It Will Either Get Better Or It Won’t

The Masque of the Red Death

It is Friday, March 13th. Hmmm…that’s not auspicious.

It is 5:45 am. I awoke in my familiar bed. The two Jack Russells were pressed up against me. I didn’t mind this morning. It was good to touch something warm and alive. I thought for Merry and Pippin the world has not changed.

What was it I’d been dreaming? I know in and out of sleep I was thinking of the small press “The Masque of the Red Death” I acquired some months ago from a friend and colleague on the other side of America.

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I arose to let the boys out. I stepped out into the blackness on to the driveway. It was wet. Water dropped from the trees above. Cold splats fell here and there around me. I picked up a wet log from the ground and carried it inside. I lifted the iron door atop the stove and dropped it in. The remnants of last night’s fire glowed with the inflow of oxygen. The thermometer had 66 in. 46 out. I needed to write. Today will certainly be a blur. It will be a blur, but I know what will happen. It is the unknown that will make today fun or absurd or horrid.

Friday has become “B” day. A book story must go out. It has become a compulsion.

The entire world is vastly different than it was a Friday ago.

How does one wrap one’s head around that? You don’t. It is far too…vast.

You step out your door and begin the day’s journey and do what you can. That’s all we are given.

I ended last week’s book story promising that this week’s story would be cheerier.

I’ll try to be.

I did indeed NOT go to New York for the ABAA Rare Book Fair. There were reasons I won’t go into here. You’ll have to read my journals after I’m gone to know the whole story. I wasn’t afraid of the train. Nor of attending a crowded show with attendees who have recently arrived from all over the world, including the worst COVID-19 hotspots. I did not want to be seen. I did not want to walk through the aisles of books and imagine people who did not know me personally wondering:

“Is he the…?”

No. I stayed home sickened by…words.

I saved a great deal of money though!

Plus, I had tons and tons of work to do. Literally TONS.

On Saturday morning, my bookselling friends from Galway, Ireland did indeed arrive at the Frederick Wonder Book store.

We had prepared for them by sending over an extra van filled with over 100 yellow plastic bins. They pull off the books they want for their store and drop them in these tubs. We whisk them out to a van. At the warehouse, we will total and box and palletize the books. When everything is ready, they are shipped by truck to a port in New Jersey. From there, they make their way to Galway, Ireland and eventually to Charlie Byrne’s iconic bookstore.

Charlie Byrne's Bookshop

It is our job to make their book buying experience as easy and enjoyable as possible.

Any bookseller will tell you that selling books is great fun, but buying books is ecstasy!

I greeted Charlie and John warmly. I helped open the store two hours early. I then left them. I didn’t want to get in the way of their shopping!

On to the warehouse. The books, the books were calling me from cart to cart and warehouse side to side. The spring has come and all the flowers blooming…and I must bide.

Actually, they were screaming! Screaming for attention.

I still hadn’t shaken off the cobwebs, so things started slowly.

At some point, I opened an old G K Chesterton book titled: WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE WORLD?

What's Wrong with the World

Inside was this bookplate.

James C Thomson Bookplate
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I laughed out loud. James C Thomson must have been quite the curmudgeonly book collector.

“What’s the use? Indeed!” I said aloud.

“Aye. Ye needed a kick in the arse.”

My Book Muse! Did ye come from Inishmore? Innishmaan? Innishheer? Or the Lake Isle of Innisfree? Did ye tag along behind Charlie and John?

“Pish! Ye’re bein’ daft! Shake it off and move on. Small minds shouldn’t knock ye off yer pins.”

Self absorbed, am I?

“Moon calf.”

All right. I do miss the City.

“Ye’ve piles o’ treasure here to uncover.”


“Be on wi’ ye!”

Tir Na Nog?

“Pshaw. Yer incorrigible.”

From then and there, I was able to throw myself into the work and thereby pull myself out of my malaise.

I got into a “zone” and plowed through lots and lots of carts.

When I could do no more, I met a friend. We had a beer at Smoketown. Then we walked down the beautiful Carroll Creek promenade. We decided to stop at McLintock Distillery. There we were each given a dozen or 14 or 16 thimbles—one of each of their numerous offerings.

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Good gin is hard to make. I fancy myself a bit of an expert. All 3 of their gins were excellent. Not a hint of perfume in any of them. I bought a bottle for each of us to commemorate the occasion.

