The last story was so long and drawn out. The trip around perimeter of Iceland was epic.
It is an epic land. A land with a long history of epic tales.
When I returned, I was 8 days behind.
Iceland was very cold and wet. Maryland was very hot and dry. The warehouse gardens are wilting. I can hand water the two beds by the door. The other gardens are on their own. There must be 50 sunflowers. Some planted by nature from last year’s flowers; others I pushed the seeds in the ground last spring. Some are nearly 15 feet tall. Goldfinches are already feeding on the mature seed heads. They cling to the disc of seeds and pluck one at a time. The males are brilliant yellow and black in the summer. In the fall, their plumage changes to dun brown.
The building is overwhelmed. It is like an island under assault by waves and waves of books. Some nights we leave boxes of books outside under overhangs. (We check to make there are no storms forecast first.)
We are trying to think of ways to throttle back the numbers coming to our stores. We can stop or reduce the size of The Washington Post Books Wanted ads.
We can’t simply refuse books people have loaded and driven to our stores.
From an emotional standpoint, the stress is…stressful.
From an emotional point, any book we refuse is likely to be destroyed.
From an emotional point—if we refuse a box or a carload or house call—it may contain wondrous things that shouldn’t be destroyed.
Thursday 12:30 p.m.
93 degrees, according to the phone.
It says it will be 100 come 3 p.m.
We have plenty of water.
We give the people here bottled water. There are 8 refrigerators placed throughout the building.
The watercoolers are still turned off. COVID.
Barrel fans are blowing wherever they are needed. Every desk or station has a personal fan.
The building proper stays relatively cool. It is 72 degrees right now on August 12th. I was told it was because the Post Office poured 10-foot thick floors. If the building was going to heat up, it would have by now.
The loading docks can get hot. The doors are opening and closing frequently. There’s no way to insulate dock doors. But it is only 82 degrees on the docks right now.
Not bad for a “warehouse” environment.
We are constantly unloading things from outside and bringing them inside.
We are taking things out of the building and putting them into vehicles very often.
Last night, Larry dropped off a load at 6 p.m. He texted me a picture and a box and item count.
103 boxes regular. 3 boxes antique. 1 magazine. Artwork. 8 boxes knick-knacks.
I assume it is an estate he picked up on our behalf.
When I came in this morning, I took a pricing gun (it dispenses stickers with numbers on them) and labeled all the artwork and knick-knacks. That way, they didn’t need to be brought inside. They could be put right into a van and sent to the store.
Some of the pictures I priced under $5. Some close to $100. One I didn’t price was a topless photo from the 80s—a small foam core backed poster. That couldn’t go on display at the stores.
I’d forgotten about til one of the guys asked if he could buy the picture on Dock 1.
“Sure. A buck?”
Clif will be off Friday. That means I’ll be the warehouse manager that day. We are trying to get the truck and some vans ready to supply the three stores tomorrow. Anything that gets prepped for tomorrow is one less thing that might land at my feet.
Have I whined before that we are out of space?
We filled this building not long after we moved in during 2014. The spare loading docks (out of 21 we only use 9) have trailers backed permanently to them. They are all full.
I often ask Clif—using a hopeful tone, “Are the trailers all full?”
He invariably answers, “Yes.”
This time we are really full.
I mean it.
I really, really, really mean it this time.
The warehouse floor areas in the building are mostly filled with “Standard Wooden Pallets.” The most common size is 48″ x 40″. We occasionally get oddball size pallets in. An oddball pallet would be akin to an oddball size brick. If you put an oddball brick into a wall, it throws everything off. When we get oddball pallets, we set them outside the dockyard gates.
They disappear pretty quickly.
So, to gain space, I am constantly searching for ways to create 48″ x 40″ footprints. Or find footprints if they are hiding.
Well, there is no rain in the forecast til afternoon tomorrow. If 50 or 100 or a few hundred boxes need to spend the night under the stars, they’ll be ok.
Because tomorrow is Friday.
