Today is Friday post #209 and begins Year 5 of these stories. We haven’t missed a Friday yet!
Thank you to anyone who has read any of these. The concept was begun with the intent to preserve memories of bookselling and book life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
They’ve diverged sometimes—but there are always books involved.
4 more years?
Monday, July 12
Driving home late at night, a storm is raging far above the clouds. Flashes of gray and white brighten broad patches of the night sky. The gods are warring. Rain is spattering the road and windshield.
It’s 11. I am tired. My days start so early.
I met my son and his husband at the Birchmere Monday night. Peter Rowan’s Free Mexican Air Force was playing.
I was traveling in time tonight.
Am I hurtling toward oblivion? Or soaring to the ether?
A lifetime ago, my big brother Jimmie was a Rock and Roll poet. I wasn’t much more than a child.
Dad would drive me and Mom down to the Cellar Door in Georgetown to see the band. To say we stood out in that hip crowd would be an understatement.
Peter was the guitarist, singer and a songwriter. He was impossibly lithe and beautiful. He wore skintight brown leather pants and a puffy French linen shirt. His curly locks flowed high above his head.
From a 14-year-old to an 18-year-old, I basked in the distant light of what they were doing.
Then they broke up.
Peter turned 79 last week.
He put on a great show. His energy got stronger the longer he played.
5 encores. FIVE. I think. I lost track in the happiness and synergy the crowd was creating.
When I got home to the top of the mountain, the headlights revealed my landing area was covered with hopping toads. It was a funny wet splashy sight, with the rain splattering all about on the pavement and leaves floating down from the forest above.
Must be mating season.
I exited the Explorer cautiously. There are no lights up there. Only stars and the moon—when it isn’t overcast. Sometimes the security lights pop on. Sometimes they don’t. I turned on my cell phone flashlight so I could watch my step.
I think snakes eat toads.
Last Friday, I opened the barn door and a 6 foot black snake slithered right before me and into the woodpile. It was no problem. An asset really. They eat mice.
There’s been a plague of chipmunks this year too. These cute rodents (bigger than mice—smaller than rats) eat flower bulbs and all kinds of things I’d prefer they didn’t. The other morning everywhere I looked a chipmunk was scurrying off into the woods or, more likely, under a rock.
Maybe it was mating season.
Things get more problematic when pit vipers are involved.
I wrote a year ago that I stepped on a rattlesnake when I was watering some thirsty new COVID gardens I’d recently planted.
A couple weeks ago, I looked out my kitchen window while doing dishes. A snake’s big head and about 6 inches more was protruding from a gap in the stone wall across the gravel patio between the house and the woods.
I had filled every nook and cranny in that wall with that foam stuff from a can that sprays out and expands and then dries into something like a hard baked Italian Meringue. I’d obviously missed a crevasse. When I went out to check on the beast, it was sunning itself on the wall. All FIVE feet of it. The biggest copperhead I’ve ever seen. It slithered up the mountain into the woods at my approach.
I got the can of spray foam and filled the hole in the wall.
I’ll trim that mess back into the wall and perhaps paint it black. You won’t even know it is there.
When I went down to the lower drive to get something out of my truck, another one was sunning itself—stretched out on the driveway. It was only two feet long, but just as potent.
Must have been mating season.
I only see one poisonous snake every 1.5 years or so.
This has been my lucky year. 3 in 11 months!
I blame COVID.
A couple weeks ago, I put Midnight in Paris into the DVD player. I had first seen it a few months earlier. It was just a random pick from a pile of discs next to the TV.
Paris in the 20s. Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Scott and Zelda, Picasso, Dali…
The film transported me to the first time I saw it. It was…just wonderful.
I found I was in the mood for it again. That night I watched it twice.
Beautiful people. Impossibly young. And beautiful. Living in a golden age. Defining a golden age.
Would I long to live in Paris in the 1920s? The “Golden Age Syndrome?”
I’d be dead.
Would I long to live in the late 1960s and early 70s and hang around the edge of the musical renaissance blooming everywhere?
I did that.
It would be nice to visit again.
In last week’s story, I bemoaned the hoard of old college yearbooks Larry had brought me. He was rescuing them from a garage into which they had been unceremoniously dumped so the house proper could be prepared for sale.
“Do you want more?” he asked. “I’m risking my life. The garage is about to fall and kill me.”
When I saw a small fresh batch Clif had set on a cart for me last week, I moaned inwardly. I’d spent some hours the weekend before sorting through Harvard, Vassar, Yale, Radcliffe, Princeton, Stanford, Smith…
The woman had collected blue chip college yearbooks and anniversary volumes.
Weird thing to collect. Many still had invoices laid in. Some of the booksellers I recognized. Some were before my time. Many are gone.
Who would want “Princeton—The Class of 1870—30 Years On”?
On Saturday, I sat on a stool before this new batch.
“Why? Who would want these?” I asked myself, transferring them to a different cart and starting little stacks that would have the same prices. “Whoever does will have to pay for them. Supply and demand. Extremely low supply. Extremely low demand.”
If class at Mercersburg Academy had 75 people in it the year Calvin Coolidge Jr tragically died (see last week’s story), how many copies would they print? Print only as many as students preordered? 60? 50? 80? I guess some underclassmen order copies too.
I’d seen a number of Princeton Bric-a-Brac issues last week. This one came to hand. 1919.
An Ivy League Yearbook. Excellent condition. Oblong folio. Gilt lettering and cover decoration.
I set it on the cart with other blue chip school annuals. I’d price these at $129.95.
Those schools all have someone who will be famous every year.
If they’re worth anything to anyone, they have to bring at least that.
Or not sell.
Eventually the price will go down.
The anniversary brag volumes (“this is what I’ve accomplished in the 25 years since graduation”) I priced much lower. Harvard especially issues a lot of these.
A PGA Golf tournament was whispering on my laptop a few feet away.
“What a minute…I wonder…”
I retrieved Princeton 1919 and began flipping through.
Yearbooks always have individual photos of the seniors, in alphabetical order, with paragraph including a personality blurb, nickname, extracurricular activities…
This one didn’t. Not one single person photograph in its 300 or so pages. Just images of sports teams and clubs and activities. Group shots.
I found there was a “Directory.” I scrolled down the page beginning with Evans.
“Fitzgerald, F. S., ’18 s ………… 42 C.”
I knew I was going down a rabbit hole…
I began flipping through. Clubs, sports teams, balls, events… Somewhere near the middle were the literary orgs.
He might be there…
“The Tiger Board, 1917-1918.”
“Damn! There he is.”
I went looking for other Princeton publications of the same vintage.
“What is the Nassau Herald?”
I flipped through it. It was more like a traditional yearbook.
“D, E, F…F…Stanley Guild Fine…Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. ‘Fitz’…”
I turned the page.
There he is.
Impossibly young and beautiful.
As a side note, I looked to see if there were any signatures, as yearbooks often have. The only thing I found was on the front pastedown:
Property of James Gatz
Means nothing to me…*
* That’s faked…LOL…
I wrote this til 1 am after Monday’s concert before surrendering to sleep.
It was a fitful short night.
I awoke after 6, and the valley below was blanketed in white cloudy fog.
Now, after letting the dogs out and making coffee, I returned to bed.
The clouds have climbed the mountain and now embrace the house.
I wish I could lose the two inches of belt I gained during the Plague.
I am trying.
I wish I could gain the year I lost in fear and doubt and struggle for survival.
I can only try to make up for it by living that much more this coming year.
Peter Rowan will be 80 next year. His face and body showed his years, but his voice and energy and music were young and beautiful.
He played until I was tired. I had wanted to stay and say hello at the table set up in the lobby where the group would greet fans and sign CDs.
But I am shy around groups of strangers.
And it was a long drive home.
And he probably wouldn’t remember me anyway. I am just a brother of a long-gone friend and fellow musician and writer.
We’d intersected about 19 years ago when he was the only one I could think to reach out to. My brother had gotten a death sentence in Nashville. With his connections, Peter would know whom we could go to for advice and help in that distant city.
The 4 brothers rallied round. Three of us made a journey from Tennessee to Pennsylvania where Jim’s last few months were as good as could be expected. He was comfortable and with family.
Prior to that, I had only passed through Peter’s life at rehearsals or backstage or in the audience in the late 60s and early 70s. Jim Roberts’ kid brother. Invisible, I am sure.
I am glad I went.
Some of the band members—The Free Mexican Air Force—were from San Antonio. That’s not far from where my dad was born and raised in San Marcos. My grandmother migrated there as a baby in a covered wagon—in the 1870s. My family roots are in Texas.
One song they played was “San Antonio Rose.” The guitarist strummed his big wooden 12-string using all 5 fingers. The squeezebox and bass and drums gave the song a very Mexicali feel.
My mom would often softly whistle that tune when she ironed or cooked—her apron cinched around her ample waist. Her rendition was sad and distant and plaintive.
