Early Spring


Another cold day. Yesterday was gray icy rain all day and into the night. It didn’t get much above 40. Today will also be cold but windy.

So, the phone weather prediction is lying again.

I’m lingering in bed. The time changed overnight. I’m already “late” for work.

“But it is still dark out.”

There are a lot of carts waiting for my attention. A “herd” of them.

I shoehorned a big log into the woodstove. It will smolder all day. When I get home and open the dampers, there should be a good fire that will come to life. I had to put the big black heavy-suede-leather gloves on to get it in. They cover me halfway up my forearms. It wouldn’t fit without some angling and turning. I had to reach far inside the firebox to wrangle the big chunk in. I’m glad I could squeeze it in. It would be a defeat if I had to take it out to the barn and split it.

Big Log in Woodstove


Another day handling hundreds of old books. Reading the spines. Looking inside if I feel it necessary. When I’ve finished, I’ll push the cart away and roll another into its place.



Well, that’s my deal. My lot.

Could be worse.

I’d rather be in London.

When I went to Barnes and Noble to get extra copies of the Washingtonian, I picked up this 2024 guide off the magazine racks. I’ve found things I didn’t know about.

Time to go back.

Monday, March 11

Saturday’s rains gave way to Sunday and Monday winds.

It was hard to hold on to the car doors yesterday. All night, the whooshing sound warned me how cold it was outside.

When I got home, I was exhausted. Again.

Two full days of constant handling of thousands of different books.

I had some plans for when I got home last night. Indoor chores. All I wanted to do was put together one last turkey sandwich with Miracle Whip and romaine on toasted grainy bread.

And watch Morse.

I am on the last few episodes, and it appears Inspector Morse’s health is failing. (The actor, John Thaw, doesn’t look very well either.)

Some wine. Prosecco.

I stayed up til about 10.

When I went out for wood, my way was blocked by the new wood I’d unloaded in the barn. I can’t burn that. It is still green. Many pieces are quite large and will need splitting before being stacked to season. That was foolish.

There’s a mess of mostly uncut wood just outside the barn. It is stuff I dragged up last fall. It would have dried by now, but it has been sitting on the ground. I tossed some into the cart anyway—looking for small enough pieces that will fit into the woodstove. Snow flurries began swirling around me. I was in no mood to mess with the fire. But it is a point of honor with me. If the furnace kicks on, I have failed.

Would this wood burn properly?

I coaxed it with kindling and went to bed. I picked up the fourth Lawrence Block Bernie Rhodenbarr mystery I’m reading this year. I thought I was done with these and got rid of the copies I collected when I was a young bookseller some months ago. I couldn’t see myself reading (or wanting) them again. Somehow, a quite recent “Burglar” publication found its way into my hands, and I became hooked again.

Bernie is a used bookseller with a small shop in Manhattan. He is also a high-end burglar.

They read like popcorn. Easy to consume and addictive.

“Just another few pages…”

The fire was struggling when I awoke around midnight. I dragged myself out into the freezing cold howling wind for more wood.

Poor preparation. I blame exhaustion brought by a surfeit of books.

Then I lay down and read some more.

The carts were slow this weekend. Many were filled with good books. That makes the going slower. You can’t just glance at better books. You must lift them off and look inside.

It was a long hard weekend—mentally and physically. I got through a lot of carts, but many remain.

When the hourglass was running out around 5 on Sunday, I hurried around labeling all my work.

Sunday Work

The end of the day had brought some treasures. Two signed Wallace Stevens. A favorite poet, I never find books signed by him. I rarely find ANY books by him except “collected” works.

Those would have THRILLED me when I was a young bookseller. Sunday, they made me smile and cock my head at them, pondering my luck.

And a heavy dose of nostalgia.

Then home with the dogs. Then heating the turkey. There’s still some left, but that will go to the dogs. It is nearly a week old, and I really can’t look at another turkey sandwich after having six this week.

Four years ago, the world changed. The impact of the plague struck the world.

March 12, 2020.

Whole swaths of the economy were being forced to close every day.

Would drivers be running off the road and dying in ditches? Would there be corpses on the sidewalks?

Now, in March 2024, COVID is not a big part of daily life as far as I can tell. The occasional mask wearer still appears, but recent flights have had no COVID restrictions at all.

Those were bizarre times. Uncertainty about everything was rampant. Shortages at grocery stores.

Would Wonder Book survive?

I don’t know if I want to go back and read the stories I wrote then. Living it once was enough.

But then I had my first experience with the disease just a couple of months ago. I’m not sure all its effects have left my body.

However, Tuesday evening, I was finally able to cut wood again. The weather, daylight, my once aching back and free time aligned, so I was able to take the pickup down the mountain and harvest a load of dead wood laying along the lane.

Easy pickings.

Well, relatively easy.

