Is There Enough Negativity in the World?

Moby Dick

It’s Monday. I’m driving down to I 270 to Gaithersburg. Travis is driving. I haven’t been down here for a couple of weeks or more. I hope I’ll be happily surprised. There have been staffing issues. COVID. There have been staffing issues everywhere. Some positives, but mostly “contact” quarantines.

Maybe I’m just tired of it all.

Something’s changed.

I’m even more driven than usual.

Maybe it is the upcoming trips. Or the possibility of them being canceled by COVID or another COVID positive test.

There are testing frenzies all around. I made an appointment with CVS, but they are now saying 24-72 hour before results because of volume. To get on a plane, I need a negative PCR taken less than 72 hours prior to the flight.

So, worst-case scenario I go to the airport, and my test doesn’t come in until after the plane takes off.

Or I’m on the way to the airport—or AT the airport, and I get a positive test result. What then?

Maybe it is the winter doldrums. Cottage fever. I work so hard to keep the cobwebs from gathering.

I’m wearing a mask. My reading glasses are fogging up. Masks don’t work, they say. But we are wearing masks again. It’s the law.

The governments are flailing, trying to do “something” whether it helps or not.

The “science” … well, that’s been a moving target since the beginning. One doctor says stop. Another says go. None are willing, I think, to say, “We just don’t know.”

I worked myself to exhaustion Saturday and Sunday. I got it into my head to pull out some buried pallets that have been collecting dust since before we moved in 2013-2014.

A lot of it is “Gach” material. It was such a huge hoard that when we came across problematic material—manuscripts, journals, offprints, reprints of individual articles, foreign language material that I can’t read, manila folders of documents… we’d just put them aside.

Back then, a book person named Tracee worked here. She was very bright. She was interested in learning about books and how to evaluate collectibles. I began investing in the future by creating “Tracee” pallets. Some day she could tackle these.

I had her intern with a rare book specialist nearby. Then she left. But the “Tracee” pallets remain. Maybe 15 or 20.

I’ve learned so much in the last 8 years, and the research tools online have improved so much that I’m no longer daunted by stuff that used to stymie me. Well, I am a lot less stymied than I used to be. (Ummm… I am stymied fewer times than in the past?)

Anyway, it was time to dig these out and make them go away.

I got a pallet jack and began the extraction. It was not quite surgery, but it was an invasive procedure. These pallets were behind a top sorter’s station, and she had personalized the area with images from the flotsam and jetsam that she sorts through. There are also objects—found objects. And “notes to self.” And snacks, spare clothes… kind of a home away from home.

She had commandeered a couple tables, a small file cabinet…

And there’s my original sales counter! Circa 1980-1983!

Original Wonder Book Counter

I stood behind that and interacted with customers for many years. My POS software or “cash register” was actually a battered green metal fishing tackle box that had belonged to my dad. I handwrote receipts on a little pad like waitstaff used to use. The top copy was white, whose back was coated with carbon. The bottom copy was yellow. When I wrote on the top copy, my words and numbers were reproduced on the bottom copy. I’d tear out the yellow copy and put it in the customer’s book with a bookmark.

The good old days. I remember celebrating the first day I had over $100 in sales. Likely it was a case of Piels Beer—$4.99 per case.

I handled all the sorter’s personal stuff very carefully and set it out of the way. I pulled out all her loose pallets so I would have a clear shot at the “back of the beyond.”

It was good exercise. You have to pump the handle of the pallet jack up and down. The hydraulics raise the pallet off the floor. Then you pull on the handle and the pallet—often weighing a thousand pounds—will start to move. Sometimes, you really have to lean back and struggle to get it going.

When I had everything out that I wanted—7-8 pallets—I put things back together for her. Her work area was about 25% larger.

Larger Sorting Station

On Monday, I waited til she got in so I could go back with her—so she wouldn’t be surprised and maybe to soften the shock. She liked it.