I wonder if she got it from Patsy Cline—a Frederick, Maryland girl.
Maybe Mom got it long before. I’m sure she and Dad would go home to Texas often after they married in 1938.
I am glad I went to the Birchmere. Lots of happy memories of visits there long ago.
There was not a mask in the place.
Is it finally over?
The weekend’s finds were overwhelming. The F Scott Fitzgerald yearbooks were a completely serendipitous find. The first one anyway. Why did that book stick to my hand and tell me to open it?
The three subsequent yearbooks were searched for specifically.
Are there more?
Did we put any online?
Did I send some Nassau Heralds to Books by the Foot?
I will have to retrace my steps—figuratively.
There were many, many carts yet to go through. If I didn’t get to them, we’d be further behind come Monday.
I’d had another pallet of Ashburn books unboxed and carted. This was one I’d been waiting for. Was it the last? I’m not sure.
If so, why was this the last? This was the best one.
We were packing books in that sprawling outbuilding when I’d last seen these things in the autumn of 2018. But the mothball and snake repellent fumes were so strong I just wanted to get done. I couldn’t look closely then. It was hard enough to breathe. I just had mental images.
I recalled the 50 or 60 P G Wodehouse in dust jacket.
Many are not first editions.
But they are all beautiful. They span the 1920s to the 60s.
The run of 10 or so Kerouac firsts and lots of other Beats…they no longer reek.
Airing out since October 2018, they are no longer “ripe.”
With the books I couldn’t make immediate assessments of, I created many tubs and two full carts for Annika to research.
Oh, and Saturday morning three new booksellers from the Gaithersburg store drove up for a tour of the warehouse.
I encourage this and pay their way. The people at the remote stores should have an idea of what happens to all the books they buy and load in the vans. They should be given some idea of the processes that every book goes through.
I love giving tours. There are almost always “oohs and aahs” at certain points in the walk through.
“How do you decide what to send to the stores?” one asked.
“A lot of that is from the Want Lists you guys fax every week. We also choose perennial favorites and try to keep up with the new trends and hot subjects.”
Whatever we are doing, it seems to be working. June was Gaithersburg’s second best month ever. Frederick had one of its best months since the Millennium. Hagerstown was up double digits over June 2019. (We have tossed out June 2020—Plague.)
The stores still don’t break even. Costs are way up. We have reduced the store hours. But they are the face and point of contact for so many booklovers, and for people looking for a place where their books will get the best treatment possible. And they will get a little money. And we will take ALL they bring us.
We will inspect EVERY book we buy. Humble and grand.
I was a battered bookseller by the time I left Sunday afternoon to watch the European Soccer Championship—England versus Italy—at Belles’ Bar nearby.
There’s a little flock of blue jays on the roof outside my bedroom window. They pound on the sunflowers seeds til they crack and the soft energy inside is exposed.
Time to rise and get to work.
I need to prepare legal documents.
And tomorrow is my birthday.
I knew it was coming up sometime soon.
I need to change plans.
John Adams used to talk about this place.
He was a beer connoisseur.
I miss him. So much. There’s a hole in my life where he once was.
He was such a beautiful young man long, long ago.
Why didn’t I ever come out here to meet him? He would ask me. It’s only 40 minutes away.
A great space.
Huge Ralph Steadman graphics on the wall.
John dropped dead suddenly a year ago.
We played a lot of golf for over 3 decades.
I’d come to Columbia to see a foot doctor. This one advertises arthroscopic surgery in some cases for the Achilles heel that sometimes burns like it is on fire.
It is Friday morning.
The place is a zoo. Clif is out. Warehouse helpers are out. Looks like I’ll be a van driver at least a couple times today.
Ahhh, the romance and glory of being a book CEO…
The rest of the week has been a blur as well. Seems like most are.
Wednesday was my birthday. They aren’t fun anymore.
We got this comment on Instagram.
This makes me feel so good. Rescuing books and offering affordable reading for all kinds of people.
A woman came by and picked out a few hundred kids’ books. She is taking them to an impoverished West Virginia trailerpark to distribute—along with food she gives out there.
I found out a little about the Princeton yearbooks:
When I arrived at Princeton, I didn’t realize colleges actually had yearbooks. I should have known better because Princeton loves tradition and recording its history. The Nassau Herald, our yearbook, was first published in 1864. It was originally separated into two books. The first was the Bric-a-Brac, which focused on all aspects of undergraduate life. The second book was the Nassau Herald, which focused on the four-year experience of the senior class. The two books merged a few years ago to become one large Nassau Herald.