Fridays all bets are off. We can stuff things inside if necessary at the end of the day and fix it over the weekend. Also, over the weekend fewer books are likely to be dropped off. Weekends are like a “night shift” when the anonymous workers like me can do things without being in the way of the full staff.
COVID is not behind us.
Last Friday, we got notice that Montgomery County—where our Gaithersburg store is located—is reinstating the mask mandates.
I’d brought in my boxes of masks to the warehouse because I thought we wouldn’t need them anymore.
I’m glad we didn’t throw them away. (Well, we never throw anything away, anyway—or so I am told.)
We are getting notice of cancelations. The NYC Antiquarian Book Fair was canceled yesterday. The “Spring Show” was to take place in September.
I had gotten an email earlier in the week from a charity booksale organizer saying they were going to have their sale—the first since COVID—in October. Would we buy the leftovers? I had groaned.
No space. Overworked staff…
She emailed yesterday. “…Canceled. My successor will be in touch in the winter…”
More good COVID news:
Researchers found the effectiveness of Pfizer’s vaccine against COVID dropped considerably last month as the Delta strain took hold, according to two reports published on medRxiv on Sunday that have yet to be peer-reviewed.NY Post
The Pfizer vaccine’s effectiveness dropped to 42 percent in July, down from 76 percent in early 2021, the study found.
Great. I have Pfizer.
Should I not travel?
“Google,” I asked, “How likely am I to get COVID if I am fully vaccinated?
One in 26. That’s the chance of being infected with COVID-19 if you’re in contact with an infected individual and fully vaccinated, the researchers found. This is compared to a one in 13 chance for the unvaccinated.
Are we heading into another lost year?
The data will change tomorrow.
Speaking of Shakespeare… I still watch DVDs.
And not just because I am in the business.
Like going to a bookstore, I “see” things that are physical objects that I wouldn’t know to search for in other, more ethereal, ways.
Looking at some of the stacks of DVDs at home last night, I saw:
I never feel an evening is wasted if I put Shakespeare on.
Without being a spoiler, the movie begins in London in 1600. From an aerial view, it drops into the Globe for the performance.
Then things get a little weird. Sets move outdoors, but much of the scenery is painted in the background a la a Book of Hours.
It is like a medieval movie in some ways.
It wonderfully serendipitous to find it.
Nominated for 5 Academy awards, I learned from DVD commentary afterward. It was a “war film” shot in 1943.
I didn’t detect any censorship or skewing according to nationalities—French and English—watching it. But from the lengthy commentary, I was made to understand that war morale was an important constituent undercurrent.
The move was censored. Shakespeare was censored. Some of his scenes and lines were left out for “wartime correctness.”
I get it.
Olivier was masterful. As Prince Hal. And as Producer/Director.
Amazing what you come across if you just keep your eyes open.
Last Wednesday, August 4th, after the usual madness, I sat down with Clark and my son and the new Gaithersburg manager, Paulo.
We try to meet once a month to review the previous month’s sales at the three stores compared to the same month a year ago. This summer we are also looking at 2019 sales. 2020 had some serious interference due to the pandemic.
Gaithersburg had its best July ever! Not just the best July—the best MONTH ever.
Well, since I bought it when it was going out of business in 2008. I never asked Carl or his son Ray what their gross was in the 90s. When I first started in 1980, Carl told me confidentially his little metal cash box took in $36,000 the previous year.
Frederick had its best month ever. Well, since the Millennium and the advent of internet book sales destroyed so many brick and mortar stores. That store had deep sales declines for the first decade of the 2000s.
Hagerstown had a great month as well.
People: Morale and training and caring are up at all three locations.
Organizational improvements: A positive side effect of COVID during our closure and slow reopening was that we went through each store, every nook and cranny, a culled old dead stock—ruthlessly. We reorganized the categories as well. Genres/subjects that deserved more space were expanded. Slow selling genres and subjects were downsized—ruthlessly.
