Looking Forward—The Roaring 20s—Virtual Virtuosity

Looking Forward 2020

01/01/2020 7:00 am

Happy New Year!

I fell asleep at 11:44 last night. How do I know? I started a poem in bed. I often put the date, time and place on the top of the yellow legal pad page when I start something new.

12/31/19 11:44 pm. Mountain.

Do I Miss You?

Do I miss you?
Is there blood in my veins?

Do I miss you?
Is there air in my lungs?

My eyes see
My ears hear
My tongue tastes
Fingertips feel

Do I miss you?

‘As a rule man’s a fool
When it’s hot, he wants it cool
When it’s cool, he wants it hot
Always wanting what is not’ *

…not so good. But I’d had a few drinks earlier with a friend at Volt. The Smoked Old Fashioned was alchemy!

Smoked Old Fashioned

I have hundreds of pages of verse typed up. Almost all are composed in longhand on yellow legal pads. When I get around to it, I “type” them up as emails and send them to myself. I print two copies and archive one in my office and one at home.

A lot of them could probably just be converted to sentences and paragraphs from the single lines of “verse” and stanzas and would make just as much sense. They typically don’t scan or rhyme. Free verse… My departed friend Barbara Mertz would not call them “poetry.”

Well, maybe as much as anything, they’re like my journals. Self-medication.

* Those last four lines were on a faux wooden sign in the house in Buffalo, New York where I grew up. It hung in the Pool Room on the third floor. That home was built in 1918. There was a huge early 20th century pool table made of solid oak that the previous owner/builder had left when my parents bought the house in—was it 1947? It was years before I was born. They had left several of these early 20th century signs with adages printed on them up there as well. They had also left a bear’s head and a 10-point buck’s head hanging from the walls. The bear’s especially freaked me out as a small child. I wouldn’t go up there by myself. I was certain the rest of the bear extended behind the wall. Schrodinger’s Bear? LOL. Looking the quote up online , I was surprised it was credited to Benjamin Disraeli—the British politician and novelist. I always get Disraeli confused with Bulwer—Lytton—another 19th century British politician and novelist. They both wrote a lot of novels that have always been unsellable for me. I also get them mixed up as to which one wrote: “It was a dark and stormy night…” That phrase gets lampooned as the worst opening line in literature. But:

“The opening was popularized by the Peanuts comic strip, in which Snoopy’s sessions on the typewriter usually began with ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ The same words also form the first sentence of Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbery Medal-winning novel A Wrinkle in Time. Similar wording appears in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1831 short story, “The Bargain Lost”, although not at the very beginning.”

So, I missed the midnight transition from December 31 to January 1. I discovered upon waking that several friends and family members texted me around then, but I didn’t hear it.

So, it is Wednesday morning. 35 degrees outside. It is 66 in—because of the woodstove’s efficiency.

I usually begin every morning with an entry in my journal. This is volume #16. Coincidentally, the page number for today was #220.

Journal Page 01/01/2020


I already know some things that are going to happen this year!

Yesterday, New Year’s Eve, I sat at the Conference Room table with my 2020 calendar and booked some trips. I still had 800,000+ “miles” that have built up over many, many years on an airline credit card, so I started looking at their website for places to go. The criteria included: Direct Flights Only, not costing too many “miles” (I’m cheap even with free miles), perhaps a place I’ve never visited before, no conflicts with events already written onto the calendar…

I’d already booked a February trip to LA for the ABAA Rare Book Fair back in November. New York City in March was also penciled in on my wall calendar for the ABAA Rare Book Fair there.

What did I find?

Key West in January.

Lisbon at the end of March.

New Orleans in the middle of April.

May is Budapest.

London in June (for the ILAB Rare Book Show.)

Venice at the end of August.

If all goes as planned, there will be the annual golf trip with my three buddies July 31—?. Nova Scotia.

These are all places I’ve never visited before! Except London. I’ve been there several dozen times, but I never tire of it.

Part of me says:


But why not? I’ve got the miles to use up. I’ve got the energy.

I don’t have much else going on—except books.

I’m getting used to traveling alone.

Maybe there will be some good book stories from them as well.

Now to get working on “free” hotel rooms.

…and trips in September, October, November and December.

