It is September. There have been some cool days. The nights are certainly cool. It looks like 60s and 50s at night for the foreseeable. I have lit candles in the evening this week. They “give me the illusion of” taking the dampness out of the air. They also take a bit of the dreariness away. My HVAC imploded a few weeks ago, and it has taken this long to get a new system installed. In the forest on the mountain, it is often damp.
The year is getting to full circle. It may become a complete Annus Horibilis. We had the “winter that wasn’t.” Spring and summer were compromised by the plague. Fall…well, we will see if the country and world begin recovering.
I think the winter was so warm it killed a lot of trees around here. Ummm…maybe there were not enough hard freezes to kill the diseases that kill trees? There are bare skeletons everywhere. But I cut so much wood in the Plague Spring that I won’t need firewood for a couple years—unless this winter brings an Ice Age. Which doesn’t even seem far-fetched at this point. When it cools, I will be cutting wood regardless. For me, it is a great mental and physical diversion.
The governor just announced Phase 3 starting tonight—Friday. That means that the stores can go to 75% capacity. It also means theaters may be able to open. Maybe…just maybe…well, baby steps. Baby steps.
Friday a week ago, I packed a bag for the first time since February.
A friend has been wanting to go look at books somewhere…anywhere. Odd, because we both look at books nearly every day. LOTS of books. Scheduling issues have worked against us all summer. But the last blog was done Thursday, August 27th because my editor needed Friday off.
So that meant my Friday was free—a rarity!
COVID has ruined my solitary weekends. It also made my trips problematic. Now I am “supposed” to be here to let other people in to work. I twisted the arms of a couple volunteers to open the warehouse for me.
It was to be a weekend of very old buildings and even older books.
We left for Amish country in mid afternoon. That route is so familiar, but it has been a couple years since I took it. The last time was for my eldest brother’s funeral in York.
We headed north up US 15. Past Camp David. Past the Grotto of Lourdes and Saint Mary Elizabeth Seton’s Shrine. We left the “south” and crossed the Mason Dixon Line into the “north.” We passed the Gettysburg Battlefield exits and took the exit for US Route 30—Lincoln Highway. It is a very historic route. History…what is it now in the COVID era?
During my brother’s long illness and decline, I went as often as I could bear. I don’t handle things like nursing homes very well. I went through it too much with my parents when I was far too young. There were two favorite the stops to eat. Both are in Abbotstown, Pennsylvania. The venerable Hofbrauhouse and the even more venerable Altland House. The food and drink and ambience are great. It is cool to be in a place that has been a tavern since the 1750s.
It was late afternoon and close enough to the sun being over the yardarm to have a cocktail. COVID impacted the Inn here, as it has everywhere else. Masks and distancing. We had just missed the big thunderstorm, which blew away the outdoor seating and pop-up canopies. The host told us they were full, though there wasn’t a person in the place. Apparently people would be coming soon for music which had now been forced inside.
“Can we just get a drink at the bar?”
“You have to get food with your drink. Rules. The bar is fully booked.”
I like the bar there. It is very old school. “One of the oldest continually running taverns in the country.” It is called the Golden Cock or something…some rooster thing.
I made it clear we would be in and out quickly, and we were given a table. I peeked in the bar and COVID had taken away the stools at the bar. They were replaced with 3 or 4 two seated high tops pushed up against the bar.
We sat, and like at so many restaurants, COVID has replaced permanent menus with disposable sheets of paper.
Most disappointing, the long history of the place printed on the old menus was nowhere to be found.
But I had an excellent Martini, and my friend had…some weird cocktail concoction. Since we were required to have some food, I ordered the Turtle Soup—”A 60 Year Tradition.” It is mock turtle, I’m sure, with a little shot of cream sherry to pour into it—very much like the Bookbinder’s Soup still sold at the Drake Hotel in Chicago. They acquired the recipe when Bookbinder’s in Philadelphia closed. I always have that when I stop there. My friend had Parsnip Soup, and we shared Ahi Tuna Nachos.
Back on the road, we got to Columbia, Pennsylvania about 6 pm and parked behind Mullen Books. My friend Kevin pulled in beside us. His business is a very large brick edifice from the mid 1800s. See a picture of it on his website. It is over 10,000 square feet on three levels. COVID changed it from being an open shop last March. It was a perfect excuse. The sales of relatively common books on view for the public on the ground level just weren’t worth the annoyance. It was a distraction from his online sales of the rare and unusual. He has a specialty in art and design books but has plenty of all kinds of other things as well. He has been working for months on a hoard of books up in New England. He will often text or email from his sojourns there packing and bringing back loads of books to PA. The store stock is gone from the shelves (likely he sold them to me in bulk.) They are filled now with unsorted bibliogems from garnets to diamonds. Everyone knows it is more fun to look at other people’s books. After all, you’ve already seen your own.