Our new website: Wonderbook.com went through a very long and expensive upgrade. More and more people are ordering online and doing free pickups at the stores. (Currently you save $1 per item if we deliver it to the store.) Also, each store has a dedicated only kiosk. If a customer comes in and asks for something and the staff don’t recognize the author or subject—they can look it up online to get the customer to the right section. If we can’t find it in the store, the customer can order it online. All prices shown are “Delivered”—postpaid in the lower 48 states.
Better stock: I’ve made it a mission to improve the quality of the books and media and LPs the stores are receiving. More “vintage” books are being sent to the stores as well.
Good PR via our social media accounts. These stories may also have convinced a handful of people to give Wonder Book or Books by the Foot a try.
It is exciting to see the stores performing again after years of just bumping along.
A mini-renaissance. Maybe they’ll begin to break even sometime soon…LOL.
And create relevant revenue.
But then, costs are going up. Maybe inflation too.
So maybe it’s a wash.
More news came Monday night. I was advised to sit through a Planning Commission meeting which was voting on our proposed 2 new 52,000 square feet warehouse buildings on the 7-acre vacant lot, which is part of the property where our current warehouse sits.
It was via Zoom. I had never attended one of these before. In the Zoom format, you sign in as a guest at the beginning of the meeting. You keep your camera and microphone off, but you can hear and see whatever active business is taking place. I printed out the agenda and ticked off each line of old or new business as it was completed. Faces and voices would pop on the screen in little boxes. People would speak, and when their turn was done, they would disappear.
The Commissioners were on consistently but would mute themselves unless they had something to say. After any discussion or (potential) phone calls from the public, the matter would be voted or tables until the next meeting.
About 2 hours in, our matter came up. Our team included three engineers in the firm that is putting this together and the likely contractor who will get the building built. We were told to appear. I used the mouse to get the cursor to click the microphone and camera icons. My face appeared in a box down in a corner. We were all sworn in.
That was the extent of my contribution. I had been advised there might have been questions for me. The engineers answered numerous questions. When they were satisfied, the Commissioners voted, and we were approved.
It is amazing the work that they do. And so complex. There are so many rules.
We had to get inspected to be sure there were no archaeological remains on the lot. The trees were inspected to be sure there were no rare ones or “specimen” growths. (As it is, I will be planting two groves in the existing lawns as a partial offset. If you know me, I’m a tree guy.)
Plus, we won’t need to mow there when things are settled in!
We also needed to get FAA approval that our building wouldn’t interfere with flight paths at the airport about a mile away.
There were many other “i’s” to dot and “t’s” to cross. Thank goodness there are people who know how to do this kind of stuff. It’s very expensive but has to be done right.
I’m told we are on the home stretch. There are still hurdles, but barring the unforeseen…
We hope to break ground early in 2022.
Maybe that will get the demon groundhogs to move on.
Tuesday, I drove down to Bethesda to meet with a bookseller I’ve known since the beginning. He opened a few years before me.
At the first estate auction I attended at the Frederick Fairgrounds, he came up to me as I was loading my beat up F-150 once-white Ford pickup with a cap over the bed which had the manufacturer’s slogan: “Don’t Go Topless” affixed to it.
“Who you?” If he’d slipped a tiny “are” in that phrase, I’d missed it. The accent was Long Island.
I told him.
“I heard a you. I wouldn’t buy that crap.”
He turned and left. I knew who he was.
That night, I went through my buys. Treasure after treasure came out of those boxes. Presidential autographs, rare books, Civil War letters…
I was no competition for him then. He was the big DC used bookseller.
Over the years, we became distant competitors. He was city. I was country—or exurb.
I got the distinct impression from mutual acquaintances he wasn’t pleased with Wonder Book’s slow steady growth in the DC Region’s book scene over the years. But we rarely competed directly.
Long ago, we were both going to exhibit at the Baltimore Antiques and Book Show. During set up, I let my two boys try to sell some cheap kids’ books at a table. It was kind of like a lemonade stand. His two daughters came over and were looking at the stock. All four kids were under 10.