…and maybe sneak something else in as well.



What else is already planned, written onto the 2020 calendar?

This Sunday, January 5, Wonder Book is sponsoring To Kill a Mockingbird on the big screen at the classic Weinberg Theater in downtown Frederick, Maryland. It’s at 3 pm. $7. There’ll be tastings and specialty cocktails by Tenth Ward Distilling starting at 2 pm. There’s also beer, wine and sodas. AND…now the Weinberg offers “sippy cups” for $3, so you can take your beverage into the show. (They’re refillable too!)

To Kill a Mockingbird

That’ll be cool to see such iconic cinema on the big screen. My mom took me to see it when I was a very small child. She was an Alabama girl. All I remember from that viewing is Scout’s surprise and indignation at Walter pouring syrup on his meat and vegetables. And, I recall being terrified when the children in their Halloween costumes are chased through the woods in the dark.

You should all come. REMINDER: January 5th. Movie at 3 pm. Happy Hour starts at 2.

There are more Wonder Book films screenings scheduled. Funny Girl in February. Animal Farm in March. Lone Wolf and Cub films in April. Rear Window in May. Moby Dick in June.

I’m pretty sure we will sponsor the series again in the fall and 2021. If you have suggestions on classic bookish films you’d like to see on the big screen, send me a comment!

I also scored front row seats for a Ringo concert in June. I don’t think I’ve ever been in the front row for a big concert before.

There are plenty of other things penciled in. But nothing else etched in stone.

I’m sure there will be some surprises…

I’m sure there will be LOTS of books in 2020.

The first good book of 2020 appeared today.

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Uncollected Poems by Sylvia Plath

It is a near fine copy. Limited to 150. 1965. 2 years after her death. Whoever had it wrapped it in an odd plastic and paper bag. Good thing though for the bag is very soiled and “acidified.” So this book was likely stored in a poor environment. Very poor. The book has become soiled and acidified.

Where did it come from?

No idea. Someone unloaded it to us somehow in a bulk buy…at one of the three shops…or one of the scouts brought it in…or someone delivered an estate here…or it was in a charity pickup…


Oddly, this beautiful slipcased Plath appeared on a cart with my name on it a week or so ago. It is a perfect copy. Limited to 226 copies. Date 1989.

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Maybe there will be more Sylvia Plath in my future?

I don’t know much about her except her end and Ted Hughes’ handling much of her legacy.

Oh! I do recall it seemed every girl I knew in high school had a paperback copy of The Bell Jar at one time or another.

We already got our first request for an urgent “bookectomy” this morning too!

Hi Chuck—I’m writing concerning the possibility of a house call to assess a large amount of books in Frederick. I am clearing out the house of a family member who passed, and we have found probably 30 banker’s boxes of books (I’d estimate maybe 1100 individual books but unsure.) There are quite a few historical books, and the rest really run the gambit of genres. We have a hauling truck coming tomorrow and would like to get the books out ahead of that so we’re on a speedy timeline, but please let me know what might be possible.

Of course, I said yes although I have no idea if they are any good. We are picking them up tomorrow morning, January 2nd, at 10.

It’s what we do.

What else is definitely happening in 2020?

Our website will just get better and better. Check it out: www.WonderBook.com. It turned out great. Thank you Wood Street. And Clark and Katherine here.

It has been a marathon.

There’s still a lot of tweaks and upgrades. Plus, we keep wanting to add new features and stuff. (“That’ll cost extra”!)

What I’ve been involved in the last couple weeks with is very exciting to me. I’ve had this vision about grouping some of the exotic material we get in here so that it is easier to find for specialist collectors and dealers and institutions.

It has evolved to what I call “Virtual Glass Cases.”

Our Frederick store (September 2020 will be its 40th Anniversary!!) has 50 or so 5-feet high by 4-feet wide (+/-) locked glasses cases. These cases hold our “better” bookstore books. They are categorized and serve as a miniature “boutique” bookstore within our regular huge used bookstore.

In the old days before the internet made most bookhunting easy, LOTS of dealers traveled a LOT to bookstores, and they would often come in and say: “Where are your good books?”

That’s how the cases started—to segregate our better stuff. And to make it easier for specialist collectors and booksellers to find the most desirable books. (AND to protect them from mishandling, misplacing and theft…)

And, of course, to SHOWCASE them!

