graveyard, although any remnants of memorials to cats or dogs were long grown over or worn away.

“Be careful. She’s over 100 pounds. If she falls off the cart, she’ll likely lose her head.”


She is well made. The years outdoors have been kind to her. She has a lovely patina. I’ll find a place in the woods where she can watch over me. There’s no downside if it doesn’t work. I’ll take any help I can.

So much of the stuff was fragile—glass, framed stuff, ceramics… I didn’t want it handled at the warehouse. Plus, we sure didn’t need the extra work there.

That’s why we brought so many big plastic tubs. They will hold anything. It’s easy to protect any contents with clothes or towels or…anything cloth laying about.

“Take it right to the Frederick store. They can price and distribute it to the other stores from there.”

For I hadn’t seen anything extraordinary, and our cost per item was minimal—outside of labor.

And I had quickly decided that any profits would be fine, but I really wanted was to dress up the stores.

During the COVID shutdown (2 months at the Frederick and Hagerstown retail stores, 3 in Gaithersburg), skeleton crews had been doing maintenance. While not everything was finished before the surprise openings, they all had been heavily culled and a lot of interior decorating upgrades achieved.

“Send me pictures of anything you need help pricing otherwise…have fun!”

Kurt has been doing a masterful job creating effective displays of things we always had trouble with at the stores. Now the walls are covered with maps and posters and bagged ephemera.

Gaithersburg has become a jewel. Vanessa has dressed the place up and addressed the staff when books are found to be misshelved.

Now the stores have a new layer of things to look at if not to buy. I am a book purist, but I also know people like to go places with eye candy—things to remark upon—positively or negatively—it doesn’t matter. If they come, there’s at least a chance they will discover something. Hopefully return. Even more hopefully tell others about this cool throwback bookshop with LPs, DVDs, prints, maps…stuff.

What’s different now is that they are all being watched. Hundreds of doll eyes are upon them in many parts of each shop.

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Sometime soon I’ll go in after closing and see if it creeps me out. If being in a mostly darkened Wonder Book takes me back to the “Dark Carnival” of Bradbury and the others.

Who knows, maybe we will offer after hour tours. Let me know if you want one.

You’ll have to sign a disclaimer. I don’t want to be sued if you’re scared to death.

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Right now after hours, it’s all mine.



What happened in the last week?

A blur.

I awoke last Saturday morning after a night out dining and cocktailing alfresco with a friend. (Is eating at a table on a sidewalk or on the street’s pavement considered “alfresco”?)


My right knee was killing me! I had a twinge a week or so earlier when I slid down a slope with my chainsaw while cutting brush, but it had been fine.

I’ve had a heel spur on my left ankle for years. Sometimes it flairs up and hurts like hell.

So now both legs are sore. I feel suddenly old…

I’ve been to various doctors about the heel, and the procedure is daunting for the tiny affliction. The best foot and ankle surgeon in Maryland inspected it and its X-rays. He began drawing on the white paper on the examining table I was seated upon. He had a German accent:

“First vee saw your heel in half. Zen vee cut a slice of bone from it. Vee screw your heel back together…90% success rate!”

My eyes rolled back in my head.

‘It doesn’t hurt that bad!’ I thought.

Others I’ve been to want to detach the Achilles tendon to get at the tiny spur. The recovery time is lengthy. I love walking, and my “Achilles Heel” has been a painful annoyance but has never held me back.

Now, there’s no travel in my future. I do have a ticket to Venice at the end of August. I’m 99% sure I won’t go or won’t be allowed to return if I do go.

Maybe it is time to bite the bullet and get my heel fixed.

It would be nice to wear real shoes all the time instead of the Danish clogs I am usually shod with now.

But then there’s the Plague hovering. Or is it?

Do I want to go in for a “procedure” in this situation?

Here’s a Google search for COVID-19 deaths.

Wow! New York is a killer state! What happened there?

Here’s a chart by age.

Provisional Death Counts

I’m somewhere in the middle. Scroll across and you can see the weekly death counts.

Hmmmm… flatlining for many. Still, I don’t want to get on a plane. And I’ll mask up. I’ll comply with the doctors and governors.

The Doctor is now saying goggles might be a new accouterment?! When I see him wearing a mask and goggles at a Nats game… If he gets much more media pandering, I’m gonna start calling him Doc Hollywood.

So my weekend was spent in the warehouse in pain.

When we moved in 6 years ago now, there were many, many pallets of odd stuff we brought with us. There are still many. In the southeast corner of the loading dock is a kind of dead zone space. During the darkest part of the COVID shutdown when I became the “New Record Guy” because the old record guy felt he should stay away, that corner got exposed. I’d instructed someone here to break down all those pallets and spread the boxes out, so I’d be forced to get into them. We now actually have space in the building to do such things.

The stuff was on the floor, so I got a stool and limped over there and started rooting. It became apparent why this stuff had been put aside. There were a couple boxes of old family stuff. One contained a lot of copper plates used for printing images from some of my dad’s medical journal work 70 years ago! Junk really but… Well, I have a little secret storeroom here for family archives.

I also came across this:

Transistor Radio

This little radio was so important to me as a child. During the day, I could carry it anywhere and listen to songs on WKBW Buffalo. The new Beatles or Herman’s Hermits or Rolling Stones song would be debuted there. Then I would head down to Main Street in Amherst to the Kresge’s in the strip mall. I’d use my allowance to buy as many 45 rpm records in their paper sleeves as I could. At night, I’d often have the radio in bed with me. I’d turn the dial and stations might fade in from Canada or New York City. Sometimes I’d hear Major League Baseball games from exotic places like Cleveland or Pittsburgh. Then atmospheric things would break that station up, and I’d be saddened. I always wanted to go to a pro game, but there was nothing close to Buffalo. I’d have to wait til I was a teenager living in Rockville before I went to my first game. It was at RFK. It was the All Star Game, of all things. A friend’s dad took me. My dad was never interested…

Two boxes were marked “Manuscripts.” I opened them and discovered about a thousand mostly Scottish legal documents from the late 1700s to the early 1800s.

