Looking Pastward

Georgetown Rare Book Fair 2023 Buy


Barbara called this morning and invited me to lunch today. It is spring in Lothlorien. I would certainly go. I just need to figure out what to do with my wacky nephew Gerry.

Wednesday night, the wind whipped up. It triggered the security lights above the garage. Bright green branches flailed in the spotlights.

I was heading for bed. 10:30.

The night had turned evocative. I hadn’t expected it.

I had finally started going through some boxes of my old book collection. It had been shelved on the third floor in the old family manse in Pennsylvania. My son began bringing boxes down a year or more ago. I’d put off going through them for good and bad reasons.

Why tonight?

I’d done some yard work. Some heavy lifting of old wet bags of mulch. Raking out the mulch to carpet a couple of garden beds or three. Some transplanting—just eight or ten lungworts that had self-propagated in unsafe locations like pathways and a clutch of hostas that had heaved out of the ground in the winter. They easily split into a bunch of separate plants. Then watering some seedlings, including the trilliums I transplanted the night before. Deep breaths and a short survey around the grounds.

“Things look pretty good.”

A gardener is rarely satisfied like that.

Then inside as dusk deepened. A salad with a lamb chop atop. I’d grilled a bunch of them and some big pieces of tuna two evenings before.

I was running low on things to watch. I’d finished the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes DVDs. I rooted through the sprawl of DVDs atop the green granite topped sideboard.

“I’ve really got to get these organized.”

Midsomer Murders? BBC mystery. I had no clue what it was. Why not put it on? I sipped a beer while I ate and watched. The four dogs flopped on the floor between me and the television. When I finished, I took the leftovers out and scraped them into a garden under some day lilies. A bear wouldn’t be attracted to leftover lettuce and chopped Vidalia onion.

It was time to start the book purge.

I sat on two brown flattish pillows, my back up against the reclining section of the sofa where I usually sit.

The murder mystery in a cozy British village was playing out on the wall some fifteen feet in front and five feet above me. I had a pad of pale yellow post-its and a black sharpie, so I could label each book with a price and other notes. That would make it so Data Entry would put my books up for sale with the description I wanted.

The first book to come out of the box was a 1920s edition of The Book of Sonnet Sequences. When I opened it up, there was a receipt laid in between the front free endpaper and pastedown. The writing on the pale yellow receipt was in my hand. It was dated July 25, 1980. The penciled price on the endpaper was “2.50.” That was in Carl Sickles’ hand. I had deducted 20%—my employee discount.

The Book of Sonnet Sequences

I had taken the “summer job” at the Book Alcove in Gaithersburg in June 1980. I’d finished my undergrad degree after getting enough credits at GW to fulfill the requirements at Connecticut College. The plan was to go to go to grad school in English at George Washington in September. The professors there had given me plenty of encouragement.

Time stopped for a bit. Then I was back in that shop reveling in the seemingly countless books that flowed in and out of there. It was likely right about then that my life came to a crossroads.

“Carl, I want to open a used bookstore. If you want to help, fine. If not, I’ll do it myself…”

He agreed to help, and that made all the difference.

On September 21, 1980, Book Alcove of Frederick opened. I bought out Carl, a silent partner, 3 years later. In 2008, I bought the original Book Alcove in Gaithersburg. It’s the store where I started. It was going out of business. That has been a bookshop since 1975 when Carl’s wife, Eleanor, opened an “empty nest” enterprise. Bookmark of Gaithersburg. Carl retired from the VA a few years later and joined her.

43 years ago…

They are gone now. Like so many friends and mentors. Gone from this earth or “gone to ground” since COVID.

Not many left.

I sat on the floor and looked back at the years. Bittersweet.

At least I didn’t cry.

I may start that now.

The sonnet book? I set it aside to keep. It could go on the new shelves upstairs.

I pulled another book out. Then another. Most got a post-it with a price. There were a number of mystery anthologies in this first box. All were carefully Brodarted. First editions. They reflected my tastes in the 80s and 90s. Those would go down the mountain to the warehouse to be put online for sale in the global marketplace. I flipped through each book looking for ephemera laid in so long ago. One had a photo. Late 90s. Actually, maybe 2000. My Pennsylvania neighbors had thrown a costume party. Everyone dressed up as red necks. I recall it was a lot of fun. Those neighbors were wacky.

1990s Chuck Red Neck Costume

The sleeveless t-shirt was a premium from a very popular 1990s movie starring Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson. The title might not be PC, although the movie was remade in 2023 on Hulu.

That’s the toughest I could look 20 years ago. LOL.

I looked ok with my hair slicked back. I don’t see those neighbors anymore.

23 years ago…

I couldn’t go any further. I felt drained. This had been hard work. Time travel is exhausting.

Stymied at the first box.

I climbed up on the couch and reclined. The murder played out and was solved by the detective. It didn’t make much sense. The plot and motives and subsequent murders, that is.

I pulled myself up to head for bed. There was a box of books to go to the warehouse. There was a stack to keep. Signed books by John Crowe Ransom and Randall Jarrell. My plan long ago was to be a poet and make a living teaching English. I would correspond with William Meredith occasionally. He’d been encouraging in school. There was a copy of Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H. illustrated and signed by Alfred Garth Jones… a minor Pre-Raphaelite artist. Limited to 100 copies.

‘I had some pretty good books in my old collection,’ I thought.

The big dogs followed me to the bedroom and leapt onto the vast plain of white softness. I slid onto the western edge of the king size bed, curled onto my right side with a soft pillow cradled to my torso. The sleep was long and deep and unbroken.

The next morning, my “nanny watch” reported I’d slept 6 hours and 14 minutes. 4 hours “Core.” 1 hour “REM.” 1 hour “Deep.” But I knew it had been longer than that. Mitch had whined softly near midnight, awakening me. I took him outside. The cool wind was buffeting the forest above and around me. Naturally, Giles was waiting at the door to go out when I went back in. Merry and Pip were in the pen inside. They could wait til morning. It was about a half hour before I was in bed and back asleep.

Friday morning

The watch transfers health data to my phone. Sleep was 6 hours and 37 minutes. The last section was 23 minutes of REM between 5:05 and 5:28. That was likely when Barbara had called to me in dreamland with the lunch invitation. She passed away in August 2013.

I had visited her home on Thursday evening. It is most likely sold. Circumstances compelled my friends to market it. They were also her friends for decades. They’d bought it in 2015.

A martini was shaken in the ancient stone kitchen like hundreds of times before. We then went out to walk the garden paths. It was as if the local deities had raised themselves to put on a show of color and scent and scenery to attract the perfect new owner.

“It has never looked so good,” I commented dreamily.

I was on two planes. I tried to hold up my end of the conversation with them. But part of was looking pastward. Living pastward.

Lothlorien was leaving the “family.” This would be one of my last visits. My times here had been formative. I always felt so special in her presence. She made me feel greater than I was—if that makes sense.

“Roses that were just sticks last years are bushes,” one said.

Indeed, the dial garden, one of Barbara’s final projects, unfinished when she died, was now lush with colors of antique roses.

I bent and put my face to a Lady of Shallot blossom.

Barbara loved antique roses, and there are still vast swaths.

The peonies are starting to fade, and the roses will put on their June show.

“The new owners love the gardens. Settlement is June 28th. Please come by and visit anytime. We’ll be down south working on the house we are building.”

This was likely the reason Barbara visited me this morning.

A lifetime ago, Georgetown was the place to go.

It was a long drive from Rockville for a teenager.

I’m sure I would take Wisconsin Avenue all the way down. (Rockville Pike becomes Wisconsin somewhere in southern Montgomery County.)

When my brother’s rock and roll career started getting traction, they began getting gigs at the iconic Cellar Door. Mom and Dad took me down for the first one. I was 13 or 14. It was a thrill.

“Did you like it?” he asked me after the show.

I recall replying, “It was Right ON!”

“That means good, right?” my brother replied.

It was the coolest sobriquet I could think of. I was a nerdy kid. The “60s” hadn’t happened yet in my junior high—Earle B Wood. The costume there was black Chuck Taylor high-tops, Ban Lon shirts and Dickies work khaki pants.

My hair was shortish.

I was to return to the Cellar Door many times. For Seatrain and for many other acts. It closed in 1982.

In 2023, the Cellar Door is a Starbucks. But in many ways, Georgetown looks very much like it did then.

Hundreds of young people are on the sidewalk on spring days. They are shopping and dining and being seen.

The Georgetown Rare Book Fair is only a few blocks from the old music venue. The City Tavern Club is just one door west of the corner of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue.

Sunday evening. Just before 7 p.m.

The book show ended at 4.

I had texted Travis early in the afternoon, asking that he leave Frederick around 3:30. That way, he would be at the venue between 4:30 and 5. Hopefully.

Annika and I started packing the booth at 4:01… maybe half a minute before.

‘I remember this,’ I thought.

The weekend was full of memories. My last book fair as an exhibitor was in 2000, I think. Maybe 1999. I likely did 75 or 80 book fairs in the 80s and 90s.

As a young bookseller, they were excellent learning seminars. Sometimes the money was pretty good too.

I often did book fairs in order to travel because I couldn’t afford to travel otherwise.

The momentum had shifted in the late 90s, and book shows cost me more to do than just traveling like a normal tourist would. It had become clear that Wonder Book made more staying home and selling books online. A lot more. There was also the issue of taking the best stock out of Maryland for that long. Things would sell and couldn’t be shipped.

This week’s 2023 Georgetown Rare Book Fair was extremely expensive for our company. Book shows are not in our wheelhouse like so many specialist friends of mine. The prep was a distraction over several months.

But it was a new experience for the company in this millennium.

Dollars and cents? Well, there are numerous ways to count it.

But the experience… It was a 21st century “seminar.”

I saw a lot of old friends. Some of us had started out selling books in the 80s like me. “Young Turks.”

All in all, it went very well. Annika did most of the work. The crowds were very good.

(Georgetown’s sidewalks were packed Friday, Saturday and Sunday. At least one of the nearby schools was having graduation ceremonies. Family groups with one youngster in a black gown were common. The parking garages were full by the time I got down there last Friday afternoon. I finally found one with spaces down near the river.)

Annika had the booth well along when I got there on Friday afternoon. There wasn’t much room for both of us to unpack and move around shelving things.

Georgetown Rare Book Fair 2023

This was our room before the show opened to the public.

As it used to be, there were some good dealer sales before opening.

The show opened at 5. It was preview night with $50 admissions or special invitations. I had my brother’s Orvis blue blazer on with a Book of Kells tie I bought in Dublin in 2018.

Saturday and Sunday admission was free. Many of the attendees were young people drawn in by the sandwich board on the M Street sidewalk.

‘Packing ups after closing Sunday was the worst,’ I recalled.

No. Worse was the load out. Until your boxes were in the van, and we headed out to dinner and drinks and small socializing with John and Karen and Carl and Eleanor and Ray…

I packed like it was the 80s or 90s. You put an empty box on the chair to get it up closer to table level.

In 2023, Annika and I packed the booth quickly. A porter had our stuff outside on the sidewalk ahead of almost everyone else.

I texted Travis, “Are you close?”

“I’m on M St a few blocks away.”

One bookseller had parked an oversize van in front of the City Tavern. It took up most of the designated parking. It was still empty when we left. It forced everyone else to double park, making the traffic on M that much worse. I spied our van in the distance. It crept glacially toward us. It double-parked next to the big empty van at the curb. Annika, Travis and I quickly loaded our boxes and tubs. I’d packed my jacket in a box with my laptop and some other special stuff. Unfortunately, my parking garage ticket was in my jacket. But I was let out by paying the full day rate. I crept along M St West and onto Canal Rd. Eventually, I got to the Beltway, and then it was a fast trip to Frederick.

I’m in the dockyard. Sunday evening. May 2023. I have sat out here many times after a long day. It is cool. And cooling. Merry and Pippin are panting nearby.

A warm sunset is glowing on my left shoulder.

It feels good to be alive and active and near the millions of books that are my responsibility.

There used to be a saying. It is true still I would think, ‘You can BUY your way out of a bad fair.’

That means if sales are very bad, you can buy books for future sales and still consider the fair a success. On more than one occasion, I bought the entire remaining booths from dealers who were happy to not have to pack up their leftovers.

This time, I just bought a few things at the fair.

Georgetown Rare Book Fair 2023 Buy

A lifetime ago. My first fair in 1981. Florida. I was a kid. A clueless bookseller. But I had a good liberal education. I knew a little about a lot of things. I was an experienced book collector. (Crap books. Valueless in 2023, but oh so important to me personally then.)

The teapot is shrieking.

I need to move this along. Maybe I’ll remember more about the fair next week. It was three days of my life.

Annika did fantastic.

It was a good experience for her, me and Wonder Book. Maybe we picked up some new customers.

I can’t emphasize enough the important work that Eve and Edward are doing now. Their Fine Book Fairs now have 4 annual shows planned. Manhattan, Newport in Rhode Island (next week), Philly and Georgetown. They are book evangelists forging a new way of doing things to help books in the 21st century.

I’d like to think Wonder Book has been doing similar things over the years. Innovation and thinking outside the box.

I’ve got to get going. Shower. Get the dogs settled.

We are getting two new vehicles this morning. Little box trucks. Far more expensive than pre-COVID prices, but a good deal. Our “fleet” of 8 vans and a 24-foot box truck are at capacity. There are 5 parked at the 3 stores always. Two are quite old (a 1997 Dodge and 2004 Chevy.) These will take the pressure off, and perhaps I will retire the Dodge, though it still runs well.

New Vans

I signed off on the lease for second warehouse building yesterday. Hopefully, the tenant will sign today.

New Warehouse Building

It looks like the new buildings were a good investment, though I likely won’t see much of the ROI.

Part of me is still in Venice. My words didn’t do it justice. I keep thinking of the Bridge of Sighs. I viewed it from both sides. I crossed when I toured the Doge’s Palace and the prison next door that it connected. All the souls that crossed that bridge and never crossed back…

Chuck and the Bridge of Sighs

Where should I go next?

Wednesday, May 24

The two big dogs I’m babysitting are curled up on the bed next to me.

Mitch and Giles. Mitch is a 14-year-old Labradoodle. Giles is… just crazy… a sort of tall lanky terrier mix.

It is 58 out. 68 in.

Below the bedroom window, the mountain laurel is in bloom. So are the two kousa dogwoods I planted about 11 years ago. They’ve gotten so big. 30 feet? They are down the slope and so don’t interfere with the view.

There are swaths of hay-scented ferns spread below and above the house in vast carpets of green.

I slept long and hard, as did my bedmates.

The contractor was leaving as I drove back up the evening before.

“It’s done! I really wanted to do it.”

The garret. A work in progress for over 6 months? Longer? I’ve lost track.

Stops and starts for many reasons.

My trips away interfered some. Morocco four months ago. Greece. Cornwall. Venice.

He’s had problems too. His right-hand man has been out frequently.

Now he will be gone indefinitely for a “procedure.”

It isn’t quite finished. It needs carpet and some trim.

“You can go ahead and put books on the shelves,” he told me over the rumble of his big truck that was stopped next to me.

Every book collector finds joy at having more bookshelves.

Why did I do it?

The space just called for it, I guess.

I changed into yard clothes and went out to work.

I go home most nights and eat in.

Happy hours and appetizers are just so… pre-COVID.

Monday, I had cut and hauled up some wood from the base of the driveway. I’d also weed whacked the edge of the drive all the way down to the bottom. It is about a quarter mile. Last night, I got the blower out, pulled the starter a few times, slung the heavy thing up and over my shoulder and blew off plant debris all the way down.

“Wow! Huge improvement.”

I left the blower at the bottom and walked back up the steep slope. I took the ATV down to pick it up. I did other chores, including spreading mulch.

I transplanted the two trillium that had somehow germinated in decomposed leaf mulch atop a boulder in a shallow depression atop the stone. They came up easily and intact.

Sadly, the tubers I’d ordered through the mail and planted last fall did not do well. Only a handful of the tubers came up, and those are a bit stunted. The bagged ones I found at Costco in early spring were a complete disappointment. I can’t think of anything I did wrong with either lot.