Why a “Virtual Glass Case”?

I’ve been so concerned for years that a lot of our exotic stock is “invisible” to most searches.

Let me try to explain. (It took a LOT of explaining to convey exactly how I wanted it to work to the folks involved here. It is a bit of an exotic concept. We still need to pitch it to the developers. THAT will need explaining !—”You want what?!”)


Say…we have an unusual 19th century cookbook in Swedish. Unless you’re searching for Swedish cookbooks, how would you know we have this unusual and desirable item? We have thousands and thousands of cookbooks online—foreign and domestic. If you search “cookbooks”, you’ll need to scroll through thousands of listings. Many very common. Now if we put the Swedish cookbook inside a “Virtual Glass Case”, specialists will be able to search our rare and unusual cookbooks in a manageable way. There will still be LOTS of great cookbooks in our 2 million general online stock as well as many exotic books already added over the years, but at least it is a start. So when we get signed James Beard books, they’ll be in the same “Virtual Glass Case” cookbook ‘catalog’ with a rare (but “invisible”) 1920s Brazilian cookbook in Portuguese!

Our “best” books and most unusual will be “showcased” and easily searched.

Brilliant if I so say so myself.

Ummm…if it works.

The “Glass Cases” will also work in other ways.

I mentioned a large collection of books by and about Emanuel Swedenborg that appeared here in December. Maybe 500 books. 18th century to modern. Swedish, Latin, German, English… Many don’t have “Swedenborg” as author or in the title. These will be added as a group as “Unusual books by and about Emanuel Swedenborg” in our Virtual Glass Case.

We have about 2000 books that came from my friend Barbara Mertz’s home when it was purchased by her friends. Many of these have her name signed in them (maiden and married.) Many are common and will just be souvenirs—a little bit of Barbara to have. There are many other books in her collection that may interest fans or specialists. When we are set up, we will be able to add these (with a book tag attached to each verifying their source) in a “catalog”:

“From the personal collection of Barbara Mertz (a.k.a. Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels.)”

This is exciting!

Then there is an odd assortment of books that started appearing a few months ago about coins (and medals, underwater treasure hunting, etc…) These were in many languages. Many were of a tiny infinitesimal “focus.” Many were not in English. Many were:

“Not available online. None listed on World Cat.”

How can a specialist search for a book he or she doesn’t know exists?

In the future, they WILL be “searchable” in our Numismatics “Virtual Glass Case.” (Oh! And many had the bookplate of Mendel Peterson in them. He is the “father of underwater archaeology.”)

If this works, it will help us rescue so many of the “invisible” books we get in and “force” online—although we realize they have a very small chance and being found (and bought.)

Soon they will have a much better chance of being found.

If it doesn’t work…well, it will have been a valiant effort.

I also know there are a lot of flower bulbs in my near future. I took a plunge and ordered around 4000 from https://www.vanengelen.com. They offer all kinds of narcissus and other spring bulbs in bulk. It is too easy to buy too many because they just cost pennies apiece there. I meant to plant them in November. Then I got busy and then took a trip and then got sick. It is getting late to plant them. I’ve put hundreds in each of the last few days. Sometimes in the dark! There are so many more.


It is now Friday January 3rd. I went home a little early last night to plant MORE bulbs. It was mild enough—in the low 50s. It is supposed to rain today and tomorrow. I changed into muck boots, scruffy jeans and a battered old canvas coat. I chose some spots that I knew hadn’t any bulbs already and began hacking trenches into the earth with a full-size adze as well as a hand-size adze. When I’d strike a stone, the impact would shiver up the tool’s handle and rattle my arm and shoulder bones. There are a LOT of stones on the mountain.

I’m expanding my “Green Garden.” It is my favorite bed. It is a 50’x50′ woodland garden filled with ferns and hosta and lungwort and hellebore and Solomon’s seal and…lots of other species. They are cultivated mostly for their foliage. It is a delightful and peaceful place. There are things going on it every month of the year. It won’t be long before the hellebores (a.k.a. Christmas Roses) begin their subtle but “first of the year” blooms. I decided to put some miniature bulbs in there. Wild “species” crocus and many other unusual “minor” bulbs from Eranthis (Wolfsbane) to Erythronium (Dog Tooth Violet)…

So, I was up there in the woods digging away. With the small bulbs, it is often just a matter of softening the soil and then gentle pushing the bulb into the soil with thumb or forefinger. I have had a lot of success up there with volunteer plants as well. Actually, volunteers (plants that self propagate without human involvement) are not “my” success but rather Mother Nature’s.

I have a fondness for False Arum. It is a “threefer” plant. Its foliage is pretty dramatic and active year-round. Here’s what one looked like this morning:

False Arum

Its flowers are extremely exotic. One might almost say erotic.

False Arum Spathe

Its seed head of brilliant larger red “berries” is its third charm.

False Arum Berries

When I was in Rome a few weeks ago walking through the Borghese Park, I stepped into a meadow near the ancient race course. It was flanked with two long rows of huge sycamores. A dozen or so young women were letting their dogs romp together. Some had babies in strollers as well. I wandered into the meadow to meander amongst trees. Ancient trees really move me. When I looked down, all around me were Arum Italicum growing amongst grass.

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‘Damn,’ I thought. ‘I wish I had more of these at home!’

Flash forward to Christmas time planting in the Green Garden. I noticed a few little clumps of volunteer False Arum.

“Cool! Finally!”

I’ve tried to get it to propagate for years. I’d try planting the red berries or putting soft soil nearby for them to fall into.

I suspected the clumps had more than one plant in each. I got an elongated “bulb spade” and dug down deep enough to get below the small rhizomes/bulbs 6 inches deep. I lifted the first clump. It had a dozen seedling plants in it! They were easy to separate. I transplanted these in numerous places. Last night I dug up the other two clumps. Now I’ll have False Arum in many beds around the property.

A little holiday “miracle.” Why such a big deal to me? I dunno. The serendipity of it, I guess.

Now I’m already anxious for spring on the mountain. Winter has been very mild here so far. It’s not that I’m anxious for it to be over. I have a lot of firewood to use up. But spring when things begin greening up is a magical time. I’ve planted thousands of bulbs every year—mostly daffodils. It has been exactly ten years since I got this place. There will be patches of yellow and gold and orange everywhere.

Plus, I’ll have all the new beds that I hope will come up.

And the Arum which will remind me of Rome from here forward.

I’ll have to remember to mark where to plant to next autumn’s bulbs so I don’t over plant existing beds.

I just saw Sonny Mehta died. I never met him, but my longtime good buddy John would tell me stories how Mehta would have a magical sense of discovering new authors and how he would know just how to nurture each different personality. John is a top sales rep for Knopf (and Penguin/Random House.) For the thirty years we’ve been friends, he would so often be able to tell me, well in advance, which books would be hits. It could be as popular as Jurassic Park or The Da Vinci Code. Or exotic and esoteric like Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses.

He often gave me advance copies and urged me to read them.

“There’s this trilogy coming out by a dead Swedish journalist. The first is called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It is going to be HUGE!”

He also offered me Fifty Shades of Grey. “This will sell like crazy!”

“Ummm… no thanks. Not my thing.”

But over the decades, he would tell me stories about his trips to Knopf’s NYC HQ and Mehta and the authors he discovered or popularized. Maybe as much as anyone, Mehta shaped the literature of the late 20th and early 21st century world.

Don Imus died in the last week as well. For many years, I would listen to him while commuting to work or in the back room before the store opened. I would tune the analog radio to 1490 WARK, and he would be in the background while I sorted books by myself in the back room of the Frederick store. Like Anthony Bourdain, I didn’t really like the guy but listening to him was very informative and often hilarious. Like Bourdain he was a guilty pleasure. I’ll never forget working in the back room on the morning of September 11, 2001 as the news reports of the plane hijackings unfolded.

RIP Imus.

What don’t I know about 2020?

What will happen with the Farm?

Two stores’ leases come up. Will we still have three brick and mortars in 2021?

What will happen in my personal life? I have hopes…

I do know there will be plenty of books!

The first house call of 2020 turned up some surprises. When Clif and I arrived, it was not auspicious. The apartment complex was uninspiring.

