Friday, September 9. London. Paddington Hilton Hotel in Paddington Station.
Some weeks are more full than others.
My cup runneth over.
Endings, beginnings, continuances.
To everything, there is a season.
I had 7 hours of blessed sleep last night. The most in many weeks. There was no 2 a.m. wake up with hours of tossing and turning after. Or 3 a.m. or 4 a.m…
The broad plain of cool white sheets is a blessing.
The world has changed. Queen Elizabeth passed away twelve hours ago.
I was at the bar in the Savoy Hotel having dinner when we heard the news. There was a large portrait of her in the next room—the one with a gazebo where I had an iconic dinner 7 years ago—in the gazebo with… “Ayesha”… who has vanished into history.
They had a condolence book set out, and we signed it and headed out to the Strand. We worked our way through the crowds past Covent Garden and to St Martin-in-the-Fields. Though everyone was bustling in the damp cool day like always, there was a different look in their eyes. A faraway look. I’m sure my eyes looked the same.
I had bought tickets around noon for a classical concert at 7:30. I hadn’t even looked at what was playing. Bach… something. It didn’t matter. I was only in London for one night. I try to attend St Martins whenever I’m in town. I like sitting in the loft. It offers a magnificent view, and the acoustics are wonderful. There was a photo of her Highness on the altar visiting the church.
When we entered, we had been given a program and a sheet with the German texts of the Bach Cantatas translated into English.
Ich habe genug,
I have enough,
I wish that I might from the chains of this body
Ah, how I wish my departure were here
Joyfully I would say to you, World:
Ich habe genug!
The cantatas were sung by a bass solo accompanied by strings and an 18th-century oboe and keyboard.
We decided to leave at intermission. I had enough.
Numb from the events and the marathon two days with only a few hours of sleep, I descended the 300-year-old wooden steps, then outside and down the marble steps to Trafalgar Square. From there, my friend and I headed through the hardening rain toward Buckingham Palace. On the dark and dimly lit streets, I felt we could be brushing by Holmes and Watson or Jack the Ripper as we made our way through the shadowy featureless umbrellaed crowds. The palace was still a few hundred yards away, with crowds forming all around and between. I stopped. I had stood in this very spot in June for the Queen’s Jubilee. Charles and Camilla had driven past in the bright warm sun chauffeured in a vintage royal Rolls Royce. The faces that day were beaming with delight and an inner light.
“I have had enough. Let’s go to the pub and back to Paddington.”
We made our way to the Sherlock Holmes Pub. It is just off Trafalgar. Its warm soft light and green and gold exterior invited us in out of the rain. Crowded, I was able to get two pints of their eponymous cask ale, and we stood at the bar discussing the day’s events.
From there, it was a short walk to Charing Cross, where we took the Bakerloo to Paddington.
I quickly crashed mentally and physically.
Monday. September 5
It is a getaway week. Panic time. There are so many moving pieces in this business now. I’m making sure anyone who might need me to sign something or perform some other task in person knows, so I can do it before I leave.
I am looking forward to it. It has been a stressful terrible summer since late July. It could be worse. I found that out Saturday afternoon when I met good friends at the New Market Plains Winery. We went out to dinner, and they dropped a bombshell there. Actually two bombs.
Just before he died suddenly and in my arms, my dad told me, “Son, life isn’t fair.” I had told him of some social injustice I was concerned about at age twenty. I was young and idealistic.
My life changed drastically and forever soon after that.
So, be aware things can be planned, and your “i’s” dotted and your “t’s” crossed, and “BOOM!”—things can blow up.
I hope I can help them.
I worked extra hard over the weekend to clear as much as I could.
I processed that Sherlock Holmes pastiche collection.
I used to collect those when I was a young bookseller. I sought them out at auction and in rare book shows. Now I wasn’t tempted at all.
I found some more of this mysterious Peruvian collection that came if from… somewhere.
I came across this odd M R James book with a Paddington Station imprint.
My arms were tired, and my mind was numb by Sunday afternoon. I surveyed my work and was proud.
Travis and I are heading back from Gaithersburg. The store looks great. I wanted to check in before I go away. We did some light culling. Now… what else do I have to do?