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I had no recollection at all when or where I got them. I imagine in the 90s. They are a beautiful—the vintage paper and gorgeous handwriting by long dead clerks…

I still don’t know what to do with those. I repacked and moved them to a safe place.


But after much struggle, that corner is clear!

Cleared Corner


Baby steps…

We all live on borrowed time.

When I was seven, I dragged myself home with a terrible stomachache. My dad was home—which was unusual. He was a researcher. MD PhD. He was always at the “Lab.” As I lay moaning on the couch, too sick to even pay attention to TV, he bent and gently pressed his fingers into my belly to the right and just below my navel.

My knees shot backward as my body doubled up in pain.


I was soon at the hospital. I recall a black mask being put over my mouth.

“Count to ten.”

Lucky dad was home. Lucky surgery and antibiotics had advanced…

When I was 12 or so, we moved to Baltimore. The VA hospital where my dad was Medical Director was on a peninsula. Outside the gates were all Sparrows Point steelworkers’ homes. I met some kids, and we got the bright idea to cross an inlet that was iced over. Bay water is very salty and doesn’t freeze often. As we got further and further out, the ice beneath began moving. I think salty ice is not so brittle and is actually a bit flexible. We’d hear cracks. Water would seep up to our feet, but we kept going. Certain death if we fell through. There was nothing but trees on either side of the water. Something kept us from falling through.

Maybe guardian angels…maybe just luck.

I have had to water the new garden beds I’ve put in this summer every day. The first month of summer here was over 90 degrees with no rain almost every day.

I have numerous things to do each morning before I can head down the mountain to work.

The journal. The dogs. Coffee. News. Emails. Instagram. Shower and shave…

The watering of the widely separated beds was at first via watering cans. As the hot dry days dragged on, that grew tedious. I dragged out the hoses which I’ve seldom used over the years.

It was so hot and dry even in the mornings that I discovered the timesaving shortcut of air-drying after showering. I’d wrap a towel around and slip on my clogs and go out to water.

Last Tuesday morning, my right knee was aching. My left heel stung. I was sure I was falling apart. Depressing. Other things more personal were weighing on me as well. Depressing. So, I was a bit disengaged as I sprayed the beds. I took a step and felt I had trod on the hose. But the hose moved under my foot.

I looked down and saw bright gold, tan, brown in a checked pattern. I was standing on a rattlesnake. I leapt back off of it. It acted unperturbed and slithered off into the woods.

I’ve lived there 10 summers now. I see a rattler or a copperhead maybe once a year. I wear boots if I go into brush or weeds. I ALWAYS look where I step in warm weather.

I…I…was in shock. Why did the serpent not strike? I had certainly stepped on the beast. My life could have changed in that instant. The hospital. Secondary complications. Infection from sick people at the hospital…

All day long and often each day since then, my head has been in two places. Over and over the scene of death beneath my feet replayed in my mind.

I ALWAYS look where I step. The snakes I’ve seen over the years were never close enough to strike. In fact, I would approach and inspect them with a shovel in hand to turn them away if they moved toward me.

I ALWAYS look…

The days since Tuesday morning have been a gift. My knee still aches a lot, but it’s getting a little better. I might go to a doctor next week. But I dread the thought of that interaction.

Interaction…with disaster and perhaps doom…

Borrowed time…

Discovery and Mystery

I found another Alice book signed by Alice!

I now have Through the Looking Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland signed by Alice Hargreaves in her later years. Touching that page, I am one step from Lewis Carroll. I wonder if she wondered what all the fuss was about. She’d been a child when the funny man befriended her. He’d wanted to marry her when she was 11 or 12. Not so unusual in those early Victorian times.

Certainly weird today.

Probably a little weird then.

But you simply CANNOT judge what people did in the past by your current standards in 2020.

Be aware as well. YOU will be judged in the future for your actions in the streets, on the media… You’d better hope the future people have a better grasp of history and context than many of us seem to have now.

Maybe some will be vilified by the future judgers. Maybe some will deserve it.

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More old mysteries appeared! A lot. I believe from the same collection. It is no mystery how I will spend some of this weekend.

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You don’t see that many John Dickson Carr in one box often!

Clouston Mysteries

I spied a few J Storer Clouston mysteries. You’ve never heard of him. Or 99% of you haven’t. Years ago, YEARS and YEARS, I stumbled across a short octavo titled The Lunatic at Large (politically incorrect, I know—but DON’T judge…) I was intrigued and read it. The protagonist is an upper crust Brit unjustly sent to an asylum. The story has him escaping, solving crimes, exonerating himself… I sought out three subsequent “Lunatic” titles and read them. Clouston (“Clooston”) was a noble from Orkney… Well, you can Google yourself. Or wait til next week. I plan to read these mysteries and will let you know if I feel they hold up.

IF I survive to write another story next week.

I am on borrowed time.

Wednesday, I went on another house call. One of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The books are perfect. There’s nothing, so far, of great value, but a collection, an archive… I was thrilled. I made a big offer with a promise there “might” be more once I get into some of the buried material. It’s over 10,000 books and then boxes of…

Well, I don’t want to jinx things.

But I can’t think of anyone else who can handle such a beautiful trove from nose to tail…alpha to omega.

I see so much great stuff that it is hard to get me excited anymore.

The stuff that dreams are made of:


The stuff that are made out of dreams:


It is Friday.


Temps in the 80s.

No need to water for the next few days, thank God.

No need to watch my step!

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