A week for the ages.
It began last Friday afternoon with a visit from my friend and global expert on all things bookish, Michael Dirda. A Pulitzer Prize winner, this man’s knowledge is encyclopedic. He can talk at an ethereal level with any academic on any book you could imagine. He can also sit down and chat with a used book guy like me. Whether it be Homer or Homer Simpson, he “knows” it. He has read 100 times the books I have and retained the experience. He arrived at the warehouse in the late afternoon after visiting the Frederick bookstore. Everyone leaves at 4:30 on Fridays now, so it was just us two in the three-acre building. Let me correct that. It was just Michael, me and 5 million books. He took off for the vintage rooms in the northwest corner. I sat on a stool and began going through carts of mostly old books that I need to triage. He reappeared a couple hours later with a couple shelves of books on a 6-shelf 3-foot 4-wheel book cart. These included a number of his own book—Browsings. I had ordered a few hundred copies from a Canadian remainder company. There were also some copies of In the Company of Sherlock Holmes. It is an anthology of pastiches to which he contributed a story. He kindly inscribed some of the former which we have available online. I also sent copies of both to all three stores. But he was mostly here for the vintage book treasure hunt he takes a couple few times a year. He finds some mistakes which somehow slipped through the net to Books by the Foot. He also finds obscure authors from the late 19th and early 20th centuries for which he may be one of the only readers on the planet. I am glad to let him take these cheap as he is “re-rescuing” them.
We then went across the warehouse and out into the dockyard. How many steps is that? There we sat in the cooling spring evening chatting about books, life, the universe and everything.
“I like your blogs. I read every one.”
“Thank you.” [HOW COOL IS THAT!]
“Do you do word counts?”
“No. I wouldn’t know how to.”
“You must have 5000 pages.”
“I have no idea.” [250 consecutive Fridays plus some weeks with more than 1 story equal… no idea.] “The pictures take up a lot of space as well.”
“Have you ever thought of getting them published?”
“I wouldn’t know where to begin…”
It was getting colder than cool, so we moved inside. We sat across from one another at the conference room table. I showed him the signed Tolkien and the first of Keat’s Endymion that had entered my book life in recent weeks.
We split a final beer. I totaled his books at a couple dollars apiece, and we boxed them and then rolled on a cart to his car in the parking lot.
I had asked him to sign a copy of Browsings to me. I lifted the cover and was struck by his kindness.
Then it was a week of Annika going to the big NY Rare book show. Me wrestling with a big fallen tree trunk with a sledge and wedges and long iron pry bar, meeting with bankers who feel I will likely qualify for an 8-figure loan to build the new warehouses, permission from the city to break ground on that before too long (grading permit), fabulous changes and an epiphany at the Hagerstown bookshop renovations, digging up and replanting over twenty redbud trees…
I asked Annika if she would to give her first time impressions on her visit to the big show. (She also told me some exhibitors said some very nice things about me.)
Annika in WonderlandAnnika Kushner
The Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan is dominated by one gigantic room. On this particular Saturday, it was filled with rows and rows of white booths, glass display cases, and—of course—thousands of books. It was the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair.
I’m still new to the rare book world, and so I came armed with a loaned leather bag and a creased booth map covered in colorful annotations. I’d done my best to prepare, marking the booths I knew I didn’t want to miss and looking through pre-released catalogs of certain booksellers.
The preparation and late-night driving (it was a whirlwind trip) was unquestionably worth it. I got to see some amazing works.
There was a miniature book hand-written by Charlotte Bronte [see picture below] at just 13 years old, which sold to a charity for $1.25 million. (It was displayed in its own glass case. I asked tentatively if I could take a photo, to which the bookseller replied, genial, that people had been taking photos all day long.) There was an incomplete second Shakespeare folio, plays bound anew in 17th century leather. (The bookseller accommodatingly opened the case so I could look at “Twelfth Night.”) There were at least a dozen copies of A. A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh” and some Dr. Seuss books that I didn’t even know existed. There was an original note sentencing a group of men to a hanging. There were illuminated manuscripts, beautiful illustrations and engravings, and intricate maps. There were rare author signatures and modern firsts in pristine dust jackets.