I got a new piece of luggage over the weekend and some other necessities. It will be sad to retire the old suitcase (are they still called that?) It has gone to so many places with me. Its frame has been bent for a couple of years. It is an embarrassment to travel with it now.
My nephew had brought two iconic book objects he’d found at auction. I already have them both, but these are superior versions. The Darwin monkey weighs about 25 pounds.
It is Labor Day. That means a lot to me because my first son was born on a Labor Day so many years ago. We celebrated this birthday at one of my favorite restaurants. Lightfoot in Leesburg. It is a beautiful place, and the food and drinks are always wonderful. So many happy memories of that place. Friends I don’t talk to anymore…
The weather shifted abruptly over the weekend. It was in the 90s Saturday and Sunday. This week will be in the 70s.
Fall. Another season is closing in.
There is hardly any traffic. I think we are the only ones open in the industrial park where the warehouse is located. But we have a lot of orders from all over the world. A majority of our orders drop in over weekends, anyway. About half the staff works here.
This is just one Gaylord of many going out from this weekend.
What is the most common book? (Excluding various editions of the Bible and Shakespeare et al.)
It used to be this, I thought. The Da Vinci Code—80 million. But this site says Harry Potter has surpassed that. Philosopher’s Stone has sold 120 million copies alone!
(I hope I sleep tonight. I don’t know what is wrong…)
The difference between Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code is that Harry Potter still sells well. The Da Vinci Code is anathema. When I look at the mystery sections in the stores, it always seems there are 8-10 copies even though I ban the sorters from sending it. Do they self propagate?
Clif was off, so I went to the Frederick to pick up the big box truck filled with weekend book buys. I’m the only other one here who will drive the thing now.
I stopped at the counter and told the managers that things look great. “Let us know if you need anything. If you don’t tell us, we can’t help you.”
“You’re THE Renaissance man!” spoke an excited voice behind me. I turned, and a man, whose age I couldn’t guess because he was so fit, reached out his hand. I put mine out and shook. Handshakes are back—about 75% of the time. COVID.
“I read your stories. I’ve written you! You are a renaissance man. You do so many things.”
“I… well, thank you. So nice to meet you.”
When I was younger, I had the kind of complexion that would blush at any provocation. I hope I don’t now.
We chatted a bit before I stepped out, embarrassed but heartened. I climbed up into the big truck and started it. It rumbled to life and shook. You have to let it warm up a few minutes before driving off.
Renaissance man. I thought of my father. Dead nearly fifty years. Brilliant with a very high IQ. Highly academic. MD, PhD, FACP, FACC etc… Before he died, he told me he was thinking of getting a law degree. He was still involved in Texas politics, though he hadn’t lived there since the 1920s. A congressman friend of his published an obituary in the Congressional Record.
“DR. JOE ROBERTS: A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS”
“…Mr. Speaker, yesterday, Dr. Joe Roberts was buried at Arlington Cemetery with full military honors…”
Though I didn’t have his talents, I finally found some of my own. I’ve spent my life trying to live up to his standards. I’ve succeeded in some ways, but there is so much more to do. I hope I make it.
That stranger’s unexpected comments in the store I created 42 years ago and which has been in that location since 1990 fanned the spluttering flame in mind. I drove back to the warehouse with its 5 million books and music and movies and “stuff.”
“There’s more you can do.”
Later, a comment from him dropped onto the blog:
Dear Mr. Roberts:
Well, today we crossed that one off the bucket list! It was a real treat to top off my latest WB haul of cds and postcards by meeting one of my current inspirations, the one and only…….YOU! So why the gushing fawn, one of your customarily fantastic staff members might have been wondering. A “Renaissance Man”? Isn’t that laying it on a bit much? No, not in context. Let’s see, I enjoy breezing through your travelogues, but I’m glad that it’s you and not me…
Was more getaway tasks. That evening, I had to go to Baltimore. The Ringo Starr concert I bought tickets for in January 2020 was finally going to come off. It had been postponed 3 times. COVID.