From there, we walked to Volt. It’s been a while. Damon made me a Smoked Old Fashioned.

We shared a number of their tiny exotic culinary creations, each of which was shocking in its singularity. Tastes exploded throughout my senses.

Then it was home for hard well-earned sleep. I curled up in the flannel sheets. The orange eye of the wood stove glowed not far away. I heartily cursed Old Mortality.

“Do your damnedest—F U!”

(I rarely say the actual words. Kinda old school about that.)

I wished it was 2016, and I was going to sleep in the Meyrick hotel on Eyre Square in Galway. That was a wondrous trip. All the world made sense for a bit.

I awoke, and I was still in Frederick.

But that isn’t so bad.


I bumped down the mountain and went to work.

Toward the end of the day, it was so nice I was able to sit outside and transpose some old unrecorded verse from 2015-16.

Transposing Verses

When I left Sunday evening, the herd of empty carts—emptied or loaded with books to be #BookRescued by our Books by the Foot department looked like this.

Sunday Carts

The boxes and tubs I’d sorted for the stores and online sales looked a bit like this.

Sorted Boxes

I went home and planned to curl up with a book about Scotch.

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I was horrified when I opened the book only to find it had been vandalized!

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I got to the warehouse Monday morning, and the gardens on either side of the managers’ entrance were alive with color.


Spring was rising from the earth. And it is just the beginning. I know a bit about Narcissus. (I know a lot about narcissism as well.) I’ve planted a lot of early, mid and late season daffodils in these beds. The golden fireworks will continue well into May.

Inside, I looked around the outer office at some of the things I’d brought in from the warehouse Saturday and Sunday.

It had been a weekend of autographs.


Nixon's Autograph


Absurd Autographs


Julia Child's Autograph


Dinner at the White House

Dinner at the White House. With whom was Eleanor (Roosevelt?) dining at the White House? Who was Milton?

Some finds were too good to be true.

Darwin Facsimile

I went to the Frederick store with Ernest to see what damage the Irishmen had done. We also needed to retrieve the extra van we’d sent over.

Irishman Vanload

Wow! They filled one van top to bottom. Side to side. Front to back. They’d run out of tubs and more selections were in another van.

I’d been busy even where I wasn’t this weekend!

(Does that make sense?)

They went on to Pittsburgh Saturday night to shop at Book Country for remainders. But I knew they’d be back Wednesday.

And Thursday.

And Friday.

I knew it would be a busy week.

Clif and Steve were driving down to Bethesda—the richest little town in the world, some say. We had committed to picking up the leftovers from the Bethesda—Chevy Chase High School Book Sale. They’d told us there were 250 or so boxes. The van will hold over 200.

Caryn had told me of some of her finds when she’d scouted the sale Saturday. She found a couple signed Seamus Heaney’s that hadn’t been noticed. Maybe a bit of the “Book Divvie” has rubbed off on her here. She has a good eye. I’ll overpay for the treasures she brings in to sell. It’s a kind of duty to reward that initiative.

I was still tired from the weekend’s exertion, but I went through the motions here and there throughout the warehouse.

At the end of the day, I drove the pickup truck up the grassy rise and into the 7 acre field that may or not become a Wonder Book expansion. The sign Chris Kline put up says:

“Will Build to Suit.”

Fancy old lingo.

I parked far away enough from the tree I was going to drop, so that if it fell the wrong way, it wouldn’t crush my Dodge Ram. I am risk averse.

I enjoy cutting wood. One must be extremely careful with a chain saw, but I’ve done it so much for two long periods of my adult life that the saw becomes a kind of extension of my two outstretched arms. I can get into a Zen-like state—the loud engine is muffled by headphones. The sharp chain glides through branch and trunk. I angle this way and that to cut the wood into stove lengths. When that’s done, I tune my phone onto news radio and listen to what in the world is going on. The country of Italy is closed? How do you do that? What are the Italian booksellers doing now? Hunkering down and cataloging online, I suppose. I hope one comes and visits here someday. I’d like to think of my books going to Venice or Verona.

Will I be able to go to Venice? I’ve booked tickets for late summer. Will all this be over by then?

I picked up the logs from the ground and tossed them into the bed of the truck. With each thump, it seemed there’s more bad news from around the globe.

It was absurd. Science fiction.

No. It was a horror story.