That explains things.
The old book business is infinite. Not a day goes by that I don’t see something I’ve never seen before…or forgot I had seen. I am a generalist. I know a little about all different genres. Yearbooks…I’ve always thought they were cool. I’ve never understood why they weren’t desirable to collectors. I wonder if I’ve missed Hemingway and Faulkner and … yearbooks over the years.
You can’t catch them all. But we do catch a lot. A LOT.
Last weekend’s finds were like Fourth of July fireworks with all the Kerouac and other Beat first editions, the mini hoard of vintage jacketed Wodehouse and the F Scott Fitzgerald. There were plenty of other wonders—like that Egypt collection—but those were overshadowed. It will be hard for this weekend to top those.
But who knows—maybe I’ll find a Milton autograph or a Gutenberg leaf…or other stuff dreams are made of—book dreams?
Coincidences…I’d already started this week’s story late—after I got back to Maryland from Peter’s concert in Virginia. Peter inspired me (not for the first time.) I had linked this 1969 interview with Jim’s childhood friend Andy Kulberg.
The whole Copenhagen documentary is about 30 minutes long and is mostly concert footage.
The next night I got a call from a San Francisco number. It was late. I didn’t answer. My days start at 5 am or so. When I got in the next morning, there was an email from Andy Kulberg’s son! I’d never met him. Andy passed away in the late 90s. His son Zak wanted to revive a children’s book/audio production Jim and Andy had worked on in the 70s.
Almond and the Magic Wheel.
He sent me the audio. There are some pretty big names in the recording. There might be some “Hollywood” interest in perhaps doing an animated feature…with some big names. I’m Jim’s closest surviving relative, and that’s why I was sought out.
Who knows? It would be great for them both to have their legacies enriched. They deserve it!
Wednesday I was told the contractor was coming Thursday morning for the next phase of the major renovation to the 31-year-old Frederick store.
That changed my plans for sure.
There was a lot of banging and screwing. Dust was flying. Bookcases I’d erected in 1990 were coming down and going up elsewhere. We even found a long forgotten door.
So strange…I “lived” there for so many years—until internet mail-order bookselling dictated I move to the warehouse. The upheaval is…strange…like tearing up an old favorite spot. But the results will be exciting. More books. More glass cases for rare books. More flip bins for LPs. More room for CDs and DVDs.
A new generation bookstore for the next generation of Wonder Book customers and coworkers.
I also went through some more of my own collection I am parting with. Most from my core collection in the old manse in Pennsylvania. There are some great books. And common stuff. My tastes have changed. I can’t keep everything. My home on the mountaintop is pretty full.
Here are some things going in to the Charles Roberts Collection in the Collector’s Corner on www.wonderbook.com.
Some things…well, a lot of things…I can’t part with yet.
These Michaels are some books Barbara inscribed when we were just becoming close buddies after many years a book friends. The Lindbergh…when my wife to be and I bought the old stone farmhouse “Civil War Building” in Gettysburg. The little old widow dressed in pink with loads of makeup (“The mirror doesn’t convey!”) had left a load of stuff in the garage. I rooted through it. The Lindbergh was in their “trash.” It was 1980. I had been a bookseller for only a few months.
I’ll keep that.
I bought some hostas last night.
I am a hosta junkie. There are hundreds up on the mountain now. The 6 or 7 big stone ringed gardens I put in last year for mental therapy—the COVID Gardens—are all doing wonderfully. For nature—at least up there—it has been a good year.
I had this sign made up 30 years ago. It was done by a well-known artist—Bill Cochran. He had just come to Frederick from a different lifestyle. His business card name then read “Pan Freedom.”
Before the internet, many books were hard to find. People would travel from town to town, bookstore to bookstore, searching for elusive titles. Most now are easily hunted down. There are 2.5 million on www.wonderbook.com. In those days, people would come in and ask, “Do you have x, y, z…?” Of course we rarely did. I had this sign made, and it still hangs above the ramp to the big book room in Frederick.
If You Don’t Find The Book You Want—You’ll Probably Find Others You Want More.
Perhaps I accidentally paraphrased/stole that from Parnassus on Wheels.
Or maybe it was parallel thinking.
It was certainly a truism then.
It is still.
If you are lucky enough to still have an old bookstore near, go in and let serendipity guide your discoveries.
And become a used book evangelist. You know their magic. Share it!