Baltimore scares me now. The last time I was there was at the 2019 enormous Antiques Show in the Convention Center at the once glorious Inner Harbor. Walking to a restaurant, a gang of maybe 50 kids blasted by on dirt bikes and ATVs. We passed a fancy harbor-side restaurant, and a handful of 10-12 year-old children were trying to pry a restaurant worker’s chained bike away from the rear entrance.
In my paranoia, I foresaw me getting carjacked or mugged or knifed. I drove my dirty old jeep full of junk and dog hair. I dressed “poor.” I created a throwaway wallet with a little bit of cash and dummy cards. The phone guided me through the sudden rainstorm. Driving through the city, I went through some dodgy areas. At any stoplight, I gave myself enough room and prepared to blast through the intersection should anyone approach. The concert was at the Lyric. I think I was there 5 or so years ago to see Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull.) Turns out, the parking garage is adjacent to it. It was in a small island of calm. Still, I wish I’d seen some police presence—even one.
My tickets were at Will Call.
My son and his husband were running a little late, so I stopped in the Brass Tap and had a couple draft Delirium Tremens—the Belgian beer, not the affliction. I glanced at my phone, and an email dropped in from my banker:
I’m pleased to inform you that the Bank has approved your request for financing to assist the construction of the two new warehouses. Please review the attached financing commitment and let me know if you have any questions. If not, please sign and return.
I exhaled heavily. I’ve been waiting for this. And dreading that. I am 8 figures in debt now.
I hope THAT works out.
My son and his husband arrived, and I handed them their two and half year old tickets. We were in the second row center. I’d bought the tickets early—in 2020. I mean early as in as soon as the show had been announced. The four seats in front of us were empty. Maybe they died of COVID, and their heirs didn’t know about the tickets.
I’d seen Ringo before, but this time he looked even younger than seven years before. It was an amazing show. His “All-Starr Band” included Edgar Winter, the guy from Toto (Rosanna), the guy from Average White Band, the guy from Men at Work and the guy from Kansas—among others.
82 years old, and he was spry—tiny almost—but ROCKED for two and a half hours.
I recorded a few of his or Beatle hits, including the finale—”Little Help From My Friends.”
He returned for a curtain call, and they all stood at the edge of stage and began singing “Give Peace a Chance.”
“I’ve gotta get that.” So I rose and aimed my phone at the stage (as were MANY others.) That’s when it hit me. Something was flying at me through the view finder.
It hit me in the chest, and my arms wrapped round it. I thought it was his outer shirt. Turns out, it was a sweat towel. He’d been doing jumping jacks throughout “When I See Your Face.”
Wow—a Beatle towel.
I told my son I’d add it to his inheritance.
What a day. Renaissance Man and Ringo throwing something at me from 10 feet away.
I got home at 11 and crashed. For three hours.
I dragged myself in and found my actual getaway day I’d prepped so much for wouldn’t be smooth. Clif was out as was another warehouse regular. We would have to pull people from other departments. An ABAA bookseller friend was delivering 160 boxes of culls that morning, and we had planned to have lunch. When he arrived, I told him about my work issues, and we chatted for a while in my office instead of going out.
He is a few years younger, but from the same mold. We discussed current bookselling issues and old friends and new up and comers. He is another—of the very few—who buys a LOT of books nowadays. We bemoaned all the great books that are being destroyed every day because there is no one out there to take them. So many of the charities that people donate to are not equipped to appraise collectible books. In fact, many routinely refuse or toss old books because “They don’t sell” at library sales.
But we were both optimistic about the future of bookselling and “better” books. It sort of skipped a generation, but there are now many younger folks entering the trade as a career.
What’s the saying?
It is not the ______, but the journey. I’m so fried I can’t remember.
And then there is, “All’s well that ends well.”
I was exhausted, so I looked it up. “It is not the destination, but the journey.” Paraphrased from Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Well, I’m on British Airways to Heathrow. Somehow upgraded to seat 12D. 2 windows. 3 middle. 2 windows.
Lots of space. Lots of free stuff.
The section behind me is 3/3/3. I’m not sure what is behind that.
