I’ve often noted the way books and their connections often take us away in a kind of time travel.
Being trapped locally by the Plague for almost seven months, there have been many virtual excursions of the mind and through time for me here at the warehouse and in the near vicinity.
September marked the 40th anniversary of my opening the little old bookshop at 1411 West Patrick Street (a.k.a. The Golden Mile, a.k.a. The National Road, a.k.a. The Old Pike.) Maryland was my home for about 14 years prior to that. My dad made what seemed an ill-fated transfer from an idyllic Amherst/Snyder, New York to Ft Howard VA Hospital grounds near Baltimore and shortly after to a dreary sterile suburb tract development in Rockville/Wheaton, Maryland. These were strategic moves for him. He became Chief of Medicine at the VA Hospital and was able to continue doing research and hang out with top doctors at Hopkins. Then, at age 59, he was called from the Army Reserves to active duty as a Lt Colonel at Walter Reed Hospital. The Army needed doctors desperately since so many were needed in Vietnam and elsewhere overseas. He was thrilled to wear the uniform. It was a huge cultural and financial shock for me. He took a huge pay cut and our lifestyles and neighborhood type changed dramatically. In many ways, I moved inside my head for a long while. I was mentally and physically immature for my age, I think. I didn’t really like any of the kids in the neighborhood. I’d play with my books in my bedroom and arrange them on plain pine boards supported by bricks.
I never dreamed I’d be a Marylander almost my entire life—at least my adult life.
That’s not exactly true. From 1980-2010 I was a Pennsylvanian—but lived so close to the Mason Dixon Line that I was practically straddling that invisible border. I entered Maryland nearly every day for my work.
October is racing by. The sun is still rising in my Window on the World.
Soon the sunrise will move further south and its rise hidden by the forest. I would have to cut hundreds of trees to open the view. That would cause me to lose my Conservation Zone status. There’d be fines. I’d lose some small tax breaks. I wouldn’t do it, anyway.
Recently, the Forester inspected the 30 or so acres I own to be sure I was being a good tree shepherd. He said everything was fine. He does this every five years. He even said the property will soon be designated a Tree Farm. The sign is on the way.
I guess that makes me a farmer? And a shepherd?
Life is so rich and full up there.
Life is so solitary and empty as well.
Trapped in paradise since March and for the foreseeable future.
I know how very lucky I am.
But I’m so often miserably unhappy. Must be my nature.
Still… I’m chasing…something…
There were some nice comments on the last story. A couple people even approved of the poem at the end! (I put it at the end because I know I often stop reading when I see poetry that I haven’t sought out. More on that later.) I thought the whole thing was not up to par. One comment diagnosed me with Acedia. That’s a term with which I was unfamiliar. I looked into it. Maybe…that could a partial diagnosis. It’s nice to put a name on some of what’s wrong.
I do have a feeling I should go somewhere. Do something. Meet some people.
Where? What? Who?
Working hard keeps those thoughts at bay usually. Gin or wine or … at the end of the day completes the “treatment.” But it is always there. Or has been for a long time. Since…
I really put myself in to the book trenches last weekend. Soooo many carts with my name on them. I ground away at them for 8 hours Saturday and 8 on Sunday. There was noticeable progress. But there are still many aging. Some with great books on them. Some need to be added to our Collector’s Corner on WonderBook.com. Putting a new “Collection” on the list involves some data processing. That involves time and money. And then the books need to be added. We will get to it.
Three recent collections are doing pretty well considering we haven’t really announced the project. You don’t want to invite the whole world in when you’re still “beta testing” a project. You look bad if it isn’t working quite right.
My friend, Barbara Mertz‘s personal collection is selling pretty well. We still have a thousand or more to add. Yesterday (Tuesday) I sat on a stool and went through three 6-shelf metal carts filled with her books. They’d been pulled from dusty boxes and staged on the shelves for me. I went through EVERY SINGLE book—even if it was a common Agatha Christie paperback—looking for things that might make a book special. Primarily these are signatures. She wrote her name into many of the books in her personal and professional library. It was a lot of work, but in some ways, it brought back some the times I spent with her. It was always magic just to be around her. I found many of the books had my penciled price inside them. In the very early days we had a letter “code” included in the manual pricing. The code was used for dating the arrival of a book. The code was also sometimes used as a cipher for the price. Unscrupulous customers would sometimes try getting a discount by erasing “my price” and writing in a number of their own choosing! Oddly, most of the crooks I caught were well-to-do, well-dressed, professional-looking, mature men! Go figure.
The code was GALSWORTHY:
For dating purposes, G signified my first 6 months in business. September 1980-March 1981.
