Half Spring

White Trillium

Here are 4 pages of results in the Collector’s Corner for New Orleans:


In the beginning…

We reviewed sales figures for the stores in April this week.


Go figure.

The Gaithersburg bookstore had its best April since I bought it in 2008. (It still doesn’t break even on expenses…LOL.)

Hagerstown had a pretty strong month.

Frederick had its best April this Millennium!

That got me thinking, and I dug into some of the archives.

Those green notebooks were my dad’s. He was only 5 years dead at the time. Using his medical school anatomy lecture notebook to begin my business accounting was an homage to the man. It was also free.

This is the first page of the first month I opened in 1980.

September 1980

There’s the first day’s sales. The Grand Opening. I made $43.40.

My draw was $150 a week, and sometimes I had to save up the checks until there was enough in the bank to cover them.

I mowed the lawn in front of the store, which was on Rt 40 (a.k.a. West Patrick St, the Old Pike, the National Road.) I don’t recall how much Ted Mercer, the landlord, paid me, but it helped.

The second month, October 1980, got better. We had our first day “over.” I would call my silent partner Carl Sickles at his Book Alcove in Gaithersburg every day and report my daily sales. (That store location is now Wonder Book Gaithersburg.) When one of the three Book Alcoves was “over”, that meant we had had $100 plus in sales.

The Sickles’ Montgomery County stores were always over.

I recall how proud I was when I called him and said: “We were over!” for that first time.

I kept these notebooks recording sales and other data in them as handwritten ledgers into the 90s when our POS (points of sale) became computerized.

The initial cash drawer was a fishing tackle box. My dad’s. I bought a cash register in 1983, I think—a major step. At the end of the day, I would “Z out.” There was a Z button, and when you pushed that, a long paper tape would print out showing the day’s sales totals by category. (Hardback, paperback, magazine, comic book, LP…) Once you “Z out”, the cash register would reset everything to zero so you could begin the next day afresh.

Flipping through the handwritten pages, I was gratified my memory was correct. I took a big risk in 1983. We moved the store about a half-mile west on Rt 40 to a larger location.

I sold my LP and comic collections at the First Annual Frederick Book Auction. I organized the sale and advertised it. I sold off all the best store stock as well. Everything in that auction was mine. Why the sell off? I had bought about $7000 in new videos to rent from Schwatrz Brothers as startup stock. I needed to raise money to pay that bill.

Summer 1983

It was a huge sum then. A huge, frightening risk too.

It was a success. I raised enough money to pay off Schwartz Bros.

It was also a pain in the ass. My #1 Fantastic Four went for much less than I thought it was worth. There were baseball cards too. They were so hot back then. I regretted seeing them go.

So the First Annual was the last as well.

But getting into video rentals was a tremendous move. Frederick was a small market for books. Back then, every town had one or two or seven used bookstores. Competition was fierce.

Videos brought in a lot of people. Some would buy books or comics or LPs or old Life magazines.

Also, I could now watch movies “I” wanted to see. Other video stores would never carry Marx Brothers or Ingmar Bergman, but I would.

Soon we were often having lines going out to the sidewalk on Friday and Saturday night.

I was a “Movie Mogul”… (in my little 3000 sq/ft shop…LOL.)

It was fun to look through those handwritten sales figures. I was very diligent. It was my livelihood. I could see trends about what types of things were doing well and what was not.

The stores grew and grew through the 80s and 90s. They were doing so well I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to sell “Books on the Computer” in 1997.

Thank goodness my brother Tony and Clark intervened.

“You REALLY should try listing books on the computer…”

Soon after, the “World Wide Web” was killing off the vast majority of brick and mortar bookstores.

But I checked old sales logs for some of our monthly sales totals in the late 90s. Some were well over 3 times what the same Frederick store’s April Millennium record was in 2021.



Because not long after 1997, the sales figures for the stores began a long a steady decline while internet sales grew sharply.

And I began getting calls: “We’re closing the shop. Would you come look and make an offer?”

It is heartening though that the brick and mortars are coming back as the pandemic (hopefully) subsides.

May 3, 2021

Driving shotgun down to Gaithersburg.

Mondays at the warehouse are a little dreary. There is so much going on, and I’m just in the way. That is dreary.

They are printing all the orders that came in over the weekend.

All the messes I made over the weekend need to be cleared up. Not “messy” messes. Tubs, boxes, carts of books and things I accomplished on Saturday and Sunday that need to be moved to their rightful places.

Then there is the bustle of pullers taking their carts out into the stacks to retrieve orders.

Friday is usually so hectic that a lot of things don’t get done. We lost a warehouse person, and that didn’t help. Actually, lost is not the right word. He stopped coming in a lot of the time. A LOT. So, it is not like he is misplaced somewhere here in the building. So, there’s always still work from Fridays that needs to be done.

The vans need to get unloaded as swaps will be needed at all three stores. The vans at the stores will have filled up over the weekend with stuff people sold us.

Books by the Foot is abuzz with the new orders that dropped in over the weekend.

Almost every corner and nook in the building is a hive of activity.

There’s nowhere to hide and no place for me to set up my roaming workplace.

I could retreat to my office or my usual place at the conference room table, but that seems tedious. I’d feel guilty if I was “writing on the clock” when everyone else is so busy.

So, I’m heading southeast with Travis on Interstate 270 to check on the Gaithersburg store. There are a lot of new people there. Some that left I was sad to see go. I lost a good friend. Not misplaced. Just “gone.” I blame COVID. Some it was time for them to move on—out of Wonder Land, to try something else.

I did wake at 5 after a full night’s sleep. I decided to transpose poems from the legal pads littering the floor—and the one always at hand on the bed next to me.

Some were as recent as the end of April. Some I had to guess at the year. 2007? 2009? I mark the manuscript “Done” in bold ink. I tear the page out and place it atop others in a milk crate in the corner of the bedroom. (This morning I did the last five leaves of an old yellow legal pad—so that was placed in the crate in toto.)

There were about 15 pages to print out when I got to work. I print two copies from the text I email to myself. One for the “archive” in my office. (A milk crate.) One for the archive in my bedroom. (Another milk crate.)

Saved for posterity.

I’m sitting on a stool in the science section at WG (Wonder Book Gaithersburg.) I’m all caught up. There’s nothing more here for me to do.

I’ve given the newish staff the benefit of my vast experience. I don’t want to overwhelm them with inspiration.

The store looks great.

No categories are desperate for culling. There were no orders to pull for Books by the Foot.

Travis is stocking LPs from the New Arrival crates—to empty them—so the staff can price a lot of fresh LPs and refill them.

It is hot outside. So I found a stool, and I’m tapping away at this where it is cool. In the STEM section. Maybe I’ll gain some knowledge via osmosis. (I tried that in 8th Grade Latin. Miss Fitch was the young teacher. I had the feeling she was a former nun or novice. I hadn’t studied, and there was a big test the next day. I put the textbook under my pillow. It didn’t help. Maybe if I had slept with my head directly on top of the book?)

I pulled some duplicates of Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop. I think they might be a part of this week’s story.

(Nope. Maybe next week.)

I even took the copy away from the creepy doll.

Creepy Doll

We had about 8 copies of each in hardback. I’ll put some online in case this story generates a few orders.

I helped a customer too. A young woman asked if we had any Umberto Eco.

“Sure. Let’s try fiction.”

“I didn’t see any there,” she replied.

She was right.

“Mystery!” (Thinking The Name of the Rose.)


I wandered to the front to see what we had online. Each store has a computer kiosk where our online stock can be searched.

On the way, I had an epiphany.

“I wonder if he has been promoted to Lit?”

(We occasionally “promote” authors from General Fiction to Literature. It usually has to do with space requirements and better sales. Literary merit is a factor as well.)


We had about a dozen hardcovers and trade paperbacks.

I went searching for her—hoping she hadn’t departed.

She was pleased.

A little later, she found me and asked where we keep books in Spanish.

“In Spain!”

We do. That was an inspiration I had last year—not long before COVID. We used to keep Foreign Languages in separate sections. But I noticed they didn’t sell well. I also noticed that foreign language books were often about the history and culture of the places where the language is spoken. How many years did it take me to notice these things?

It was a bit of a controversial move. Several senior managers looked askance at the idea. But I insisted we try.

It was a COVID experiment and only taken at Gaithersburg so far.

Of course, Spanish is spoken in many places. So, in this case Spain is geographically placed next to books about South and Central America and Mexico… since we had the foresight to place Spain at the very end of the Europe sections it made a little sense for its neighbor to be across the ocean in the Western Hemisphere.

I am getting my hair cut today!

I made a promise to myself not to cut it until I no longer needed a mask.

The CDC and Maryland’s Governor announced masks were no longer mandatory…outdoors…in most circumstances.

So…close enough. I’ll miss tying up the ponytail.


The real reason is I’m meeting with lawyers Wednesday, and I don’t want to come across as an aging hippie. I hope my plan doesn’t backfire. But it had to be done. A point of honor. A COVID case. But I get the feeling that even if I’m 100% correct and I win, I will “lose.” The legal fees will likely not be reimbursed.

As always…the lawyers win in the end.

Last weekend was just grinding. So many carts of old books. Part of this was because I had a few pallets of boxes carted for me on Friday. One pallet was from a Pennsylvania AAUW I haven’t dealt with before. They haven’t been able to have their “Sale” (COVID.) We exchanged a few emails, and they decided to bring their “treasures” to us. So they sent down about 100 small boxes. Each was meticulously labeled. “Autographed.” “1920s.” “Pretty books” …

There are some good books. I hope they are happy with what I pay.

Then there is a DC bookshop—still closed (COVID)—which is funneling to us a lot of older low value (to them) books as well as culls from an enormous collection of first edition literature they acquired in Florida. 30,000? I’m getting the low-end first editions. Which is fine. They’ve been bringing a load every month or so for a while. A lot of the hypermoderns they’re sending are signed (or, mostly, have signed bookplates laid in.) Some of the impossible-to-sell-anymore vintage authors (think Galsworthy or …) go right to Books by the Foot. (Unless they are signed or in jacket—but I’m guessing they are keeping those.) I wonder that I haven’t seen any Christopher Morley. Maybe in the next load.

The unsigned firsts by modern authors might go online if they are somewhat unusual. The very common unsigned books like JJ Jance, Robin Cook… go to the stores because they are in perfect condition and have blue, red or black spines. Books by the Foot is chronically overstocked with those colors.

Common unsigned books with desirable spine colors go to Books by the Foot because they have more value there and…they are common.

So there were about 20 newly loaded carts for me to process.

I only got to a few of the aging dusty “problems” carts after full days of constant labor.



After work on Saturday, I met my friend David and his wife Lauren at Le Parc Bistro for their last meal. May Day. We decided to sit at the bar, as that was our usual spot. They never publicly announced they were closing, which I thought was odd. They just told occasional regulars like me. They are reopening in Hagerstown in August under a different name, which is also odd.

I’ve been there a couple times a week at least since I learned this about a month ago. My fridge is full of leftover containers—mostly the mushroom/truffle stuffed ravioli in cream sauce I got hooked on.

We three wondered and chuckled—are they serving the dregs tonight? Clearing the remnants from the fridges and pantry.

No. It was wonderful. And sad. And delicious.

I had French onion soup and mushroom/truffle ravioli.

I even ordered a carryout portion of ravioli to take with my leftovers.

We spoke of old times and friends. I thought wistfully of the friends I no longer see and the times we had here—often pre-theater at the Weinberg Center (still closed—COVID.)

Cheers, Le Parc. You will be missed.

Le Parc Farewell Drink

Gardeners know that their gardens rarely stay in equilibrium.

Plantings fail, and their places need to be filled afresh.

I am fortunate. Most of my beds are spacious, and the plants can spread and blend as they wish.

A problem at the other end of the spectrum is when one species becomes too successful in one space and starts crowding out its neighbors. I brought some ostrich ferns from the old place in Pennsylvania about a decade ago. They struggled or were (surprisingly) eaten by deer. I experimented moving the struggling survivors to different spots.

