Dirty Hands


Cold Monday morning. There’s a big chunk of wood smoldering in the woodstove. Likely the last fires of the season will be this week. At least it didn’t freeze last night. More than half the potted plants are outside.

The forest is greening up. The first tender tiny leaves are light green—usually lime green. The redbuds are nearly done blooming. It wasn’t a great year for them up here. But now they are unfolding their heart-shaped leaves. The dogwood I planted about 12 years ago is magnificent though. I have a couple other ones I planted at the same time. They’ve grown well but don’t bloom. The gardens are greening up as well as more perennials are emerging from their dormancy under the earth. The huge patches of hay-scented ferns are unfurling their croziers.

Spring is maturing.

There’s so much to do—outside and inside.

And at work.

How should I spend my time?

I want to stay relevant as long as I can.

It was a dirty dusty weekend at the warehouse this weekend. Yet again, I spent two full days sifting through old books on carts.

I was driven. I pushed myself.


They are there and need attention. I’m the only one of the 120 or so employees who can make instant decisions on many items.


I’ve seen and sold millions of them over the years. I’m wired to remember the things that do well, are desirable and what is chaff.

Much of what I went through was old stuff. Dates codes on many of them read 2008. 2009. Ancient history in online bookselling. They’d been lost in an eddy in one of the antiquarian rooms—likely during our move to this warehouse in 2013-14.

The treasures that popped up pretty often inspired me to keeping digging.

Lost Antiquarian Books

Dirty. Dusty.

It doesn’t look promising, does it?

Well, there were lots of treasures.

Many were pamphlety things. A clutch U S Government communist investigations during the 1950s. HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) stuff.

HUAC Pamphlets

On the other side, a nice copy of the Alsop brothers We Accuse! A first edition of their defense of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

We Accuse!

Two carts filled up for Annika’s attention.

Carts for Annika

She has a backlog of thousands of items now. I’ve worked with her to prioritize the better material.

The African American and jazz material continues to flow in as well. I suspect these are from the same person. Those will be a feature of what we are bringing to the Capital Rare Book Fair next week.

It is all so overwhelming.

It is all so much fun.

This sammelband is cool. It’s been here in hiding for 16 years or more. It contains four novels. The first is by Thackeray. Not William, but Miss Anne Thackeray—his daughter. Nothing special.

Flipping through, I found the title page of the second. Villette by Currer Bell. Currer Bell is the pen name for Charlotte Bronte. The third novel—nothing. The fourth is Charles Dickens’s New Christmas Story—Dr. Marigold’s Prescriptions. “Price 10 Cents.”

Maybe most impressive were two first editions by Gandhi. Printed in India in the early 1950s, the subjects were Satyagraha (Non-Violent Resistance) and Non-Violence in Peace & War. The first could have been had for “Rupees Five and Annas Eight.”

Gandhi Books

I pushed myself and made thousands of decisions.

A lot of the more ephemeral things will go to the stores to be priced and hung up in bags.

I left Sunday afternoon dusty and dirty and mentally drained.

Dusty and Dirty

That night, I picked up a book lying around the house—Shakespeare and That Crush by Richard Dark, who must have been an Oxford don or something, as the book was published by Basil Blackwell…

It is a short parody history of English literature, likely modeled after 1066 and All That by Sellar and Yeatman. That is a parody history of England published the year before.

I read the latter as a kid and remember laughing out loud—but also learning a lot.

The former fell open to the chapter explaining the evolution from Classic to Romantic poetry eras. This paragraph cracked me up but also struck me as quite true:

Now the old Romans, grand fellows in their way, had been first-class lawyers and road-makers, but as poets they mostly failed to ring the bell. Genuine poetry, if you understand us, is a matter of urge and inspiration; it sweeps over you in a sort of wave, till you feel you’ve simply got to throw it off your chest or burst. In other words, a real poet writes poetry to save his life. But writing poetry in Latin is more like fitting together the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle than anything else…

I went back and started at the beginning and have laughed my way through most of it.

Tuesday morning

I wish I could have many hours back. Hours wasted on the phone scrolling through pictures and clicking on “news” stories that are just bait about someone’s agony or embarrassment.

I awoke at 4:30 after crashing early last night. I told myself, “This will be a productive morning. I will get a lot of writing done.”

Well, I did put down a journal entry of some substance. Then I made the mistake of going to get my phone off the charger. Put the teakettle on. Let the dogs out. Took a few potted plants out and water them. Stirred up the woodstove. Brought in a big chunk of wood to smolder for a day. Wrangled that into the firebox, twisting and turning it until it was shoehorned in. Crawled back into bed.

