Last Robins of Fall


The forest floor is littered with the skeletons of dead trees.

Felled by age or disease or misadventure, they lie on the ground and are slowly reabsorbed into the earth.

Oaks are especially slow to be reduced to soil. I know some are many decades old. This giant was felled by Hurricane Sandy in 2010. It has a long way to go until it disappears.

I say this because I have found it is a good place to plant flower bulbs—along the edges of these slowly decaying trees—daffodils mostly.

So many of my “gardens” close to the house are well-planted with the flowers that return year after year. I have been looking afield—into the woods—for additional spots to put the last bulbs of the fall in recent years. The forest is vast in every direction where I live. When these outlier plantings bloom in the spring, they are little splashes of color on the dun forest floor. I call them “grace notes.”

They catch the eye amongst the trees. Sometimes they draw me to them 100-200 yards away.

Along the edges of the long dead tree trunks, it is relatively easy to hack a little trench. The organic material there is not soil. Nor is it mulch. Not sawdust. Something else entirely. Perhaps I’ll coin a name for it.

Anyway, I will hack a shallow trench along the edge of the fallen tree. It is then easy to push a line of bulbs in that space. I will use the one-handed adze that dug the trench to drag some of the rotting leaf mold into the gashed ground since soil is sparse. Then some leaves. Then I will press the material in gently with one foot—gently enough not to damage the bulb—though there are about 6 inches of crunchy brown leaves and other organic material between my foot and the bulbs underground.

I am looking forward to spring already.

I enjoy the winter. My ritual of having a fire in the woodstove that rarely goes out is a discipline. I find it very satisfying. In the morning, I will stand before the stove after showering and dry myself with towels as well as the warmth of the big iron box with its soft-orange glowing windows panes. The cold golden light of the dawn pouring in the windows from the east adds a counterpoint to the morning’s colors.

After working outside or returning from a walk in the evening, it is very satisfying to stand before the stove. I can lift the wide steel lid atop it and drop wood in. Watching a fire is mesmerizing. It is hard to think of anything inanimate that is so full of organic movement and color.

Who knows? Perhaps the flames are a life form.

Moving through the woods this time of year, there are no silent steps. It is the crunchy swishing of late fall dry brown leaf litter—sometimes nearly a foot thick—that accompanies any walk I take. There are no level strides taken in the leafy woods.

It feels so good to stand before the fire.

Those are moments of reflection and contemplation.

It is Wednesday.

I am awake in the dark. But then it is usually dark this time of year. The Winter Solstice is only 6 days away. Sunset is 4:27. Sunrise 7:24.

The thermometer reads 61 inside. 42 out. I didn’t stoke a good fire last night. I must have been tired. I’d planted 120 bulbs Tuesday morning (see above.) When I got home, it was dark—about 5. I planted another 120 by the light of the pickup truck’s headlights. I had to spread the last of a pile of mulch that had been dumped there in summer, as that spot was the only remaining space in the big bed walled in during 2021 that remained unbulbed.

I’d also carried in about 10 boxes of books from my old house in Pennsylvania. I wonder what surprises will be in there. My old life. My son packed them from my once upon a time library high up on the third floor of the old manse with its raised first floor and high ceilings.

Then I moved some soil from the pile my contractor left at the end of the drive in the upper yard last summer. It is soft “composted manure” from an organic dairy farm just across the Mason Dixon Line. They use some process to squeeze the methane out of the stuff. The process is hot and kills any weed seeds that might be present. They use the methane to power the farm. They’ve been doing that for more than the 40 years I have lived in the area. The end product is much like peat moss. They sell it for $35 a pickup truckload. Using a front-end loader, they pick up a scoop from the base of an enormous pile. Then they drive perpendicular to my truck’s bed. Then they unceremoniously drop the poop into my vehicle with a big “twhump.” The pile rises like a little mountain above the truck’s rails. I toss a tarp over it and secure the corner with bags of soil I’ve brought for that purpose.

I’d seen some exposed bulbs from previous years that morning. I must not have planted those deep enough. I carried big shovelfuls and covered them. The dairy had been closed to the public for a while (COVID.) I wonder if their poop price will go up due to inflation.

My hands are a bit cold typing this. But the rest of me is warm under the down comforter. The woodstove is breathing hard. I opened both dampers all way when I got up to let Merry and Pippin—the Jack Russells—out. I added wood as I passed. Now I can see yellow and orange shadows dancing and leaping against the glass doors that open and close the front of the iron appliance.