The day went from a sprint to a sprinting marathon. Never one to publicly duck my too frequent incompetencies, I will confess here. I got SO MUCH done today and left early for Dulles. When I got to Dulles, something clicked. See, I bought the tickets 9 months ago. I pulled over and pulled out my reservation printout.
I ALWAYS fly to London from Dulles!
Part of me said, “Surrender. Go home.”
The angel on my other shoulder said, “Give it a try.”
So, I programmed BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport into the screen in my car and pushed GO.
My flight wasn’t until 8:50 p.m. It was about 5:30. It was rush hour. It was raining. As I struggled around the DC Beltway, I kept an eye on my progress. It kept saying I should get there at 6:36, although I was only going about 15-20 mph.
“IDIOT!” I swore I heard someone saying that. My muse? Maybe it was me talking aloud.
Well, I got there. 6:32. Parked. Took the shuttle bus. Got to the British Airways check-in. “Your flight is delayed 30 minutes.”
I had a Martini and then a Stella for hydration.
Preflight service in this class is little glasses of water or juice—in real glass.
Nice touch. But I want some wine and a nighty-night and a wake up in London at 9:30 a.m.
I won’t have more than a day in London because I’m taking the train to Oxford on Friday morning.
But… London. I am SO lucky. I whine and complain and stress and kvetch…
Today I earned my stipend.
Everything went to hell. The extra two hours of driving in rain and rush hour capped the experience perfectly.
“Eedjit!” Do I have a Welsh accent?
The flight is barely six hours. By the time they stop giving you stuff until the time they wake you up for landing, I may have had 3 hours of “sleep.”
I’m on the Great Western Railway train to Oxford. I met Laurelle Swan, a bookselling buddy from the west coast, in the lobby, and we rolled our luggage out of the Hilton and down into Paddington.
“There’s a train to Penzance!” Maybe next trip…
We will have the day to explore Oxford before the ILAB Congress starts this evening.
Yesterday, I finally got to Paddington about 11 due to luggage delays. Laurelle had been in town a couple of days already. I texted her. She was out buying books in Chelsea. She was willing to meet at the Sherlock Holmes Pub just below Trafalgar Square. Touristy during the day and full of office Brits spilling out onto the street during the late afternoon, it is my favorite watering hole in London.
I got us each an eponymous cask ale, and we chatted a bit.
“What do want to do? I was here in June and did all my ‘must stops.'”
“What do you recommend?”
“We can go look at books?”
She is always up for that, so we headed up to Trafalgar.
“Let’s stop at St Martin-in-the-Fields.” (I needed the loo after two pints. There’s a toilet in the crypt along with a lovely cafe—if you don’t mind dining atop gravestones.)
There was a free afternoon chorale going on. What luck. Dvorak.
They have concerts there most nights. Tonight was Bach something or other. I was too dull to look.
She said yes, and we bought tickets for tonight.
From there, we headed up to the Cecil Court bookshops, then to the Charing Cross bookshops.
By then, it was late afternoon, and I needed to get back to the hotel to clean up. We took the Bakerloo from Charing Cross to Paddington.
Later, we went to the Savoy for cocktails and dinner. Shut out AGAIN at the American Bar. I hate it when places get “discovered.” The hotel gives priority to guests. Imagine that!? I’d been through this in June as well. I led us down to The River—a lavish Gordon Ramsey restaurant in the hotel overlooking the Thames. It was empty. I had to convince the host to seat us at the bar.
“Wouldn’t you rather…”
“No, I like the…”
The place was empty.
He finally honored my request.
There must have been 15 people working the floor. Who knows how many in the kitchen? The service was painfully slow. I was ready for a cocktail. We finally ordered martinis (actually a Vesper for me.) I think they had to go out to find a lemon tree for the twist—it took that long.
But we ordered 5 or 6 dishes of the most exotic seafood I’ve ever experienced. Each was novel taste, mix, presentation… We oohed and aahed throughout the meal.
You know the rest already.
The train is pulling into Oxford. I’ll need to send this across the Atlantic to my editor. I’ll have to find Wifi to send the images.
God bless the late Queen. God save King Charles III—you certainly waited long enough for it. I hope your reign is smoother than Charles I and II. You have a mighty predecessor to live up to. I can sympathize with that.