The truck was full.

Truckbed of Wood

I decided to drive around my 7 acre field and inspect to determine which trees should come down next. I can dream of the various plans we’ve made for construction with the architect. Two deer—big does—flushed out of the scrub. They dashed around the building and out into the industrial park. They’re not uncommon—actually, there’s a plague of them around here. But they will certainly draw the attention of the various workers when they clatter by in the surrounding businesses. They both appeared to be gravid.

It is 730 am Friday the 13th. The sun has risen somewhere but not here.

Foggy Friday the 13th

I need to pause this story—the laptop propped on my knees in bed. I’ve got to pick up Charlie and John at their hotel. I’ll get them down to our Gaithersburg store. A van will be waiting laden with empty brilliant yellow bins. I hope they fill it top to bottom. Side to side. Front to back. When they are done, family will pick them up. In a few days, they will fly off to Shannon. Ireland is not closed. Yet.

Tuesday morning, Dr. Roxanne asked if she could come in for a load of kids books. Her appointments with battered and at risk women and children had been canceled. When she arrived, I set her up at a Gaylord of children’s books with a dozen or so Banker’s Boxes.

She emailed and asked if she could come back Thursday for another load.

“Take all you want.”

“These will be going to a Title 1 school. 70% of the kids live below the poverty level.”

It is always heartening to hear of books getting into kids’ hands.

The news was spinning out of control.

An email marked “URGENT” dropped in from the Bryn Mawr Book Sale.

The sale has been canceled for the weekend. Can you come take 10,000s of books from Princeton, New Jersey?

I wish we could teleport them here. We’d find somewhere to put them.

More crises and panics here, there and everywhere.

Also on Tuesday, vintage books were staged on carts for my inspection.

Vintage Books for Chuck

I knew there wouldn’t be any treasures in this load of 5 carts. They were sent from ABAA colleagues down south. They wouldn’t let any sleepers slip through. But I needed to count them, and there’s always something juicy that is too good for Books by the Foot.

Another load was a mystery, though. A charity near Annapolis had brought a few dozen boxes of old books. I told them what I was looking for as far as dates and all. When they dropped the load off, I paid them a per box rate for the old books. They’d also brought a few dozen boxes of common modern hardbacks. They were happy with the seventeen hundred dollars or so we wrote a check for. It was—after all—”trash” they wouldn’t be able to use in their sale. I did promise to send more money if we found anything special.

Sure enough…I pulled off about 50 books that were collectible. The highlights I sent to be researched included an early 18th century duodecimo Hudibras with fold out engravings by Hogarth. There was a GWTW in decent shape. 99.9% are later editions, but I looked anyway. The copyright page read May 1936 and nothing else. There was a very early 20th century edition of The Ballad of Reading Gaol written by C. 3. 3. A My Antonia in a near fine jacket. An Einstein first in a decent jacket. Those are the ones I remember. I’ll revisit that load over the weekend.

Annapolis Book Finds

(GWTW is Gone With the Wind. C.3.3. was Oscar Wilde’s number when he was imprisoned. Willa Cather wrote My Antonia. Albert Einstein was a pretty good violinist.)

Prisoners…a scout brought these in from an anonymous house call. He’d never heard of Patrick McGoohan or The Prisoner TV show. I was a huge fan of the Kafkaesque series. Maybe it is time to watch it again. But my paranoia doesn’t need stoking.

The Prisoner

“You are number 6!”

“I am not a number! I am a free man!”

Wednesday, Charlie and John were dropped off by American relations at the Hagerstown store. A vanload of empty yellow tubs was awaiting them. I went up in the afternoon to ferry them back to a hotel in Frederick.

That evening we went to BJs and had some various drafts and dinners. They won’t touch the Guinness over here. Neither will I. It tastes like p*** compared to the “Black Stuff” over there.

Thursday, I picked them up at the hotel and took them to the warehouse. I gave them an empty 6 shelf, 3 foot long, 4 wheeled metal book cart and turned them loose. They’ve been here 4 or 5 times now, I think. They know where the good pickings are. In couple hours, they found me in my book-strewn office.

Chuck's Office

(I really need to shelve this stuff.)

They’d filled three carts with Easton Press and Franklin Library and Heritage and…nice books we get so many of they often get relegated to Books by the Foot.

Then I ferried them across town to the Frederick bookstore for Round 2.

I picked up the biweekly paychecks at the accountants as I have for nearly 40 years for the next to last time. The rules for the various jurisdictions the workers here live in have gotten so complex and fungible that we decided to go to a digital payroll service. The checks will be overnighted to me from…somewhere. This company will hopefully dot the ever changing “i’s” and cross regulated “t’s” we are required to complete in order to give people jobs.

It is the end of an era. Every two weeks I would cross that threshold and make the familiar greetings. I’d sign the various tax checks that would need to be mailed there, and they would post them. I’d take the paychecks back and sign the ones that weren’t direct deposit, and they’d be separated in piles to go to the three stores and one pile remains for the warehouse. I guess I’ve never been away from work for more than two weeks? If I was away on payroll week, I’d go in and sign enough blank checks, and they’d print the checks over my signature.


Oh, the State Police Officer emailed me. He has a suspect for the forged $3000 check of ours that a woman tried to pass at a PNC branch nearby. Someday soon, she will have a very bad day. She wasted a day each for a couple people here. We had to stop payment on the 19 other checks we assumed were stolen from our mailbox when she or a conspirator got hold of our Potomac Edison check. Those words were erased, and her name replaced the electric company’s. The digital copy I was sent looked pretty good. I’m glad the banks manager was suspicious. If she had any of the other checks, things could have gotten even hairier. As it was, we had to stop payment on 20 checks at $45 apiece! I am not thrilled with that. We also had to contact the twenty people that may or may not have received the canceled checks.

She made it a very bad day for us.

John and Charlie were done about 5, and I went over and picked them up. We headed downtown to my friend David’s Smoketown Brewery. A friend from work joined us. The Irishmen loved the several beers we all sampled. From there, we walked about half a mile down the Carroll Creek Promenade. We turned off on Market Street and stopped in at Brewer’s Alley. It was Lobster Night, and two of us had the giant insect like things boiled red on plates set before us. There were 5 of us around the table. I drank the cask ale. I watched the bartender pull the tap repeatedly—pumping that beer from a keg that is not under pressure. We talked about books and travels back and forth to Ireland. And hovering over us and the conversations throughout the bar was the plague raging around the planet. A modern Red Death.

From there we went a couple doors down to the Voltaggio Brother iconic Volt. There the expert mixologist Damon greeted us. I ordered a smoked Old Fashion, and we talked about books and travels and the Red Death.

It is Friday at work. Charlie and John were driven to Gaithersburg for a fourth day of ravishing Wonder Book.

The paychecks were signed and divided. They will be delivered to all three stores.

I signed a lease extension for the Hagerstown store yesterday. It will be overnighted today. I agreed to another 5 years for the Frederick store. I’ll go over the details with my broker Monday. She said she got the landlord to agree to negotiate reduction and other beneficial terms! She will explain it in layman’s terms. This afternoon I’ll take another van down to Gaithersburg. Charlie says they’re being picked up by family around 3. I’ll bid them adieu and express my hope to visit Galway before they return here. I’m also meeting with the landlord down there then. We created drawings to knock out walls and expand that store.

Why not?

I am SO bored!

This weekend I’ll be in the warehouse going through books. Merry and Pip will keep me company. There will be no sports to watch online except German Bundesliga soccer. That country has decided to play on…in empty stadiums.

A friend reminded me of the Swine Flu pandemic in 2009. I’d forgotten all about it! I bet you have too. I checked the Wikipedia, and it was an awful plague.

It is estimated that in the 2009 flu pandemic 11—21% of the then global population (of about 6.8 billion), or around 700 million to 1.4 billion people, contracted the illness—more in absolute terms than the Spanish flu pandemic. However, with about 150,000—575,000 fatalities, it had a much lower case fatality rate. In August 2010, the World Health Organization declared the swine flu pandemic officially over.

Those are dreadful numbers. How could I have forgotten?

Will COVID-19 be worse?

Years ago unbeknownst to me at the time, I was bitten by a poisonous spider. A bump on my calf at first itched and then became tender. I went to my doctor (who also has a fabulous Sci Fi etc. collection we built over decades.) He diagnosed: “Spider bite… no treatment…it will either get better, or it won’t.”

The spot on my leg swelled to the size of a small grapefruit. It became excruciating if I moved it. Blinding lights would flash in my brain—so I put my leg up on a pillow and sheltered in place. I’ll never know where or when I was bitten by that bug.

