Vintage Room

Browse some of the books mentioned below:
Jack Valenti’s collection

The winter clothes are migrating down to the cedar closet. Gloves, scarves, knit hats, heavy coats…

Soon the dozens of potted plants crowding four rooms will begin moving outside. Two friends who read these stories sent succulents and cacti from their western yards. COVID gifts, which I duly potted and potted and potted…

The first wave of daffodils on the mountain is opening.

Soon the bears will awaken. A forestry guy called them “four legged stomachs” in the spring.

Foraging Bear

The rule of thumb is to take down the bird feeders from Easter til Thanksgiving. I have tried to outsmart the creatures many times. The most extravagant method was to string a chain to two trees about 15 feet apart. The chain was hooked about twenty feet up. The feeder was suspended from the middle of the chain on a couple of connected long metal hooks. It didn’t work. I assume the beast shimmied up one tree and crossed paw over paw to unhook the feeder and let it drop to the ground. The chain remains—a monument to my foolishness at trying to outwit that “smarter than the average bear.”

I can still use the second-story window feeders and toss seed onto the porch roof. So far, no bears or squirrels have found a way up there.

The fire has been out all week. Days in the 60s and nights in the 50s…there’s no need to keep the woodstove going.

To build a fire… It is a discipline. Another, to my mind, Zen-like labor. I look forward to the cold season every autumn. But now, with spring breaking, I don’t miss bringing in the totes of wood and taking out the big flat pan the ashes fall into.

There will be some more fires. It will help clean up the scraps of wood—deadfalls around the house and bits and pieces here and there.

The discipline this week has been to prepare for next winter. I hauled a lot of wood into the “Barn.” Then I pulled the cord on the splitter and it started right up.

Unsplit Wood

I lifted heavy log after heavy log onto the cradle. I would turn it a little this way or that so the wedge at the end of the hydraulic piston would gently strike the wood where I wanted it to. The result would be a split just the right size for the woodstove. It is no fun to drag a piece inside, only to find it won’t quite fit down through the top lid—or even into the front double doors.

Split Wood

Perhaps I overdid it. The wood I’ve got might take me into 2023.

It was fun, though. The barn light was the only illumination in the black forest night. I, the lonely woodsman, kind of like an updated German woodland tale. Would a wolf come? Or Frankenstein? A ragged hag who was actually a fairy princess in disguise?

No one walked in from the dark. When I had split the last big round, I turned off the light and wandered to the house and made a Manhattan then watched something…Bourdain in Chile, I think.


I am loath to stack all that wood, though. I don’t find that Zen-like. That I consider a chore.

The split wood image reminds me of the rooms where we store “worthless” vintage tomes that no readers, collectors or other booksellers want. Their only hope for continued existence is to be used for decorative purposes.

They are pretty.

Often when I post pictures from these rooms on the Instagram accounts (@booksbythefoot and @wonderbookandvideo), we will get hundreds of “likes.”

The Wonder Book account went over to over 10,000 followers this week!

What does that signify? Nothing, really. But it is an amusing game.

Vintage Room

What does this image have in common with the split wood?

  1. They both come from trees.
  2. The books and the wood both need to be stacked (or shelved.)
  3. They both bring warmth and comfort to their owner.
  4. Books and wood are both beautiful.
  5. Both are collected to be recycled.

We’ve been working on organizing and culling the three rooms of “vintage” cloth and leather books. I often wander into the two lonely back rooms and bask in their…ambience?

A movie prop master asked for 1880s vintage books for scenes in a printshop from that era. But she only wanted the text blocks—uniform groups—as if they were works in progress. I knew there were some unsaleable sets in those rooms. No one wants books with library markings on the spines. They could be sacrificed. Unattractive 19th-century encyclopedias. Even Wonder Book can’t turn those sow’s ears into silk purses.

Searching, actually meandering, I came across a large vein of Catholic books a friend from Ohio had brought some years ago. They were from a Seminary library that was shuttering. They were certainly antique but unmarketable because of the library marking and religious subjects titles on the spines.

I had groused at him when he brought them.

“I can’t do anything with these!”

Still, I paid and kept them.

I wonder…

“Cart these up. I think they might sell online.”

Three carts. 54 linear feet.

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So these books were “rescued” from being decorative objects.


Will they sell? Or is it folly?

I’ll spend the payroll dollars to find out.

Thursday morning

A gray dawn. The fog is so thick I can’t see more than a hundred yards or so.


The still bare trees have a spooky spectral look to them.

The first small wave of early daffodils color is muted.


I am pecking away at this story to get ahead. A big mug of Mariage Frères “Marco Polo” blend tea is just within reach. Fancy stuff. French. The tea bag is muslin cloth.


Tomorrow will be eaten up by a final trip to the university’s rare book room.

So I need to get this done, or mostly done, today.

We haven’t even unpacked the van from last week’s adventure.

Too busy, and there’s a lot of fragile large paper things that need a broad flat out-of-the-way surface to rest upon—for their protection. I will have to find or make such a place.

Last weekend, I was in a “zone.” I was very productive.

