It’s a Messy Paper Life

Messy Pile


New Year's Dawn

The new year shows every sign of continuing where the old year left off.

There will be no change any time soon.

For comfort’s sake, I will return to a year ago. I had just returned from an idyllic weekend in a 17th century stone farmhouse in Luray, Virginia.

Luray Farmhouse

New Year’s Eve was relatively quiet. Cocktails at Volt.

I worked New Year’s Day—as I will this year.

In a few days, Wonder Book would collaborate with the Weinberg Theater and present To Kill a Mockingbird on the big screen.

I would attend the theater at least once a week for various live performances.

On January 7, I went down to DC for Washington Capitals’ hockey game.

In a couple weeks, I would be in Key West. Walking. Exploring.

Key West Chuck

In early February, I flew to LA for California’s ABAA Rare Book Show. I drove and walked through so many sites and museums. La Brea Tar Pits, Getty Mansion, Huntington Library and Gardens, Hollywood…

Then things began to get strange.

Then weird.

Then bizarre.

Then surreal

…for months and months.

Christmas Morning 2020

The wind roars. Bare trees sway. The temperature dropped overnight from the high 50s to the 29 degrees it is outside now. A cold front swept in during the wee hours and wakened me. I lay in the dark worrying a tree may blow over onto my house. Would I get any help on Christmas?

I heard a crash out in the dark. It was not far away. But the house did not shudder, so I was not hit.

When Hurricane Sandy drove up this mountain a decade ago, one neighbor’s home was bisected by a large tree. You could look in and see bedrooms and attic joists and a massive tree trunk resting on the floor of the second story. After that, I had some big trees that were looming too close to my house taken down.

The howling in the dark would give me no peace. I turned on the brass swing lamp next to the bed, and a long frightened poem wrote itself. (The poem is at the end of this story.) Then I read some of the last pages of the Elizabeth Daly biblio-mystery. At some point, I realized there was nothing to do but curl up and pull the quilt and woolen blanket over me and sleep.

Sleep came, and I awoke a couple hours ago feeling rested and peaceful.

It was snowing lightly. Flakes would fly across the porch roof outside my window.

I let the dogs out, bringing some wood in each time went to the door. I put water on for tea. I was in the mood for tea for a change. It is more peaceful than coffee. The tea I chose (I have way too many teas—I’ve given the family strict instructions—no more tea gifts. Or hoodies. Or …) was Gandalf the Grey. I purchased a box of it at the Morgan Library when there was a Tolkien exhibition there.

Tolkien Tea

The clock on the stove was blinking, indicating that at some point the power went off in the dark.

I put a load of clothes in to wash. My selection of trousers is limited by COVID. I resolve to lose the Plague weight soon. I tossed extra sunflower seed onto the porch roof outside the bedroom windows. There are several dozen at any time, what with the comings and goings. This is more than I’ve seen all year—even when the snow lay thick last week. I was concerned the populations were down, but this bodes well. One brilliant scarlet Cardinal appears on the roof. Then another. Then there are 6. No, 8. Male and female. Then they all fly off, though there’s plenty of seed still. A red-bellied woodpecker, whose head is red but belly is not, clasps awkwardly onto the plastic feeder suction cupped to the window. He stirs his long black bill into the dish of seeds, I suppose searching for just the right one. There are many other species hopping about the roof, fluttering in and away. Nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, goldfinches, juncos and the several odd woodland sparrows. To name them, I always need to get one of the identification books out. Most of the songbirds are dun or gray.

It is odd not to rise and head to the warehouse.

I am tempted…

I just finished Arrow Pointing Nowhere. It had quite a surprising ending. Congratulations, Elizabeth. A GOOD one! On one of the last pages, she records a bit of autobiographical information when she writes:

Daly Quote

I lit a candle near the crèche for some reason.

I stood between the bay window where the birds flock and the wood stove. One side of me was heated, the other chill. The stove is up to 350 degrees. I will open the dampers a bit and put more wood in. That might get the house a couple degrees warmer.