I awoke about 2 a.m. It wasn’t an unhappy awakening. The last two nights I’d been having dreams about mysterious hotel corridors and long aisles and steps to nowhere. In one, there was an enormous buffet. Somehow, I ended up on the wrong side of the tables—the servers’ side. It was very embarrassing. The Waldorf Astoria in New York used to have an enormous and exotic Sunday buffet in the lobby. It was magnificent to look at, but I never partook. I don’t generally eat breakfast, and I could imagine the groans in my torso had I taken it on. Plus, I was likely checking out. Still, the spectacle of the hundreds of choices and servers waiting in white linen and toques behind tables draped with white linen was as memorable as eating the stuff would have been.

In my half sleep—when one moment my mind would be here and now in bed on the mountain, under the quilt with the two dogs pressed against me—the next moment I would be somewhere else, somewhere unreal—at least unreal compared to where I spend most of my time—I had some ideas about the Round and Round story I am working on. It is a Christmas story. I hope to release it next Friday. I’ve learned if you don’t record late night ideas, they are almost always gone in the morning. I reached for my iPhone and tapped away in the dark. This morning the email I sent myself shows about 50 lines of dialogue.

Then I curled up and fell asleep til 6.

It is 65 inside now already.

Should I go out and plant the last remaining bulbs? Or just shower and head to work?

Later Wednesday morning.

Ernest is driving us up to Hagerstown. I think I negotiated a new 5-year lease. Instead of a 100% rent increase, it is more like 60%. There wasn’t much choice. The dollars are not enormous, as the base rate had been low. Nowadays, in Maryland, you can’t just move. You need planning and permits and…

It would have been an incredible mess to dismantle that store. Or close it. At a different time, we could repurpose the hundreds of bookcases to the warehouse for internet sales.

But the warehouse is FULL. If the 2 new warehouses are built and we use some of the 104,000 square feet for ourselves, we might need bookcases then. That is still a long way off.

So, unless there is a glitch, we will have 3 brick and mortar bookstores for the future. I’ll be in my…

OMG—I don’t want to think about that.

There’s some ego involved in it as well. I like having three stores to visit. Each is different. It is like visiting children.

When the deal is inked, I can do some long put off renovations in that store. The lights and ceiling are antiquated and ugly. Too much space is devoted to media (i.e. CDs and DVDs.) Yes, it is due for a facelift.

I hope the people up there appreciate that they have a world-class bookstore in the pretty small market. Though Hagerstown is only 30 miles from Frederick, the Appalachian Mountains have created a barrier to the rampant growth overwhelming all jurisdictions in a radius from the heart of the world—Washington, District of Columbia.

We are passing under the footbridge that crosses high above Interstate 70. It is for the Appalachian Trail—that footpath from Maine to Alabama. I have never had the desire to hike that. My nature walks are generally goalless.

Books by the Foot needs 40 linear feet of Modern Classic Hardback Literature. That means Classic Lit in modern bindings in excellent condition. Not that easy to find in a used bookstore where Lit is the bestseller.

Yesterday when I came in, there was a box truck backed to one of the loading docks. 8 pallets of law junk. It was from a famous network’s upcoming show on police corruption in Baltimore during 2015—We Own this City. The last thing we need was a huge pile of unsellable props.

“Who approved this?”

“You did.”

“I thought it was just 20 boxes of law books.”

We don’t have the room for junk books. Someone will have to go through these and pulp a great deal of it. The good law books will need to go on the top shelves and join the 50,000 or so we have up there now.

‘Someday someone will want those law books,’ I keep telling myself. ‘We will be ready and will make a great deal of money.’

Free books are never “free.” It costs a great deal of time and resources to handle and sort and move and stock any books that come in.

Clif and Jessica and I toured the Books by the Foot region of the warehouse yesterday. It has the most open space of any department in the building. Still, they get grumpy if we are forced to move anything up that way.

We are desperate for space. I need to think outside the box. But almost everything here is in boxes!

“Have we ever sold these Gaylords of old textbooks we are saving?”

“Not really.”

“Pulp them.”

“What about these Gaylords of “super chunky”* books?

* These are books like old dictionaries and reference books.


“Pulp them.”

We went on and on.

“Pulp them.”

I hated to do it. But there was no choice. We need room for “raw” books. At least with dead stock, I know what is being recycled. With “raw” books, who knows what treasures may be hiding in the boxes?

We are driving back to Frederick. The “Cube” (a small box truck on a heavy duty pickup chassis) is filled—floor to ceiling, front to back, side to side. About half of its contents are plastic tubs filled with books destined for Books by the Foot.