“I’ll just peek at the news. I’ll just do some quick posts to the Instagram…”

Now somehow it is 7 a.m.

It is a cold morning. 40 degrees. I was too beat to mess with the fire last night, and why would I? It was nearly 70 degrees when I got home yesterday. Fortunately, the iron top was still a little warm to the touch, and looking in, I saw the big chunk I’d put in Sunday was now a little chunk but with an orange glow underneath.

Monday was a blur.

First, I rose early and went out and planted 25 “Statuesque Asiatic Lilies.” Only about 100 left to go in.

Clif was off. Eric, the kid who helps with the warehouse, was out til afternoon.

Mondays—we have to get empty vans to all three stores. Some stores need more than one. We also need to deliver fresh stock and supplies to each of them. Then there were all the boxes and tubs of books that had been generated over the weekend.

A bookseller friend was planning to visit the Hagerstown store for a large wholesale haul. He guessed he would pick out 120 boxes or so and “could we bring 100 empties up there?”

That brought an additional van into play.

Books by the Foot had some “aging” and urgent orders they needed sooner than later. Someone needed a big box of scifi paperbacks for their wedding. (I have no idea.)

Ernest went to Gaithersburg.

Andrew took a vanload of empty boxes to Hagerstown.

I went to the Frederick store.

That left no regular help in the warehouse. The work there was mitigated some because I had pulled two book sorters and reassigned them to other duties.


We have a major problem. We are going through the “raw” books so fast now that I can see we might run out. Adding to that, we don’t seem to be getting the influx of books like we usually do in the spring.

That causes worry to hover over me.


Unknown new competition? A change in people’s manner of unloading their books?


At the Frederick store, I pulled a bunch of duplicates and old stock from mystery, scifi, literature, romance, general fiction and returned to the warehouse with one of their two full vans.

I turned around and returned with two empty vans—Andrew driving one. We returned in the full van together, leaving two more empty vans there.

That’s when I saw the huge backlog of carts that needed my attention. I sat on a stool and sped through them. There was an interesting collection on Kentucky rifles and other primitive American firearms. Someone had been a boatbuilder apparently. Books about building model and full size craft came to hand.

Do people still build model ships? In bottles?

Lots of unusual chess books too.

So my day was ending the way my weekend had gone—books on carts.

My “plan” had been to catch up on paperwork. Statements. Bills for some books. Tedious stuff.

The groves of warehouse trees planted last fall are leafing out. I despaired about many of them, as they were planted in a hot drought. But I see only a few that might not survive. The baby dogwoods are blooming.

I’m proud of the 100 or more new trees put in due the new warehouse buildings project. City code prescribes how many trees must go in around the new buildings. We were also required to either pay an offset for the scrub trees in what was a vacant lot in an industrial park or plant new ones in their stead. I chose the more expensive path of planted new ones around the existing warehouse. So the future will hold two little groves on the Wonder Book warehouse property that will mature into two tiny forests.

Eventually, it will mean no more grass mowing. And I’m sure I won’t be able to resist planting more stuff in among them.


The birds awoke me before 6, even with the windows are closed against the chill.

A smoldering fire in the woodstove kept the house warm last night.

Tuesday, I planted more lilies before going to work. I took the truck down because I knew I wanted to pick up some compost for new beds in the gardens.

Bookseller friends from DC had come to the Hagerstown store on Monday. They had pulled about 100 boxes of general stock for resale. We give them a deep discount, as their visits are therapeutic for the bookstore. Culling is necessary for a healthy store, as pruning is necessary for healthy gardens.

I thought it imperative we get their boxes to the warehouse and segregated and labeled so they don’t get mixed up with our other stock.

One box of books looks much like another.

So I went to gather up the van dedicated to their pulls and brought it back.

For some reason, I started feeling like crap during the day. (Long COVID’s tentacles still messing with me?)

I just wanted to go home and play in the yard. Instead, I went to the nearby Southern States Farm Cooperative. It is a throwback store that hasn’t changed since the 1950s or before.

Hundreds of baby chicks were in galvanized tubs under heat lamps.

“Peeppeeppeep…” filled the air.

I picked out some tomato plants—and peppers. The price has gone up dramatically. Last year was a failure for some reason. I also bought two 5-pound bags of seed potatoes. Those I should have gotten in March, but it slipped my mind. I really enjoyed the small harvest of freshly dug taters I got last year.

I pulled around back to their dockyard, and one of the old guys who has been there forever tossed the bags of compost into the truck for me.

I forced myself to do some book chores before dragging myself home about 4. I just wanted to lie down and read, but it was a beautiful afternoon.

