Diary of a Plague—Week 2

Wash Your Hands

But lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important
Well, mister, they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don’t remember

Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse

—Bruce Springsteen—The River

4 am, Friday, March 27, 2020

The daffodils on the mountain are full bloom. More waves of mid and late season varieties will open, glow and fade in April into May. Nature moves in its eternal times and rhythms.

The human world has changed its habits and paces. Humanity at this time is not natural, not normal.


Thursday, March 26

It is near closing time. The week has been surreal for everyone everywhere.

I can finally sit down on the plush red sofa in my office and try to put together the story of this week—the second week.

For me, it has been a dream. I’ve been moving on a plane I’ve never trod before. It has been nightmarish in some instances. I’ve been in an altered state all week—trying to function under extreme duress.

I try to think of a hook, a way to begin this story. My hands hover above the keyboard of my laptop.

There’s nothing there.

My mind has been pulled in so many directions. I’ve had to make so many decisions. There are so many undercurrents of worry for today, tomorrow, the near term and the future.

I cannot shed those things from my head to put coherent words down.

I closed my laptop. I slipped on sweatpants. I pulled the 12-year-old Buffalo Sabres hoodie over my head. Its cuffs are frayed. It is stained and has a few holes in it. I remember exactly when I bought it. My son had a soccer tournament in Rochester, New York. It became chilly. I went to an outlet store nearby and picked it up on sale. I was born and grew up near Buffalo. I move away before the Sabres were created. I thought it would be cool to have—in a pinch—even though I am a Washington Capitals fan.

…there is no hockey!! The NHL regular season should be ending, and the exciting weeks of playoffs beginning.

No hockey…

I pulled on heavy boots. I double knotted the laces so a snag wouldn’t untie them.

I went out the warehouse door to my truck. I drove up the grassy hill to the 7-acre lot we own adjacent to the warehouse. Long, long ago this industrial park was a farm. This must have been a rocky pasture. Scrub trees have grown up in it. It gets mowed four or five times a year to keep the weeds down. When this gets developed—as it surely must—it is just a vacant lot in the middle of an industrial park—this will become a warehouse building. Maybe a book warehouse attached to the existing Wonder book warehouse.

I parked near the trees I planned to drop. I dropped the tailgate. I twisted open one cap on my Husqvarna saw (one of three I own.) I poured the gas/oil mix fuel into that. I twisted off a second cap and poured the chain oil into that. It started right up. I stepped to the tree. It’s not a species I recognized out of leaf. I live in a forest; I know a lot of trees. My property is designated a conservation zone. I’m surrounded by the vast Frederick Watershed wild lands.

I angled the saw, and it bit into through the bark and into the wood. Water gushed out. Nearly a half gallon of liquid sprayed from the cut in an arc—like a fan. I’ve never seen anything like that. It was almost Biblical. An arboreal gusher. I stepped back til it stopped. It was a beautiful bright spring day in the 60’s. I guess the sap was rising in the trees as it has for millions of years. The tree dropped to the ground soundlessly. The headphones I was wearing and the puttering of the saw muffled its fall.

I stepped to another, a cherry which had 7 big forks about six feet off the ground. I sliced through one fork after another, and they fell away at seven different angles…like the Seven Dials in London. The road junction in Covent Garden where 7 roads converge.

I stepped back as if struck physically. The Zen-like reverie of woodcutting was gone, and I thought—when will I ever go to London again?


I want to go somewhere.

I want to have a proper Martini at a bar.

I’d like to have a fancy dinner at a table with white linen tablecloth and napkins.

I’d like to go to a hotel with a sprawling bed, a wide plain crisp whites sheets.

I’d like to go to a theater and listen to music or watch dancers or laugh or have my heart strings tugged.

I’d like to go to my bookstores and greet employees and customers and praise the good things and encourage improvements to areas that need attention.


I cut up the fallen wood into stove lengths—about 24″ is the longest. I backed the big black Dodge Ram pickup near the stumps.

A friend had joined. We chatted from a social distance as I dragged the branches away and stacked them. She handed me a can of Loose Cannon double IPA at a safe arm’s length. I was wearing gloves. She sat crosslegged on a grassy tuffet.

(I never imagined using that word! Tuffet! Little Miss Muffett…LOL!)

We chatted about the past, present and future while I tossed logs into the back of the truck.

The sun was starting to go down.

Wood & IPA

I went home. I put my sad bachelor meal of 3 very old frozen slices of pizza wrapped in foil into the oven. I went out to the “barn” and stacked the wood I’d cut.

Stacked Wood

I went back in and microwaved some Fra Diavolo tomato sauce. I took my peasant meal into the great room and turn on the TV. No news. I can’t take any more news. I put a DVD on. Howl’s Moving Castle. I dip the pizza into the sauce. I sip some wine and float away for a while.


It is 5 am Friday. I will try to sleep for an hour or so before going in to see what new challenges this day brings.


It is 830 am at the warehouse. The usually full parking lot is this morning sparsely populated. Another Friday, I’m making my rounds in the 130,000 square foot warehouse and figuring out whom to send to which stores. There are no more stores, so the vans won’t go anywhere. It is payroll Friday. I cannot remember ever not delivering the checks to the stores. I picked up this payroll outside the accountant’s back door on Wednesday. It was wrapped in plastic and left outside in a cooler for safety.

Payroll Cooler

I took all the paychecks to the post office yesterday and put them in the mailbox for safety. A day early. I’m glad I bought all those commemorative stamps a while back. That was a LOT of checks to mail.

The next payroll will be much, much smaller.

What will I do today? I’ve spent the week brainstorming and in meetings trying to figure what’s best. The people who are here have asked to work. Some in tears. Some in rage. We are trying to figure out projects for everyone. We turned off all the websites except WonderBook.com. If we get shut down with orders waiting to be shipped, we would likely be out of business—forever. You can only get so many bad feedbacks for not delivering paid orders before you’re kicked off some of mega-seller platforms. Forever.

We are clearly not here today for money.

What will I do today?

Write this.


Last week’s book story, The Keeper of the Books and Journal of the Plague Year, ended with me wondering if we’d be shut down. Two stores had closed, but a few staff continued working behind locked doors on projects. The people at the Gaithersburg store asked to stay open. Social distancing was enforced. If anyone brought books in, we did “No Touch Buying.” The seller was required to unload their stuff onto the sidewalk. A buyer would go out and appraise them from a distance.

My weekend was pretty normal. I came in with my two Jack Russells—Merry and Pippin. I closed the dockyard gates, and they stayed out all day in the vast space. Occasionally, I’d go out and give them treats. I’d throw golf balls across the 150 yards or so of pavement. They have always instinctually chased and retrieved anything I throw. They never tire. I do.

I worked on carts. Mostly old books. I had DirectTV on my laptop. I listened and occasionally watched Rocky. Rocky 2. Rocky 3

I don’t recall anything real exciting.

I don’t recall much about the weekend.

When I couldn’t take any more, I brought the boys inside and corralled them with books carts and tubs. They could spend the night and guard the warehouse. A few weeks ago, they escaped their enclosure and left a couple messes in the 3 acre warehouse. A couple people went ballistic. I don’t get it. They’re only about 20 pounds. Their messes are tiny little things. This weekend I’ll put up a couple pens. They’ll never escape again. People will find something else to complain about me. It goes with the territory.

Sunday was pretty much the same. But at the end of the day, another dog was brought down so he could exercise in the dockyard. I went and got Roy Rogers fried chicken from the drive through, and we had a little picnic on the steel table outside the warehouse back door.