He was not happy they might buy books from me, and the girls were ushered away. At least…that’s my recollection.
In recent years, a truce has been called. We’re both older. Kids are grown. We’ve settled into our niches.
He’d called out of the blue last week. He asked if I knew “so and so.”
“He was a kind of bookseller. Bought a lot from me. But never really sold much.”
‘Hoarder,’ I thought. I’ve known so many book accumulators who plan to open a shop in retirement or “someday” and never get around to it.
“He’s having health issues, and I’m trying to help him out. He has a lot of storage units down here. You’re the only one I could think who might take that many.”
So we set up a time to meet at a storage unit in Rockville.
Then he called.
“We can’t get in. We think the door is blocked by fallen books. The other one is wet from roof leaks. Can you meet me in Bethesda?”
It was a bright clear day. He was at the enormous self-storage when I pulled in.
There was a great deal of difficulty getting through the gate. When we got to the first storage unit, there was difficulty getting it unlocked. I went for help. We went to a second unit and were shown how to open it. The orange door rolled up. A cloud of invisible mustiness rolled out.
‘Moldy, I’m sure,’ I thought.
The unit was packed full of boxes side-to-side and floor-to-ceiling. I don’t know if it was front to back because we couldn’t get to the first row. But I assumed so. Some busted bed frames and headboards and other furniture were between the door and the books.
We lifted the furniture out, and I stepped to the boxes. I lifted a lid and pulled out a few books. They weren’t damp, but they had been at one time. They weren’t completely dry either. Dust jackets adhered to some books. Underneath the jackets, the books were spotted with mold. Endpapers were stained where cloth color bled through.
“These were stored in a barn or a basement before they came here,” I opined.
He had said there were maybe 15,000 books in the collection. I would have guessed much more from just the two units we looked at.
The books I saw were below average. Older nonfiction but not “vintage.” “Tweeners.” The stuff no one wants—even if they don’t smell.
“I can’t use these. I’m sorry. My guess is these will need to be pulped.”
“I thought so, but thought it was worth a look.”
We walked back to our cars. I limped a bit from my heel spur. It comes and goes. The latest doctor says surgery when it gets bad enough. He sent me an animated video of the surgery.
But maybe I’ll have to someday.
He limped markedly. From what he said, that won’t improve.
My old competitor and now friend chatted about his health issues. Rough. Very rough.
“But I still go into work every day.”
We chatted about old friends and other booksellers. Some gone forever. Some gone nuts. Some doing ok in retirement. Some…who knows?
We have both rescued a lot of books over the last 2-score plus years.
I headed back. I stopped at the Gaithersburg store just off of I -270 to swap out the van I was driving.
It was such a pleasure walking in. Everyone was busy and seemed happy. (If you can’t be happy working in a bookshop, there’s something wrong with the shop or it just isn’t your “thing.”)
The place is bright and neat. There weren’t books or messes on the floor.
A few years ago, I dreaded going in there.
That evening, the word AREA came to me in a kind of daydream state.
I’m not sure what that means. But dreams are like that, aren’t they?
I wandered out to the Books by the Foot region of the warehouse. I was likely looking for spaces. I saw a cartload of ex-library books.
We usually have to recycle books with library markings unless they are very desirable titles.
Some years ago, I came up with an idea.
Sometimes, I think I’m kind of creative. Maybe it is the Welsh in me. I hate to see anything go to waste.
The style is not a big seller. But if you got lemons, you may as well try to make some lemonade.
It is Friday.
There’s a teacher in picking out free books for her class.
Yesterday, a rare bookseller was in with his daughter looking through the collectible rooms.
They hadn’t been here before. I gave them the “tour.”
They “wowed” at all the usual places.
The books at the warehouse are not “shoppable.” They are shelved randomly. A history may be next to a cookbook next to a novel.
That’s why it is not open to the public. We will give tours by appointment if we can.
Clif is off today.
A lot of people are off today.
I’ll be driving the truck. And the forklift to stack Gaylords of pulp paper. I’m the last resort for some tasks no one else can do.
