The Keeper of the Books & The Journal of the Plague Year

Spring Flowers

It is spring everywhere here—except in the hearts of mankind.


To arrange a library is to practice,
in a quiet and modest way,
the art of criticism.

—Borges

Monday, March 16

Long, long ago, when the world was a far different place—that was
about this time yesterday—
I began a new journal.

The book unfolded on my lap,
a sea of white blank lined pages.
It is the beginning of a new journey.
“March 15, 2020.”
I wrote upon the endpaper.
“Sunday. 5 a.m.”
Then I placed my name, address and number
down near the bottom.
I added:
“Reward if found and returned.
$250.”
Those words pleaded
that if I lost my book
anywhere, near or far,
the finder would take pity
for a fee.
Find this book and send back
that part of my life.
I would gladly pay.
Those words were precautionary
—insurance,
should this next part of my life go awry.

(For once I indeed lost such a journal
—nearly completed.
A section of my life went missing
I went into a frenzy
It turned out it was here on this mountain
The whole time it set in the oddest place
I had searched everywhere I thought
Over and over I looked there and there
Where I had been since last I saw it
Was is somewhere amongst millions of other books
down in the valley in the book mine?
An anonymous volume
unwanted by any reader but me
A veritable needle in a haystack there
It was the sum of the last months to me
I dismantled likely parts of the “hayricks”
in my home and business
hay stalk by hay stalk)

I continued with this in the new journal
Writing upon the blank white endpaper:

“The Keeper of the Books”

For in the black night
I picked up a book to read
It fell open somewhere near the middle
And, only by luckiest chance,
Borges’ poem lay before me:

“Here they stand: gardens and temples and
the reason for temples;
exact music and exact words…”*

My pen continued on that endpaper dragging these words:

“Journal of a Plague Year.”

My final thought put to that page:

“There was a woman behind every word.”

For that is entirely true
Each word I wrote and write is you
—looking over my shoulder.
I wish ’twere so…

That leaf, the free endpaper, is therefore a kind of title page and copyright in one.

New Journal Endpaper

I turned that page and began a new era on page one:

“Sunday. 64/35. 5 AM. Rainy out in the blackness. I ended the
last journal stuffed w/ print outs mostly pertaining to
the emailed accusations of…”

Old Journal

There were only a few blank pages left in that volume.

The printouts are almost exclusively the dozens of emails expressing shock and assurances that these friends and strangers saw nothing to indicate that I was the thing I had been called in public by “officials”. The whole thing has been very Kafka-esque.

It seemed a good time to start a new “book.” Begin afresh and close the book on that ugly scene.

I worked in the warehouse all that day. Sunday. The plague weighing heavily on my mind.

I met a friend for cocktails and dinner at Voltaggio’s Family Meal.

Last Martini

We sat at the bar and laughed for life, and we laughed at death. We talked into the evening nearly alone in the restaurant.

For dessert we shared an “adult” chocolate milk shake.

Little did we know that this would be the last night out for either of us until …things change. My last professional cocktail was a spiked milkshake! I am so ashamed!


Tuesday, March 17. Late morning.

It is Day 3 of my “Plague Journal”

Ernest is driving us to Hagerstown.

There are big Books by the Foot requests pending. We don’t know if the retail stores will be closed soon, so this trip is a bit urgent.

All the restaurants and bars in Maryland were ordered closed at 5pm yesterday by Governor Hogan. I stopped over at the Modern Asia restaurant in the strip center where our Frederick store is. I wanted to support my friends and neighbors. My son and I ordered about 10 pounds of various dishes to carry out. I’ve gotten to know Roy pretty well in the last 5 years. He, his wife and his partner and his wife own the place. It is large and a bit formal. Lots of red and yellow silk and satin and glossy black woodwork. Maybe 40 tables and a nice bar. The food is Pan Asian—Chinese, Vietnamese, Curries, Japanese and Thai. (Maybe I’m missing another style or two..) They were pretty busy.

I drove home. It stays light later now.

Cut Wood

I decided to cut some wood for therapy. I have a barn full, but that is banked away for next year except in a pinch.


I looked about the mountain for some easily accessible dead wood. There, about 40 yards above the “Barn” there was a 40 foot snag*. It was long dead. No bark. Pitted. It leaned against a living maple in whose branches it clung; leaning unable to fall and become part of the earth.

* A snag is a dead tree which has fallen but only into the arms of an adjacent tree. There it is “snagged” and cannot fall to the ground.

I rolled the big wheel garden cart up near it. I started the orange Husqvarna chainsaw.

“puttputputttputputputtputputput—vroom, vroooommmm!”

I stepped to the snag and looked up it.

“Which way will you fall?”