Someone is ordering tens of thousands of “thick mass market paperbacks.” They are going to repurpose them. Why, what for… I have no idea. We will just fill the order. It is a fun mindless exercise to pull duplicates off the shelves to make way for fresh stock. (How come we ALWAYS have 20 copies of each Stieg Larsson book?!) It is a bit of a workout as well. The books I pull were as low as the floor, as high as 8 feet up. I’m constantly climbing up and down—stepping up to and off of the stools. I hope I don’t get cramps tonight. Cramps are another unwelcome recent phenomena. When I was a kid, my dad wouldn’t let me go swimming for an hour after I’d eaten.

“You might get a cramp and drown.”

“What’s a cramp?”

I would occasionally get them when the soccer coach was especially brutal with practices. He was a bit of a sadist, I think. There was a steep hill behind the school. He would punish us by making us run “hills.”

“5 MORE!”


But I got his books. One day about ten years ago, I came across a bunch of old soccer training and drill books. His name was stamped on the endpapers.

Dead? Nursing home?


As I pulled down hundreds of mass markets, I became aware there was a new hand at work in the Hagerstown store. Much of the stock was meticulously arranged—two by two.

Someone must be a bit obsessive compulsive. Much of the stock was culled down, so there were only two copies of each book. All of John Grisham’s books were there in matched pairs.

Odd… but nice.

Thousands of books in plastic tubs were wheeled out of the building.

You couldn’t tell we had been there. There’s so much stock in the building. It is like digging out shovels full of sand on a beach. No matter how much you take, it soon fills in and smooths over.


I stood before the woodstove warming, drying. The bay window is opposite it and looks out on my rustic yard. Beyond, the valley floats in fog far below and far away. Suddenly there is a flock of movement descending before and toward me. Dozens and dozens of robins flutter to branches or land on the ground amongst the dead leaves. My feeders have been sad this fall. Only black and gray chickadees, titmice and juncos are visiting. The robins must be migrating south. The last robins of the year, I reverie. They don’t eat seed. It is too cold to find insects or worms. I am mesmerized by the sudden population of movements everywhere in that tableau. I’ll look forward to the first robin of spring.

An email had dropped in the night before:

Subject Line: Back in the U.S. finally

Good evening, Chuck,

I hope things are going well with Wonderbook after these last crazy 2 years. I’m back in the US, and was hoping to make another 1000+ book purchase this week, hopefully on Thursday. We had great luck last time in Hagerstown, so I was thinking to go back to that location. Just let me know if that sounds okay!

G… H…
Walrus Books (Buenos Aires)

In the COVID dream since March 2020, so many regular occurrences didn’t occur. Traditions of long-standing were suspended.

When a once traditional visit happens anew, I am happily surprised. Perhaps my Irish friends will return soon. Perhaps I’ll go over there. What are the current COVID rules on the Emerald Isle?

G… H… has an English language bookshop in Argentina. He has family in the DC area. Once a year, he will come to one of the stores and buy 1000 or more paperbacks. Mostly lit. I give him a HUGE discount. But it is a huge purge. And like the sands on the beach, the voids will quickly fill in.

I booked two more trips that afternoon with my travel agent. The Scottish Highlands and Eastern European Capitals plus Berlin. January is Luxor. February Sicily. December Morocco.

Running. Running away? Running to? Running because I miss you?

Last weekend was the usual.

Carts of books.

I have a mission to empty all the carts laden with highly problematic material that have been collecting dust—some for years.

Some have lots of diaries and scrapbooks and photo albums and manuscript cooking journals on them. What do I do with those?

Stamp albums, bound nineteenth century sheet music… ephemera, bric-a-brac, ledgers, letters, diplomas, old licenses and wallet contents. And things I put aside to look at more closely when I have time.

And dust.

Ah, the glamor and romance of the “olde booke” business.

Carts should not be stagnant static objects. Their wheels should move. Things should go on and come off them every day.

But some things are just too hard to put a value on—or describe—or display.

What about that massive factory report from the 1950s with so many black and white photos tipped in? It is all in Russian. The photos are of enormous building-size iron machines. All rust now. What’s the Russian for “steampunk”?

It has been lingering on a cart for about a year now.

I’ll send that to my Russian colleague. She has turned impossible things into money before.

It had been a delight to sort through the Sherlock Holmes collection.

Turns out a lot of it was bibliomystery too. Oh, how I loved that stuff when I was a young bookseller.


There are still a handful to add. Some needed research. Annika had been transferred temporarily to Books by the Foot due to the surge in orders there. Those projects have deadlines. Research can wait.

