Mary Celeste—Week 3 in the Journal of the Plague Year

Mary Celeste

April is the cruelest month.

Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

One must be so careful these days
Unreal city,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many
I had not thought death had undone so many.
“What is that noise”
The wind under the door
“What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”
Nothing again nothing.
“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember

TS Eliot, The Waste Land

Everything is normal at home.

It is a lovely spring up on the mountain where I live. The second wave of daffodils is nearing its peak. Early. I guess because we had no winter this year.


The cold winter clothes are making their way downstairs and into the cedar closet. The houseplants are working their way outdoors, having over wintered inside. (I have 30 or so pots of various sizes. Most are cacti or succulents. Some are quite large and quite heavy.)


The fires I build in the wood stove are smaller. I’m trying to use up the scruffy firewood—dead falls from the forest floor nearest the house. If I can burn that for heat, I won’t need to mess with it as woodland clutter later on.

There have been some changes to my routine. I eat at home nearly every night. I have gotten carryout—Roy Rogers fried chicken—twice and picnicked after work in the warehouse dockyard. I’m getting tired of the frozen pizza slices, leftover fried chicken, canned soup and other forgotten frozen leftovers wrapped in foil weeks, months or years ago.

I’m watching more TV since I’m not going out or hanging with friends.

I’ve watched everything from Wagner’s Ring Cycle to Jane Austen’s Emma to a boxed set of Carol Burnett shows. Carol Burnett is like comfort food. She and her various casts were incredibly talented and funny. Her list of guest stars is a cultural Who’s Who—actors, singers and public figures. Watching them takes me back to a simpler time, childhood.

I have also been stacking a lot more firewood!


I think I’m well into enough for all of 2021 and getting close to 2022.

For those winters will surely come…regardless.

Cutting firewood is my Zen, my yoga.

Stacking logs…no so much.

Soon, I will start gardening and clearing the beds. I don’t see any more hard freezes in the future.

Each day, the dawn brightens my bedroom. I decide if I want to get up. I let the dogs out one at a time. If I let them out together, they will take off into the woods and not return for hours. I make coffee or not. Shower. Put the dogs in their pen with fresh water and food. And then I head down into the valley.

That’s a wild turkey gobbling for a mate toward the end.

Mary Celeste

There have been many theories on this mystery, some more convincing than others…

The Mary Celeste was an American merchant brigantine discovered adrift and deserted in the Atlantic Ocean off the Azores Islands on December 4, 1872. The Canadian brigantine Dei Gratia found her in a disheveled but seaworthy condition under partial sail and with her lifeboat missing. The last entry in her log was dated ten days earlier. She had left New York City for Genoa on November 7 and was still amply provisioned when found. Her cargo of denatured alcohol was intact, and the Captain’s and crew’s personal belongings were undisturbed. None of those who had been on board were ever heard from again.

This iconic story was popularized by none other than a 25-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle. He wrote a fictionalized short story about it called “J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement” for The Cornhill Magazine. Many of the myths about the ship were created by Doyle’s fertile imagination.

There were, for instance, no half-eaten meals left on the galley table, etc…

But it was, indeed, discovered adrift though seaworthy by another ship. Its lifeboat was missing. That ship towed the Mary Celeste to port to claim its value as salvage.

What happened to the Captain, his wife, their 2-year-old daughter and the 7 crewman? That has been the source of speculation for nearly 150 years.

(Oddly, the ship was christened AMAZON. Amazon… As the COVID-19 crisis grew, we removed our inventory of 2 million items on Amazon, mainly to reduce the flood of orders coming in so we could keep our ranks lower, safer and be able to close any day within a few hours of an order from the Governor. If a company takes orders from Amazon customers and doesn’t fulfill them…bad things happen…like going out of business. We would have shipped thousands of Amazon orders had we not been closed by the COVID-19 Plague.)