Monday, March 22

There was a feeling of impending doom for some reason. Maryland’s Governor Larry Hogan was to give an address at 11 am. We went to the Frederick store. It was closed. Three employees were working on projects in the 11,000 square foot space. Ernest and I went to different parts of the store to pull orders and do therapeutic culls. I had a news radio station playing on the iPhone in my pocket. At 11, the Governor said he was closing all non-essential businesses at 5 pm. That gave us a little over 5 hours to button things up for…however long this takes.

I went back to the warehouse. I went around telling people we were closing at 5. The staff was pretty small already. I’ve made clear for about two weeks that anyone who didn’t feel comfortable working should not come in.

There were tears from some people. A couple people flew into a rage.

It was clear to me some people “needed” to work. Some to put food on the table—many of the folks here live from paycheck to paycheck. I could tell from others that they “needed” a place to go. They needed to be here.

A manager printed out the guidelines for businesses staying open. The list was pretty confusing. Liquor stores, convenience stores, pet stores, big box stores, lawyers, accountants…

One line read simply: Warehousing and distribution companies.

We are clearly a warehouse and distribution facility. Hell, this place used to be a post office distribution facility for the entire region.

The sand in the hourglass was draining rapidly.

I reached out to my attorney.

I announced in small groups in the building that we would try to stay open Tuesday and see what happens. I emphasized that anyone should go home now if they don’t want to be here.

Tuesday

About a quarter of the staff showed up. We had strict social distancing and sanitizing guidelines since this started. We ramped that up.

Then…there was a problem. A number of employees—most not working were upset we were trying to stay open. They felt they couldn’t get unemployment if they weren’t laid off.

I had no idea that was a thing!

The government—Federal and State—was making all kinds of assurances that everyone would be taken care of financially and with healthcare, etc. But they were dithering. Would the first payment be in weeks or months?

People were also worried about their healthcare.

We didn’t know. No one knew. This was all uncharted territory. The healthcare company seemed to be saying that healthcare would continue to be covered for 12 weeks. 12 weeks is an eternity in the current environment. I told the managers to tell people we would pay the health care premiums as long as we could if it was needed.

It was then I had my test.

We had one more meeting with the staff. We did it twice to keep the groups small. I told them to please do whatever they wanted. We would cover in the short term until the governments make up their minds and do what they are promising. You can leave right now, and we won’t stand in the way of unemployment. It is our understanding the health care will carry on for 12 weeks. But we don’t know. No one knows. Things are changing constantly for all this.

I got a little personal. I told them how much it hurt to close the stores after 39 and a half years. I told them there were 5 people still employed who had started in the 1980s—including me. I told them we should all be proud of what we’ve done—our mission. I told them we would go day to day. We would find things to keep them busy if necessary—and at social distances.

I can’t remember what else I said. But there were some tears. Two people I barely know came toward me and said they’d give me a hug if it wasn’t against the rules.

I had passed a test. What the test was, I’m…not sure.

One manager told me Barnes and Noble was still open to the public. Supposedly someone’s philosophy there was that books were essential.


It is Wednesday 3 a.m.

The new normal waking at 2 or 3 or 4.

I look at my phone and read the numbers. There is something wrong with the math in the world. From China to Italy to Washington state to Maryland to Frederick County. Nothing adds up. Nothing makes sense.

Tuesday Clif and Ernest drove to Hagerstown once and Gaithersburg twice to retrieve the vans that are always parked there to accept book buys. They went together and returned separately. When that was done, I drove them both to the Frederick store so they could bring those two vans to the warehouse. Now the entire “fleet” is in the dockyard at the book warehouse.

Wonder Book Fleet

This is a first. And actually there is another van that is away at the repair shop.

When will they go back to the stores where they belong? When will the sellers come back and open their trunks to reveal 6 boxes of junky books? … Or maybe 9 grocery bags of glowing Easton Press, Brodarted gleaming modern firsts, warm, soft vintage leather-bound books?

Lisbon! I’m supposed to fly there this weekend!