What will next week bring? Will we be closed? Will one of the 135 people in the company get sick? Will I be working alone in the warehouse on weekdays?

Will any of us know when or where we were bitten?

“Things will either get better… Or they won’t.”

15 Comments on Article

  1. Ronald Lieberman commented on

    Chuck: Your tales make my head spin. I need a shot or two to get me spinning in the other direction. All pretty pleasant. Please tell me that the bottle of Scotch encased by the book still had some of the sacred liquid remaining. Stay healthy. Ron

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Ron. It was a crazier week than usual.

      That Scotch is a faux book!
      The bottle is as yet upopened.
      Thanks for commenting. It is heartening to see them!

      1. Charlie Downs replied on

        I’m reading this late because we are on vacation in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I heard governor Hogan’s press conference this morning and believe that he is doing what is necessary. They instituted a 9 PM to 5 AM curfew in San Juan yesterday and the restaurants which are still open (very few) are only offering carry out. At least we got 5 good days in and return Wednesday hopefully. Could only catch an earlier flight with a long layover so given the increased possibility of being exposed, that was not a good option. If we make it home to Clear Spring we will pretty much isolate ourselves. At least I have some good reading to fill in the time here. Best of luck with everything; at least mail order sales may pick up.

        1. Charles Roberts replied on

          Dear Charlie,
          I hope you get back safely. Please let know when you do.
          We will go forward day by day and see what we are required to do.
          Thank you so much for reading and commenting!

          1. Charlie Downs replied on

            Chuck – just to let you know that we made it home safely and on time Wednesday evening. TSA lines were incredibly long, but we got through in about an hour. Stay healthy Chuck!

  2. Tawn commented on

    I first tasted Guinness in Dublin. (A member of our group commented that the dark brew was the same color as the Liffey river.) “What will next week bring?”=good question!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      For some reason it isn’t duplicated anywhere else.
      It is so much creamier and luscious there.
      You can almost stand a spoon in it!
      Thanks for commenting Tawn!

  3. Tom Hicks commented on

    As my mother used to say, que sera sera, a slightly different take on your physician’s prognosis.

    I loved the story of your Irish visitors and have to chuckle that there may well be a good number of Yanks who travel to Charlie Byrne’s bookstore and cart back those books that filled those yellow tubs. It now looks like their return journey may be delayed, however, as we’ve just added the UK and Ireland to our travel ban.

    I was feeling a bit bumped about this week but went for my morning stroll and saw a score of surfers off Asilomar Beach, conquering nature in their own way. Watching those waveriders helped dispel the odd dystopic vibe I got visiting the local grocery store yesterday where shelves resembled pictures from the old Soviet Union, remanats of a society struggling between need and despair. Given the frantic run on toilet paper, you might yet make a market in old magazines now that Sears no longer produces a catalog. Que sera sera.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      I was actually going to suggest Series romance books as emergency TP…
      Thank you for reading and commenting!
      It will get better I’m sure.
      I hope it is soon!

      1. Tom Hicks replied on

        As the saying goes, from your lips to God’s ears.

  4. Dan Blackwood commented on

    I love Wonder Books, Book Rescue, and hearing about your adventures each week. Keep it up!

    I have a quick question about bringing some books by a store to see if Wonder Books wants them. I know you are quite inundated with books right now (and have been for some time). For the last year, we have been cleaning out my In-Law’s house and have nine boxes of books remaining. About a foot of possible Books-By-The-Foot material, maybe one or two older books maybe worth looking at, but the rest are not remarkable. I’ve been holding off bringing them by the Frederick store due to the glut at the warehouse, but we need to clear them out now. At this time, do the Wonder Books buyers prefer to look at only the possible interesting books, or do you want to see average books also? Sorry to bother you with this little question. Thanks!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Hi Dan,
      We continue to buy all books brought to the the stores. It may not be a lot of money but we will make an offer on everything brought it. Every day 10-6pm. No appointment needed
      It may be good to check in case we get shut down by the Virus.
      Contacts for the three stores on the website
      Thank you for reading!

      1. Dan Blackwood replied on


  5. Norv commented on

    Please let me know when you decide to liquidate the scotch book…I’ll be right over

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      LOL! I’m saving it for some really good or really bad news!
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

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