In light of current events, my personal theory about the Mary Celeste is plague. Some virulent disease killed them one by one very quickly. The corpses were thrown overboard. The last survivor, knowing his fate, threw himself into the sea.

(That doesn’t explain the missing lifeboat. I’ll have to ponder further.)

I searched. There was indeed a plague in 1872 which brought NYC and much of the country to a standstill.

It is called the Horse Plague of 1872.

On October 30, 1872, The New York Times reported that a complete suspension of travel had been noted in the state. The same report also took note of massive freight backups being caused by the lack of transportation ability that was arising as a result of the outbreak. Cities such as Buffalo and New York were left without effective ways to move merchandise through the streets, and even the Erie Canal was left with boats full of goods idling in its waters because they were pulled by horses. By November, many states were reporting cases. The street railway industry ground to a halt in late 1872.

The Mary Celeste…

In 1995 when I was confident enough to branch out into Hagerstown, Maryland, my mentor and broker Maribeth took me out looking for a location. The one we settled on had been a seafood restaurant. It had been abandoned for some years. When we went in, there were still plates on the tables. Ashtrays had cigarettes that had been left to burn out in them. Waitresses had left checks on some tables. There were pans in the sink. Glasses had their contents evaporated over time. Was there desiccated food? I don’t remember. There weren’t any roaches or rodents running around. I’d remember that!

It was an old style place. Real and quite heavy brass portholes and harpoons decorated the walls. Big rope nets were everywhere.

The legend was the restaurant owner wigged out one night, fired everyone, followed them out and locked the door behind him, and was never heard from again.

The building owner let me take some of the decor and stainless pans and such. I still have some portholes in the basement at the old homestead in Pennsylvania.

Why? I dunno. They were very cool.

Spring 2020.

Odd, I didn’t mark the first day of spring this year. Preoccupied, I guess.

It is when I drive down the bumpy gravel lane into the valley that it is clear the world has changed. The country roads near my house are usually sparsely traveled. Now they are dead.

The 7-11 I frequently stop at for morning coffee is right off US 15. I’ve stopped going in. I don’t want to touch the dispensers or handle the cups and lids right now. I head south on 15. It is a 4 lane limited access highway. There are so few trucks and cars. I never have to wait to merge on to the highway anymore. Then I merge onto Interstate 70. That super highway cuts through Frederick. Again, no problem merging onto the 8-lane blend unlike most of the weekday mornings. Most traffic is trucks delivering goods to Baltimore and beyond.

I pull into the parking lot, and where there are usually 50, 60, 70 cars in the lot, there are just 3. My spare that I leave down here. And a couple managers who are working on maintenance and accounting and payroll.

I wander into the vast building. I’m used to it being devoid of people because I come in alone most weekends. But this is a weekday. It has a totally different vibe. Some people’s workstations are left with personal things and unfinished work.

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Out on the docks, there are returns accumulating. We managed to ship out all the orders before we shut off the internet selling platforms like Amazon. It is called “putting your books on vacation.”

The sorting stations… the Books by the Foot orders.

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Things are as people left them whether it was two, three or four weeks ago. Or the final rush when Governor Hogan told most of the state of Maryland on Monday, March 30, 2020: “Stay at Home.”

When this virus thing first started becoming a “thing”, I let every employee know that they should only come in if they felt comfortable about it. I repeated that message at least a couple times a week throughout this.

Yesterday, I stopped at the Frederick store to check on its well being. (There is a list of guidelines for permissible activities, and this is among them.) I thought I should put mouse bait containers in, so mice don’t eat all the candy and snacks. For they will surely come during the weeks that this place will have no humans coming and going. I wandered through in the dim security lighting. I’ve been in the building since 1990. It was a new space then. When I walked in with Maribeth, I was in awe. I recall distinctly uttering:


It was huge and empty. 11,000 square feet with a giant extremely busy Toys R Us store across the parking lot.

(The warehouse is 130,000 square feet. This is big.)