That is a mandatory question for any woodcutter.

It leaned against the maple at a very narrow angle. Perhaps 22 degrees. Still it leaned. But its thin dead top rested in a crook of the living tree. I would cut it about 5 feet off the ground. The tree trunk would bisect and…

‘It won’t fall backward—opposite of its lean,’ I thought.

I cut. The bottom five feet fell. The other 35 feet dropped base end first into the ground.

I had chosen an escape path. Every good woodsman has a path of escape—usually ending in the protection of the lee of a larger tree. If the worst happened, the felled tree would smash against my protector and fall to either side. Highly unlikely.

I dashed in that direction. The butt end hit the ground, and I saw in the corner of my eye that it had dropped nearly straight down. It was falling in the direction I fled. What I didn’t see was that the top of the snag had broken. When a high heavy dead piece of wood breaks from a falling tree, it is called a widow maker*. This piece of wood separates and falls where it will. It is an apt term. No woodcutter can anticipate the widow maker.

* A widow maker is a broken limb hanging freely in a tree and can be fatal.

“THUMPPPP!!!”

A 4 inch diameter 6 foot length of hard dead wood that seconds ago had been high above brushed my shoulder and arm and crashed at my feet. A few inches closer, it would have killed or maimed me.

‘I will never do anything that stupid again,’ I thought.

Then there was nothing else to do but thank God and cut the dead wood on the ground. I tossed the stove lengths into the cart and rolled down the leafy stoneless path toward the house.

When I got inside, I heated up Chicken and Eggplant in Garlic Sauce and some special signature Asian dish with lots of seafood and heat from Modern Asia. I sat out on the drive and looked down the mountain. I ate crosslegged on the pavement, my chopsticks clicking in the quickening dusk.

Dogs and Wine

I wonder how long they will be closed? At this time, I believe they can still offer curbside carryout pickups.

All the bars; all the restaurants closed until further notice.

Surreal.


Going out to the stores so much has been therapeutic these last few weeks. I spent weekends in the warehouse. If we get shutdown, I will likely have no choice but to work in the warehouse alone.

That is,

IF I’m not confined to my home, quarantined, with no unnecessary travel permitted.

Today Ernest and I are pulling 150 linear feet of Mid Century hardcovers in Hagerstown. That’s a lot of books. If the ceiling in the room you are reading this in is 10 feet high, that is 15 stacks of books floor to ceiling. These are old—but not so old—books mostly looking like they were published in the 1950s-1970s. This is great for the store because these books don’t sell that well. Also, we get a lot of copies of former bestsellers like James Michener and Death of a President which are not read much any more. So many books by and about politicians like Harry Truman and Eisenhower are always duplicated on the shelves.

That’s the stuff we are looking for.

Purge, purge, purge.

The manager of Books by the Foot also printed out these Books by the Foot wants for me to pull:

5′ ECommerce, Technology, Online Advertising, Bill Gates, Jobs…

15′ Popular Trade Paper:

More difficult was her request for:

10-30′ Spanish “appropriate for prison inmates”

Samples for a large potential order: soft neutrals, earth tones, earthy greens (sage, moss etc) in the following subjects: skiing, flora and fauna and history of New England, travel, hiking, cooking, classics, hospitality.

I am amazed at what we do times.

Who invented this stuff? LOL…

Ernest and I pulled and pulled.

And all the day I was emailing and texting from my phone.

“What will happen if…?”

Will the state close us next?

I told the managers: “I don’t care. If we close, we close. If any employee doesn’t feel comfortable working, it won’t be held against them.”

We brainstormed. How could we keep people employed who wanted or needed it?

“We can find work for them in the closed stores. If they are comfortable with it, we can cull and stock and freshen with our doors locked to the the public…and the plague.”

When we’d done enough in Hagerstown to fill the van, we drove back a full load of books.

That evening I went home and sat atop the drive again. This time I had an open bottle from my wine cellar. I’ve been hoarding liquids for years. If the worst comes, I won’t go dry.

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Wednesday

The meetings and conferences began in earnest.

Some people were staying away already.

I called the warehouse staff in. We did it in 3 separate groups so there wouldn’t be so many of the 60 or so people on duty in one space.

“I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable working here. Feel free to leave at any time. Absences won’t be held against you. You won’t lose any matching vacation time. If you want, or NEED to work, we will stay open as long as we can.”

I, personally, need to work. I could not sit at home and watch tv. I NEED to be here.

It is a mental health concern, I believe.

Then there were meetings with the managers.

“I don’t care if the stores close. If we can’t open, let me know. Anyone needing hours—well, we can find something for them to do here at the warehouse.”

We may not have any choice. They closed shopping malls Thursday. I expect the edict that non-essential businesses go dark any day now.