Apartment Complex

I knocked on the door and met the granddaughter. She just wanted the 30 or so banker’s boxes gone. I didn’t really have time or interest to start rooting through them. I suspected they might be ok. A couple had some really old books, but those were just schoolbooks. No value except as Books by the Foot. I offered $200 which was surprisingly high for me if not for them. I told them if we find anything special, I would send more money. She let me look around the tiny apartment. There were some cool prints in frames—nothing real exciting though. They wanted to think about the non-book stuff. They might try selling some of it on their own. There was a mountain of banker’s boxes of grandma’s papers in the spare bedroom. I was suspicious there might be something in there worth rescuing. I mentioned it but didn’t push. I hope they haven’t already trashed them…

Clif and I rolled the boxes out to the van.

Boxes in Van

At the warehouse, I assigned them to Caryn who has a good eye. As I was leaving to go garden, she sent me a text: “You’re gonna wanna see these.”

When I came in this morning, I went to the cart she’d left with the granddaughter’s name on it.

House Call Books

Some pretty cool occult and magic stuff. And there’s still more to go through. I’ve already emailed offering another $75 which is still pretty high, I think. I was told there was a storage unit with more books in it…so, who knows.

2020 will certainly bring more weekly book stories. Here’s one right here on the laptop in front of my face—you’re reading it! Will I get one out every week? I don’t know. Does anyone out there want more of these? Hard to tell in a vacuum.

The Roaring 20s.

I was born long after the 1920s. But I knew some who grew up them. My dad was born in 1909. He was in his late 40s when I was born.

The 2020s are a bit frightening. I will cross over into being “old.” (If I’m not already there!)

Just keep moving…

Will the economy and society and technology change? Certainly. It always does.

I predict the books will do just fine!

I predict I’ll see a book I’ve never seen before every day I come to work as well.

I predict I’ll come in to work many, many, MANY days.

It’s what I do. I can’t think of anything I’d enjoy more.

14 Comments on Article

  1. David Holloway commented on

    Happy 2020 Charles! I love the virtual glass case idea. It’s a way to allow some serendipity In online shopping- good luck with it.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      thanks David!
      Happy New Year

  2. Tawn O'Connor commented on

    I enjoy the book stories! Keep them coming.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Tawn!

  3. Susan Kavanagh commented on

    Just a quick note to say how much I enjoy your blog. I usually make an annual trip to your Gaithersburg store where I drop off a couple of boxes of books in exchange for a credit that I end up using during the same visit. So glad that Wonder Books accepts all books.
    I really like reading about the day to day life of a bookseller. Also, I enjoy your travel stories, particularly your penchant for visiting iconic spots like Bemelmens and the Algonquin.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      All that is so nice Susan!
      Thank you reading, commenting, loving books and visiting our stores!

  4. Happy New Year! Thank you for continuing the weekly book stories into 2020 on the Wonder Book Blog. You asked in this week’s blog if anyone out there want more of these stories. I for one do! I enjoy hearing about the Book selling business and your travel adventures.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you so much for the heartening comment Dan.
      It makes me want to keep trying to hear something like that.
      Please keep reading and commenting!

  5. Ellen Anderson commented on

    My travel dream is to check out all the beautiful libraries around the world, many of which I’ve seen only in photos.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Me too Ellen!
      Thank you for reading and commenting!

  6. Ken Schultz commented on


    We have been “booking” at your store (yes, the first one) since we moved to Braddock Mountain in 1981. Ijust found your blog and enjoy it. I have a suggestion for a side trip from your London visit in June. Visit Near Sawrey in the Lake District of England – you may never leave. Stay at the Tower Bank Arms and have a beer in with Anthony, the proprietor. Not fancy, but a walk or two in the surrounding countryside will bring you joy and peace. Next door is Hill Top – Beatrix Potter’s house. My wife did a blog post about our visit in May of 2018 here.

    Ken Schultz

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      That sounds great, Ken. I haven’t been to the Lake District for many years.
      I’ll check out the blog.
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I really appreciate it.
      (I also appreciate your being a customer for all those years!)

  7. Ash Wednesday commented on

    Yes more blogs please, I’ve read them all. Fascinating and engrossing! Absolutely lovely. You are a wonderful human.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you so much Ash!
      I really appreciate it.

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