My saw was sharp and sliced through the logs easily. The physical work felt good.

Cutting and loading firewood is enjoyable for me. Unloading and stacking is tedious.

The good thing about this load is I can burn it right away. It is dry.

Dry Firewood

This saves me using wood in the barn that has already been stacked. All that can wait til next year.

It felt good. I was tired though. Either out of shape or a lingering COVID side effect.

Afterward, I walked around the yard. It has either been too cold, rainy or dark to do much of that in the evenings.

The daffodils seem to be peaking early. It is barely mid March. What about April and May?

Early Daffodils

I guess take it when you can get it.

The leg cramps hit about 3 a.m. I used muscles I hadn’t put a strain on for months.

Legs are an important part of my job. I am constantly sitting low on a stool and rising while surveying thousands of books on carts. In the stores, I’m constantly climbing up on stools and stretching to upper shelves. Then I frequently push heavy, often uncooperative, carts around the warehouse. I hit 10,000 steps most days. When I travel, I’m up and down hills and do much more than 10,000.

I felt the cramp coming on. It woke me. I tried shifting position, but I knew I would have to rise and get magnesium and Gatorade and hope to interrupt the violent painful onslaught.

Clif and I are driving down to College Park.

A guy wants to sell me his CD and LP store.

I tried to talk him out of it.

Store stock is so often stale. There’s a reason they’re going out of business. Even if it is just that they want to retire, my experience has been store stock is generally uninspiring.

We had talked several times in recent weeks—mostly while I was driving.

I tried to discourage him.

Certainly there was no question of my wanting another store. Especially not a media store.

“Try to find a customer who’s retired to buy it. That way, you’re getting rid of the whole package. A lot of people want to do something interesting in retirement, and don’t really care if the business is very profitable.”

Nope. He was told I was the guy to talk to you by a mutual acquaintance.

“We tend to not pay very much per item, but we do take everything.”

He sounded like an old timer, so I tried to talk about our mutual interests and background.

Since he was a survivor, I started about how Wonder Book survived.

But he wanted to hear his story. So I listened.

I tried again.

“In the late 90s, when the World Wide Web was becoming more and more of a viable marketplace…”

“And then I…”

Later, I inserted myself into the conversation again.

“We went online in ’97. Then bookstores around the DC region started closing.”

“It was [a former president] and the banks that closed the bookstores…”


That struck me silent.

It was a big store. I’m sure there were lines out the door during its glory days.

CD/LP Store

We used to have lines out the door sometimes. When a big movie was released on VHS or DVD. Or when some important issue of a comic like The Death of Superman was hyped, and people arrived in panic mode to get it.

There was a LOT of stuff in boxes. If the boxes are untouched collections, I might be interested in them.

The basement was spooky.

CD/LP Store Basement

But much of the place made me feel like time had stopped there some years ago.

I’m glad I forced myself to purge and renovate and update, as painful as that can be.

And we really don’t need CDs. The LPs, yes—maybe. CDs we get by the truckload sometimes. A lot come in from the public as well. If you visit our stores, you’ll find LOTS of CDs outside at 5/$5.

All the “physical media” is making a bit of a resurgence. Even VHS—as counterintuitive as that is.

(DON’T bring us VHS, please! It certainly isn’t resurging that well.)

I told him I’d think about it and call him.

His store could have a “physical media” resurgence. A little housekeeping. Sell off the boxes crowding the sales floor.

Nice guy. Not many of us left. A survivor. He was as concerned about a stray cat that he befriended as the business.

But it is not for me.

My dad used to tell me he wouldn’t buy a used car. “You’re acquiring someone else’s problems.” He would buy a new Buick every 5 years or so.

Clif and I are driving back. We stopped at the Gaithersburg store on the way. It looks great.

That’s just a small portion of it.

I don’t want to go back to the warehouse and grind through books.

I’d rather sit in the gardens and immerse myself in daffodils.

Gardeners always worry.

Are they peaking too early?!

It just doesn’t look right.

These should be the “early” varieties. So many…

When the midseason comes in, will there be more?

April should be the big month, not March.

And May. The “late” varieties should succeed then.

Is something wrong?

There’s no sign of the hostas yet. It is too early.

They’ll be along though. Untwisting themselves from their dormancy underground until their big leaves open and fly like flags.

It is 64 around noon. It will get up to 68. I could sit in the sun and try to write something fun. Something good and creative. Not like these weather reports/travelogues/book-work kvetching autobiographical self-indulgent… things.

80 degrees.

It was 80 driving home on late Thursday afternoon. Sunny. A balmy breeze.

There have been three beautiful days in a row.

At the warehouse, doors have been propped open. Dock doors left raised.