One of my favorite beds I call the Green Garden. It is at the back of the house and rises from there up the mountain slope about 20 yards. Beyond it, the grade continues up and up and up. Boulders and forest trees and vast patches of hay scented fern brakes are the backdrop. Long ago, I established woodland plants in it. Various ferns, lungwort, hellebores, Dutchman’s breeches, miniature creeping iris, hostas…

Green Garden

There are so many shades of green and varieties of foliage. It is a pleasure to the eye.

I put an ostrich fern in a couple years ago, and it did well. This year it took off. There’s a little forest of ferns encroaching and crowding and overshadowing its neighbors.

Green Garden

Imagine! Ostrich’s overrunning a garden in Maryland!

I had to intervene.

Two evenings this week I dug and dug and put the root balls in a plastic tub. I carried them down to the new terrace wall and planted about a dozen there. I may move more.

Transplated Ostrich Ferns

I also found two different trillium in the Green Garden. I had forgotten them! One is a survivor that I bought years ago in one of those plastic bags filled with peat moss. These plants rarely survive or thrive. This specimen has soldiered on solo for many years. Its bloom—light pinkhas faded. Now it is being crowded by volunteer hellebores—which is part of the reason I overlooked it. One of the plants was huge. I decided to move it. I put the spade in under time and again. I had to be careful not to slash or step on the single trillium I was trying to protect. Finally the big perennial came free, and I was able to lift the 10-pound plant and root ball from the earth. I looked into its crown—maybe 60 stems of leaves and blossoms—there were a half dozen tiny baby trilliums struggling to grow inside the big hellebore’s domain.

I tenderly extricated them, found a couple spots, added some soft soil and transplanted them.

Fingers crossed I’ll have another 8 or 10 pink trillium next spring.

I spread some soil below the pink parent in hopes its faded blossom would eventually drop seeds onto the fertile earth and produce more babies.

I stepped through the Green Garden some more, looking for other things to transplant. Seedlings and overcrowded mature specimens.

Then I came across this beauty!

White Trillium

A stunning cluster of white trillium. It was invisible because of the much taller plants surrounding it. How could I have forgotten this?

I dug up some of its neighbors to give it more space. I spread some soft soil around it in hopes babies would appear around it next year.

The five hosta “nursery gardens” (actually small patches within larger beds) are doing well.

I put these in last year to accommodate all the hosta seedlings I was finding here and there. These patches give them space and light to grow.

I’ll start transplanted them soon.

“Hmmm…where will I put 50 hostas…”

Disaster was averted this week with the much belated arrival of the second box of books acquired from Laurelle Swan in California several weeks ago.

The first package arrived promptly.

The second package had bizarre tracking messages.

“It is in Oakland.”

“It was scanned in Baltimore.”

“It is still in Oakland.”

“It is in Frederick.”

“Delivery tomorrow.”


Laurelle was in despair. She went to the post office and stood in line in California several times, I think. Though insurance would cover the value, the potential loss of these beautiful books would be tragic.

Shipment from Swan's Fine Books

She wrote: “It says it is there. Please tell me it is there.”


I returned my portrait to Alan James Robinson for some tweaking.

Portrait of Chuck

Poe, Shakespeare, the Jack Russells—everything looked great.

Except my mug.

Looking closely at myself—which I dread—I thought I looked like Bilbo Baggins!

Chuck Like Bilbo

This was the photo from which the portrait was drawn.

Next week’s story will report on bookish things I find in New Orleans.

It will be my first “fun trip” since February 2020.

In June, I return to San Francisco. My brother Tony’s ashes will be cast into the Pacific off Marin just beyond the Golden Gate. It will be in the same area where Tony and I and families spread my brother Jimmie’s ashes in 2003.

I won’t be staying in the city. It was far too creepy.

I’m thinking further south on the peninsula, and maybe I’ll go book hunting down the coast.

Spring 2021 is about half done.

Summer comes June 21.

I planted seeds in the warehouse COVID gardens this week.