She is back now. The “good” stuff can begin flowing online again.

I came across a little archive of Hagerstown pamphlets and ephemera.

In the past, I wouldn’t know what to do with the stuff. If I did shows—virtual or in person—I could spread them out on a table for inspection.

So many maps and posters and ephemera. Now we have the enormous glass showcases at the Frederick store.

“Let it go!”

And I do. One by one, the old crumbly crusty carts are emptied… slowly, slowly…

It is Friday.

Another good night’s rest.

It has been a mild week. Yesterday was in the 60s.

The sunrise will soon flood the house with cold golden light. There are no window coverings up here. The woodstove’s glass doors provide a small counterpoint of very warm soft orange glowing outward.

I will go through the books I got from Cynthy last week. I have been too busy to unpack them.

I see Madeline has a pile of books for me to review. The ones she puts aside for me are either conundrums or mysteries.

“0 online. 0 on WorldCat.”

I’ll get to those. Often, I need a dartboard to help with my valuations.

I’m going to release some fine bindings to the glass cases of the Frederick store. An online listing can’t convey the beauty of these creatures. You will have to come see them in person.

Next Friday is Christmas.

It seems like just twelve months ago it was this time of year.

COVID is rising. The disease will not abate or go away. The President warns of a “winter of illness and death.”

Fears of war in Ukraine and Taiwan.

Fears for an economy where money has been printed like bathroom tissue. Where inflation has risen 7.4% in a year.

Monopoly money…

But the books abide…

Books Abide

Next Friday is Christmas Eve! Let us hope there is some magic coming. Good magic.

12/10/21 Mt

Dawn don’t come
I don’t want to see the light
Let dark and blankets envelope me
Comfort in cocooning
Rest and peace in calm blackness
Sleep perhaps
Warmth and solace for certain

12/12/21 Mt

The wind howls and whistles in the blackness
So much air blows over and around my home
You would think it would blow itself away
leaving in its wake an airless void
There is an infinite blanket of breath about this world

When I pushed you out of my life
I thought it would create a void
Someone new would pour in and fill it
and I would be made whole again

I hear the howls of the lifeless life-giving wind
Calm in my room, in my bed, beneath my covers
My chest rises and falls
The air does not move within these walls
And the forest rustles in the dry tempest
An undertone of leafless trees rattling above
and the movement on the forest floor
of a vast blanket of dead dry leaves
This is the winter of my discontent

8 Comments on Article

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you for reading and commenting Kathleen.
      I’ve never been to South America. I’d like to see Galapagos and Machu Picchu
      My son visited Antarctica a few years ago. Looked marvelous.
      I’ve seen images of that bookshop before.

  1. Jeff Kirk commented on

    Found your website and blogs last year and have been enjoying your writing ever since! Being from Western Maryland makes it even more interesting to read about places I know well. In regards to the scrapbooks and photo albums that come in, if they are of no significant historical value, you might find a niche market from junk journalists and crafters, who often scoop them up at auctions and sales.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Jeff.
      That’s a good idea.
      I feel weird selling people’s memories – but there are a lot of people in the world…
      I appreciate your reading and commenting.

  2. Gregory commented on

    Nice story, Chuck. Your metaphor about removing sand from the beach *seems* accurate. But I recently read that there is a worldwide sand shortage (try Googling “sand shortage”). It is difficult to find, and the price has doubled in the past two years. Northern towns that need it for winter road treatment are having a problem getting it. So maybe the beaches ARE emptying out?
    (All this is true for gravel too, but you didn’t try that metaphor!)
    Thanks for your stories.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Gregory!
      If we are still drinking the same water the dinosaurs drank the sand is just displaced…LOL.
      If you Google map the warehouse -1550 Tilco Dr.21704. Look at a satellite view about a quarter mile south and west.
      There is an ENORMOUS quarry. There are frequent rumblings which shake out building when they blast.
      I know someone involved and they are working on the next 100 year plan!
      I appreciate your reading and writing!

  3. John Carrigy commented on

    Keep up the good work and, if possible, travel as much as you can. Things are looking a little grim for the early new year here in Ireland but I suspect everything will be open by March (when the weather is vaguely acceptable). Hope to get over to see you soon – it is something really special and completely unique for anyone who loves books so keep it going for all our sakes! I think we are nearly there with this whole thing so hand in there!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Great to hear from you John.
      I hope this wave is the last .
      It would be great to see you.
      Best to you and everyone there.
      Happy New Year!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *