L’Esprit d’Escalier* and the 5th Anniversary Part 2

WG Pretty Books

*The wit of the stairs. Meaning things I wish I had said before the conversation ended and I left the room.

July 27th was the 5th anniversary of the first book story I wrote here. We haven’t missed a single Friday since then. There was even a 5th Anniversary story last week. You may not have seen it because it wasn’t sent to subscribers due to vacations and other staffing glitches. While writing these can be difficult sometimes, the technology of formatting the words and adding the images is a pretty complex process.

In 2017, did I envision writing 263 weekly stories in a row? (Some weeks there are more than one–like last week, for instance.)

No. But one thing led to another, and here we are.

Obsession? Duty? Vanity?

Well, there is a lot of bookselling history in these pages.

Last week, there was a proceeding to which I was a party.

COVID related.

It was very stressful.

I was very prepared, I thought.

I was asked what I do for Wonder Book.

“I… I… I kind of do everything, whatever is needed…”

My mind was racing?

What DO I do? How do I explain it?

I do a lot. Most weeks I am in seven days. Weekends I am on the warehouse floor or loading docks summer, spring, winter and fall, working one on one with thousands of different books each week. I visit the three stores often. There are meetings–all kinds of meetings. Every day, I walk through the various departments in the warehouse looking for opportunities or problems or projects. I keep a steady eye on the vans and trucks and deliveries. I focus especially on the sorting area, as that is the bottleneck through which almost every book must pass through. The sorters “feed” the internet stock, the bookstores and Books by the Foot. They must be supplied with fresh books and supplies. They must have hundreds of the boxes empty every day taken away and crushed to be recycled. They sort books into plastic tubs which need to be taken away on pallets and delivered to the people in Data Entry. They fill up carts which need to be processed by experienced people (including me–many “Chuck” carts are created each week–I get the hard problematic material no one else wants to deal with.)

And I am constantly thinking. What is the next innovation, the next evolution? What can we do to make things faster or better? What problems or opportunities are around the next corner?

What could be our doom?

Since the first day I opened in September 1980, I’ve been told what would destroy the business.

At first it was, “No used bookstores last long. They are a retirement hobby. You’ll never make a living.”

In the 80s, the national video chains came to town. Erol’s and Blockbuster would shut us down.

In the 90s, the big box bookstores–Borders and Barnes & Noble were built here. We had to react to them to survive.

The late 90s saw bookselling on the World Wide Web was rapidly becoming the dominant forum for bookselling. I was dragged kicking and screaming to embrace the future and sell books “on the computer.” Luckily, I finally paid heed to Clark and my brother Tony and gave it a try. Soon that became Wonder Book’s focus as the sales at the brick ad mortar went into steep decline. Soon we were getting calls from all over the region (indeed all over the country), “We are closing. Will you PLEASE come buy us out?” I adopted the philosophy that the only way to survive was to grow. We poured everything–including heart and soul–into online bookselling.

Of the 120 or so used bookstores in the DC region listed in the old directories, I believe Wonder Book and Second Story may be the only remaining storefronts from before the internet. There are only a handful of used bookshops in the region now.

Wonder Book is a rare avis–a “rare bird.”

In the 2000s the Kindle and other e-readers were going to doom the printed-paper page. I never thought so, but there was so much doom and gloom in the trade and amongst booklovers. I tried to be a biblio-evangelist. Plastic glowing screens for pleasure reading were counterintuitive to me. Printed books were much more “human.” They are warm and soft and fit in human hands. With a printed book, your bookmark shows where you have been and how far you are going. E-reading has topped out around 30% of the book market. More paper books are being printed each year for the last decade.

What doom was next?


We had never closed the stores before. Even when we moved or expanded. We would open in the new place before shuttering the other. There were occasional snowstorms but for decades we were open 363 days a year–for most of that period from 10 to 10 every day.