The bags of compost were unloaded onto the beds, where I will mix them into the hard soil.

I got the Husqvarna weed whip out and had to put new plastic string on the coil—a tedious task. Then I knocked down a lot of the early spring weeds around the property.

I really didn’t want to plant the potatoes, but I forced myself.

I cut the big ones up into sections with at least a couple of eyes each. I slammed the hand adze into the soft earth in the beds below the dog pen time after time. Eventually, all were underground, and I felt I’d earned the right to go inside to heat some leftovers for dinner.

Most of the potted plants are out now. Some of the very large pots I have not girded my loins to hump out yet. (That sounds terrible.) In the little back room that gets taken over by tables of potted plants every winter, I was rewarded by a huge white amaryllis blooming in a pot it shares all years with a cactus.


I’ve found these bulbs are easiest to keep alive when they share a pot with another plant. They need no attention. They go out during the spring and come in during the fall. And they often reward me with colorful surprises like this.

Now it is Thursday. Giles awoke me around 3. Whining softly, I thought he needed to go out. When I went back out to get him in, I saw the big recycling container had been flipped over and dumped. A bear had passed through and scented something in it. There’s no food or leftovers, so maybe a can or jar had enough smell left. That was likely what agitated Giles. He wouldn’t settle down. I took him outside to his pen. I closed all the interior doors and put earplugs in. I could still hear his whining and barking.

No sleep tonight…

Wednesday was another day where my best intentions were foiled by circumstances beyond my control.

Book pressure mostly.

I had to escape, and somehow I thought getting a load of mulch from the county landfill would be a good idea. It is only a 10-minute drive. You pull onto a scale, and they weigh your vehicle. Then you drive to their mountains of mulch, and a guy comes and fills you up.

Landfill Mulch

Then you go to the exit scale and get weighed. This truckload cost me $11.

When I got home, I pulled onto the mulch lane I put in last year and began shoveling the black stuff onto some bare yard.

I noticed the Jack-in-the-pulpit in bloom and saw it had produced a couple dozen babies! That is gratifying work.

I carried the rest of the upstairs potted plants out.

Now I need to arrange them.

There are still some giant pots downstairs…


Friday, April 26th

The weeks go by too fast. I will regret that someday.

And this month? Almost gone.

Did I do enough? Spend my time wisely?

I may know that someday.

A local production company Falling Squares started a video series called “Aisles of Wonder” where artists visit one of the Wonder Book store locations and talk about a few books/movies/music that inspired them. The first one with Frederick Filmmaker Jordan Miller has racked up a lot of “likes” on social media sites. I’m not sure when the next one comes out, but this is the first of a ten episode “season.”

Watch Here.

Last week’s shoutout to the Merlin birdsong identifier app may be the best service I’ve given here. I received some comments about how wonderful it is from people who tried it and testimonials from some who already knew about it.

It is amazing. Free. Simple (a necessity for me.) Dazzlingly informative…

This week, I heard a red-eyed vireo, barred owl, blue-gray gnatcatcher, ruby-crowned kinglet and great-crested flycatcher.

I confess I didn’t see them! They’re not the type that visit the feeders. But I’m inspired. If I find the time, I’ll get the binoculars out and go bird hunting.

I’m pretty satisfied with my labors. I know I could have done more.

The gardens are a joy. So many successes. So few failures.

So much to do.

It is amazing how much bare dirt and waste space around the house has been transformed into (mostly) walled beds.

I can blame COVID for a part of it. During those dark days, there wasn’t much else for me to do but haul stone, enrich the soil and put in plants.

I enjoy walking around and discovering what is up and what is in bloom.


What’s next?

I have most of a load of mulch in truck left to spread.

While most of the potted plants are outside, I have set many on saucers and arranged them.

Some of the descendants of Barbara’s epiphyllum cactus are in bloom! I’ve had great success propagating them. Indeed, I’ve given many away to her friends and mine.

4 Comments on Article

  1. Gary Fowler commented on

    Saw and enjoyed the video. Thanks! Was also glad to get more views of the store. So much great stuff being “rescued.” Take care, please.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Gary!
      I’m anxious to see the next one!

  2. Kath commented on

    I am a big supporter and fan of Wonder Book (and your blog) and I am troubled to hear that you are worried. Please let me know if there is anything we can do to help!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Kath – for your concern and affection for Wonder Book!
      My job (and my nature) is to worry too much.
      It is always too much of this or to little of that …
      You can tell friends and family about Wonder Book – that is the best kind of help.
      Thank you so much for reading and writing!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *