Dedication and Devotion—Journal of a Plague Year, Week 6

Spring on the Mountain

This is Part 7 of bookselling in the COVID era. The stories begin here: It Will Either Get Better Or It Won’t.

He got the action, he got the motion
Oh yeah, the boy can play
Dedication, devotion
Turning all the night time into the day
And after all the violence and double talk
There’s just a song in all the trouble and the strife
You do the walk, yeah, you do the walk of life
You do the walk of life

—Walk of Life, Mark Knopfler, Dire Straits

“SON OF A …!”

When I pulled in to work Sunday morning, I saw there had been action on the Western Front.

Parking Lot

That white spot in the center is near our western property line. That is the last groundhog hole left there. When we were moving in during 2013-2014, there was a colony in that area with numerous entrances dug into the ground. I peered into one with a flashlight, and there was a large void about ten feet beneath the earth. I estimated it was the size of an old VW Bug.

Since then, I’ve done battle there and elsewhere around the 7-acre parcel the building sits upon.

We actually have 14 acres. 7 acres is a vacant lot—a former pasture from when this was farmland decades ago.

I guess I hadn’t noticed it on Saturday because a few people had volunteered to come in and help catch up on Books by the Foot orders. We are way behind but making progress. They were waiting for me to let them in when I pulled up.

Books by the Foot and…

It is good to have all the trucks coming and going again.

Who knows, maybe that trailer that went out this week with 15 tons of pulp paper may turn into some much needed toilet paper! LOL!

Groundhogs are not nice. They are very large rodents and can be mean. The holes they excavate can break the axle on a mower. They can burrow under and damage foundations.

All the entrances but one on the Western Front have been silenced for quite a while (so far.) I thought that last one had been filled once and for all last fall. A few weeks ago, I wrote here that my bottle blockade had been infiltrated. The demons had found a route around them. No dirt or bottles have been brought to the surface. They must be continuing to drag my beloved empty bottles down, down, down to the nether pits of that Groundhog Hell.

I know there are over 150 full size wine and liquor and Belgian beer bottles down there. I wrote that I had plugged it—again—a couple weeks ago. And indeed I posted images of that.

When I drove over to the battlefront, I saw yet another gaping void.

“Son of a …”

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I retrieved and dropped down the empties I had on hand here in storage. Those 8 or 10 I had didn’t come close to filling up the newly expanded entrance.

I was out of “bottle ammo.”

I couldn’t drink enough wine to fill the current pit any time soon.


I’d long ago surrendered Mt Suribachi on the eastern side of the building as I wrote last week.

There’s a gaping scar on the grassy slope above the building I call the Northwest Territory. I have had successes there, but now I see that is active again.

There are a number of smaller battlefields that have been silenced for several years in the lawns around the building.

But I was now losing AGAIN on the three remaining ongoing fronts!


I really hate losing at something I’ve tried so hard at.

I suppose I could take the nuclear option and have someone fill the holes with concrete. That just seems like overkill to me.

(The 7-acre adjacent vacant field we own is pockmarked with groundhog holes. Some are huge. When I drive my pickup truck up the grassy rise, I have to watch where I drive. It might damage the truck or I could get stuck potentially—even in 4WD. I will now dub that area the Lunar Landscape or perhaps Giant Rat Land. I could no more fight that many holes mano a mano than touch the moon…well, actually…I have “touched” the moon…)

But there I was Sunday morning, out of ammo and no hope of re-arming anytime soon.

I felt could hear the underground vermin whistling and grunting and oinking in derision at my discomfiture.

Then, on Tuesday, as so often seems to happen in Wonder-land, fate stepped in.

I’d suggested to my son early in the COVID shutdown that he could use the stay at home time to clear out some of my old stuff in the old Pennsylvania homestead. He’s a sports buff, so there’s nothing for him to watch anymore.