I should shower and head out. The plan is to go to Pennsylvania to watch a movie with one son and his partner. We will do the gifts on Sunday when the other boy comes to town.

When I was ready to leave, the snow had picked up. It was beginning to stick.

It was a white Christmas—just barely.

I looked around the house for a fallen tree. The woods were littered with dead branches.


About 50 yards below my bedroom, a large maple had snapped. It was half dead. Thus its fragility.

Snapped Tree

I wouldn’t have left this tree up if it had been close to the house.

Then I got into the truck and headed down the mountain so I could he’d up to Pennsylvania.

The snow was swirling all about.

Would I have problems driving over the mountains into Pennsylvania?

It was a quiet Christmas day. They made cioppino. We watched A Christmas Carol—the Alistair Sim version.

A quiet Christmas…so unlike the ones of my youth…so unlike the Christmases when the boys were younger.

When I awoke Saturday, December 26, I felt so comfortable in bed.

I just wanted to lie in bed and read and write and doze and loll and dream and nap and rest.

I looked at my phone. I was getting a lot of strange emails.

“Pingbacks” to a story I wrote here long ago called “They’re Gonna Put You in the Movies“:

A new pingback on the post “They’re Gonna Put You in the Movies” is waiting for your approval

Website: Washington’s Secret To The Perfect Zoom Bookshelf? Buy It Wholesale.—CartEgg (IP address:,
Pingback excerpt: ….

What are pingbacks?

I’d forgotten.

There were a couple dozen emails just like this.

What’s going on? Spammers?

I did stay in bed.

And read.

And wrote.

And lolled.

But then I heard the books in the far distance. The books were calling. And I must go.

Sometime later in the day, I got an email from a friend.

“Congratulations on the Politico story!”


Another sent me a link.

Well, that’s pretty nice. I’m not sure I said I all those things. I certainly never said…

The next day, Clark sent me a Tweet from Donald Trump Jr. I don’t Tweet. I eschew all social media except Instagram.


Pundits Hire Professionals

Excerpted in The Wall Street Journal:

This one on Russian TV is pretty funny:

Now that’s high energy. Russian disinformation and meddling?

The President of C-SPAN tweeted this story they did nearly 12 years ago:

The intervening years have not been all kind to me.

There were plenty more like this:

We expected a lot of blowback. I met with the managers on Monday morning to discuss reaction strategy.

But things quieted quickly. The only interview I had was from Canadian Public Radio. The host was sympathetic. She was a book lover and understood.

So Books by the Foot had its couple days of fame. Or infamy.

That part of the book business has often been controversial. Certainly when it went nationwide on the internet in the 90s.

It is so strange. The Politico story began last May. The writer contacted me about our “Politics” style in the Books By Subject section on the website.

I created that style as a lark. Interior Designers do not want controversial books for their clients. We typically pulp all the books by political pundits and more recent politicians. I thought I’d try to make lemonade out of lemons.

The style doesn’t sell very well. The writer wanted to talk to clients or designers. No one wanted to go public about buying these books. During the summer, the story morphed to Zoom sets. Early in COVID, some celebrities were embarrassed when people zoomed in on the books behind them—books they weren’t necessarily proud to have in their “picture.”

Books are a great backdrop. They lend warmth and gravitas. We’ve done sets for the Senate to cooking shows to…

The brouhaha was completely misplaced. The Zoom books are almost always apolitical. They don’t just sell to DC talking heads. Our clients include moms, grandpas, doctors, nurses, chefs…

We don’t pick sides. Our “Politics” style offer options:

  • Left
  • Right
  • Mixed

I never thought the story was going anywhere. But they sent a great photographer in September. I thought he would just shoot pictures of books. He wanted me to pose for dozens of pictures. Why oh why did I wear shorts that day?

I guess it was hot out.

Christmas is different when your kids are grown.

When they were little, the gifts they’d give would be things they’d do in school, like primitive tree ornaments.

Now they are both on their own and getting successful, the gifts were really cool.

I got some great booze and wine.

My older son had been bidding on things from the Waldorf Astoria. The sale was online, I think, back in September. I glanced and didn’t see anything that resonated with me. Plus, I didn’t have time to search thousands of things on offer. I have plenty of souvenirs I’d…acquired…on visits. Like from the gift shop.

The items were up near Boston, and he asked to borrow a van to go get his acquisitions.

The hotel had been a big part of the family’s life. They’d first gone when they were quite young. We’d go most years. When one went to Columbia, we went more often.

On the Sunday after Christmas when everyone was at the old place in Pennsylvania, we all overdid it with too many gifts. The big living room floor was flooded with wrapping paper.

“There’s a last gift for you behind the sofa. It’s too big to carry out.”

I stepped around all the detritus and between the tree in the corner and the old family spinet—that had been converted into a desk long before I was born—was a low table wrapped in a moving quilt. I peeled the quilt away.

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I was struck by it.

Such a great gift!

Books and the Waldorf!

And its provenance states it was from the LBJ Suite. My dad attended the same tiny college with LBJ in San Marcos, Texas. I was tiny when the President running for election landed in Buffalo, New York. We were invited to be on the tarmac. Johnson came to me. I looked up and up and up… He bent and shook my hand. Ladybird also shook my hand. If memory serves, she was wearing a pink suit.

“And HOW are YEWWW?” she warmly asked.

On Christmas Eve, Larry brought a load of books and stuff. Amongst the stuff were a half dozen old typewriters. (Well, I guess all typewriters are old by definition.)


Among them were two old Royals. They looked just like the one my dad had in his office when I was growing up. I’d sneak in and peck away.

Royal Typewriter

Later, I had my own. It came in a carrying case. The poems I wrote for William Meredith’s classes at Connecticut College were all hunt and pecked on that. I haven’t seen those for a long time. I think I know where they might be.

Old Typewriter

I used this machine for many years at Wonder Book too! Hard to believe…

A few years ago, I acquired this high tech IBM machine.

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I don’t know.

Nostalgia, I guess. It is very sexy. Maybe I’ll plug it in some day.

I have lived a paper life.

My whole life I have been drawn to books and writing. I hate to throw things away that have meaning to me.

There was a lot of upheaval in my life from 2013-2016.

The warehouse purchase and move was daunting. I lived a life in constant motion for well over two years until the move was over, we were settled and financial ruin was not imminent.

Then there was a golden time. 2015-2016. It ended too soon.

Part of me never recovered.

A messy pile of papers started to accumulate next to my bed.

Messy Pile

I put things in it like tickets to events or ephemera from trips or more personal stuff.

I actually went through it one evening. It was a time capsule. A good time capsule. A few tears were shed.

I sorted some things like manuscripts to be typed up for…whatever.

I found some evocative pictures.

That’s me with Barbara Mertz and friends.

Chuck and Friends

What happened to me?


This book obsession has sucked a lot out of me.

But it has sustained me.

Maybe I can regain some of the smile in 2021. It must be inside me somewhere.

It is New Year’s Day.

I am at work.

I am hunting and pecking away at my laptop to finish this story.

A friend came over last night, and we had black truffle pasta tossed in truffle olive oil.

I made too many Old Fashioneds for myself.

I dozed watching a Cary Grant movie and missed midnight.

No big deal.

It would be anticlimactic, I am sure.

When I awoke to 2021 this morning, the fire was strong.

The house was 68 degrees.

Today is the 6th anniversary of when I started my journaling.

That has become another obsession. I write something in it nearly every day. The stack of filled journals is nearly 2 feet high now. It records a book life and the other lives I’ve led.

What will be recorded in them in 2021?

I am not optimistic about a lot of things.

I am optimistic there will be lots of books in my future that was one positive in 2020. Once the state and counties let us reopen, we found homes for lots of books. Well, in many ways, we did have a captive audience.

Thousands this coming weekend alone.

There are LOTS of carts with my name on them.

I am WAY behind.

The holidays, you know.

I plan to change my diet. I don’t eat a lot of meat, but I do imbibe on occasion.

Well, most occasions.


Maybe this book can help me some with this New Year resolution.

Vegetable Cookery

It is from 1829 and pretty unusual, I believe. I didn’t think they “cooked” back then.

I sure didn’t think they abstained!

Happy New Year, everyone.

If there is not much happiness in the outside world, perhaps you can find some within.

I will try.

Warning! Poem below.

Christmas 2020

A storm blows outside
I fear a tree will fall on me
In the spotlight outside
I see trees swaying in the winds
Their trunks are black with wetness
I can do nothing but bundle under wraps
Listening and worrying
and wishing it would all just blow away
I hear a crash out in the darkness
But the house does not shudder

I see the whiteness of your skin
Framed by long flowing black hair
Colorful eyes changing
Blue to green to turquoise

I yearn for sleep
But the tempest roars
In slumber I could ignore this all
And awaken to calm blue skies
Awaken whole, intact

I know lying there
I will never return
to wellness love strength and you
I will share this bed with papers
Pens eyeglasses books and the journal
Cold silent companions
Only I can give them voice
I hurt here and there
I hurt in my heart and mind
I knew this hour would come
I resisted til it took hold
I was seized and it would not release me

Captive in this tired body
Captive to the Plague all around
All I can do is curl fetally
In the blackness
And flee to that other land
Where I am young and healthy
Handsome strong optimistic
I can go there but cannot stay

Two dead trees fell in the forest
They had no roots
Pushed out of their sockets
They crashed in the dark

I wish I could sleep
And travel in the slumber
I lie awake
Toss and turn
While storm tossed trees
Flail in blackness

I have everything
But health
And youth
And happiness
And you

16 Comments on Article

  1. Terry commented on

    Thankfully the tree was not near your house! I have seen the damage they can do when they hit a house. December 31 marks 31 years I have been at Wonder Book. There have been ups and downs, but I have enjoyed working there. You once told me you can learn something new everyday. I found that to be true, you never knew what might happen next at any of the stores or warehouse! Hopefully I am able to come back to work soon!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks so much Terry!
      1989…a long time ago!
      Happy New Year!

  2. Tawn O'Connor commented on

    I enjoyed this post and clicked on all the links (except the Russian one 😉 Thanks for an interesting read! My shelves are filled with books on bookbinding, bibliomysteries, novels I’ve loved, etc.–all bought one at a time and read. But there are so many that they look like BBTF.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Tawn.
      You and I can tell the difference between BBTF and a collection
      Happy New

    2. Case replied on

      Hello BBTF writer person, sir…

      This post was so funny, because since my recent book collecting has dried up all the local thrift shops of all my interest categories, I was recently searching for wholesale books, and found BBTF. From California, I called and spoke to the Pennsylvania customer care rep, and asked her about this very subject, the prominently displayed book shelves behind every single talking head on the news.

      She assured me that this isn’t a thing, or isn’t a widespread thing if it is a thing! Obviously it is a widespread thing tho… I told my friend that i often call on the phone about all the bookshelves of all the talking heads, and she agreed how everyone does have that in the background.

      Well I am glad the books are rescued, however they end up being rehomed! It’s a pity that books have lost the status they once had, but the pity is not for the books, but on a society that has forgotten to value them. At least all the zoomers are signaling some reverence for the book collections, even if the subjects they are fostering arent of any particular relevance to their new owners.

      And so that you know, in my estimation, your ownership of BBTF is perhaps the richest of anyone in the world, judging their riches by the size of their library, because I know of no other private library of such immense scale. These vast volumes of knowledge at their fingertips, all under one roof, and all privately (I assume) owned, it’s astounding!

      1. Charles Roberts replied on

        Thank you for reading the story and writing to comment Case!
        The books we send to BBTF are the ones we can’t find readers or collectors for.