And the old bookseller saw is certainly true:
“Selling books is great, but buying is far more fun.”
The thrill is in the hunt.
And hunt we did, until we were getting late for dinner. I put a little stack aside for Kevin to price the next day.
He had said we could stay in his AirBNB. I didn’t know where I was going until the phone instructed me to pull onto his front yard and park behind an ancient once green Ford. It was out in farm country. His home was brick—early 19th century. It has two front doors, as do so many Pennsylvania German homes. My old home in PA has two formal back doors side by side. It was built in 1918. I’ve read that one door was for daily use. The other door would only be used for formal occasions like weddings and funerals. Someone told me long ago that one door was only for bringing the dead in and out only. Online searches yield mixed results. Literally thousands of homes in the region have the two front doors. It certainly wasn’t for symmetry. Doors cost a lot of money even back then. There’s some superstition to it, I am almost certain.
But Kevin and Diana’s home was once something else entirely, he explained. It had been an inn and tavern. In this case, one door was for the female side of the tavern and one for the male. The doors are enormous. He quipped he was sure someone rode a horse through that door. Maybe many people in their cups did.
Diana is a gourmet chef among her other natural healing talents. We were treated to a wondrous feast of 8 or 10 dishes—most with an Asian flair to them.
When we finished, I asked Kevin where the BNB was.
“You’re in it!”
We’d arrived in the dark, and I didn’t see there was vastly more to this structure than the two front tavern rooms.
We sat up for a while and chatted about books, life, the universe and everything.
Then it was time to crash. My friend slept on the bed in the ladies barroom. I took the couch in the men’s.
What did I hear in the dark? Was it the whispers of some of the thousands of people who had been in here for the last 200 years? I don’t know. There was nothing spooky. In fact, I felt very much at peace.
I woke with the dawn and wrote some until people started stirring. Their place is a small farm as well. In the daylight, we got a tour and visited about 200 ducks and chickens of many varieties. And there are currently two sheep. They want more—to milk them.
Then it was back into town to look at books. But first, we walked down to the river. A stunning and well-preserved Art Deco bridge spanning the Susquehanna loomed above us.
At the shop, he showed us an enormous Riviere binding in a box. 2 volumes actually. It was breathtaking. He offered it to me months ago. I demurred. It didn’t look this lovely in the images.
There is another bookseller (and book buyer) adage: “The only book you regret is the one you didn’t buy.”
This behemoth is apparently going to Switzerland.
But I found some treasures, and my friend did as well.
Here are two of my favorites.
We settled up, and I also paid the final balance on some Kelmscotts he sold me in June.
June…dark days indeed. They had provided a little light.
Then it was time to move onto another old building with even older books. Some 45 minutes away in Kinzers, PA.
An enormous 10,000 square foot, four story, mid-18th century stone mill. He and his beloved wife Belle took a leap of faith about 22 years and bought the ancient mill at auction even though it required a lot of work. A LOT of work.
Kinzers is in the heart of Amish country, and the Lieberman’s enlisted Pennsylvania Dutch craftsmen to transform the building which had been gutted in a fire many years before into the stunning home and business it is now.
We met Kevin and Diana there, and we all chatted about books, life, the universe and everything. But Ron insisted on first having a whiskey tasting. That was to become a leitmotif of our bookish visit. There would be a tumbler of whiskey in Ron’s, my friend’s and my hand the rest of the day and night. The basement level is where the millrace used to rush through. A millrace is a stream funneled through a tight passageway to turn turbines to power the mill equipment.
He has hundreds of banana boxes filled with books down there. Each box is labeled with a marker as to its contents.
He also has a 50 gallon wooden barrel of bourbon. It is a “living cask.” He regularly adds fine whiskeys to it. He has been working on it for 25 years.
Ron decanted a finger or so from the barrel for each of us.
We toured the building. There is a lot to look at. Books are everywhere, but the stunning architecture and the remnants of huge early Industrial Revolution equipment from top to bottom gives the building an antique cyberpunk vibe here and there. The third floor—the living quarters—is a stunning achievement. It has the feel of a Manhattan loft, yet the views are of farm fields and streams and long bucolic vistas.
“Clop, clop, clopptiy, clop, clop…”
This was to become another leitmotif through the stay. Amish carriages and buggies would pass by quite frequently on the road just yards from the front door.
Ron explained that Saturday is “visiting day.” Youths and families travel to call on friends and relations. Sunday was “Church.” “Church” is held at different members’ homes each week.