I’m still in recovery from the COVID experience. Though I only tested positive once and had no symptoms, I still feel the effects. Maybe like PTSD? I feel it has aged me. Dulled the spirit.

The warehouse was an “essential business” but there were challenges to that–from inside and outside.

Why were warehouse/distribution facilities “essential”?

Supply chain.

The government wanted to keep trucks and delivery vehicles moving. To do that, they needed business–revenue–to keep moving. The trucking system couldn’t survive on essentials like medicine and toilet paper only.

We get many trucks and delivery vehicles in every day–picking up and delivering.

More important if we send out–say 10,000 packages a week–those packages disperse through thousands of vehicles as they make their way to their final destinations across the country on a mail truck or FedEx or…

Plus, we send out over 100,000 pounds of pulp paper each month. That paper is recycled into other “essential” things from roofing to toilet paper.

It’s been reported that books, movies and music were “essential” for many people’s mental health–especially those who were locked down.

I’m proud of what we did during the COVID crisis. There was constant soul searching about what was the best thing to do. I think we guided the company through very well.

Almost all the staff eventually returned–when they were ready and felt safe.

There was terror too. I can’t write about it. Too painful and ugly. Maybe someday.

If we had been suddenly shut down by the government with thousands of paid orders sitting on our loading docks, we would have likely never reopened. Without Amazon and the mega-selling sites, we couldn’t support the overhead of the building and associated costs.

We survived.

What’s next?

I am constantly on the lookout.

What do I do here?

When I was asked on the stand, I kind of drew a blank. The basic answer is I do whatever is needed. Anything and everything I am needed for.

Maybe a better description is I’m like the captain of a ship.

The good ship Wonder Book.

I guide the company to opportunities and away from troubles.

I don’t know how the engines work. But I need to be sure they are working and manned competently.

I need to be sure the same is true in all aspects of the vessel. There are a lot of moving parts on a ship. There are millions of moving parts in the company. Plus the three brick and mortar stores.

Almost every morning when I arrive, I go into the main office and ask the head management team:

“How are we doing? Anything I need to do?”

That said, I also work in the trenches–especially on weekends when I usually go through thousands of old books. Dusty dirty grunge work–but actually my favorite part. It is kind of like gardening. I am a book gardener.

It is Friday, July 29.

It is quiet up here on the mountain but for bird song.

There was a lovely dawn.

7/29 Dawn

It has been an eventful couple of weeks. But then I think they all are.

Big things. Little things. Legal things. Accounting things. Building things. Permit things. Tax things. Estate things.

Sign this. Write a check for that.

We were in the paper yesterday.

Look at those wrinkles. I know I didn’t have all those before COVID. Well, the hair is holding up. Must have good hair genes… lol. Thanks Mom and Dad. It has been over 45 years since they died. I still miss them. I still feel like I need to prove I’ve been a good boy and followed their guidance.

The building site has evolved incredibly fast. A couple of weeks ago, this was a scruffy 7-acre vacant lot.

That’s our warehouse in the background!

I hope I know what I’m doing. More importantly, I hope my advisors do.

I signed up for all the Canadian protocols yesterday. Of course, there is an app. I need to upload my vax card and other stuff. I needed to report the time I will be arriving and the address of my hotel. Very time consuming. Barring misadventure next week’s story will be posted from Quebec.

I hope it will be cooler there. There’s been a heat wave here for the last couple of weeks. 90s almost every day. At least the warehouse stays pretty cool. I’ve been told the postal service put in floors that are ten feet thick and that they moderate the temperature. Who knows? But the main part of the warehouse doesn’t seem to get above the 70s or below the high 50s, no matter what’s happening outside.


The dock can get cold and hot because the doors are opened so much for unloading and loading all the vehicles every day. But those areas are mitigated by barrel fans and high powered gas heaters suspended from the ceiling.

It is what it is. A warehouse.

And I’m in those trenches every day. Some days ALL day.

It is midsummer. But there has been enough rain that the gardens are all lush. All the trees I planted and transplanted in the spring seem to be fine.

Last night, my handful of neighbors sent out texts about snake sightings. I haven’t seen any this year, but I do wear high boots when I walk in woods–especially in the fern brakes and gardens.

The epiphyllum cactus which I inherited from my old friend Barbara (a.k.a. author Elizabeth Peters) bloomed a couple of times.

Epiphyllum Cactus

I was watering the potted plants on the side porch and was surprised to find a wren’s nest built in one. I pass by every day and hadn’t noticed.

Wren's Nest

I thought the birds would have fledged, but one came fluttering out when I put the spout of the watering can beneath it.

There’s so much to do…

And now my back is acting up.

“Ow, ow, OWW!”

July 18

Another Monday start to this week’s story.

Travis and I are, yep, heading down I 270 to the Gaithersburg store. I think we will get the final tweaks in the mysterious “new arrivals” section that I ignored so long. Living books will be on those shelves and some category or categories will gain space.

The question is which categories DESERVE more space?

Then I need to get up to the Hagerstown store. The final shelving was installed there last week. Now the WHOLE place can be reconfigured, so the books with the best chances of finding new homes will get the most space and best locations.


I never want it to stop.

Sometimes I complain–maybe even whine. There are frustrations and business problems and people problem and space problems… and problem problems…

I have tossed all these balls into the air, and it is my job to keep them up there. I frequently drop a ball–or five–but not that anyone would notice, I hope.

The family took me out for dinner on Friday. We went to Lightfoot’s in Leesburg. I love the place. I’ve been going there for 25 years or more. It is a beautiful space. A classic Belle époque bank building. Soaring stone ceilings. They’ve hung huge French posters on the walls.

I had a Po Boy salad. It was about 8 inches high and a foot wide.


Travis and I are heading back.

We’ve come up with a plan with Paulo and Patrick.

We will expand Literature. The “Z” will end in a new place.

We will move transportation in the 6 bookcases in the old “new arrival” section.

In its place, we will put Astronomy, Space Exploration and General Science.

Astronomy et al. will absorb General Poetry, Philosophy, Books about Books and Book Collecting, Literary Anthologies…

It should be perfect!

We did a lot, a LOT, of major culling.

Part of it is–the good stuff sells. The bad stuff doesn’t. So, the bad stuff tends to accumulate and clog the shelves IF it isn’t culled. Who sends that stuff to the stores?

It could be me…

New mantra, “Only send stuff that might actually sell to the stores.”

And the storm started…

We skip to Friday, July 22.

The week was a blur. Two full days off site on a problem that never should have gone this far.

Wednesday night, I went and had a cocktail at Hootch and Banter with a professional who did an amazing job for Wonder Book. I decided to stay and have dinner alone. As I was walking back to the parking garage, I noticed Gordon Lightfoot was playing that night!

“I have tickets for that!” I thought.

I stepped into the lobby. No more masks. No more vax cards or negative tests.

“Do I still have tickets for this?” I asked. The marquee read, “SOLD OUT.”

Yes, I did.

Well, that was a lucky stumble. I bought a sip cup of bubbly and made my way down to my seat. I had a bag of leftovers in one hand and an armload of files in the other.

Lightfoot is legendary. I’ve been a fan since I was a little kid. That he still wants to go on tour at age 83 is a noble and inspirational endeavor.

Why did I not know whether I had tickets or not? The first two concerts were canceled–COVID.

Seated 8 rows out in the shadows, Gordon was a shadow of his young sexy self. Is there a word for beyond gaunt?

Most of the songs were abbreviated in length, but it was a good long show. There was lots of applause throughout.

I thought, ‘I will be a shadow of myself before long.’ But I would like to be relevant in my 80s.

I would like to be vertical! And cognizant! I would be the first in my family since my paternal grandmother. Georgia Talmadge Roberts lived into her 90s in the house her father built in San Marcos, Texas. She had crossed the plains from Hinsdale, Illinois to Texas in a covered wagon. Unbelievable.