Anyway, he surprised me Tuesday by dropping a van laden with the contents of one of the wine cellars in that old manse. It’s been sitting dormant for about 10 years now. I’d kind of forgotten that in addition to collecting wine and glasses and adult beverage books and accouterments, I used to be a bit of a “pretty” bottle hoarder. When I opened the van, I discovered I had been RE-ARMED!

Van Load

That evening I backed the van to the pit of hell and dropped a good dozen in! I emptied a bag of topsoil atop it.

Refilled Western Front

“Take that!”

I drove home that night with a sense of victory.

I emptied the remaining contents of the van into my garage.

“What will I do with all the old wine!”

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Do I think I have won a permanent victory?

History says no.

It is a bit like WWI trench warfare. We fight for the same ground over and over.

We shall see. Right now I have a substantial arsenal. I’ll be adding to the bottle supply as well. In moderation…

I checked the plugged hole this afternoon—Thursday, April 23.

“Im Westen Nichts Neus.” *

* The original German title of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front which many consider the greatest war novel of all time. (For me The Killer Angels takes that since The Iliad couldn’t be considered a “novel.”)

Killer Angels

I hope this war doesn’t send me over the edge so far that some day I go the full Ahab.

“To the last, I grapple with thee; From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee; For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.”

Kind of pathetic if groundhogs are my Moby Dick.


The carts of old books are appearing again.

Chuck Carts

More and more people are coming back to work every day.

Next week, we will go to 2 shifts per day. This will help with the social distancing guidelines we’ve instituted. We will soon have close to the same amount of people here as before…all this pandemic stuff… We just need to keep them farther apart. We have about 30 data entry stations. Even though they are effectively 10 feet apart with a three foot “wall” atop the front of each “desk”, we have decided to use only every other one per shift going forward.

So, if we go to two shifts, up to every station can be used Monday through Friday.

We are also bringing in weekend shifts on a regular basis. In some ways, I regret this, as I won’t have the big lonely warehouse to my self anymore—perhaps ever. There are some projects that should be done now, only when there are no pullers or stockers out in the stacks to interact with.

I have no idea when any of the stores will open.

Washington County (where our Hagerstown store is) = only 3 deaths so far
Frederick County = 30
Montgomery County (where our Gaithersburg store is) = 121

The Maryland Department of Health has the following breakdown by age. Most deaths are of people over 80 years old. Almost all the deaths are of people over 50. About 5.5% are under 50. About 85% are over 60 years old.

The population of the state of Maryland is just over 6 million.

I know I would not want to catch the disease if I was any age.

COVID-19 Cases in Maryland by Age CasesDeaths
Age Data Not Available (100)

It is 5:15 Thursday evening, April 23rd. Only one other person is staying late tonight.

I just came in the office from the warehouse floor. There is a smell of disinfectant out there. Everyone wipes down their station before they leave it.

I am so tired.

It was March 23rd when the Governor ordered all non-essential businesses closed at 5 pm that night. The announcement came at about 11:30 that morning. We had just over 5 hours to shut things down. If you read some of the previous COVID Era book stories, you will know of some, but not all, the adversities that engendered. Personal and professional.

I have been in every day since then. I was probably in every day for most of the month prior to that date as well.

That’s no big deal. I enjoy it most of the time. It is my duty.

It goes with the territory.

I am well aware a lot of people have been working a lot harder at far more important tasks than I.

Still, I am very tired.

Sleep is in fits and starts every night. A lot of friends have said it is the same with them.

Last Saturday a voicemail dropped onto my iPhone. I guess I was out of range or the ringer was off. I looked at the written transcription. (Technology gets more amazing all the time.)

“Jackie” from American Airlines had called. The message was that my trip to Budapest in May was being canceled.

I don’t know when I will feel comfortable getting on a plane again.

Dedication and devotion…

Yep, I have thrown myself into this book thing all my adult life now.

The last 8 weeks since the COVID crisis have been a whirlwind.

The nine-month process of moving millions of books and shelves from the 72,000-sq/ft warehouse to the 130,000-foot building we occupy now was a tougher slog. That was 2013-2014.