Thirty years bookselling there. With nary a day closed due to snow. Now it is derelict. Maybe in a month or two, if we can turn the lights on and let people in, it will be different. It CAN come back to life if this doesn’t go on too long.

Funny story. We’re continuing to take orders at with the stipulation we don’t know when we will ship them. My old friend Maribeth wanted to help and placed an order on Monday.

“Just leave them outside a loading dock door, and I’ll pick it up (because of social distancing concerns.)”

Then came the Governor’s stay home edict, and she couldn’t come get them. Wednesday, after a dreary day of payroll calculations and other painful activities, I texted I would drop them off in her mailbox on my way home. (Out of social distancing concerns.) Her place is pretty much on my way home.

I made my first home delivery of a book! EVER!

I texted her when I’d done the deed.

“I owe you a tip!” she replied.

It is Friday morning. A few office managers are in waiting to pounce when the magic Portal opens for the PPP. We’ve spent 100 hours or more preparing all the documentation we believe we will need. If it goes through, we will be able to continue paying the employees even though they can’t work. I want them to get through this as best they can. I want them all back. All 135 or so.

(Well, there are one or two who I wish would find something else to do. Why stay at a place if you’re so unhappy with it?)

I’ve spent the week reaching out to the great people at PNC and my accountants and the people here who do all the thinking and bill paying and check printing. Everyone is putting forth their best efforts. The main problem is no one knows exactly what to do with this massive program. The accountant printed out thousands of pages of payroll and other documents that my friend at PNC thought we might need. I picked up the box full of them on their back porch.

Payroll Box

They wrote a love note on the lid.

Payroll Note

I’ve been with them since 1983, I think. Back then, I was a young bookseller with one small store. John Offutt was a young accountant just starting out with his wife Peggy.

It’s kind of like we grew up together.

Then we found out the SBA doesn’t want physical documents. It wants them digitized, so they can be uploaded to the magic Portal. So we went back to the accountants and the bankers and spent all day Thursday redoing everything.

There were communication problems between the internal accounting people, the professional accountants and the PNC bankers. I pretty much spent Thursday texting and emailing and faxing and calling and conferencing—trying to clarify what we think we need.

(I have spent almost all this week emailing and texting and phoning and conferencing. I would much rather be rescuing books.)

Finally, I had to go to the hard copies here of the biweekly payrolls. Each is a bout 50 pages long. But there is a cover sheet for each. It breaks down where all the money goes. Most people don’t realize how much a company has to pay over and above the wages each employee gets. Here’s a sample of some of them.

Payroll Journals

No one was sure, so I made a copy of every cover sheet going back to the end of 2018.

Payroll Cover

There are many other taxes and costs not on this list. Things like Federal Unemployment, Maryland Unemployment, Workers’ Compensation Insurance…

When Governor Hogan issued the new guidelines Monday morning (the third wave of guidelines in a week), I knew we’d be shut down for a long time. I am guessing two months. It would be a miracle if we could start working again by the end of April. I made a huge financial decision. I committed that Wonder Book would pay everyone for the next three weeks. We put together an email and sent it to every employee:

“You will be paid by Wonder Book through the next pay period…”

It is a lot of money. A LOT. I’m very glad now I was so conservative and kept very large cash reserves. I don’t know if or when that will ever be reimbursed by some government program. Wonder Book has never qualified for any program. I stopped even looking at them many years ago. I don’t want any handouts. That’s other people’s money.

But this is different.

This is about the future of everyone that works for Wonder Book. It is also about the future of Wonder Book and if it will be able to reopen in any semblance of what it was few weeks ago.

I’m sure tens of thousands of businesses will be trying for a piece of the billions just as we are.

I hope we qualify. If not…the future looks…I dunno.

I imagine the Portal will be overloaded and crash soon after it goes live. That just makes sense to me.

Am I still a bookseller if I don’t sell any books?

This week, this mad week, this mad week in the midst of mad weeks, weeks to come of madness…

I remembered I was supposed to fly to New Orleans in the middle of April. I went to and pushed the button:

“Cancel Reservation.”

I went to check the calendar above my seldom-used desk. What else was not happening in April? I stood before it and laughed. It was still February on my wall.

Calendar by Desk

It was as if March had not existed.

I sent managers to the stores and removed the cash boxes. We put signs up: “No cash on premises.”

I bought 3 packs of those plastic box bait traps. I set them in each store. Maybe mice will move in and take over since they are abandoned. The candy and the snacks on the sales counters would be an easy target for the vermin…but I’m repeating myself. It’s so bizarre. I am baffled by it all.

Frederick County had its first COVID-19 death on March 31, I think. It was a woman in her 90s with underlying health problems. The second death was yesterday April 2, I believe. A man in his 80s with…

Since I’m cooking at home now (if you can call it cooking), I’ve been to the grocery store a couple times in the last couple weeks. Some shelves are stripped bare. But there is still plenty of eggs and bread—at least in the one I go to. The faces are all haunted. At least those without masks. Do I look like that? When someone approaches with a shopping cart, you veer away from one another to avoid getting close.

I went to Costco last Saturday. The vibe there was pathologic. People buying clothes and stuff. Everyone seemed barely under control. There was a manic look on most faces. We were guided in two lines separated by wooden pallets. I turned around and left right away.

As I mentioned earlier, at home everything is normal…

I noticed a bunch of volunteer seedlings this morning. Plenty of the usual lungwort, columbine, bleeding heart, hellebore and blackberry lily. But I saw two patches where trillium had self-propagated in the garden border! How wonderful. The little seedlings are packed tight in little bright green clusters. I will have to be very gentle lifting and separating them. They are very fragile.

Trillium are beautiful and pretty rare.

I foresee a lot of transplanting in my near future.

I have not yet moved into the warehouse to become The Keeper of the Books. That may become necessary at some point.

I need a haircut. Badly. That won’t happen any time soon.

There were some nice comments on last week’s book story.

This from a woman who has been here many years and mostly pulls internet orders:

Just want to say you have gone out of your way to help the employees. Thank you. I cannot imagine the turmoil this has been for you. I hope that we are all be back to work soon. I will miss not coming in and seeing friends and co-workers, that includes you. Stay strong and optimistic.
Hope you will continue the blog with some of your wonderful stories.

This from a young woman who has been here less than a year and does a lot of book sorting:

I am so proud to work for your company. I know you have done and continue to do everything in your power to help your employees and to keep the business going. Thank you. I feel like everyone is trying their best right now. It reminds me of when I was young and I would tell my dad, “I can’t do this. It’s too hard. I’m too small, the world is too big…” (You get the idea.) He would always tell me “‘Can’t’ never tried.” My dad considered can’t to be the worst four letter word there was. I was to rip it out of my vocabulary.

These past days I think back on that and say to myself: I can. I will. I must. I’ll try.

I have been reading a lot of poetry this week to give my brain something to do and this one speaks to me. Edna is my favorite and I know many by heart. This is from Second April.

“To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.”
From Spring, by Edna St Vincent Millay

Keep trying Chuck. You’re doing a great job already. I’m proud to be a part of your team.

I’ve been transposing old verse manuscripts from the legal pads I use. This often happens at 3am when I awaken and can’t go back to sleep. When I type a poem up, I email it to myself. I print off two copies. One for my home archive, one for the office. The archives are plastic crates! LOL I mark the manuscript on the legal pad “Done” in marker. I tear off the originals and drop them in yet another crate. Who knows, maybe they’ll be valuable one day. LOL

Poem Archives

I was going to add this attempt at verse last week—but here it is April, April which will certainly be cruel everywhere around the world.