Lisbon Travel Guide

When I went in Wednesday morning, I went to AA.com. I typed in my reservation code. A page came up expressing their concern for our safety, etc… If I wanted to cancel my reservation, just click this button. There will be no penalty. I pushed the button, and a page came up. “Your reservation has been canceled.”


Thursday

The Irish order was picked up to go to a warehouse in New Jersey. I’d spoken with them Tuesday, and they said they were still open under that state’s guidelines. Maybe they’ll get to Galway in a few weeks, and Charlie and John will have something to keep them busy.

I reached out to my colleagues in the ABAA and offered 50% off any purchase of items $10 or higher from the website. I offered 90 days or more to pay.

We are currently offering a sale online to the public as well. 25% off 5 or more items. Everything listed is postpaid with the 48 contiguous states.

In the black nights, I’ve been transposing a lot of verse from legal pads. When I “type” one up, I mark that page with a big “DONE” in marker. I email the thing to myself. When I get in, I print two copies off. One for the archive in my office. One for home.

Some of these things are years old. Memories, emotions, pains, joys all flow up from weeks or years ago.

They weren’t forgotten. But this exercise freshened them. Maybe I’ll stick one at the end of this. I’ll look for a happy one.

I imagine I’ll be catching up on a lot of things in the coming weeks.

I’ve been too busy to send off this pile of bookplates and bookseller tags to a colleague that loves them.

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They come from books that have fallen apart or for whatever would be destroyed otherwise.

LOL—nose to tail bookselling.


Friday

It is almost 12. I’ll be heartbroken if this doesn’t go out today. I’m not ready to break the streak.

So, I’ll cut it short.

I’ve got to go out and check on a highschooler here who putting law books on top shelves to make space on the warehouse floor. It’s kind of busy work.

Shelving Lawbooks

If anyone ever needs a mile of law books, I bet we could do that.

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(WHY, OH WHY, do I keep saying yes to law firms wanting to unload their libraries? I guess I’m a book optimist. Someone will want them someday—for decorative purposes.)

What will I be doing over the weekend?

That routine will remain unchanged. I’ll come in with Merry and Pippin. They’ll cavort out in the dockyard all weekend.

I’ll work on carts. Looking for treasures—diamonds, emeralds, garnets and gravel—all bound in boards and filled with leaves of paper.


Here’s a happy memory I stumbled upon:

Memory
One is pretending to be a bookseller. Who are the other two?

16 Comments on Article

  1. Norv commented on

    Warehouse USPS security windows: just enough space for cameras or a catwalk where you can perhaps store books? Flowering hillside looks great! Now to rummage through wonderbk….

    1. chuck replied on

      You’ve been there!
      The catwalk is closed per code.
      Thanks you for reading and commenting!
      Happy treasure hunting!
      Chuck

  2. Zen commented on

    (PRIVATE: name/email address/ if possible)…
    Thank You, Mr. C. Roberts,
    so incredibly much, for posting your blog this evening. I was so grateful to find your words there, online, as I listened to “Van, the Man, Morrison”
    crooning “Hymns to the Silence” ….and so much more…and I found my center, my peace, my joy, in YOUR words. I feel I join the many readers of your blog as I search for a constant, a beacon of sense, in this increasingly surreal world.
    Please know how very much we patrons of your stores and stories, your “cause and purpose”, are grateful for your continued and no doubt exhausting efforts to maintain connection with your patrons. I am, no doubt like many, surviving this “madness” thanks to my past patronage of Wonder Book and Video….between reading/rereading and watching/
    watching yet again favorite DVDs purchased at Wonder Book….I carry on, thanks to YOU and YOUR VISION . Carry on, CR, carry on! We will see the “other side” of this temporary madness.
    I LOOK FORWARD TO SEARCHING THE STACKS SOON, many, many thanks to you for keeping words, stories, songs, video, dvds alive…it matters so very much, especially now.- RTH <3