Karel Capek wrote in his wonderful gardening book words to the effect that “[a gardener cannot look at the failures. He must focus on the successes. Anyway, a plant failure means a space has opened up for a new venture…]”

I went inside and put a chunk of tuna and a lamb chop in the oven to heat. I’d grilled a big package of each from Costco on Monday night. I bought them last week but never got around to them because of dinners out Thursday and at Georgetown Rare Book Fair Friday and Saturday. (The organizers, Eve and Ed, treat the exhibitors so well. We had gourmet dinners both nights at the fancy City Tavern Club where the show was held.) I’d wrapped all the grilled fish and meat in small bundles of foil. While it heated, I started bringing up boxes of my old Pennsylvania book collection up from the lower level to the “Great Room.” There I can begin sorting through my past and determine the keepers and those that will be put online under my own “signature collection.” LOL.

My home now has 3 levels!

(The teapot is screaming that the water is boiling. Time to get up and put some Harrods English Breakfast Tea in the strainer and begin the day.)

So many moving parts in my “simple life.”

My brother Jim wrote a song for Seatrain. “As I Lay Losing.”

As I lay losing the years I had grown
Down beneath the shower of each stone I’d thrown

So many problems in life are the result of self-destructive actions.

Being away for most of three days for the book show meant I was that much further behind on my regular work.

So, I’ve been working on carts of books a lot. A surprise was a late 16th century vellum Bocaccio. It was almost black.

I wonder if it can be cleaned?

An email came in from a stranger about a 1940s book on African American tourism. He reached out to me because the blog I wrote in 2017 was the only mention he could find of the book online. We looked again, and indeed, there are no records of its existence. My story opined that the author was unable to get the books from the printer due to money or mischance. The printer or his successors eventually destroyed the books. Except for my copy (with the printers notes—one a carbon copy asking for part payment) there were none to be found anywhere. This fellow said he found his copy in a box lot.

Now my copy is not the “Sole Survivor.” I suggested it should be sold to a research institution. He was thinking of donating it to a museum. I referred him to a colleague who specializes in the “ethereal.” The initial offer was $10,000.

As long as it is preserved, that is all that counts. History. It is gratifying to be a small piece of it.

The days are warming into the 70s.

Thursday, I ran errands. One of my new prescriptions was nearly $600 for a month’s supply. It is one you hear about on the radio all the time lately. I thought I had a good prescription plan. I need to check up on it. The weather was so beautiful I went to Lowe’s and got a load of mulch and soil.

Mulch & Amaryllis

I don’t really need it anywhere, but it will be good exercise carrying the bags and spreading the stuff.

The amaryllis in the foreground is one I wintered over. That makes some of the work worthwhile.

In cold weather, I wear fingerless gloves to keep my hands warm and protect them from bumps and cuts. Now that it’s warming, it will soon be time to put them away til next fall chills the world again.

Dying Fingerless Gloves

Maybe I should retire these. They’ve handled a LOT of books.

I don’t like endings.

There have been too many recently. John Adams, Emory, my last brother Tony. Tony passed after a very long illness in April 2021. A friendship ended the day before I left to be at his deathbed. Tony was twelve years older than I. I predicted then, I hoped, I had a dozen more good years. Two have passed. A decade left. That doesn’t look too bad right now. I’ve gotten a lot accomplished in the last two years. Can I maintain the pace?

Now Lothlorien is going.

There is so much more to do.

In the gardens.

With the books at Wonder.

The effort to write here and elsewhere.


What else?

4 Comments on Article

  1. Gregory commented on

    I know I don’t need to tell you this, Chuck, but I looked it up and verified that the manuscript illumination you bought at the sale is of St. Luke (I don’t think you mentioned this). For some reason, the four evangelists have animal symbols, and St. Luke’s is a winged ox. It’s not the best symbol, but at least it’s better than St. Matthew’s “divine man,” which is really lame.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      so true!
      Venice was loaded w winged lions – St Mark.

      Thanks for writing Gregory.


  2. David commented on

    Nice seeing you at the bookfair and reading your thoughts. Lets get together soon when you are near downtown!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Good seeing you as well.
      Been so long I was confused by the juxtapositions.
      I’ll need an excuse
      Is Folger opening soon?
      Thanks for your help.
      Maybe things will be cake on track after Covid derailment

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