Breakers and Bag and Hang—Journal of a Plague Year—Still

Hagerstown Prints

July…this plague thing started affecting things at the beginning of March, if memory serves.





Lost months in many ways.

But it has certainly been a learning experience.

Many of the lessons are ones I wish I had never been taught.

I am still masked. We all are. The warehouse and the stores. Most all the COVID-19 safety policies are still in force. But there are changes.

The three stores are open 7 days a week. The hours are scaled back a bit. Sales are just “ok.” We aren’t buying at nearly the pace before all this. That said, we are able to keep the beast fed with books. There is plenty of work for everyone.

We are installing refrigerators and microwaves all over the warehouse. Each department will have 1 or more of each. Shipping, Data Entry, Books by the Foot, Pulling, Sorting/Warehouse.

The big break room is still closed. We feel it is too risky to have everyone sharing the 2 big fridges…

I’m not checking the stats daily or anywhere close to it anymore. Frederick County, Maryland (population 259,000) has 111 COVID-19 deaths. The last I looked over a month ago, it was 107. I am still not seeing easy to find stats on age, underlying conditions, aggregate living facilities… There was a newspaper story about a month ago that 85% of the deaths here were in nursing homes or the like.

You would think those stats would be the headlines.

Are we coming out of the COVID-19 era? No sign of that yet. We are all still tethered by it.

Are we being lulled into a false sense of security around Wonder? Neither here nor me personally.

I just canceled my golf trip to the Maritimes this morning. Some of the guys wanted to go. I was on the fence. August is just a month away. I’m not going anywhere any time soon, I guess. I still can’t see getting on a plane right now.

I was supposed to have a meeting at someone’s office Wednesday this week to discuss expanding the warehouse onto the adjacent acreage. It was canceled because of a COVID-19 positive there.

That is the closest link I have to someone having had the virus. All these months later. I don’t even know if that person was sick with it or was asymptomatic and just got a test for some reason.

But, the Plague hovers over life everywhere still. And the civil unrest. And the iconoclasm. Mass hysteria in so many places.

And the news media throws gas on the fires.

What happened?

Were we cooped up too long? Rebreathing our own CO2 and being immersed in “the sky is falling” from so many quarters.

Where is no goodnesse to be found,
Yet let’s be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn’d upside down.

The World is Turned upside down.

Will “protesters” come after books and libraries?

Will books be destroyed because of unpopular contents?

I remember growing up being taught that Columbus was an explorer and discoverer. I looked forward to the far future when the 500th anniversary would be celebrated in 1992. I also looked forward to the return of Halley’s Comet in 1986.

Nothing happened. Both times.

I doubt I’ll be around for Halley’s return in 2061.

When will I be able to hang my many masks up? Stop rebreathing my own CO2?

I’ve vowed to let my hair grow until then.

Maybe I’ll get the Thomas Jefferson ponytail thing going. I could tie a bit of one right now.

Thomas Jefferson Statue

Probably not. He’s out of style.


I went out to dinner all last weekend.

After last Friday’s book story went out, I had Modern Asia carryout with a friend.

Saturday I sat outside Ragin’ Reef and had cocktails and dinner with a friend.


Sunday, I went to Belles’. It is a pool hall sports bar just around the corner from the warehouse. They only reopened recently. We two were the only patrons there Sunday from 5:30-7. The owner shot pool, and the bartender/server said this was the first she’d worked in 3 months. They had this beer on tap.

Beer Menu

“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

That sort of sums up my philosophy these days. Maybe tweak it to “I’ll rest when…” Sleeplessness is not always voluntary. I’m driven. I don’t know why. I guess it kind of helps to keep bad things in my head at bay.

I miss traveling.


Over the weekend, I did get a lot of carts done.

Empties on the west side of the building.

Empty Carts

Culled carts going to Books by the Foot on the loading docks on the east side.

Culled Carts

I am still way behind. It is hopeless. I can only nibble away at the edges.