Meetings…

What ifs.

Down deep I DO care if the stores close. Bookstores must not be silenced. But if no one can or will work…then we close.

Have we ever closed.? Big snowstorms now and then for sure.

But we knew the plows would take care of things eventually. The snow will always melt.

What happened on 9/11? I recall vividly pricing books in the back room before the store opened when the reports came in on the radio.

Did we leave early?

Did we close September 12?

I don’t remember—but I don’t think so.

It was always a BIG decision to close early or open late. It was a huge decision to close entirely.

If we close, when will we reopen? How long will the stores be dark?

It hurts.


The Keeper of the Books

Long, long ago I fancied I could run Wonder Book by myself. Having employees was …complex; problematic; expensive; hair tearing at times.

I could downsize and be the ‘sole proprietor.’

Perhaps in the late 80s was when I last fancied that scenario as a practical matter.

It was entirely impractical even then.

Now, in the plague panic, this induced apocalypse, I may end up being the only one there. A lone caretaker for the vast sprawling sea of books.

Tonight, March 20, there are 211 Covid 19 dead in the United States. A large but shrinking percentage of those were in a single nursing home in Washington state a couple weeks ago. There are no bodies in the streets. No cars run off the roads into fields and abandoned. There are no truckloads of bodies rumbling down the highways with pale arms and legs dangling out their backs and sides.

If the government closes everything and we are told to stay in one place, I will move to the warehouse.

I can sleep on the plush red couch in my office. I bought that 15 years ago for a friend who, in the old warehouse, complained there was nowhere comfortable in my office. We were both so young then.

I can wash up in the sink. There are 11 sinks in the building, I believe.

I can fill the truck up with food and wine. I’ll load in plenty of dog food. Merry and Pippin and I will become keepers of the books.

I will work on them constantly. Sorting and pricing and clearing; banking toward the day when the world starts up again. The machinery of society groans and grinds; sputters and the engine comes to life.

It is indeed a “universal library.” I could not in my lifetime inspect every book here. Could I go through and physically touch every one? It would involve months of moving and unpacking to get to each one.

…the wounded unicorn that’s glimpsed again,
marking an era’s close;
the secret and eternal laws;
the harmony of the world.
These things or their memory are here in books
that I watch over in my tower.

—Borges Keeper of the Books

A man lives in that building with books future wanderers in the neighborhood would say. The scavengers would know there is nothing in here for them. There is no reason to break into a book warehouse.


We packed almost all the books Charlie and John picked to be shipped to their iconic Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway, Ireland. I emailed him and asked if he wanted them shipped or held.

“How was your trip…?”

We got back ok, a few hours delay as inbound flight delayed due to chaos in Dublin with Americans returning.

We had to close down the bookshop yesterday. It was a difficult day. Most retail apart from food now closed. We will see how things go.

Thanks for looking after us so well last week. I hope we can return the compliment when all this madness is over.

He continued he should be ok if he is allowed to open by summer. We are shipping the books as he said it would give them something to work on. I told him to take a year to pay—more if things drag on.

I hope we can get these out before everything stops.

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And so ends this book story of the first week of my own Plague Journal. I pray it won’t become an ongoing theme. I should perhaps dig into the archive of old unpublished stories which I wrote long ago.

Will I be more alone in the coming days and weeks than I have been for so very long? Alone in and amongst this “tower” of books now unavailable to any but myself?

It was odd, perhaps guided, that I picked up Borges ON WRITING in that dark night. Odder still, the book fell open to the poem that follows. He explicates the poem in the book over a couple pages prompted by interview questions by his translator di Giovanni. I believe much of what he says about his own poem. Perhaps you can get your hands on a copy for yourself. Preferably in the brilliant orange dust jacket of the first edition.

Journals and Borges

But for some of his explanations, I trust my own reading more than his. For I am and have long been a Keeper of the Books myself.

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And, as we all know, a good writer can sometimes be an unreliable narrator.


* The Keeper of the Books
—Borges

Here they stand: gardens and temples and the
reason for temples;
exact music and exact words;
the sixty-four hexagrams;
ceremonies, which are the only wisdom
that the Firmament accords to men;
the conduct of that emperor
whose perfect rule was reflected in the world,
which mirrored him,
so that rivers held their banks
and fields gave up their fruit;
the wounded unicorn that’s glimpsed again,
marking an era’s close;
the secret and eternal laws;
the harmony of the world.
These things or their memory are here in books
that I watch over in my tower.