When I got home, I let the dogs out—keeping Giles on a leash. We walked around the gardens—now a sea of gold and yellow and cream and orange. It feels too early for the daffodils to be peaking. Perhaps they aren’t. Perhaps this is just the first wave, the first crescendo of the symphony, that will go on through April and May and fade to silence in June.

I hope so.

I dread the first wilting when the flower heads soften and droop.

I was concerned yesterday that 80 might have burned them, but as I drove up the mountain, the temperature on the dashboard of the shiny black pickup dropped. One numeral after another, the digital readout changed. 79, 78, 77, 76, 75.

I picked up some of the deadfall wood I’d cut with the chainsaw on Wednesday evening.

It had been a very busy week at work and at home.

It doesn’t get dark until much later due to the season changing and the time change last weekend.

I surveyed the gardens.

‘I’ve done a good thing,’ I thought. ‘Good work.’

I looked for spots to put more flower bulbs in next fall. Even though I did a pretty poor job getting them in during 2023. I’ll mark the areas with stakes as all traces of the flowers will be gone by then, and it wouldn’t do to dig where bulbs are already established.

I can blame COVID for part of that though.

That’s another advantage to daffodils. They spread. A single bulb will turn into a clump in a couple of years.

Maybe that’s it. The March wave looks so big because the successive plantings over the years have multiplied themselves.

I almost opted to stay in. Crash. But with Morse done, there’s nothing I’m anxious to watch.

“No. I should stick to the plan and go downtown to The Grapes of Wrath.”

I also had a hankering for La Paz. The Mexican restaurant I’ve been going to for 40 years. The menu is unchanged. At least for my desires. Guacamole tostadas. Refried beans. Nachos (their version of plain nachos is a layer of tortilla with refried beans spread atop it. Cheese melted until a little firm. Pickled jalapeno slices dotted atop the plate like pepperoni.) Gratis chips and salsa. And two margaritas with salted rims.

Those goals were enough to drag me to the city—alone and worn out from a week of books and firewood and “problems.”

Frederick was busy. The beautiful weather brought lots of people out on Market Street. I had to park a few blocks west of the Weinberg and walk back. La Paz had a line, but there was one seat cramped into the corner at the end of the bar.

The woman next to me was chattering about leases and contractors and changing her toilet out with a couple to her left.

“My husband…” “My husband…”

I scrunched in so my food wouldn’t impinge on her space.

She was a bit buzzed, I think, and I tried to block her out by messing with my phone.

Finally, she left. “I’ve gotta walk home. My husband…”

The food was so good. So memorable. A lifetime connection.

I had to pack my leftovers myself. But the bill was small. Inflation hasn’t hit here yet. I wonder what the same thing cost in the 80s? A trip to La Paz on a Friday or Saturday was a big treat when there wasn’t any money, a reward for the work I put in so many years ago.

I carried my leftovers past the Weinberg and down Patrick Street to my car.

I got back and found a seat just a few minutes before the lights went down.

“… And special thanks to Wonder Book for sponsoring this movie… Silence your personal devices…”

I was way up front, and the big screen loomed above me.

The film was poetry. John Ford’s direction was like being in an art gallery. Scenes just struck me as being beautifully composed.

Why can’t they make movies like that anymore? Maybe they made all there was. I went to see Dune: Part Two with my younger son last week. Much of the narrative was explosions.

The Grapes of Wrath got a bit preachy sometimes. And a complex situation was often distilled down one side being always noble and the other always evil and abusive.

When Tom Joad is bidding farewell to his mother—he has to go on the run for murdering a cop—maybe a fake cop—he tells her he won’t be completely gone:

I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look—wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build, I’ll be there, too.

Signed Wallace Stevens

Signed Wallace Stevens

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Chuck's Travel Guides

Well, it is 8 a.m.

Time to rise and face the day.

6 Comments on Article

  1. Nelson Freck commented on

    Wish me a happy birthday. From one survivor to another. 73 today. I plan to survive a few more years by doing the exact reverse of your methods.
    Back in the day I wanted to be the 3rd largest dealer in the area but have it be a total secret. later

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Happy birthday Nelson!
      Stay vertical!

  2. Michael Dirda commented on

    “I don’t want to do this any more” sounds a bit. . . disturbing. But, as it happens, I’ve begun to feel much the same about reviewing books. Still, imagine the consequences if we both “retired.” Just for starters, civilization would collapse without us–or at least faster than it aready is, he said glumly.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      They shall not look upon our like again?


      It can just be such “work” sometimes.

      Did you see my Oberlin email?

      Thanks for writing Michael!

      1. Matthew Killam replied on

        Selfishly, I don’t want either of you to retire any time soon!

        1. Charles Roberts replied on

          That is so kind.
          For myself I am trapped. I’d go crazy.
          But then sometimes the work and frustration makes me crazy. LOL.

          I really appreciate your reading the story and taking time to comment!

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