Mt 3/19/20

Plague Dream

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

18 Comments on Article

  1. Christy Carton commented on

    Love your blog. We used to live in Frederick County. Wonderful days. Your blog brings back the memories. And to find we share the same accountants still. Who can ever say enough nice things about Peggy and John Offutt!
    Christy Carton

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you for reading and commenting Christy. The Offutt’s are like family.

  2. Terry Sayler commented on

    We will open again, we will provide the world with actual books again. Not the digital ones so many read now. I have been with you 31 years, I hope to be with you many more. I know most of the employees feel that way to. I have seen Wonder Book defeat the odds when so many other bookstores were closing, we will be back and as strong as ever. I am willing to come in any day you all are in there and need help. Just let me know. I have a suggestion about something in the stores, I will email you that idea. Take care.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you so much, old friend.
      It really helps to hear these things.

  3. Tom Hicks commented on

    Hang in there, Chuck. It’s a noble thing you’re doing trying to keep your staff afloat in difficult times. I hope you’ll be able to solve the SBA puzzle. I understand your reluctance to accept that money but think of it as fighting for your staff’s share of a promise made by the American people to each other in these hard times. We know who will be paying that money back — it’ll be you and me and those workers who need the help now in order to pay it back later. I’m going to buy myself a gift certificate to Wonderbook that I’ll cash in later when you’re shipping again.

    I saw a chart yesterday that broke our virus information by state. The Princess cruise that sat in San Francisco Bay for days as people on board died and officials tried to determine its fate was broken out separately at the bottom of the chart as if it were a state. The ship was finally allowed to dock in Oakland and the passengers were parceled out to sites around the state. Twenty-one of the ship’s passengers who were exposed and showed symptoms of the flu were quarantined here in tiny Pacific Grove, housed at a state conference facility that is CDC approved for such purposes. The passengers were kept inside a fenced area and not allowed to come out into the community. They entered the facility on March 11. The staff of the park, primarily food service personnel who prepare and serve meals for the conference center guests, were told to go home. The passengers were guarded by Federal Marshals and no one except medical personnel were allowed into or out of the quarantine area. We could see at least two large tents that had been constructed in the parking lots and on the grounds that were obviously for flow purposes into and out of the dorm building where the passengers were housed. There was a ServPro semi-trailer parked to the side of that dorm building. We were told that each of the passengers was confined to their rooms, not allowed to come into any common areas. Large flood lights were set up around the dorm and in the parking lot. Last Monday, their quarantine ended and the passengers were sent home. The fence around the facility came down on Wednesday. The food service personnel have been brought back, with pay for the days they were prevented from being at work, and this state park has returned to normal. It’s one small drama in this larger one that has played out with a good result. Other places, like New York, have not done so well. There was more than a bit of anxiety in PG when we were told that some of the Princess passengers were coming here. We weren’t informed of their status, just that they had been exposed to the Coronavirus. PG has a relatively old demographic, many retirees, median age 49, which is 36% older than average age in CA. So it represents a more vulnerable population. And many people wondered why those passengers were housed here for their quarantine. We were never told the status of those quarantined. We don’t know if some or all tested positive. We don’t know anything about them other than the fact that they were exposed and they finally went home. We can only imagine how anxious they must have been, first seemingly trapped on a ship on which their fellow passengers were dying from a strange new flu, and then shuttled off separately from many of their fellow passengers who were sent to Travis AFB. I suppose they could hear the ocean from their quarters but they were unable to go outside and look at it or enjoy the wonderfully sunny weather we’ve had over the past month. It must have been a sudden joy to breathe the fresh salted sea air when they re-emerged. Wherever they’ve gone, they’ll be able to look up at the sky once again, and we wish them well. Just as we wish us all well in world that has dramatically changed since the day those passengers boarded that Princess ship for a cruise into less certain times.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      So many nightmares in so many places.
      I realize the ones here are not on a scale with many.
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting.
      I hope the next book story will be happier.

  4. Andy Moursund commented on

    Another great piece, Chuck. After reading that sidebar about the 1872 NYC Horse Plague, I went to the Times Archives to check out the articles that the writer mentioned, and brother, talk about how the past is a foreign country…..Both of these plague stories were buried on page 8!

    1. Chuck replied on

      Thanks Andy.
      We are in the War Room right now trying to get the application in!
      Crazy times.
      Thanks Chuck

  5. linda tiller commented on

    I look forward every Saturday morning to your writings. It is the first thing I read. Thank you for starting off my weekend with curious thoughts from a book lovers world. I sent an email to you today, with a photo that I thought you may be interested in. (to the customer service e-mail)

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Linda. I really appreciate hearing that you like the stories. I hope they will be more upbeat soon.
      Customer Service won’t be in til Monday – so I’ll see it then.
      It means a lot that you take the time to read and comment

  6. Ellen Anderson commented on

    Your writings turn an upside down week right side up for a while. Fortunately I have a house full of books to keep me occupied in my isolation, many of which I purchased at your Frederick Book Shop. So I’m most grateful to you in several ways.
    Thank you and keep writing. We out here need to hear from you!

    1. Logan replied on

      I enjoyed reading your blog. One thing really stood out me and I wanted to comment.

      As a conservative, I really appreciate your statement that ” I don’t want any handouts. That’s other people’s money.” However, in this case, the state government has temporarily taken your business through a unilateral decree. This strikes me as akin to the takings clause of the fifth amendment; “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” Your business is your private property, and you have been forced by the government to temporarily relinquish it. You should be compensated for that.

      1. Charles Roberts replied on

        Thank you Logan.
        We spent about 100 hours preparing documents last week.
        The Portal opened Saturday afternoon.
        Two very savvy computer folks here spend 5 hours applying. (I didn’t understand a word they were saying during the process).
        The PPP application was “accepted” ! Not “approved” yet.
        Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I really appreciate it!

    2. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you so much Ellen.
      Comments like yours give us inspiration to see this through and get back to “normal”.
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting.

  7. Diana Ray commented on

    I started working at the warehouse at the first of the year and I am just overwhelmed by the positive work experience I’ve had thus far. Thank you for caring for us as a whole as well as individually. I am so proud to be a part of the team and I can’t wait to get back to pulling and shipping. I miss the hum of the warehouse. You’ve got a lot of people rooting for you and Wonder Book as an institution, much like the Fellowship of the Ring.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you so much for your sentiments! At this time in particular it is so heartening to hear.
      I hope you’re back soon!


  8. Michael Dirda commented on

    It’s hard to say one enjoys Wonderblog columns like those for the past three weeks, but they do brighten the monotony and terror of the current situation. If other people are like me–a fearful thought–you will probaby be deluged with book buys once the stay-at-home order is lifted. When not reading or writing or taking walks for exercise, I’ve been trying to cull my Smaug-like hoard, especially the shelves and cartons in the basement. It’s odd though–I grow quite wistful over books I remember buying but now recognize that I will never get around to reading. Still, all too many titles conitnue to spark enough joy that I can’t bear to part with them-yet.
    Even though I’ve spent most of the past 16 years working from home, I do find this shelter-in-place order stressful and debilitating. I’m taking a couple of weeks off from my weekly Post reviews to work on my long-overdue book project, but I can’t say my heart is in much of anything right now. I’m sure this is a common feeling. I also worry constantly about my eldest son who is a PA (physician assistant) in the ER of Portland, Oregon’s biggest hospital. There’s nothing I can do but try not to worry.
    Worse still, there doesn’t seem to be much to look forward to, given that summer isn’t supposed to affect the virus and it’s scheduled to return in a second wave in the fall. It’s hard not to feel dispirited. Who was it who said the only sure happiness is the happiness we have had?–md

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Michael, So bittersweet I am tearing up.
      It is madness and maddening.
      Such hard work here the last couple weeks
      Take care and stay healthy.
      The readers need you!

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