“What am I going to do with all this space?” Then she set about arranging her little icons and doodads.

We got to Gaithersburg. It had an amazing year in 2020. A real renaissance. The staff is a big part of it. Real book people who enjoy being there and care about the books and the customers.

(I met with the manager, Paulo, later in the week to review December and then all of 2020. The numbers were shocking. Up 65% over 2020. 32% over 2019. With this kind of growth, the place might actually become profitable again.)

We need to go to all three stores on Mondays. Their vans are almost always full from the weekend buys. We always bring them fresh stock to price and stock.

“Price and stock.” That’s a mantra of mine. It is the only way to keep a bookstore interesting. Without a flow of new and different books, the store would quickly stagnate, customers get bored, staff lose morale with nothing to keep them busy, sales drop…

When staff goes off the rails and starts to focus on “tangential” activities, I send them memos:

Price and Stock. Please!

We did a “walk-through”, and there was nothing to complain about. Travis began culling CDs to make room for new ones. The culls would be marked down to 95 cents and set outside in plastic tubs or on metal carts.

Books by the Foot needed 18 liner feet of Modern Library titles. Really! Classics by the foot. Someone will be getting an instant literature library. It was fun pulling duplicates and titles that never sell anymore. (O. Henry, anyone?)

Modern Library

It’s been brutally cold for a couple weeks now:

Temperature Frederick

The snow that fell on January 17 has not melted. I need to keep the woodstove well-stoked. I consider it a personal failure if the furnace is on when I get home.

I like the work and the ritual.

Cutting the wood.

Hauling it.

Stacking it.

Burning it.

Spreading the ashes on the gardens.

An old friend wrote:

Inshallah [last week’s story] was fun. The middle section was rather Frost like in its wintriness and focus on work…

Winter Sign

I work at home and the book business to keep myself relevant. I never want to leave the “game.”

A second collection I worked on last weekend was another installment of the vast hoard of fiction a DC bookshop acquired. Did they say 35,000? The collector, from Florida, I think, was a completist in 20th century fiction and mystery. All first editions. Many are signed or have signed bookplates laid in. They bring me the low-end or obscure authors. A hypermodern first edition signed is often a $5 book online—with plenty of competition. Depending on a bookseller’s situation, messing with books, say, under $35 isn’t worth their time.

For Wonder Book, our “assembly line” approach to common books means we can make a little money on a $5 book. IF it sells!

Some are just hopelessly common. Patricia Cornwell? Those go to Books by the Foot. We get 100 of her first editions for each one copy we can sell—for $5.

There are nice surprises though. They brought long run of John Mortimer books with signed bookplates laid in. I used to love to watch the Rumpole shows on PBS.

“She who must be obeyed!”

The collector also invested a fortune in facsimile dust jackets. I like these personally—for books where the jackets are almost unobtainable. Having a novel with no wrap is incomplete.

They say they have complaints about the facsimiles. Buyers are confused and think the jacket is a liability? Or they think the seller is being deceptive?

I don’t get it.

They remove the facsimile jackets and sell them to me. What will I do with hundreds of facsimiles?

Hundreds of Facsimile Jackets

There are hundreds more of these.

I dunno. Something will occur to me, I think. They cost $15 or $25 at Facsimile Dust Jackets. Mark Terry—whose vision created a huge database of old and sometimes one-of-a-kind jackets—visited the old warehouse maybe 15 years ago. He spent three days going through our inventory and scanning old jackets. He paid me a dollar apiece. I was glad to help.

What do think?

Gatsby first state.


Gatsby's Jackets


Gatsby's Jackets

I came across a Rockwell Kent Moby Dick recently. Some people think that is the most beautiful book production ever.

It gave me the idea to commission my friend Alan James Robinson to execute homages to Kent’s work using black boards and silver watercolor (or whatever.)

He’s stuck in New England with Long COVID, other health things and brutal winter.

He needs the work. I enjoy the collaboration and the creative process.

He likes my input:

I will get the black scratch pads and boards by Friday. I will try some experimenting with both of them to see if I can make them work. I like your ideas to help me interpret “Robinsonize” as you put. I always get more ideas with your stimulating suggestions.

He sometimes makes be blush. He is so sweet and sincere.

Here’s his first prototype. Pen and ink on white claybord.

Moby Dick Prototype

Who knows, maybe we will collaborate on a portfolio of images with key passages in calligraphic quotes beneath.

… Inshallah…

Moby Dick

The whole week has had a kind doom looming over it for me. My COVID test. Would I pass this time? Am I permanently positive like Typhoid Mary? (COVID Chuck.) Will everything be canceled again?

I worked all the harder to keep the spooks at bay.

I searched online and found a nearby lab that would give me results in 24 hours or so. $125.

It would be worth it not having to wait 2 plus days or miss the trip because the results came in 3 days—too late.

I set the appointment for 2 p.m. on Wednesday. 70 hours before takeoff.

A nice woman met me as I walked in. She was suited up in hazmat gear and a plastic face shield. She made a copy of my passport. She stuck a cotton swab up my nose and into my brain.

The clock started ticking…

I did the things I do to prep for going away.

Carts. Carts. Carts.

I cleared off the photo table so Annika could shoot a lot of new stock for The Boutique on

We haven’t added any for months, and they’ve started selling pretty well.

I pulled a few hundred books off shelves and put them on a cart. Mostly pretty old cloth and leather books and sets. Not “pretty old”—just old and pretty—as in “attractive.”

“Don’t overthink these. Shoot them fast and dirty. They’re just eye candy.”

She sometimes worries too much that a picture isn’t perfect enough…

Thursday afternoon, I worked late. Carts of old books. I’d taken several carts of books to Annika since Wednesday. On one side, books to research values on. The other side, “eye candy.”

I checked my email about 5.

“Test Results” in the subject line of an email. My finger hovered over the laptop.

I am very good at avoidance.

I put my finger down and pressed the button to open the email.



I went home and treated myself to cutting up a dead tree that had fallen in the last storm. It was right on the road near the mailboxes. No one else had taken it.

I have plenty of wood for this winter and likely the next. But it has been a while since I cut any. I put on appropriate clothes and drove down the mountain. I aimed the truck at the mess and turned on the brights.

Unloaded Wood

In about half an hour, I had a good load in the pickup’s bed.

Who cuts wood up in the dark and freezing cold?


A gentle madness.

I have a few of those.

Loaded Wood

Today, Friday, will be a hectic getaway day.

And then:

Temperature Luxor


Oh, great.

It’s snowing.

The phone says it will stop by 11 p.m., and we will only get an inch or three.

But the phone has lied about the weather A LOT recently.

7 Comments on Article

  1. Rick Banning commented on

    Chuck, it’s neat to see a 3 volume edition of the Rockwell Kent Moby Dick (the 1 volume, also?). Are they part of your personal collection or are they for sale? I’ve long thought the Barry Moser and Kent versions are two of the finest books I’ve run across. I really should be more careful where I’m driving…….Are you going to make another try at Luxor? Regards, Rick

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Two copies of the single volume

      Gorgeous set of the “Fish in a Can”.


  2. Michael Dirda commented on

    Have fun on the Nile, Chuck!

  3. Sharon commented on

    I feel you re: the phone lying about the weather and also keeping the woodstove stoked. I have some old sci-fi books. Can you put me in touch with someone who might be able to tell me if they are worth anything?

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      It definitely lied Friday night into Saturday!

      Send some images to customer service email in the website.

      Write that Chuck wants to look at them

      Thanks for writing


  4. Gregory commented on

    Have a great trip, Chuck!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Gregory. It was a marathon getting here but right now I’m catching my breath watching the Nile flow by, palms swaying, sun shining…


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