Here’s a book Barbara bought from my first days in business. I had no idea who she was.
What is the book?
She was never interested in collectible books from me.
“Books are to be used!” she would expostulate. “I have been known to use a sandwich as a bookmark!” laughing aloud at the image.
Indeed, the Arkham House titles and many of the science fiction, mystery and horror first editions were not well treated by her. (She did have a beautiful, large marvelous and valuable Egyptology collection. Those were perfect and often antiquarian. I wasn’t able to buy those…) They went to a specialist in Chicago.
There were many books with many different “GALSWORTHY” letters below the price in the books I flipped through. These showed that she visited often as the store’s early times evolved. I wonder at which letter I first got to know her as a customer and a writer. Likely it was in those first 6 months. Business was so slow I had time to chat up a lot of customers while an LP played on the turntable or WAMU Public Radio was on in the background.
I would often have the Diane Rehm show on in the mornings. Her show theme was from the Tim Weisberg/Dan Fogelberg album Twin Sons From Different Mothers.
Barbara was not yet the world-famous bestselling author she was soon to become. Although the first Amelia Peabody title, Crocodile on the Sandbank, was published 1975, her career still hadn’t “taken off.” As she wrote more titles in the series, THAT was when her huge following evolved. But she was pretty popular as Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels before all that. However, those books appeared to my immature eyes as Gothic Mystery/Romances, so I didn’t read them then. It was the cover art. I was judging her books by their covers.
I was to find out later how wonderful ALL her early books are! I’ll pick up one from time to time, even now. A good pre-Amelia title to start on is The Murders of Richard III.
Barbara told me she worked hard on the English history and felt she may have solved the crimes.
What was the GALSWORTHY “security code”? Say we priced a book in pencil at $27.50. Some clever crooks thought they could get a steal erasing the “2” and getting the book for $_7.50. If I had written ARWY under the price, they were unlikely to know to erase the “A” as well. Or the double erasure would leave marks as evidence of their crime.
So, going through Barbara’s books has been a bit of time travel for me. It was also a bit of biography—forensic biblio-history. I’d see she had purchased a couple paperback mysteries at the Intercontinental in Rome (there were stamped inside.) She’d told me stories of her times in Italy and Germany and… There’d be notes or bookstore bookmarks from all over the world.
It felt good being part of her “life” once again.
The Fratz sci-fi collection is starting to sell a bit.
The Robin (Mrs. Charles) Krauthammer collection is actually selling quite well. They are 95% modern cookbooks and very affordable. I did find one “signed” by Charles in the hoard.
I always enjoyed his equanimity and scholarship. The backstory to his life made him a heroic figure to me. Exactly how Dr. K. “signed” this, I’m unsure. I’m guessing he would have had to have had the pen in his mouth?
The weekend work wore me out. That’s part of the idea. I did pile up a bunch of books on the table where Annika works. She has been cutting her teeth on the modern sci-fi and fantasy. That’s a good way to learn. Most of those evaluations are pretty cut and dry. I decided to pick out some books for her—slightly more difficult older ones—that I thought she could get decent results on. I don’t want to throw her into the deep end with the very problematic material we have backed up here. It might get frustrating, and some would just be a waste of her time at this point.
Some of the more problematic old books can take you out into the weeds—and then down rabbit holes that lead nowhere. In the end, you spent a lot of time on a book you still can’t put a price on.
On Monday, I got into work with a sense of acedia or ennui or depression or…mask fatigue. I was in no mood to “work.”
An email dropped in from Julie Marquette. She’d reached out a couple times in recent weeks. She and her husband had a great bookshop in the 90s and 2000s. Bonifant Books in Wheaton. I think it was 2007 when she contacted me asking to come buy her remaining store stock in the shop on Georgian Avenue.
Going to see her books was a perfect excuse to get out of the building and take a little field trip.
“Can I come this morning?” I’m so glad she said yes.
I hopped in a van and headed southeast. She lives in Olney. I was quite familiar with that part of Montgomery County. I grew up near there. I was just a kid when we moved. My parents would go out for rides into the “country.” The dreary housing development we moved to in Rockville—but closer to Wheaton—was just minutes from cow pastures and cornfields and wood lots. If we went out Bel Pre and crossed Georgia, it was less than 5 minutes from home to cow pastures and fields of weeds awaiting development. Olney was further out. A few miles north on Georgia Avenue. It was little more than a crossroad up Georgia Avenue. I seem to recall a little shack of a general store on one corner and the other three corners vacant. Georgia goes all the way to downtown DC. We would go down Georgia often as my dad was a doctor at Walter Reed (the old location) and my mom needed very frequent doctor visits there. There was a cluster of used bookshops on and close to Georgia Avenue in “downtown” Wheaton. It was there I was to discover the joy of used books. Attic, Barbarian, Bonifant…
North—beyond Olney, Georgia (Rt 97) meandered on as an old country road. When I was a little older and had a group of buddies—the Wonder Boys—we got our drivers’ licenses. We would often drive up and into the sparsely populated wilderness that was northern Montgomery County in those days. We would “fly” on the dark empty roads.