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      What beautiful words and sentiments.
      Thank you so much for reading and composing such wonderful comments.
      It is thoughts like yours that makes me think we will all be ok. I hope it is soon
      Thank you, thank you!
      Chuck

  3. I think I have felt many of your moments the past couple of weeks Chuck. Thanks for expressing them out loud. I enjoyed the few minutes distraction from my own pondering on how long all the stores can be closed.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Joe.
      We are certainly in a place none of us ever anticipated.
      I hope we are both back to selling and buying books very soon.
      I really appreciate your taking the time to read and comment.
      Best
      Chuck

  4. Chuck, i moved to Middletown in 1985 with my family in tow. I found your wonderful video/book stores and was addicted. You became a part of our family..
    Unknowingly. Upon my husband’s passing i returned to Florida, unable to get my life back there in Frederick. But i stay with you there at Wonder Book..reading, seeing, experiencing the life i miss so very much. Thank you for the years of beautiful experiences…just walking the aisles of your stores and breathing in the books…heaven.
    Stay safe and well. God bless us everyone.
    Linda Vopicka

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Hi Linda, I remember you very well!
      I am sorry for your loss.
      It is so good to hear from you.
      Your comments are a blessing and encouragement to carry on.
      Thank you for reading and taking the time to write.
      God Bless us everyone – indeed!
      Best
      Chuck

  5. Geoffrey Hughes commented on

    Chuck, Lisbon would have been great, but it will still be there when this is over. Wise move, since you probably couldn’t get back. When this is all over, we’ll have that martini (or two), and catch a band. Meantime, I’ll indulge my addiction, and in my addled state probably buy back some of the books you bought from me.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Geoff!
      I’m looking forward to getting back to living fully.
      Order soon!
      We don’t know how long we will be here.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!
      C

  6. Charlie Downs commented on

    Difficult times indeed. My daughter-in-law says that at her hospital (will not name) they have had PUI patienst (Patients under investigation) for up to 9 days and still no results from the COVID-19 tests. This is getting crazier by the day. I am glad to see that your hard work in planting the daffodils paid off. I ordered a bunch of seeds for the garden last week since I need something to keep me occupied. Hang in there and stay healthy!
    Charlie

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Charlie. I look forward to gardening soon.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!
      Best
      Chuck

  7. Debbie Schnibbe commented on

    Chuck,
    Just want to say you have gone out of your way to help the employees. Thank you. I can not imagine the turmoil this has been for you. I hope that we are all be back to work soon. I will miss not coming in and seeing friends and co-workers, that includes you. Stay strong and optimistic.
    Hope you will continue the blog with some of your wonderful stories.
    Debbie

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Debbie.
      I miss all you guys already!
      I hope we are all back where we want to be soon!
      Thank you for reading and commenting.
      Chuck

  8. Emily S commented on

    I am so proud to work for your company. I know you have done and continue to do everything in your power to help your employees and to keep the business going.

    Thank you. I feel like everyone is trying their best right now. It reminds me of when I was young and I would tell my dad, “I can’t do this. It’s too hard. I’m too small, the world is too big…” (You get the idea). He woops always tell me “Can’t never tried.” My dad considered can’t to be the worst four letter word there was. I was to rip it out of my vocabulary.

    These past days I think back on that and say to myself: I can. I will. I must. I’ll try.

    I have been reading a lot of poetry this week to give my brain something to do and this one speaks to me. Edna is my favorite and I know many by heart. This is from Second April.

    “To what purpose, April, do you return again?
    Beauty is not enough.
    You can no longer quiet me with the redness
    Of little leaves opening stickily.
    I know what I know.”
    From Spring, by Edna St Vincent Millay

    Keep trying Chuck. You’re doing a great job already. I’m proud to be a part of your team.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Dear Emily,
      Your words really help.
      It is so sad … all the books just waiting…
      I miss all the folks here who work so hard for the books and the mission.
      I hope we can all be playing with books again.
      Thank you SO MUCH for reading the story and taking the time to comment
      Chuck

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