And there were book people. Most of my day-to-day work involves researching collectible books, and I see the same bookseller names pop up again and again when compiling information about copies of our books that are already on the market. This was my chance to put faces to familiar names. I checked out as many of their booths as I could and introduced myself to a few. I particularly enjoyed speaking to the bookseller assistants, who were often more than willing to chat. This led to some interesting conversations about pricing strategies, social media, work with particular items, and general feelings about different aspects of trade. It was so good to talk with them.
I also met a few friends of Chuck’s. One had generously gifted me comped tickets, and I got to look at his first edition of Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis.” Another greeted me kindly and advised me to look at everything I could. Anything that catches your eye, he said. Ask people to take things out of the cases. Ask to see things. Ask to touch things.
I spent the full day chatting, looking, and admiring, and only left when they kicked us out. I so appreciate everyone who took the time to talk with me. I had an incredible experience, and I see myself at many future book fairs.
Ernest and I are heading over the mountains to Hagerstown. I need to inspect all the new shelving and rearrangements in the store there. This has now spread over several months. My contractor has help issues. Not COVID. I’ve known him for 32 years now. It has been a great relationship.
One is lucky with good relationships in business and in personal life. Long-term good relations are gold.
I’ve been very lucky with the people who have helped Wonder Book grow to… whatever it is.
Without advice and mentoring, it would all have been a dream. Dreams aren’t real.
It has always surprised me—the people who “believed” in me. Bankers, landlords, real estate people, employees, other booksellers… People who could make a difference. Their support certainly gave me enough confidence to “pull the trigger” on evolutions and innovations in the business over the decades.
You can’t plant ideas on barren ground and expect to grow anything.
The store looked great.
And not so great.
Maybe only half my instructions got through… lol.
But overall the place is vastly improved from even a few weeks ago. That location is almost 20 years old now. When we signed the lease, it had been a long abandoned CVS (nee Peoples) drug store. I remember we had to tear out the pharmacy counter.
My nearest neighbor texted me in September 2020.
“I heard a big tree fall. I went and looked. It is the one at the base of your driveway. It didn’t fall across your driveway.”
He is about a quarter mile away as the crow flies. (There are plenty of crows on the mountain.) It is about a half mile to drive to his house. This puts to rest “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to see it, does it make any noise?”
It was the first tree I would encounter crossing onto my property. I had attached a “No Trespassing” sign as well as a “Property Under Surveillance sign. The tree fell face first on those.
Before it fell, I passed this now fallen sentinel twice a day for ten years. Going and coming.
“I really should cut that up.”
It was also blocking a dirt logging road that gives me access to the lower part of the property. My friend Pat would go down there to a tree stand the former owner put up. He loved to sit in the dark, wait for dawn and the deer to pass by on their way to a pond at the foot of the mountain.
He is so lame now he can’t do it anymore. So many casualties in the last few years…
I finally got around to it. I had waited so long that the trunk had begun to sink into the earth. I could get most of the way through, but then I was “blind”—I couldn’t see where the wood ended and soil began. If your saw chain hits soil, it immediately gets so dull you can’t cut with it. I did that.
What if I get the sledge and wedge? I did that. I pounded one wedge in the saw cut and then another. It opened up the slice some, but I couldn’t get the saw under the wedges.
I thought about this for some days as I went to work passing the almost cut up trunk.
The pry bar! I have a 5-foot heavy iron pry bar.
“With a big enough lever and fulcrum, you could move the world,” I was taught in elementary school. Do they still teach levers and fulcrums? I went down on the ATV early one morning and, sure enough, I was able to lift and roll the trunk using a log and the bar. It must weigh a thousand pounds.
With the bottom of the log exposed, it was no problem to cut all the way through.
Then it was just an issue of lifting the big chunks into the pickup truck bed. Heavy work.
I will split them some night with a bottle of Rioja for company.
Fear of phonelessness.
Tuesday was a day of needy people.
It began quietly enough. I got up before dawn and began letting the dogs out. The ground was wet, and the air was in a damp fog.
‘I won’t have to water the new plantings,’ I thought.
When I got in and opened my laptop, there were three inquiries with the subject lines:
“books for sale” “Books for sale” “Books from the 1800s”
I took a few minutes each to reply. During which I got a call from an old friend and long, long-time customer Ron. He has been incrementally downsizing and has been pressuring me with lists.
I hate lists. I always have. They tell you little. Their existence indicates high expectations.
“I’ve been waiting to hear back from you…”
I checked my emails. Yep. It had been a couple of weeks.
“I sent you that list,” he went on.
This is round five of his downsizing, I think. The last three have been high pressure. I understand. When one is ready to let go, one wants to get it over with. The first big (expensive) list was so daunting I tried referring him to some booksellers I trust who would work with him one book at a time. Then auctions. I didn’t want to let him down with a low offer. Nope. He was dead set on selling them to me.
His old friend and personal bookseller, Chuck.
“You’ll likely get more money elsewhere.”
“I want to sell them to you.”
This round, perhaps the last one, he said he wanted 1200 and some trade.
“I can’t make an offer on a list, and I can’t give you a price until I see them.”
“Can I bring them today?”
Then I called another old acquaintance and book scout, Greg. He’d called the Books by the Foot number to try to reach me, which was odd because I have his name and number on my precious iPhone. I pushed his numbers, and his name appeared on my phone. It appeared to ring but made no sound. I tried again. Dead number? I took the Post-it back to the Books by the Foot receptionist.
“This number isn’t working. You can try. If he calls back, give him my cell number.”
I started going through the March bank statements. An office manager has already reviewed them and put together copies for the accountant. I look at them to see where the money went and came from that month. There are 11 accounts, I think. I list the ending balances on a blank piece of paper in a format I have used for many years. Then I make notes of any unusual expenditures or deposits that may skew the totals.
My dear iPhone rang. It was Greg. He is an old-time scout. I really haven’t done any business with him for decades, I think. Even then, it wasn’t a regular relationship. Nope, not even in the old days. His note had said he wants to sell bulk books to me, but I doubt it. I think he is the kind of scout who keeps his storage units filled til the end.
Storage units… my experience has been that if you are just keeping them for storing books—that is, you are not actively taking things out and selling—you are just paying rent on your books. Even if the rent is cheap, if you keep the storage unit indefinitely, you may never recoup your costs. Each month, the cost of your books goes up while their value likely remains the same.
I did this myself. When we needed extra space about 20 years ago, I rented a trailer. Then another. Then another…
I think they were only $80 a month. We rarely went to them out in the parking lot. One was filled with the huge Russian horde we rescued (much to my discomfiture.) When we were working on the deal for our current warehouse, I came to my senses. I’d had some of these for 8 or more years. 12 times $80 is $960.
I had spent nearly $10,000 to store books that were worth a fraction of that!
Our new warehouse came with 21 loading docks. We only need 7 or 8 active. I started buying trailers for $1500 to 2000. We keep them backed to the unused docks. They increase the building’s square footage. We keep them filled mostly with extra copies of remainders we have taken in.
There is a sheet of paper taped to each dock door. It lists the contents of the trailer in front of it and the date there were put in there. We empty the trailers at least once a year, mostly to restock the remainders in the “color rooms” in the Books by the Foot section. Sometimes we make decisions that we have kept some books too long and need to move them along. (i.e. Send them to the “farm.”)
Well, at least I am not paying rent on them.
Greg… we chatted on about old times. He asked again and again what I was buying.
“I’ve got too many storage units. I need to empty some.”
I recalled he had expanded in things beyond books. Old military uniforms, antique stuff…
“Yeah, do you want anything like that?”
“No. I’m stuffed. Pretty much just books unless it is come-along* stuff from estates.”
* Come alongs are thing you take for free or for little money. Odds and ends the owner wants just to be gone.
“Did you know Nelson’s friend died in the winter?”
“I haven’t heard from Nelson* in a long time. He had some health issues last I heard.”
* Nelson has been a bookseller since the 70s, I think. He did a LOT of scouting for us in recent years.
(What was his buddy’s name? Neither one of us could bring it up from our memory.)
We had chatted for another 15 or 20 minutes, and things began going in circles.
“I could bring a truckload…”
“Better to bring a few boxes to be sure we are on the same page.”
I told him I had to get back to work. I’d say the odds are 25% he will bring me anything.
…Welsh! Jim Welsh. I’d known him for 35 years or more. He had worked at Waverly Book Auctions long ago when I attended them faithfully. He had also worked for Sci Fi bookseller Bob Madle as a cataloger. Madle is one of the “First Fans” of the Golden Age of Sci Fi. He knew Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury… all of them. He was still selling Sci Fi last I heard. He was born June 2, 1920! Madle’s home and business was only a couple blocks from where I grew up in Rockville, Maryland. That ugly subdivision must have some kind of synergy as Allen Ahearn/Quill and Brush was also just a couple blocks away in Aspen Hill. Me, Madle and Ahearn… Two icons and a guy who sells a lot of books within a couple blocks of one another.
Sometime in the 90s, Welsh reached out to me about some Ray Bradbury videos I was carrying in the bookstore. My philosophy for rentals was to bring everything in I could find in the early days. These Bradbury VHS tapes I had somehow gotten from Canada.
“Bradbury doesn’t have these in his own collection! He wants them. Will you sell them?”
I did. Cheap. I got a thank-you letter from Ray, and he asked if there was anything he could do.
I wrote back, “If it isn’t an imposition, maybe you could send me some signed slips I can tip into my copies of your first editions. I am a big fan. Your work lives with me. On Mars. In October. In carnivals where the clowns aren’t funny. They are terrifying.”
A couple of weeks later, I got a big manila envelope that was filled with signed pieces of paper. He also put drawings on many. You can see them here.
Then things changed. Kids and business kept me in other places. When Nelson started scouting for me, was it 15 years ago, Welsh was often his companion.
I emailed Nelson my condolences. He replied, “…heart failure… I was the only one who visited him in the hospital… He left me his Bradbury collection… I was broke. Now I’m rich.”
That must be enormous. Welsh was a completist in Bradbury stuff.
Ron texted he was here. I walked across the big warehouse to the loading dock. I need to figure out how many steps that is. I am still having my steps counted each day. Ron has been a customer since the 80s, I think. He was always very kind to me. He liked to wheel and deal, though. He would bring a few books in and try to get one book out. Then I got so busy I couldn’t do things like that any more. He was also one of those who, to ensure the domestic tranquility, had evolved an arrangement with his wife, “One book out for every book in.” Then it got to where I wasn’t managing at the store any longer. I think he is a few years older than I am. Maybe even 10. I said, “Hi.” He had backed close to the dock. It was a beautiful spring noon. He popped the hatch open, revealing about 10 brown grocery bags filled to the top. He had a list of every one and wanted to do “show and tell” which I understand and sympathize with completely. This was his second-tier lifelong China collection he has been bringing. He is keeping the first tier as well as giving his daughter some of the treasures.
Chat… I am not a chatter. But I could not be impolite to my old friend and lifelong customer. Fortunately, we were interrupted by the arrivals of the guys from Graceful Transitions.
They help ill or elderly folks downsize to move to smaller quarters. Their books are hit or misses according to Ernest. They will downsize anyone no matter how good or bad their books are. They dropped off a tall pallet of boxes.
“No, that was Stress Free Solutions,” Ernest told me as we return from Hagerstown. “I went through them yesterday. Terrible. All “grandma inspirational books.”
Just then, another truck pulled in. It was Aaron from Capitol Hill Books. We have a kind of swapping relationship. He brings “vintage and collectible” boxes which I tend to pay about $30 for. And he brings a lot of boxes of common stock which I pay about $10 per box for. He gets good stuff, and I am happy to pay the premiums. We send a check to him for these. In exchange, I let him come to the stores and take away titles and subjects he needs for his store at a very deep discount. He takes a 1000 or 2 at a time. He takes things I wish he wouldn’t, but he also takes a lot that is salubrious to have removed.
A good gardener knows pruning is good for the tree’s health.
Then the guy who is executor for an estate backed his big pickup to a dock. He has been a bit snarky on the loads I’ve been involved with. On one load, he had some boxes of Easton Press and Franklin Library. Most of these books are just eye candy. Many titles are impossible to sell except to interior designers. He wanted a separate offer on them, and I thought I made a good offer—taking the bad with the good.
“Maybe I’ll get my daughter to eBay them one at a time.”
“If she gets tired of that, bring them back.”
This time he asked if I would appraise a couple of books. I hopped off the dock and walked to the tailgate.
“Do you know anything about Louisa May Alcott first editions?”
“These don’t have a date, but I think they may be good.”
From ten feet away, I could see they were reprints from the 1920s.
“Little Women came out in 1878, I think. These are 20th century editions. They are nothing special.”
“1868,” he corrected me suspiciously, I thought. “This one has 1792 in the back.”
I looked. “That is when this company first start printing books.”
“Hmmmm…” Suspicion exuded as to my competence and veracity—or did I just imagine it?
I set the two “Cheap Editions” books back on the tailgate. I went in and got Ernest to come and buy the guy’s boxes. I didn’t want to come under suspicion about those.
A couple more vehicles arrived that caused me to be called back to Dock 1 & 2.
Then Larry backed a box truck up with 350-400 boxes from a library sale ‘s leftovers.
I was dizzy—not physically, just overwhelmed. I took a break and went out into the warm spring sun. I sat at a metal table we keep in the dockyard and typed up some old poems from handwritten manuscripts. One was from 2007 about my trip to Cairo to meet Barbara Mertz and Joan Hess. A couple from 2009—old love stuff. And one only a few days old. The physical relics of who I was 15 and 13 years ago were enlightening. Some of the problems were the same as now. Some things were memories with a kind of vignette border to the mental images. It felt good to get them recorded and only took about half an hour. I wonder why I put it off. Now I could retire the yellow legal pad to the milk crate of manuscript prose. That content was from the Russian book caper in 2006 when I “rescued” 100,000? books abandoned by Victor Kamkin Books. These pages recorded some of my interaction with “Buddy”—the guy the landlord tasked with emptying the warehouse of books and bookcases, so she could rent it again and perhaps “recup” some of her losses. The three pages of manuscript verse went in another milk crate. Printed copies of the poems were put into the milk crates in my bedroom and warehouse office used for that purpose—my “archive.”
Ummm… double archives. I would be désolé if my work was to be lost for eternity.
The day ended at work, and I drove home. I hauled up some of the big chunks and set them next to the wood splitter in the Barn. Then I got it into my head to dig up some of the redbud seedlings in the gravel edge of the asphalt drive. I got the mattock with the heavy iron adze head. I raised it and slammed it into the ground about 8 inches from the seedling. Again and again until the soil and rock were loosened around the roots. I transplanted 9 trees into a spot that I thought would make a nice grove when they mature. It may attract some sylvan goddess or naiad or dryad. Maybe a muse. Maybe a book muse. I hope I am here to see it bloom. (The next night I made another grovette with seven transplants.)
I went inside and put salted water on to boil for pasta. Then I gathered up the three piles of travel ephemera from Egypt, Sicily and Scotland. I vowed to myself to sort through the stuff for trash, receipts and things to save in my big wooden memory box. I set them on the floor in front of the recliner and turned the tv on. I put on the DVD Clark had gotten me of the Keats movie. Bright Star by Jane Campion. It was a German-dubbed version. I couldn’t figure out how to get it in English or with English subtitles. I have enough German that I could understand every other word. I already knew the story as well. I ate my dinner and had some Rioja Rose. Fanny Brawne’s sister and brother are depicted buying Endymion in a bookshop, so Fanny could see who this Keats guy is.
“Where’s my phone?”
Not in my pocket. I wandered through the house looking in the usual places I might have put it down. I looked in the places where it was unlikely I would have put it down. I got a flashlight and began looking under things. Had I dropped it when I was planting? I went outside with the flashlight. A kind of dull panic set in.