But the COVID pandemic has definitely been more frightening. Wonder Book’s very survival was threatened constantly. It is not nearly over yet. There may yet be some deadly pitfalls ahead.

Yet Wonder Book abides*—in the Biblical sense.

* To remain stable or fixed in a state of love.

Last Saturday was spent mostly moving pallets. I pulled and pushed tons of books around the warehouse. The goal was to make even more space because more people were coming back Monday. I expanded shipping even more and added three packing tables. I expanded the Books by the Foot areas to accommodate more staging and packing areas.

The overriding worry was “Would we get the PPP?”

The last I had heard from my banker was on Thursday the 16th: “Still working on applications.”

I’d reached out to the regional PNC President, who I’d only met a few times. He offered some guidelines but made no promises. He told me we had been assigned an SBA number and had passed some other hurdles.

I was upset but helpless. We were one of the first to successfully apply when the Magic Portal opened on April 3rd. We’d invested 100 or more hours in preparation, so we would have every possible document and combination of documents ready.

Then nothing.

I kept checking the “mail”—my email—often. Very often. Any notification would come to my email.

At 2:23 on Saturday, April 18th, an email dropped in: “PNC PPP App Status.” It was a form letter, but one long line in it gave me hope:

We were able to complete the review and successfully register your application with the SBA before the SBA announced that it had fully allocated the funding authorized for the Program.

At 3:16, another email dropped in subject line: “You’ve been added as a signer…Loan Documents.”

I clicked on the button that said: “Go to documents.”

A 6 page long document opened up.

I reached out to the managers who helped submit the PPP.

“What should I do?”

I was terrified. What if I clicked the wrong thing, and it disappeared? I looked at it as though it was a huge fragile crystal sculpture. If I screwed up, it could smash to pieces never to be put together again.

The three of us chatted over texts.

“Maybe a lawyer should look at it?” one of them said.

“What choice do we have?” I replied. “It’s late Saturday afternoon.”

I clicked two buttons to digitally “sign” the loan. Then it disappeared.

At 3:49, another email came in. “Signing is completed for Wonder Book…you may now download the documents…” I printed and also save the documents.


I looked all day Sunday in between moving more and more books around.

Monday…nothing. No emails. No calls or texts.

On Tuesday, I reached out to the PNC President again. My local friend replied:

“The funds were deposited yesterday.”


“Can you resend the notice?”

“There wasn’t any. You could have seen it on your online banking.”


Ok… Weird. They put a LOT of money into the account with no notification?


The lifebuoy had been tossed to us.

“Thank you!” … thank you, thank you, thank you…to all the people at PNC!

Their’s had been a Herculean task. Platforms that would normally take many, many months to build were completed in weeks. I know they were working around the clock. My friend was available any time I texted or emailed.

No such thing as “bankers’ hours.”

That created a whole new set of problems. Our PPP meter had started the day before.

“What do we do now?”

Enough of that. Suffice it to say, Wonder Book had essentially been out of business for a month—more if you count the stores’ gradual decline over several weeks prior. We had paid employees to stay at home for 4 weeks out of pocket. That money was gone forever. I don’t know if we could have done another week safely. The next 8 weeks would be covered by PPP.

We could begin recovery…

Thank God.


Once we learned our warehouse was considered an essential business as a warehouse distribution facility (due to the massive amount of trucking we support) and could remain open, we started calling people in. The response was overwhelming. Most people wanted to come back. I teared up a bit when I saw some of the names. Some were new. Some I’d known here for years.


It is Friday morning. I am tapping away at this story on the red plush sofa in my office. It has been a week of meetings and innovation. Every day new rules and protocols are created as we react to things that need to be done to add layer after layer of safety.

We have a firm “One Touch” rule. No book, cart, tub… gets touched more than once per day.

Front Door

The printed guidelines every one here signs is about 50 lines long.

Every time a potential weak link is spotted, we create ways to reforge it stronger.