On small shaggy horses,
the Mongols swept down from the North
destroying the armies
ordered by the Son of Heaven to punish their
desecration’s.
They cut throats and sent up pyramids of fire,
slaughtering the wicked and the just,
slaughtering the slave chained to his master’s
door,
using the women and casting them off.
And on the South they rode,
innocent as animals of prey,
cruel as knives.
In the faltering dawn
my father’s father saved the books.
Here they are in this tower where I lie
calling back days that belonged to others,
distant days, the days of the past.

In my eyes there are no days. The shelves
stand very high, beyond the reach of my years,
and leagues of dust and sleep surround the
tower.
Why go on deluding myself?
The truth is that I never learned to read,
but it comforts me to think
that what’s imaginary and what’s past are the
same.
to a man whose life is nearly over,
who looks out from his tower on what once was
city
and now turns back to wilderness.
Who can keep me from dreaming that there was a
time
when I deciphered wisdom
and lettered characters with a careful hand?
My name is Hsiang. I am the keeper of the books—
these books which are perhaps the last,
for we know nothing of the Son of Heaven
or of the Empire’s fate.
Here on these high shelves they stand,
at the same time near and far,
secret and visible, like the stars.
Here they stand———gardens, temples.


Early on Thursday morning, I awoke from a disturbing dream. I had enough sense to record it before returning to sleep. If I wanted til morning, I’m sure it would have been gone forever.

Mt 3/19/20 3AM

Dream

I dreamt I woke in the dark
Rain was splashing on the porch roof
Outside my window
It slants toward the distant valley
The wind, invisible in blackness or light,
was blowing the sheets of water to and fro
I stretch for the light as I so often do
when I wake in the lateness as I so often do
My left arm has measured the distance so often
My hands knows just where to touch
My thumb presses the button on the heavy brass base
Nothing happens. Darkness still envelopes me
I roll back onto my back and sleep
I wake again and all is repeated
It roll back to sleep in the blackness
It is the time of the plague fear
Perhaps all the world is now broken
I wake in the dark
A gust splatters rain against the window pane
I turn on my side
My left arm stretches to the lamp
My hand touches the cold brass
It know it has a golden metal sheen
My thumb presses the switch
Light fills the room
And all I already knew was there is revealed
I think of the plague fear
and nothing has changed

12 Comments on Article

  1. Richard commented on

    ‘I will never do anything that stupid again,’ I thought.

    And again it was said and really meant
    Time passed

    ‘I will never do anything that stupid again,’ I thought.

    Always look forward to Friday…. And had a bonus post this week

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      So glad you take the time to comment Richard! It means a lot. There images were just added and might be fun scroll through.
      Again, thank you so much!
      I REALLY think I won’t stand under a widow maker again no matter how easy the seasoned wood seems to harvest!
      Chuck

  2. Wow, ouch…I lived in Frederick for over a decade (90s) & still have about 1000 amazing books I bought from you. Thanks! Recently I’ve been updating my DVD library; thanks again! How can I help? We need creative solutions and hall passes for business owners. Most of all we need to keep reading and learning and reminding the folks that aren’t reading why they should. OK, back to Firefox survival books and reading that lifts and reminds us how we can do better!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Joanna! Our online prices are lower than Amazon in most cases In think. All the prices are postpaid in the 48 states. If you wanted to tell anyone about the book stories that would certainly help!
      But your comment is far more valuable than any thing I can think of .
      Best
      Chuck

  3. Susan Bruner commented on

    Thank you for your book rescue, blog and stores. They are a Wonder. Pun intended. Susan Bruner.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Susan! Its all I can do. I love it but it is overwhelming sometimes.
      I really appreciate your reading and commenting.
      Best
      Chuck

  4. Tawn commented on

    There’s another type of unreliable narrator: the omniscient narrator who withholds crucial information. Grrr. I just finished Where The Crawdads Sing. The narrator won my trust with beautiful writing, close observation, truthful interpretation of what was observed. Spoiler alert: And then betrayed me. Louis Bayard’s The Pale Blue Eye also comes to mind.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      “Rosebud” … LOL.
      That part needs tweaking.
      The story was rushed because of all the other stuff going on last Friday.
      Thank you reading and taking the time to comment, Tawn. I really appreciate it!
      Chuck

  5. Nick commented on

    We appreciate how flexible you have been in these strange times. Stay safe, and if necessary, enjoy your universal library.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks reading and commenting Nick. I’ll be so glad when we can all get back to doing what we love.
      Best
      Chuck

  6. David commented on

    “there was nothing else to do but thank God and cut the dead wood on the ground” this line reads as a great ‘chop wood, carry water’ metaphor. Love your writing, and your mission Chuck. Keep going and work towards the better days ahead for us all.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks David.
      I’ll likely cut wood at the end of today for mental health.
      But no more vertical snags.
      Thanks for reading and commenting
      Chuck

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