My photos, my contacts, my texts, Instagram… what could be recovered? What was lost forever?
I would just have to go in early tomorrow and bring one of the warehouse phones home and call myself until I heard the phone ring.
I finally crashed.
When I awoke at dawn, I went back to the Great Room and pushed the button on the recliner to raise the footrest. I had looked under there last night but… there it was, way in the back corner among the dust bunnies, pieces of popcorn and cheerios and unidentifiable flotsam and jetsam. It must have slid out of my pocket while I was wining and dining and parsing German words. (Note to self: Clean under the conversation pit/recliners.)
In the morning, Chris Kline picked me up and we went to the bank offices in Frederick’s skyscraper. It is seven stories tall. Their conference room has a 30-foot wall of windows that looks over the storied city of Frederick and then to the mountains to the west where I live.
We sat and laid out our plans for the two 52,000 square foot 30-foot tall warehouses. Why am I taking this on at this point in my life? I don’t need the money or the work. But why not? Something different. The Senior VP was in the room. The President was on speakerphone. I found myself looking out the windows dreamily like I used to do in school. 42 years in this wonderful city. Gorgeous view…
“We are very excited about this project…”
I am too.
Somehow I am not daunted about going 8 figures into debt.
Maybe I should be.
In the afternoon, the contractor was returning to Hagerstown to tear out the “Bistro” section. I had put that in for customers to sit and use the Wifi and have a soda and snack. It attracted the wrong demographic, and we soon took out the table and chairs.
We had been brainstorming on the final phases of the renovation. None of us could visualize the final steps, though. But today the landscape spoke to me.
“When you bring the fourth record bin, where will it end up if we move the other three into here?”
He marked the spot where its front edge will be with some masking tape on the floor.
Things fell into place. Epiphany.
The giant glass cases can go against the wall in front of the security gate. They’ll be locked, anyway. We can use these low bookcases as functioning “walls” here and here. We will be left with two huge open spaces.
“We could have poetry readings. Or dances,” I joked.
When I got back, the recycler was pulling the huge metal container away from the building. It was packed full of crushed boxes. Tons of corrugated that won’t go to the landfill.
The acres of fern brakes are rising from the forest floor. The thousands of croziers rise like fairy fingers from the dun earth.
There are still plenty of later daffodils blooming, including outliers.
There was another unexpected near freeze this week, but I think there may be only one potted plant casualty.
I’m getting the house cleaned up incrementally. I lost my housekeeper a year ago. I committed to having a bookseller friend stay over in a few weeks.
I need to put the COVID era behind me. It is hard. So many COVID casualties. I still don’t know anyone who died from it or was even hospitalized. It hit me, though. The initial fear and terror. I put on 25 pounds and lots of creases in my face. I’ve lost about 15 pounds but not the creases. I have COVID face. I talked to a doctor who said I was a great candidate and he could make me look 15 years younger. This is what I looked like 10 or 12 years ago in the New York Times.
I don’t regret not going to the NY Book Show. From the reports, it was packed and the booksellers couldn’t collect money fast enough. I’m glad. I couldn’t have dealt with being masked again and having to produce a vaccine card to get in. I don’t want to see the City in its current dystopia.
The $1.25 million Bronte juvenile manuscript “book” was sold before the show but it was there on display.
I need to pull the trigger and book a trip for May or June. My feet are getting itchy. Figuratively.
I need to transplant some more redbuds. There are a hundred or more right next to the drive where they can’t be allowed to grow. I have a perfect spot for a large grove. I’ll become Chucky—Redbud—Tree on my own Walden Pond. Without the pond.
That would be a good legacy. I hope whoever has this place next doesn’t plow over everything. But then I won’t know will I?
Or will I?
There were lots of great finds this week. I don’t know which to choose. Sometimes I get frustrated if there are too many good books. They slow me down. Lol
This anatomy book is interesting. Reminds me of my own mortality.
It is 150 steps from the conference room to Dock 1.