Thursday I went to a friend’s for a “bookectomy.” He has one of the most beautiful and comprehensive collections I’ve ever seen. He is downsizing. A little.

We surgically removed about 60 boxes of books, but I don’t think you could tell.

I hope the “Mrs.” noticed.

Baby steps…

Another Monday

July 25th. The month has vaporized. A lot has happened. A lot has been done.

I am sore! I did some woodcutting at the old place in PA. My son asked me to come help. A Bradford Pear tree had split. I planted that tree nearly thirty years ago–next to the basketball hoop. So, I am sort of invested in it.

Bradford Pears are noted for rapid growth. Also, short lives and easily broken forks and branches. This one is a survivor. It has split several times. From the picture, I was sent it appeared to be an easy job. I put two Husqvarna saws, bar oil and a can of gas/oil mix into the truck and went up to do my duty.

I rarely get up there. Only for family events like Thanksgiving or Christmas or other important things.

It was a lot bigger task than planned. Of course, both saws were recalcitrant. But eventually one fired up, and I cut dozens of branches and the fork of the trunk that had split off. It was nearly a 18 inches in diameter at its thickest. (The tree trunk is about two feet in diameter. That is BIG for this variety.)

We threw branches in first. When the truck bed was full, we threw big chunks on top of them so they wouldn’t blow out driving home on the interstate.

More than half of the branches were remaining.

Up on the mountain, I tossed the burnable chunks onto the pile of firewood outside the barn. I drove the truckload of brush across the dirt path to the north side of the house and began dragging the branches out of the bed.

The big branches were reluctant to be pulled from the tangle in the pickup’s bed.

I should have climbed up and taken branches off the top–just as they were loaded.


I mis-stepped backward into a hole and felt a sharp pain up my the back of my right thigh to my butt.

“Damn! Hammie?!” (Did I pull my hamstring?)

It hurt like but I continued emptying the truck. The branches will be stacked on the existing pile. It is a huge pile of brush and deadfall branches. I think it is a good habitat for birds and small animals. There isn’t much cover on the forest floor. Until you get up into the forest canopy, there are not places for small birds and creatures to hide. The pile will decompose over the future years. Indeed, it gets smaller every year.

My back felt a twinge too. That may have been from pulling so hard and so many times on the starter rope.

Travis and I are heading back. We have finished the culling at the Gaithersburg store. A plan was devised for transplanting some categories to the benefit of the overall scheme (that has always struck me as weird British usage for the word “scheme.”)

Transportation is being moved into the former oversized and stagnant New Arrivals section. Astronomy, physics, and some other sciences will move into Transportation’s spot. Generic Poetry, Literary Anthologies and Books about Books will flip over to Physics et al. Lit will expand alphabetically into those sections.

I think all those sections will benefit.

Now it is up to the “gardeners” at that store to complete the new “landscaping” projects.

I have come up with a new idea or innovation. Literature is the best selling section in all the stores. (Children’s books are a close second.) Everyone we put into Lit sells better. Recall it being “promoted” to Lit. I think it is partly because you can actually find them quickly–alphabetically!

Culling the science sections, I found books by or about Einstein and Darwin all over the place. They were not shelved incorrectly. Einstein is just fine in math, physics, astronomy… He also wrote some philosophical works and books on Judaism/Israel.

A set of the Great Books of the Western World came in recently. Looking at it, I thought…

Why not turn the “Lit” section into something more comprehensive like that set?

We already stock philosophers in Lit alphabetically. Why not include icons like Gandhi and Darwin and Einstein? The books by and about them would then all be together in one place.

Finding them would just be a question of signage, I think.

In Science etc., for example:

Books By or About Einstein are located in Great Books/Lit under “E.”

Good idea?

Time will tell.

I’m just thinking theoretically. Once we quantify the data and proceed with the experiment, we will find over time whether it is a success or a failure.