So, we are milling about an 18th century stone mill. We are surrounded by antique books and decor. Drinking old bourbon, and the world outside moves at an ancient pace. The cars that would whiz by on that same road were the anachronism.
Diana and Kevin soon bid us adieu. It is Elderberry season. They know where a patch is ripe for the picking. A couple hours later, he texted a picture. “30 pounds.” Diana will make many things from them. We’d shared non-alcoholic cordials at their place the night before. Clear yellowish Elderberry elixir in a brandy flute to which was added Elderberry syrup. The purple red syrup sunk to the bottom of the glass, making for a two-tone health drink created entirely by Diana.
Ron made dinner for us of mostly local produce—including spaghetti squash and other baked fresh veggies from the neighborhood.
Storms came and went outside, awesome in their power, stunning in their aftermath.
We adjourned to the living room.
And Ron regaled us into the night with old war stories beginning with his days as a rock and roller hanging out with famous performers in Manhattan in the 60s. Then he met and married Belle. They moved to a farm.
Belle is everywhere in the mill. Framed pictures of her adorn many spots.
There she is riding bareback across a field. You can feel the motion and excitement in that picture. Small portraits are here and there. Sometimes Ron will pick a picture up and give it a kiss before setting it back down.
For Belle passed away in 2014, leaving this vast place in Ron’s care.
Then it was time for bed. We’d sipped bourbon all day, but I wasn’t buzzed—just aglow.
The front rooms are close to the road. Cars would fly by. I’m not used to street noise, so I filled my ears with tissue. My dreams that night were mysterious. So many senses had been stirred in the last two days. One dream brought the woman to me—almost within reach. Milton’s words capture it:
Methought I saw my late espoused saint
Brought to me, like Alcestis, from the grave,
Whom Jove’s great son to her glad husband gave,
Rescu’d from death by force, though pale and faint.
And such as yet once more I trust to have
Full sight of her in Heaven without restraint,
Came vested all in white, pure as her mind;
Her face was veil’d, yet to my fancied sight
Love, sweetness, goodness, in her person shin’d
So clear as in no face with more delight.
But Oh! as to embrace me she inclin’d,
I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.
That was a lovely lonely dream. I awoke from it in the black night. Lived the memories consciously for a bit and then rolled over to some other visions.
“Clop, clop, cloppity, clop, clop…”
The Amish buggies and carriages trotting by awoke me. Every few minutes, I’d hear the distant sound approaching from one direction or the other. The horse hooves grew louder and louder, passed below my bedroom window and continued—their ancient sound fading away in the opposite direction.
Then incongruously a car or truck or motorcycle would zoom by, smashing the time warp to aural shreds. The Amish farm across the street was waking. Cows were lowing, likely needing to be milked. Parents and children moved from building to building performing chores likely exactly as those chores were performed centuries ago.
I got up before the other two. I moved to Ron’s formal dining room. A large oil of Dr Johnson was staring grumpily over my shoulder.
I write a lot of verse and dreams images on yellow legal pads. When there’s time, I transpose them onto my laptop and send them as emails to myself. Back home, I print two copies of each. One for the office archive. One for home. They’ll likely never get read. But it is a duty to myself, an exercise. I’ve taken them this far, why not formalize them?
“Clop, clop, cloppity, clop, clop…”
I picked up my phone and stepped to the little porch attached to a sheer wall about 60 feet above the grass below. It is part of a fire escape but also provides a near medieval view—as if from a castle perch.
Soon my friends were up, and my writing was done.
We dined at the kitchen table on cheese, toast, sliced tomatoes and coffee. Ron wanted me to have milk with a shot of bourbon in it. Milk for me is a nighttime drink. As is bourbon generally. I demurred.
I did the dishes under Ron’s close supervision. He continued tales of bookselling and booksellers in the 60s, 70s, 80s…
“Shall we look at some books?”
We all moved down to the second or ground level. Ron set me up before an old printer’s table. The mill is full of not only books and bookcases and book boxes and enormous beams and thick wooden floors, but Ron and Belle collected all manner of book accouterments. There are book toys everywhere. Like this wall of 19th century bookbinding tools.
He brought out treasure after treasure and laid them before me. He doesn’t “want” to sell them.
He quipped about his “auction” in some distant future and how popular it would be with the local Pennsylvania Germans. The Family Album has always had a strong specialty in books by and about the gentle folk.
He pulled down a box marked Pow Wow books. These are Christian magic works. They have recipes and incantations that are designed to cure or relieve just about everything.
He set a shiny early 20th century folio in front of me. It was a Widener Library catalog. Clearly the binding was Riviere. I assumed it was just a “billionaire’s” vanity publication of his bibliopossessions.
“Why would I be interested in this, Ron?”
I gently raised the cover and flipped through. There were nice illustrations and vignettes of authors or scenes from books on nearly every page.
“Nice, Ron, but not really my thing.”
“Each of those is an original drawing, Chuck,” he patiently explained. “This was the Widener boy’s collection. I think maybe his mother had this done. When he went down in the Titanic two years later, she built the Widener Library.”
The book came alive in my hand. A fine artist had been commissioned to illuminate this work. The images made the young Widener’s book collection alive again; he lived again in this book.
“One of a kind,” I whispered.
“I’ve never cataloged this,” the words seemed a bit hard for him to say. “He was so young. Imagine his collection had he lived.”
To me, Harry came alive in that old stone mill. I was surrounded by 10,000s of books. The dust and aroma of history was all about. I closed the tome and drew my palm across the glossy leather, now over 100 years old. Ron was perhaps telling me it was time this singular artifact moved on.
He brought more things out and set them on the table before me. Each a treasure.
This small thing was bundled in notes printed and written. It is a humble battered thing to all external appearances.
Opening it was another blow to my soul. I was drained and filled at the same time.
It is a mid-15th century Book of Hours. Likely kept, almost always on her person, by a royal or wealthy woman for a lifetime to recite daily devotions.
“Each book was unique in its content though all included the Hours of the Virgin Mary, devotions to be made during the eight canonical hours of the day, the reasoning behind the name ‘Book of Hours.’ Many books of hours were made for women.”
This one has very many pages and very many full-page paintings.
Each little paper tab marks a full-page handmade image.
It made me sad to think of all the owners this book has had for the last 600 years. Now it is passing from Ron to me. I will be its caretaker until it is time for it to leave me.
There were others as well. My friend found some sweet things as well.
We sat in Ron’s office, and he fired up his antique computer, one with a Windows 98 sticker on its case. He sat at his desk and looked up the inventory numbers on the books. (Except the Widener which was never for sale before.) He picked up a small oval framed picture of Belle and kissed her. I would look out the window to the stream that had once flowed beneath us and to the late summer fields still green beyond.
Ron offered one more drink, but the constant trickle from the day before had been enough. I had brought 1.75 liter gift bottle of Woodford Reserve for Ron to add to his barrel. We went down to the bottom floor among giant iron pulleys and wheels and gears. He pulled the cork from the top of the barrel and emptied the bottle into a funnel atop it.
He stuck a wooden paddle into the barrel and stirred the blend a while.
“Hand me that empty by your feet.”
I picked up the bottle and handed it to him. At the front of the barrel, he bent and decanted the living whiskey in to the bottle as a gift. Are there a thousand whiskeys in there? Some drops from twenty-five years ago certainly remain. The spirits of many years and many bottles and many friends are blended in that barrel.
He took us outside to his back yard. There’s a gazebo. The stream runs nearby. The millrace is now a grassy path between stone walls.
He spoke of his many Bull Terriers that had come and gone over the years. He showed me a marker where Belle’s ashes are buried. Stone, water and soil and flora. Nature abounds here eternally.
“I’ve thought of getting another dog. It doesn’t seem fair though. It is too sad now to outlive your pets. Sadder still if they outlive you.”
It was time to leave.
“Honk twice so my Amish neighbors know you’re leaving. They watch out for me.”
We had done what we came for. We looked at a lot of great books. We were going to return with a couple small boxes.
It was quiet reflective drive home.
The rest of the week has been almost unbearably sad. This horrible year that started so promisingly with a trip to Luray, Virginia and nearby wineries has become an ongoing, nearly daily, living nightmare.
I work hard to keep those demons away. I work hard to rescue the many books that only we will take.
I’ve been stuck home yesterday and today. My HVAC units died a few weeks ago, and a major installation is under way. Strange young men are banging and drilling and screwing machinery together.
The sunrise is getting close to my window on the world.
Soon, for a week or ten days, I will have glorious sunrises around the Autumn Equinox. The sun will continue south and the dawns will become hidden in the woods. Then comes fall and then winter and then another year. in the woods. Then comes fall and then winter and then another year.
The books abide. Some are mine for a lifetime.
Warning, poem below:
She Never Married
There’ a flash out in the black night
Is someone coming up the mountain?
Then thunder booms and rain hisses
It was a night like this years ago
when you poured yourself over me
Gone, gone, gone to the valley below
So far, so far. How far I don’t know
The world twirled and circled on
round itself, round the sun
The swirls on the window
Invisible in the night
Invisible in the light
Thunder Lightning Flash Boom Go
Little children who never were
A warm bright home for him and her
No, we walk alone, me here, you there
Forsaken is the magic of the pair
A storm rages on brick and glass
Thunders chorus and lightnings lash