It’s akin to having little wildfires here and there that need to be stamped out.

Clark and Caryn and Ernest and Clif and the three managers in the office (who wish to remain anonymous.)

They were here a lot during the darkest days.

The books that Ernest and Caryn sorted all those days alone helped build stock for Data Entry people who are only now returning in force. They also created a lot of space killing off pallet after pallet of books. That gave us flexibility on expanding the social distancing spaces wherever folks will be working going forward.

Wonder Book would not have gotten this far without them.

Dedication and devotion.

Books…with the stores closed and the stay at home rules, we aren’t getting any books. I’ve actually had bulk sellers trying to buy from us.

“No way!”

I don’t know how long it will take for us to exhaust the “raw”, but we have trailers of it.

It rained all night, and it is raining today. April showers.

I did go home and transplant one evening this week. Bleeding hearts, oregano, garlic chive, lungwort, blackberry lilies…some Ostrich Ferns that were spreading into harm’s way.

I put in some “nursery gardens.”

Nursery Garden

These are little patches here and there where seedling volunteers can mature. Some will stay in place. Some may be moved if things get too crowded.

There are many, many different species I need to transplant.

The trilliums are very fragile.


They are in bloom now. I will have to prepare a place for the clumps of seedlings that is very lush and hope they take root.

The “Spring that Wasn’t” in the valley has been a beautiful spring on the mountain.

The earth abides…

“If a killing type of virus strain should suddenly arise by mutation… it could, because of the rapid transportation in which we indulge in nowadays, be carried to the far corners of the earth and cause the death of millions of people.”—W.M. Stanley, in Chemical and Engineering News.

When anything gets too numerous, it’s likely to get hit by some plague. As for man, there is little reason to think that he can in the long run escape the fate of other creatures, and if there is a biological law of flux and reflux, his situation is now a highly perilous one. During ten thousand years, his numbers have been on the upgrade in spite of wars, pestilences, and famines. This increase in population has become more and more rapid. Biologically, man has for too long a time been rolling an uninterrupted number of sevens.

Earth Abides by George R. Stewart

Last night, I went home in the pouring rain. I wanted—needed—to do physical work, so I went out to the barn and got the wood splitter going.

That is also a Zen-like task. You set the big piece of wood in the cradle. You decide just where you want the “wedge” to bite in. You pull the handle and the hydraulics move the wedge slowly closer and closer. When it hits the wood, it slows. The machine and log both groan a bit. The wedge pushes further and further in until the log splits—often with a “pop.” With headphones on, you can’t hear much. Each process is so slow that I don’t feel unsafe sipping just a little wine.

Wine and Wood Splitter

I’d never do that using a chainsaw.

I took about 45 minutes to finish. Here’s a before and after picture:

Wood Splitting Before and After

When I went inside, the stove was beeping.

I’d taken some restaurant leftovers out of the freezer.

Remember restaurants?

Oyster Rockefeller from Schula’s. Half a gourmet burger from Volt. A couple pieces of pizza from…somewhere.

There’s lots of oregano and Italian parsley in the gardens. I chopped up a lot and put it in a bowl with some Fra Diavalo jar sauce. I microwaved that and poured it over the pizza for a quick “Bachelor’s Lasagna.” LOL

I looked in the drawers of movies for something mindless.

Robin Hood—Men in Tights…ridiculous, but I laughed out loud often. That is a good thing!


I’m given these carts of old books to go through. 99% are worthless—destined to roll off to Books by the Foot for Interior Designer use.

Which of these books look valuable?

Cart of Books

Well, the vellum is a giveaway, isn’t it?

It feels so good to hold such a beautiful and old object. It is in nearly perfect condition.

Vellum Italian Book

Dr Dolittle…one of my all-time favorites, and one of the first things I ever took from a library. It is a first edition. No jacket. The interior hinges are starting to split.

Not much money, but I’m NOT sending Hugh Lofting to Books by the Foot!