        Our main business is . We have over 2 million books there that can be acquired to read and collect.

        We also have 3 brick and mortar bookstores which are open every day to book lovers.

        You are correct. The “book backgrounds” are a thing – but not a very big thing!
        Thanks again,

  3. Andy Moursund commented on

    Chuck, I loved that part about your first venture into Books As Decoration, but for the record, Allan Stypeck beat you to it. Back in late 1977, when I’d just been named the manager of the original Second Story warehouse on N. Fairfax St. in Alexandria, Allan bought an entire bookcase’s worth of the cheesiest looking leather bound books you’d ever seen. They were bound somewhere in North Africa for 50 cents apiece for a State Department diplomat who didn’t want his collection of mostly mass market paperbacks and undistinguished hardbacks to get damaged in shipping.

    And here’s the kicker: About 90% of the spines were totally sun-faded. It was the ugliest collection of leather bound books you ever laid your eyes on. They never would’ve qualified for your BBTF collection.

    Allan offered him $1.50 each, which I thought was crazy, (as in way too much), but he dismissed my objections and put them out for $5.00 each, with a big sign in front of the case, which he put right by the open garage door-styled entrance so that they were easily visible from the street.

    You can guess the rest of the story: The entire case was sold within about three days. As I’ve learned many times since, there’s more than one way to make a living in the book business.

    P. S. You should frame that tweet from DJT Jr. It’s priceless.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      I’ve seen those bindings often.
      Gilding the t***

      Decorative bookselling goes way back – long before me and Second Story.
      The great manors often wanted their books uniformly bound.
      Plenty of people needed shelves in new homes and offices filled quickly since … forever.

      hanks for writing Andy
      Happy New Year!


  4. David Holloway commented on

    Happy New Year old friend. Here’s to better days ahead!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks David!
      Happy New Year to you and yours.
      Let’s hope so!

  5. Rick Banning commented on

    Chuck, I thought it funny that people who knew they were going to be on tv were buying books to put behind their head. On the other hand, other talking heads, who probably did have a library somewhere else in their house, put a bit of art and a few flowers behind them. Since most of my books are in storage, were I to be on tv, I think I would put a few of those Corona beer boxes I store books in behind me. Since I don’t drink , why Corona? Not too big to pick up when full of books, sturdy, have hand holes, and importantly, all the same size, vital when you stack them. Why not visible books? Just contrariness, I guess. Rick

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Beer boxes are good for book storage!
      A backdrop of Corona would be … hilarious in some cases!
      Thanks Rick!
      I’m sending you some breaker picks.

  6. David commented on


    Don’t worry about the nagging nabobs of negativism: it was a great article and you should be proud of it. In fact, I’d put a link to it on your homepage. And maybe take out some online ads in designer magazines with a link or “featured in.”

    Other than the fact that it makes it seem as if your entire business is BBF (maybe ask for a clarification or another story about the rest of the company – entrepreneurship/technology-internet , small business, S. Maryland angle) – it seems accurate and promotes Wonder well. The photos are really good too.

    Also consider the source of your tormentors: Trump/Jr. who by their own admission don’t read much and probably use you or a competitor to stock the shelves of their resorts and hotels anyway. Here is an idea: send Jr. 10 ft of books on sporting/hunting with a note that says “thanks for your comments – enjoy the books!”

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      All publicity is good publicity.
      It was actually pretty funny.
      I hope everything is going well w you and the family.
      Thanks for writing!
      Let me know if you go to Gaithersburg to Wechlers again.

      1. Thomas Wixon replied on

        Wishing us All a Happy New Year. In spite of it all, we can’t let them get us down. This too will pass away.
        Be thankful you have a Wonderplace to go every day.
        Look forward to some Bookplates this year!
        Blessings to You,

        1. Charles Roberts replied on

          Thanks for writing Tommy!
          The year has not started well.
          Fingers crossed things will improve.
          I wonder when i’ll get my shots?
          I’m in Tier 3. Old but not old enough…
          I have a small stack started.

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