The bookseller as a scientist… LOL.

I ended up going back to Pennsylvania last Saturday. My son and his fiancée were going to be the victims of a surprise party. She has a large family. Some tested positive, so the surprise needed to be spoiled. It was all so well planned. It was a movie themed event in Chambersburg.

Joey and Megan went to Montessori in Chambersburg. So long ago… It was strange to see the little old schoolhouse where the boys’ education started. That was a very lucky thing as well. Private school was not planned for either of them, but circumstances dictated it. It turned out to be the best decision we ever made. They turned out great. We found the money to pay for it somehow.

I stopped back at the old house and loaded more branches and logs. There was STILL a lot left. I went back to Frederick and did some stuff at the warehouse. It was getting dark. A storm was blowing in. The trees around the building began whipping and whirling around. I headed home. Rain and wind. When I got to the turn in to the lane where I live, a tree had fallen across the road. My saws were a mile away up the mountain.

Blocked Road

I texted a picture to my neighborhood chain.

“Can anyone bring me a saw?”

Then I remembered I had two saws in the back of the pickup. I got out in my nice party clothes and began cutting in the rain. The headlights illuminated the scene. A few neighbors showed up and soon we had the road clear. Of course, I loaded a bunch of the wood I cut into the truck.

Sunday morning on the mountain, I repeated the unloading process. My back and hammy were not pleased but also not excruciating.

Sunday on the way into work, I pulled onto the construction site. A couple of weeks ago, it was a scruffy vacant lot with a lot of scrub trees and bushes. The contractors had made piles of brush and stumps and dirt and… firewood. I couldn’t resist. I loaded the pickup with wood the contractors cut. I guess they sell off the firewood or give it away. There was a huge pile. Free firewood. Cut. Easy to load.

THAT was a mistake.

Still, I woke up Monday feeling pretty good. I pulled hundreds of books off the shelves at the stores on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

THAT was the straw(s) that hurt the bookseller’s back.

Thursday was, “Ow. Ow. Ow. OW! Ow. Ow…”

Wednesday afternoon, Chris Kline–my mentor and guardian angel over the last 39 years off and on–organized a photo shoot for the groundbreaking on the new warehouses. Greg Brown, the President of Waynesboro Construction and general contractor for the project, brought a bunch of golden shovels and construction helmets. Chris had the whole event choreographed–who was to stand where etc.

We all lined up. The “team” that is making this thing happen. Bankers, lawyer, architect, engineers and design, contractors, brokers… The newspaper showed up and took pictures and a story appeared that night.

(Gee, I need to lose another 15 COVID pounds! I hate mirrors and haven’t looked in a while. Groan.)

It will be a getaway weekend. Thursday it hurt like h*** to turn and push carts. I asked Ernest and Caryn to help. I went home and rested last night.

The warehouse gardens are producing tomatoes, cucumbers and several kinds of peppers. I took some home and cut them up and spread them over a couple of tortillas with some cheese. Then I grilled them.

Warehouse Vegetables on Tortilla


I watched Perry Mason and then put on some truffle pasta. I used the olive oil I imported from I Italy last month.


I have been watching Midnight in Paris a lot over the last couple of weeks. There is something captivating and magical and bookish about it. “I’m hooked,” as the female protagonist says in her heavy French accent.

Which reminds me–a nice first edition copy of the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook dropped in from somewhere this week.

It was written by her partner, Gertrude Stein.

And we have been sending more pretty bindings to all the stores. I feel confident releasing them now. All the stores have strong staff and management.

The Gaithersburg store came up with this signage, which made me laugh out loud when I saw it.

WG Pretty Books

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover!

2 Comments on Article

  1. David Holloway commented on

    another great read, Chuck- I am a regular reader of these posts. Thank you for all you do to keep and to have kept the book ecosystem thriving.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you David!
      Great to hear from you
      you moved south correct?
      Hope all is well w all in the family.

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