Beans, squash, sunflower…

They joined the pepper and tomato plants I put in last week.

I wrote last week that the first week of May began the countdown to the rest of my life. 144 weeks. Now 143…

I think it was a week well spent.

I’d only change a few things.

Well, live and learn.

6 Comments on Article

  1. Nice meanderings – it was a pleasure to read. I especially enjoyed the stories of the early days of your store.
    – Mark

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Mark.
      I appreciate your reading the story and taking the time to write.

      1. Thomas Wixon replied on

        I have already sent emails.
        Since I am near N. O. may I come over for a few hours to meet?

        1. Charles Roberts replied on

          got it Tommy
          Replied to emails

  2. Dear Mr. Roberts:

    Yes, it really is fun to read about the bookseller’s journeys, to live somewhat vicariously through you, albeit without the frustrations and heartaches, and of course, conversely, the many rewards you’ve earned through the years. Lots of hard work, it’s quite evident. It seems like it’s been a good life, and let’s hope for many more good years for you and all of us as well.

    I’m glad to read that you’ve had an uptick in sales of late. I remember the days when I’d encounter long lines at your Frederick store. Not so generally of late, but I was there one recent Saturday, and wouldn’t you know, I had to stand in a line that snaked back to the video section. Let’s keep this going.

    On that note, I recall (in last week’s post?) that you indicated that although dvd sales and rentals are on sustained decline, you did however notice some improvement in otherwise also declining cd sales. If so, that would be encouraging. I’d like to see a greater turnover so we can get new stock on the shelves. For the life of me, I cannot understand why so many people abandoned the cd format so drastically with the result that a new generation of expanded reissues and other gems from record company vaults never did occur and now probably won’t ever occur. (Plus there was that nasty little Universal fire, but reports vary in regards to what actually was lost.) The UK might be an exception. They seem to honor our fine American legacy of recorded music much more fervently than we do. Can’t figure out why that’s so.

    The dawn of the cd era: What a golden time it was for those of us who got tired of lp scratches and warping and space mongering—-I am proud to assert that it was love at first hear when I put that Mel Torme disc into my new machine. I remember the staff member of J&R Music in NY telling me to stop talking (about how I love records) and listen for a second. “I guarantee you will love these more,” and he was right.
    I guess the first breach occurred when “some people” liked the idea of not having to pay for their music. Then occurred an outrageous affront to record retailers when joints like Best Buy cherry picked the top sellers as well as upper layers of catalog and sold them “for less than we (Tower, etc.) paid for them.” Monumental management blunders by Tower Records (over-expansion and assumption of massive debt) and Borders (letting the fox Bezos into the hen house) and on and on. Never in my wildest imagination could I have seen the collapse of the cd coming, never mind at the speed in which it occurred.

    Okay, so now we’re in a new era of lp loving. Never thought it would happen but good on the many folks who are voting for the lp format as their preferred way to get their music. Getting the music is the point even as I know I’m never going back to records. There are so many ways I don’t follow the crowd, this is just one of them.

    So, to your readers, join me in the cd hunt at Wonder. There are so many cd reissues that have tracks you will never find on lps. There are box set cds that might have up to 3 times the cuts you get on lps. I’ve found many partial box set cds at Wonder. There’s new updated liner notes and essays. And because they’re “compact,” you can buy lots and lots cause they don’t take up nearly as much space as bulky lps.

    Let’s have a cd renaissance at Wonder!

    Mr. Roberts, thanks for letting me rant. These things just HAD to be said!

    Sincerely, Steven Rodgers

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Steven Thanks so much for this.
      I had a massive LP collection. Fancy turntables and stereo equipment
      The fist CD I bought was a cheap Paquabel’s Canon – in a paperboard sleeve.
      I put my Koss headphones on and started it.
      Tears poured out.
      No hiss, pops, scrapes.

      I never looked back.

      Youre right
      So many don’t know that a song list is oneA conceptual album is entirely different
      AND all the alternate versions.

      I WILL repromote CDs in a different context – maybe in the next story or two.
      We are sending thousands to the store and online – we get so many.


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