Last evening on my way home, it was 100 degrees on the highway. When I got up to the top of the mountain, it was 88. It’s almost always cooler up there in the summer. Conversely, it is often warmer up high in the winter. Cold air sinks?
I dragged out the hoses and watered the COVID gardens I put in last year.
I found it therapeutic to drag stones up the mountain and make them borders for new beds while the Plague was raging last summer and fall.
Well, it is still raging.
But I haven’t been motivated to put more gardens in.
I put in 7, I think. A couple of those were expansion borders on existing rock-lined beds.
They turned out well. And so far, they have survived and nothing has eaten them.
And I’ve been too busy at work and writing and doing a little bit of traveling. And working on the development of the new building. And there is an acceptable offer to buy The Farm that needs to be vetted.
…The Farm… I had such grand dreams…some guardian angel made sure that didn’t get off the ground before the Plague. It would have been a disaster to try to develop that into a brewery and bookstore wine and beer lounge. A couple people had looked to be partners with the liquid side of things early on but had backed out.
Another fortunate coincidence.
It is still a dream. And I am keeping an eye out for a space. Maybe a restaurant that left due to COVID…
If there’s time for me—I’ll find the energy.
One of last weekend’s carts had some old ledgers piled atop it.
These are usually tedious.
Accountings of dreary stuff. Accountings of money owed.
Bushels of this or that.
Often they don’t have dates or places.
I briefly looked through two.
Flipping through the Philadelphia’s ledger, I felt it is some kind of goods wholesaler.
On December 29, 1800:
Mr David Shields Bot of Wm Taylor Jr
2 #1 umbrellas
2 #2 umbrellas
2 #3 umbrellas
2 #4 umbrellas
[maybe bad weather was forecast for New Year’s?]
20 packets 4 lb pins
2 dozen redding combs #3
[…ivory combs, Scotch thread, bobbins and many, many other goods.]
And in Burkittsville on March 8th, 1848:
Osias Walker bought 3 pints of whiskey…
Jospeh Goodman 1μ of Glue…
I’ll have to go through it to see if any potential witch had bought eye of newt or toe of frog…
Slices of life.
Long forgotten wants and needs of long forgotten people.
But a fascinating couple of rabbit holes for me to go down before being drawn back to the work at hand.
* Burkittsville is a little semi-rural town near Frederick, Maryland. It is most famous as the site where The Blair Witch Project was purportedly filmed, and its cast and crew dead or missing. (When The Blair Witch Project premiered at the Sundance Film Festival at midnight on January 23, 1999, its promotional marketing campaign listed the actors as either “missing” or “deceased.”)
The movie shot in various places in Maryland was made on a shoestring budget—thin shoestrings.
It became a hit movie and is now a cult classic.
It grossed $250 million worldwide.
It was a real big deal in the area during the 90s. People started showing up in little sleepy Burkittsville to go looking for evidence of the Witch or the numerous murder victims from the 19th century through the “documentary makers.”
At Wonder Book, people would come in asking for any history of the Witch or Burkittsville or the murders and mutilations…
When the video was released, we had lots of copies to rent and sell. LOTS.
It has spawned books and comic books and other documentaries as well.
This includes: Blair Witch: The Secret Confession of Rustin Parr.
In May 1941, a hermit named Rustin Parr told police he murdered seven children in Burkittsville, Maryland. The night before he was hanged, he told his priest an entirely different story. This is it.
It was the most shocking crime imaginable: the kidnapping and brutal murder of seven innocent children. The particulars of Rustin Parr’s crime made the case even more horrifying: the ritual nature of the killings, the strange symbols carved into the children’s bodies, Parr’s revelation that voices in his head told him to commit his foul deeds. Some whispered that Parr’s crime was just the latest in a series of murders attributed to Maryland’s infamous Blair Witch. But when Parr went to the gallows, all agreed that justice had been served; evil had been put to rest. All, that is, but one man.
I hope things will be cooler next week.
Thanks for reading.