I have always been averse to disposing of books, of sending books to the pulp mill. That is true even when books are missing pages or are otherwise defective or irredeemably unsaleable. That is, if they have illustrations worth saving.

Two of the managers have taken it upon themselves to upgrade the stores’ appearances substantially. Interior biblio-decoration. They are actually asking for more posters and framed things and loose prints. Those sorts of things typically pile up here because if they get sent to the stores, they are mishandled or damaged or just stuck in a corner somewhere and forgotten.

Not anymore.

Hagerstown Prints

Those walls were essentially bare a few days ago.

During the shutdown, I came across a very large Gaylord atop a pallet with the word “Breakers”* written all over it. I vaguely recalled filling it and then moving it around for many years. On Friday afternoon, a manager in the warehouse had an extra person and asked if I had anything that could be done.

* Breakers, at Wonder Book, are books that are defective, incomplete or so damaged they can’t be saved as an entire book. We would never “break” a book that has a chance to be saved as a “book.”

“Fill up three carts of these. I’ll pull off the stuff that would be best for breaking.”

Vanessa and Kurt have been asking for more prints and ephemera.

When I wandered past the partially emptied Gaylord over the weekend, I peeked in it. (I can’t walk past just about anything with books in or on it without nosing around.)

“What on earth?”

Breakers Gaylord

“A signed limited Eisenhower? How did that get buried in this pile of junk all those years ago?”

And a baggy with a cache of Robert Frost Christmas souvenir booklets printed by his publisher Holt?

Signed Eisenhower + Frost Christmas

They are little gems!

Must have made sense at the time to gaylord them…

I guess I was just as dazed and distracted all those years ago as I am currently.

So maybe it is not advancing age.

I’ve always been like this.

Department of Agriculture Yearbooks kind of define the word unsaleable. The old ones go to Books by the Foot.

Agriculture Yearbook

Except for the ones with the fruit, plant and nut chromolithographs.

Slider image
Slider image

Those we excise the color plates from and THEN send the books onto the decorators. The books are still intact from outward appearances. So, those books kind of get rescued twice.

I sent some of the defective books with vintage kids’ plates to a manager who likes to take them out at home. I guess she can do this while watching Netflix—and getting paid at the same time!

Roosevelt Bears

The rest on the carts I went through (in my spare time.) I felt I should because there was some junk that no one should waste time on breaking. Things like spineless battered Dr Seuss and Richard Scarry. Those went to the $1 tables at the stores or to the pulp mill.

The ones worth salvaging for plate or prints or maps I put in tubs. Sometimes people in the office have slow times—a lot recently—and they can do remove plates at their desks.

Breakers Tubs

That is a lot of paper!

But this incomplete thing is full of maps like these!


#BookRescue…with a twist.

Bag and Hang

That is our lingo here for ephemera and “stuff” that gets that needs to be put into clear baggies.

Bag & Hang Tub

The removed leaves are sent to the stores in boxes marked with varying prices. There they get priced and bagged and then pinned up for display. Loose prints and printed ephemera would get lost in our stores the way we are set up. They would become invisible—never to be found (or sold.)

Or worse, they’d be crumpled up in the comings and goings of books being removed or replaced upon shelves.

These two managers, Kurt (at Frederick and Hagerstown) and Vanessa (at Gaithersburg) have taken Bag and Hang to a new level retail display here.

Bag & Hang Display

Will we run out of end caps and wall space to put things up someday?

The supply of hopeless books with plates and maps and…stuff is seemingly infinite. That old Gaylord is still about 2/3 full.

I just hope there’s no more hidden book gems stuck in there by mistake. It’ll be while before we dig into it again.

I need to remind myself you can’t save them all.

But we can try.

This week marked my first real house call—to a real “house.”

The correspondence began in early June:

Mr. Chuck, We fell into a Large collection of Records & Books (1000 plus of each) could someone of your staff come (in Frederick city) & Give us an Idea. We can help transport. Please call…

We weren’t really going out anywhere back then.

It was still the dark days full of worry and paranoia.l of worry and paranoia.

I asked for images but never got any. We corresponded a bit back and forth. Finally, when I was contacted again this week, I was ready.

“I can come by tomorrow.”

June 30 was a beautiful day. I pulled up in front of the old time Frederick house.


A man about my age was pacing along the sidewalk. I slid out of my truck.

“Are you Mr. Chuck?”

I crossed the street to him, and we both masked up as I approached.

We passed through the ancient iron gate that was attached to a matching Victorian fence.

Iron Gate

“You haven’t seen anything like this before.”

“I’ve seen everything, I think.”

We stepped up onto the porch where another man, also wearing a mask, white t-shirt and jeans, greeted us.

They led me inside.

‘Hoarder,’ I thought. ‘That’s why he didn’t send me images.’

Hoarder Room

“We’ve actually hauled tons of stuff out of here already.”

“No books or paper, I hope.”

I hate it when people “make my job easier” by throwing away the junk they think I’d never want. Sometimes that is the best stuff!

“This man traveled a lot, and he brought things back from every place he went. You interested in plates? There are 187 of them.”


I actually collected some literary plates—Peter Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland…I still have some. Somewhere.

Why? I dunno. Made sense at the time.

Maybe I’ll dig them out and hang them…maybe not.

But plates aren’t what they used to be. Nor are spoons. I can’t see Millenials bringing back souvenir plates from Niagara Falls or Mount Rushmore (until that’s turned to rubble.) Or souvenir spoons.

“No. I think I’d better stay away from the plates.”

We sidled into room after room.

Hoarder Room

Sidling was the only way to navigate the narrow pathways these men had carved out.

It was unbelievable that these two men had removed so much already. Stuff was still stacked chest high.

“It was over my head in some rooms.”

I wandered through and peeked as best I could. It was hopeless though. Any books I could see were junk. Mail order things mostly. Time Life, Readers Digest… banes of any bookseller’s existence.

Junk Books

Going upstairs, there was a cardboard beer flat of books on the eighth or ninth step. In it were two sets set spine up. I could tell at a distance what they were.

Maryland History

Maryland history.

State history isn’t what it used to be either. So many people are no longer from the places where they live now. Since I opened in Frederick County in 1980, the population has grown from about 100,000 to nearly 260,000.

The Tercentenary History of Maryland. Half leather. Tall quarto. In excellent shape. Usually the leather spines are cracked, chipped and so dry they are turning to dust. These used to sell readily for a lot of money. At a country auction these sorts of things could go viral if two wealthy farmers got into ego bidding for them. Maybe some of their ancestors were in the tomes.

“700, 800, 1000…any more bids? 1200!”

When I got them in the store, I’d aggressively put 350 or 400 on them.

The Old Line State set never sold that well. It has some kind of crap paperboard binding that was usually split or even missing. This one was intact. But…yawn.

We went into the kitchen. The table and counters were piled high with stuff. There was a stack of perfect Uncle Wiggly staple bound books from the 30s.

Wiggly isn’t what he used to be either. He’s probably dreadfully politically incorrect as well. I don’t remember. It has been so long since I looked inside one.

I’m not quite sure what is currently “ok.” It’s kind of a moving target. There are plenty of people who want to teach me though—many with bullhorns.

Roller Derby? Now you’re talking! Young women still do this. One used to work here. She was one tough character.

Roller Derby

‘When the Roller Derby came to Frederick…’ I thought. ‘What a night in the little down that was!’

Maybe there’s good ephemera in this place…somewhere.

“I don’t think I can pay much of anything from what I’m seeing. It is expensive to send two guys and a van out. And there’s no easy way to get to the books and pack them,” I told them.

“We can bring them out to you.”

“Don’t throw out any paper. What you think is trash I might really want. And what you think…”

“What about the records?”

I’d noticed. Walls of them. Records are making yet another resurgence—especially at the stores. But not classical in general. Most of those we put on the sidewalk for a buck. Plus, tragically, these were mostly organ music.

“I don’t think we’d want them. I can’t see a lot of them though, so I can come back to look when there’s a path to them.”

There was a…canning room? mud room? summer pantry?…behind the kitchen and leading to the backyard. (I can’t think of what they’re called.)

Summer kitchens are completely separate from the house. I know that because the old stone house I had south of Gettysburg had a big one. There was a walk-in fireplace in it. I heard there were two reasons to build these:

  1. It was so hot in the summertime. So much cooking and canning and preserving went on in the summer that it would make the house itself unbearably warm.
  2. If it caught fire, the whole house wouldn’t burn with it.

“Can I see the backyard?”

I like to see old yards and imagine kids playing and cookouts and parties and gardens. Ghosts.

“It used to be a showplace. All those ridges in the lawn were rose beds.”


On the way back in through the pantry (or whatever), I saw a cheap old plastic watering can hanging from the wall.

“I’ll give you a buck for that. I was going to Lowe’s after leaving here to get one. I’m planting sunflowers at the place I bought on East Street.”

“The Avery place?”


“My parents took me there when I was a kid. They had lots of peacocks we could come see for free!”

I needed to reach across the piled stuff with a broom handle to reach the watering can. I started for my wallet.

“Take it!”

I stepped out of the pathology and into the light with the flat of Maryland books I shouldn’t have bought and paid too much for.

But so it goes.

I crossed the street to my truck and set the Maryland histories in the back next to two things I’d just gotten framed. I’d found the dead Presidents photos on an old dusty pallet here during the darkest days of COVID-19 Plague. They’d been set aside long, long ago.

Framed Prints & Maryland Histories

A couple heavy glass bookends were in the truck as well. They had come in somehow, from somewhere, and I thought they were cool. I’ll swap something out from home to accommodate them.

Book Ends

So much cool stuff.

Cool Stuff

The 1818 Cask broadside came in a couple years ago from the Safire collection. I’m getting that framed as well. The vinter or broker or whatever is a Roberts!

Back at the warehouse, I did my walkthrough. I knew there was a swallow’s nest just outside the Books by the Foot door leading to the Dockyard. I gingerly pushed it open. The baby swallows were just about to fledge.


When I ducked past them, the parents whirled and squawked above my head.

The next day, the two older guys (who are my age but look so much older than I “think” I look—LOL) from the hoarder house were backed up to the loading dock. I inspected the banker’s boxes they were dropping off.


We paid pretty well for them because of their hard work. I added on what I’d offered for the Maryland books.

“Don’t throw any paper away. If you find more stuff like the Uncle Wigglys and Roller Derby, bring those separately.”

“I brought these from when he went to Paris.”

Lido Ephemera


It’s Friday.

I checked. The swallows have left the nest. But the family of six continues their aerial ballet outside the doorway and amongst the trailers backed to the building.

I’ve gotten a lot done in the gardens this week. One night I sat on the driveway with beer(s) and repotted a bunch of things.


Now I have more pots of things from dividing the root bound succulents into roomier digs.

We got 4 donation bins. That’s another COVID-19 project. When the stores were closed, people were often dumping their books on our parking lots. We had the time to research these things. I got the three landlords’ permissions and soon there will be one at each store and the warehouse.

Donation Bin

We’ve been getting more requests for house calls. Larry’s been bringing loads in frequently.

He dropped off MORE Folio, Library of America and Easton Press. He’d segregated those boxes. I had them carted up and groaned at their beauty.

Larry's Eye Candy

Eye candy.

More work for me this weekend.

There have been a few finds this week.

This one on a cart with vintage junk appeared to be a humble rebound Thoreau. I thought maybe ten bucks at one of the stores. A reading copy. When I slipped it off the cart, I saw that it was in a very old slipcase.

A Yankee in Canada

I gently slid the book from its holder. The green buckram was not the binding but a kind of canvas dust jacket.

A Yankee in Canada

I peeled that off, and a beautiful gem gleamed back at me.

Really, there was not another decent book on that cart, I think Larry brought. Which group, I don’t know. I’ll pay him a bonus, anyway.

A Yankee in Canada contains the essay ‘Civil Disobedience’ which Thoreau wrote in 1846 after spending the night in Concord jail protesting, among other things, slavery and the War with Mexico.

Gandhi and Martin Luther King were greatly influenced by this work. This book has changed the world.

A Yankee in Canada

History, Civil Disobedience, Peaceful Protest, Iconoclasm…


What sort of movements try to erase or change the context of history to their end?

If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.

Michael Crichton

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

George Santayana

The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.


Study the past if you would define the future.


‘Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.’

Churchill (slightly altering the earlier Santayana quote)

The Nazi’s in 1934 attempted to erase history they didn’t like by burning books.

But, then, they were not the first nor the last.

Here’s a whole litany of others:

I’m sure there are many valid reasons these movements tried to destroy history. They hope to validate their agendas by eliminating inconvenient competition.

But the “book” abides.

You and I do our part.

Berlin Book Museum Floor

Plates anyone?

Alice in Wonderland Plate

8 Comments on Article

  1. Terry commented on

    The “breakers” I find very interesting to do. Every book leads to another adventure you are not expecting! Then you never know what to expect each day at Wonder Book! Will be glad to get back there soon.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      There are great hidden treasure in them. It is fun to get them out where people can see them.
      See you soon!

  2. Ben Abbate commented on

    Thanks for taking the time to write these blogs Charles. I look forward to them. Cheers, Ben

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      That is great to hear Ben. I really appreciate your taking time to let me know.
      It helps!

  3. Steven Rodgers commented on

    Dear Mr. Roberts: Those of us who are so inclined get to live vicariously through your accounts of the life of a bookseller. I again thank you for that. Presently, you’ve articulated a fear that’s been dancing around my own head for some time now. Indeed, what if they started coming after books and libraries? My own inclination is to assess that the movement is still in its formative stage, too early to allow the public at large to glimpse obvious parallels to the German nazi movement, but rest assuredly, it’s coming. Just last night, the movement cleverly took advantage of an apparent lapse in security at the Columbus statue at little Italy Baltimore, knocked it over and rolled it into the harbor. Having grown up in an Italian-American community in Brooklyn, there is no doubt much sorrow and anger at what has been happening against a symbol of their great pride. I’ve lived it. As an Irishman, I’m grateful to my Italian neighbors for letting me share in their ethnic pride all those years. This will not end well. I recall some time ago musing to one of your staff members about what section would have to be trimmed back if the need for space ever became dire. I decided upon the contemporary domestic political section, specifically the crap a current presidential candidate (of both parties) puts out right before the election. Some things really should be consigned to the dustbin of history, I asserted, to which your staff replied, “but someone might want to read it, I would caution you on this because it might just be a slippery slope you wouldn’t want to go down.” He was correct! And that brings me to my point, why what you do is so critical to the salvation of culture. The bookseller—hell, even the cd store owner—is a curator of history and culture and a protector of its continuance. The movement would be delighted with you gone. We MUST turn this around. Thanks again for all you do and for reading this.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Steven. These are scary times indeed. And many leaders are enabling the cultural destruction in so many cities..
      I think we reduced the modern politics in the the three stores during the shutdown. Most of it old news and readily available should anyone want to dredge up some former candidate’s polemics.
      We expanded the history sections.
      I think that is a big factor. History is not being taught – or not being explained in balanced ways.
      I hope younger readers get enticed and explore all kinds of books.
      I was so curious about history as a young person.

      Thank you for reading and writing !

  4. John swift commented on


    I’ll take that Cheshire Cat plate, if you decide to sell it!

    And thanks Sincerely for your prodigious effort over the years (at least 2 that I’ve been reading) to write these thoughtful pieces. I fell off your mailing list some months ago, when you did something to that list, but now, happily, am back, connected and enjoying each piece. Regards. John

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      John, I’m so glad you found the stories again. We changed up our website in December and that is likely what happened.
      Later this July will be the third anniversary of weekly book stories! Its an obsession I guess.
      Thank you so much for reading and writing.

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