Brandeis Book Outside

This dull blue thing. What made me pull it from a cart? Once closer to my face, I could make out the word Palestine on the spine. The gilt was nearly worn off.

Not very exciting at all. Very old general histories are usually considered “dated”…LOL “dated” …

Why did I even bother to open this one? I flipped to the copyright page out of habit to check to see if it was first. Not that that would matter much.

Opposite that, I saw the dedication page. There was an inscription and a signature. That likely meant it was the “Dedication Copy.” Nice, but not a big deal for a general history.

I deciphered the word “Judge” and decided to look more closely. The “Judge” was Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis!

Brandeis Book Dedication

Why did I look into this humble book?

Was my hand guided by a greater force? My Book Muse?

Maybe I have a bit of “Divvie” in me?

Maybe it was just luck, and I actually miss a lot of things like this!


Oddly, I came across two other dedication copies this week.

One is this humble Oxford University Press book of criticism of poetry. The author writes on the dedication page to her husband.

Poems in Progress

The other was a rediscovery of book Barbara Mertz must have given me years ago. She and Charlotte MacLeod were great pals. When she was so sick for so many years, Barbara helped her—financially too, I think. Charlotte dedicated this to Joan Hess, who was another great friend of Barbara’s. Joan must have sent it to Barbara years ago.

The Grub and Stakes House a Haunt

Dedication copies are by definition quite rare. There should only be one per book, obviously. Unless maybe the book was dedicated to multiple people.

That got me to thinking about my own dedication copy.

Guardian of the Horizon

How emotional I got when Barbara presented this to me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t put my hands on my own signed copy. Don’t worry. I know it is safe at home or in my office or in the old Pennsylvania house.

Actually, I vaguely recall I have two! Is that cheating? I believe during one gin infused evening, I asked her to inscribe a second copy. I have 2 boys after all.

A friend from the Weinberg emailed this image:

Princess Bride Marquee

Masks are indeed in style now!

That got me thinking about the movie.

Mark Knopfler—who began this story—did the iconic soundtrack.

Indeed, my love for you is like a storybook story…

In the blackness of April 19th’s early morning hours, I awoke—as I do every night nowadays. A couple good thoughts came. I’ve learned to write them down if I have enough energy, for they are almost always gone in the morning.

I’ve written may be 20—maybe more—Do I Miss You “poems.” I could soon make a book of them. (Vanity press, of course.)

Do I Miss You

Do I miss you?
Does warm blood pulse beneath my skin?
When I wake in the dark hours
whose eyes do I see in the blackness?

Do I miss you…

[to be continued]

And I also scratched this out on the yellow legal pad:

The Book is my needle
The Book is my bottle
It is my uncontrollable lust

The Book is my love
It is a soft caress
My dawn and sunset

I am a glutton
for the Book
And a connoisseur

[to be continued]

6 Comments on Article

  1. Charlie Downs commented on

    Chuck – The best way to get rid of groundhogs is to put a 220 Conibear body trap over the hole. When they stick their head out of the hole and into the trap, it snaps shut over their body and kills them. To avoid catching cats and other things you don’t want to catch, put a wash tub or wooden box over the trap weighted down by something heavy on top. This definitely works.

    1. chuck replied on

      Thanks Charlie. I will look into that
      Thanks for reading and writing!

  2. Gregory commented on

    It is futile to expect any war against nature to be ultimately “won.” Groundhogs keep being born, and the new ones don’t know that you’ve already beaten them.

    And look at your later quote about how humans have become so successful that they’re (we’re) now ripe for a novel infectious disease. That’s another case of victory against nature (diseases)… only for a while.

    Keep up the fight against the groundhogs, but perhaps hum “The Impossible Dream” while you’re doing it.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Gregory.
      I’ll keep up the battle as a “glorious Quest”…LOL.

      Thank you for reading and commenting

  3. I can just see you turning into Bill Murray in Caddieshack scheming against the gophers

    1. chuck replied on

      I will never surrender until they pry the last gin bottle from my cold dead hand

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