The iPhone directed me to her place via some old memorable routes. It was a brilliant azure October morning.
I remembered cruising Rt 108 in the old cars our parents let us use. It was one of the only things to do. Driving equaled freedom.
Rt 108 still has some long stretches “country-ness”—mostly fields of weeds.
Soon I was in the sprawl that is so much of the county. The phone soon had me in front of her house in a 1960s vintage development. It looked very much like the neighborhood I had lived in some miles south.
Julie let me in. We were both 13 years older than the last time we’d met. She is spry. And I’m getting around as well as ever pretty much.
She explained: “I got tired of selling online. It just wasn’t worth it. I haven’t tried to sell anything for a few years. This stuff needs to go. I’m keeping the books on the shelves.”
She led me down into the basement. She had stacks of unused packing boxes. They’re not sizes Wonder Book uses, but we can make do to use them up—if my offer gets accepted.
The basement itself was a scene I have seen so often. Old books on old bookcases. Old concrete floor and cinderblock walls. But these were not the typical books I’d find. There were no crappy bookclub novels or obsolete World Book Encyclopedia. Bonifant was an excellent shop. These were the books she had decided to keep to sell on the internet after I’d liquidated the retail shop on Georgia for her. But they weren’t “great” either.
“Do you have any high spots?” I asked. “Books over $1000?”
Good average books. We are drowning in them.
“You wrote you had some old posters?”
She led me to a bookcase along the side wall. There were two boxes. Sadly, they were all folded—not rolled. Creased posters are considered by some to have a major flaw. We each reached in and withdrew and began to gently unfold a few across a narrow table. (Was it an ironing board?)
‘Oooooo…’ I thought. ‘World War 2 propaganda!’
‘I wonder if there’s a Loose Lips Sink Ships poster?’ I thought.
Julie had an old movie poster out then. Then she pulled one out that had been bagged with a sheet of cardboard behind it.
“Jules and Jim!”
I used to love the old foreign films. I sought out all the Truffaut films as a young cinemaphile. I sought them out on the old public TV broadcasts—was it the Janus Collection? I went to art house theaters around the DC region. There was no video or online or streaming—you really had to work to see what you wanted.
I’ve done this so many times over so many years I usually just go with my instincts. The value here is in the posters, and I knew that would be 80% of my offer.
I almost never make an offer on the spot. Even if I have a firm price in mind—UNLESS the customer wants us to take the books the same day. In that case, they usually just want the books “gone” and money is not an issue.
Why no offer on the spot? I’m shy. I don’t like disappointment or confrontations in case the offer is below expectations. If I give them the offer via an email, I can’t hear the screaming at the other end.
I told her I’d be in touch soon. I asked if she’d read any of my stories.
I told her she might enjoy some that touch on the good old days we shared in the DC region book trade. Also, it might give her an idea of how bookselling is going on now—at least how Wonder Book does it.
We bade our masked adieus, and I hopped in the Wonder van and continued on to swap this van for one of the full ones at our Gaithersburg stores. Going down Georgia, I saw the little strip center with Mannequin Pis Belgian Bistro. I used to make pilgrimages there for Belgian food and beer. It was always near the top of the Washingtonian Magazine’s Top 100. I haven’t been for years. It is just so far out of the way. Maybe I’ll make a pilgrimage soon…
Old friends, old stomping grounds, old eateries…and then to my OLD, old bookshop. Our Gaithersburg store looks great. Vanessa gets a lot of credit for that. She started a high paying computer job some months but has stayed on to run the place on evenings and weekends. I haven’t seen her for months. But the ancient bookshop is once again something to be proud of.
That night I went home and worked in the new garden bed I’m building. I dumped in bags of soil and stood the stones I had hauled up the mountain against the soil. I planted the hostas a friend gave me. I transplanted a few Ostrich Ferns. I’ve had trouble establishing these tall graceful beauties. But for some reason, they took hold this year. Unfortunately, they are spreading in a garden I DON’T want them to flourish in. They’ll choke out everything else.
Gardening…to paraphrase Čapek yet again: “Sometimes one’s successes are not a desirable thing!”
I transplanted some other hostas I had that were growing in the wrong places. Some lungwort. Some…
There’s a lot of room left in there.
Maybe I’ll make a pilgrimage up the to the Hosta Hideaway again before autumn planting times are done.
When my huge order of bulbs comes in, I won’t have time for anything else.
The next morning Julie emailed that she enjoyed the story I’d sent “Saving Book Alcove.” She continued: “We decided to keep the posters.”
Well, I’d had all my numbers in mind, so I sent a “[This was going to be my offer]” email broken down by books, supplies and posters.
In a bit she replied: “We will accept the offer—including the posters.”
I guess she thought I was going to lowball her. I’d tried to lower her expectations. I almost always do that because so often the value of the books may not outweigh the cost of driving, packing, loading, driving, unloading…sorting…selling (or at least trying to)…then pulling and packing.
Maybe I was working against myself with my “soft landing” strategy!
A couple times a day, I check in with Annika at the table where she works. I can answer her many (and intelligent) questions and maybe put some final prices on books she’s worked on. If I find something awry or see some new term I can give her about a binding or whatever—I can do that as well.
I often surprise her when I walk into the room. It’s the headphones. She can’t hear me coming.
“Finding anything exciting?”
That’s one of my most frequent salutations and her response.
The answer is usually: “Not very.”
This time: “Yes!” and she pointed to a book on the cart.
‘Doctor Martino,’ I thought ‘Faulkner.’ I remembered coming across it on the weekend and thinking it would be a good novice exercise for her to determine if it was a first. Without a jacket, it couldn’t be worth much. Still, something about this book bothered me as well. I hadn’t seen one in years…
“It’s signed!” she was excited.
“How cool. Good catch.”
One doesn’t usually go exploring the last pages of jacketless low-end novel. Maybe the endpaper or title page hoping for a signature if it a great author like Faulkner.
“The limited edition. What had you looking through the back pages?”
“I’m not sure.”
That’s a good sign. Maybe she has “it.” The “divvie” instinct.
I picked up the Faulkner again…what was nagging me…
“I also need help with this.”
She held out a slim white book bound in a kind of boardless linen.
“Do you think the title page is missing? There’s poetry in it.”
I gently flipped through the fragile thing. Words popped out here and there. “Greencastle.” “Marion” …
What a minute! “The field where John Brown was executed…”?
A vanity piece of junk suddenly became very interesting. I inspected it closely and couldn’t see where any pages were missing. But there was not a thing to identify it. No date. No printing firm. No place. No nothing. Just a gilt title on the front wrap.
A Midsummer Holiday
“Did you try WorldCat?” I asked.
“Yes. But there’s nothing that resembles this.”
I got the tingle on the back of neck. That’s one of the things that keeps this fun after all this time.
There was a penciled inscription on the front endpaper. I’d glanced at I slowed myself down to try to decipher it. Things go so fast here—there are so many books crying for attention…
“We have an author! Try again,” I asked Annika.
When I returned later, “Nothing,” I was told.
I haven’t had time to get in the weeds with this book yet. My instincts tell me it was printed anonymously by a young woman. She wrote a diary of her summer sojourn into southern Pennsylvania and Maryland and northern Virginia. Maybe in the 1870s, judging from the paper. Maybe, she printed off 10 or 20 copies to give to friends and family. Maybe she was too shy to print her name on it.
Is this copy the sole survivor? It would have been so easy to overlook. After all, it has poetry in it. If “John Brown” hadn’t jumped out at me…
When I have time, I’ll get into the weeds and see if there’s anything important in it. As it is, it is still a slice of life in this region after the Civil War.
I put it on the shelf with some other “problems.”
Then there is Toys. We discovered it last week. I saw the spine and figured it was a toy catalog. But it was nicely bound in quarter leather. Looking inside, I saw it was a movie script. Annika looked it up.
“Was that Robin Williams’ signature?” I asked. It was indecipherable, and I’m unfamiliar with his autograph.
“Hmmm. This must have been a gift for people involved with the movie.'”
Kind of an homage to ourselves.
I recalled it had been a flop. What looked to be a fun concept became too preachy. Barry Levinson was a Baltimore product. That’s likely how it got in this region.
It is Thursday.
I’m getting into the weeds.
Looking at the Faulkner, I finally recall that this is the limited edition binding.
Perhaps I remembered without knowing, and that is why I sent it to be researched.
A Midsummer Holiday is indeed the journal of a young woman’s train trip from New Jersey through Harrisburg and on to Greencastle and then down south into the Shenandoah Valley. She is with about ten other young women being chaperoned by the “Judge and our Lady.”
She dedicates the book “To the brightest and kindliest host, Alfred L Dennis…” Perhaps this was he: http://www.newtonnj.net/Pages/libraryhall.htm.
I looked on WorldCat myself—several ways. I did some searches using her name. Boonton, New Jersey.
She quips a “gay member of the party called out: ‘Who founded Virginia?’ ‘John Smith!’ ‘Who unfounded Virginia?’ ‘John Brown!'”
Shepherdstown. Charlestown, Harpers Ferry. Carlisle. Shippensburg. She writes anecdotes of the Burning of Chambersburg “21 years earlier…”—which brings the date up to 1885. Hagerstown. Natural Bridge. Gettysburg. Hot Springs.
How very cool. But I can’t stay in the weeds with her any longer. I’ll put it somewhere safe with all the other homeless and orphans and “rarae aves” …
Tomorrow is Friday.
I will travel down the roads I’ve taken since I was a boy and clear out Julie’s Bonifant remnants.
Something trickled into my memory.
Bonifant. Julie had acquired the shop from old Sam Yudkin.
That had gotten me thinking about the mythical Sam Yudkin. His bookselling career was winding down as mine was beginning.
Also, I never got into the DC bookselling scene. It was way too crowded. Crowded with booksellers with far more money and experience than I.
He’d been prosecuted for selling Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, I recalled.
He had a bookshop in the old National Airport. I recall flying out of there as a kid. It was a small whitewashed building near the Potomac.
I asked a couple old friends—contemporary booksellers who were closer to DC for their recollections.
John Thomson (Bartleby’s) replied:
Had a shop in Alexandria, John P… worked for him early on later ended up holding his auctions in the Woodner? Apts on 16th street. He used to go up to Freeman’s Auction in Phila and buy anything that sold cheap. He was a lovely character as I remember he was his own auctioneer. Bonifant he sold to Julie? I thought he had stuck her with a dead stock, but she made a real go of it, moved it from Silver Spring to Wheaton was a pretty good shop till she closed it.
Andy Moursund (Georgetown Books) replied:
First, there’s the sight of Little Sam jumping up feverishly at Weschler’s, his arm and is bidding paddle stabbing at the air, wanting to make sure that his bid could be seen over the dealers who were much taller than him and crowding him on all sides. His vertical leap wasn’t that great, either.
Not that he really needed to do this, since the garbage he usually bid on was dumpster material that no other dealers ever wanted.
Second, when he was forced out of his King St. shop and was staging his Oriental rug merchant style “Going Out of Business” sales (which, if I recall he advertised in the Yellow Pages—-how strong is that?) out of some temporary location near the old Convention Center, “C…” picked up a book, took it up to Sam and asked him, “Is this half price?”
Sam then grabbed the book from her, erased the price, doubled it, and said, “Now it is!”
Another old bookseller quipped anonymously:
At his auctions you could never get your paddle down fast enough. (i.e. One felt perhaps he was knocking lots down to you even when you thought you’d dropped out. You’d almost feel there might be phantom bidders you were “competing” with.)
I can’t find much else online about him.
But I recall him being a legend to this beginner. I’d see him bidding at Waverly Auctions. The other young booksellers gossiping about him.
I’ve got to get out of the weeds…every rabbit hole I fall into—going down, down, down… means the books outside my office on the warehouse floor are piling up.
Alan James Robinson sent the latest author portrait. Shakespeare.
I worked with on the concept and contents. I suggested that Will make eye contact with Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull. Kind of like mortality contemplating immortality, which is contemplating mortality…
Does that make sense?
So, it has been a very full week.
I didn’t mention the evening at a friend’s 87-year-old cousin’s magical estate.
It is a secret, so I can’t give you any details.
I’ve driven past it for decades and never knew it was there. The house is built on an old quarry. The quarrymen hit springs long ago, and it filled with 60 to 100 feet of water over 8 or 10 acres.
He also built an enormous building around a vast antique theater organ he restored. It has…a LOT of “registers.” (I’m not 100% sure what that means.) The “Great Room” he built for the organ and listening to it is akin to a soaring English baronial hall. There are hundreds of pipes behind the walls and above the room, out of sight.
He brought an expert in not long ago who hooked it up to a computer. The guy was also a composer. The organ played a medley of Broadway songs that reverberated through my soul.
This morning, I stepped into a few of the warehouse gardens. It is fall. Some are overgrown with weeds. There are several dozen sunflowers. There are many different varieties. Some are hugely tall.
Some are just huge.
I’ll take these home and put them on the roof outside my bay window for the birds to peck away at.
I’ll save some seed money…