Cart after cart. Book after book.

I was babysitting Giles. Periodically, I would go out into the fenced dockyard and toss treats or balls to the three dogs.


The days were brilliant and mild.

I did another group of books from Jack Valenti’s collection. There were a few nice association inscriptions. One was from Will and Ariel Durant signing a first edition. The message was warm. Perhaps they were pitching a movie idea for their 11-volume The Story of Civilization? Another was from Billy Graham. Olden days and ancient icons.

When Sunday was done, was there anything else memorable on the carts?

I don’t remember.

No home runs last weekend. Just a lot of singles and doubles.

The work resumed on the rock wall terraces. Their progress had been interrupted by…winter.

I had my Tree Farm sign put up. And I got another as well.

I’m a Steward and a Farmer.

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Maybe I’ll become a Forest Squire next. I like the ring of that.

Next week, I will get my second COVID dose.

Bookselling in the COVID Era will continue for the foreseeable, however. Masks aren’t going anywhere. Socially over-conscious Montgomery County—where our Gaithersburg bookstore is located—will soon institute a Mask Tax. The millions of masks are causing an additional strain on the already overburdened waste management system there. The tax will help mitigate the extra costs.

I’m making that up. But now the seed is planted, I’d wager even odds…

When the time comes, I’ll mulch my cotton masks. We already recycle all the paper masks.

We recycle thousands of tons of books and paper every year. I think we should get credits for that.

We don’t. We just get taxed. Everywhere and often.

At home, my footprint is tiny. I don’t even have trash service. The little I generate that can’t be recycled I take to work (in a used plastic shopping bag) and toss into the dumpster. Maybe a t-shirt bag every other week.

It is a fun socially conscious game. Like: “How low can I keep my electric bill?” “What I can I do with this or that to keep it out of a landfill?”

I was “inspired” to come up with a new color mix for the tens of thousands of supernumerary books we “rescue” in Books by the Foot.

Starry Night

I named it Starry Night.

Can you see it?


Try squinting.


Well, it seems like a good idea at the time.

So, I’m a bookseller, steward, farmer, gardener, woodsman and “artiste.”

Excess books are my canvas!

Friday morning, 4 a.m.

I don’t mind being awake this early today. It is not a COVID sleep interruption. I’m leaving for one last trip to the university at 6. I won’t have much time to write today. It will be strange to see the rare book rooms emptied at last.

The ghosts of bibliophiles hovering about that room…are they sad?

It is a beautiful space.

My friend Conor Kenny wrote me he had a marvelous dinner at that massive table long, long ago.

Two wonderful Nuns Sister Marie…and Sister Marie…hosted dinner for my father and myself in the same rare book room in…

There was no shortage of good food and wine.

We actually stayed in the convent for two days on what was my first trip to the U.S.

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Is the table 18th century? It was covered with books until we put the last oversized books into tubs at the end of our last visit.

I reached out to him with an image of a card with his brother, Desmond’s, name on it.

Desmond Kenny's Card

The card was just lying loose on a counter, so I have no idea which book matched it.

I can only imagine the meals and discussions of booklovers and donors and Sisters and scholars and…

Did it become an irrelevant space? Did time pass it by? Was it just too tired and too expensive to maintain?

Perhaps the ghosts are now free to go. Perhaps one or seven will come and haunt the vast warehouse where the collection now dwells.

I wouldn’t mind the company on the lonely weekends I will be spending with “their” books.

The books will speak volumes to me as I go through them. Perhaps that will inspire spirits to tell me their stories.

The back room in the rare book library is more of “safe” compared to the formal display room. At the back of it are five caged alcoves. Etched in my memory will be sitting on stools reading the spines and plucking off likely “stars.” There was a bookcase in the far right alcove.

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It had the presidential collection. I looked through each, hoping for a Madison or Jefferson or Jackson autograph. There were a lot of presidential autographs. Sadly, all seems to be Truman and after. Still…

On my first visit, I peeked into a thick volume of John Quincy Adams’ pamphlets bound together. Nice…

After I had won the “auction” and we were packing the first load, I returned to that cage to pack the better books in order to segregate them as much as possible from the “bulk” treasures. I looked at the Adams again. This time, I looked at the second pamphlet.






I stopped there. There wasn’t time to peruse further.

I’d guess there were perhaps thirty pamphlets bound together. Are numbers 5-30 also signed?

I’ll find out this year sometime. Or maybe next.

We unloaded the last van just yesterday afternoon. We have carefully loaded some very large paper items. They were in simple kraft paper folders. Maybe 30. About 40″ x 30″. They really required two people to safely move. One on each side. I thought all week about a place to safely store them. All week I looked for a large enough flat, out-of-the-way place. It didn’t strike me until Thursday…a trailer! Most of the dozen or so trailers I’ve bought to expand storage at unused dock doors are full of remainder hardcovers purchased to supplement the secondhand books for Books by the Foot. We only need to get at them once or twice a year—to restock. The large paper treasures will rest atop a pallet of old “new” books until I can get at them.

The rest of the overfilled van held four pallets of books. That means there are now ten?

All the boxes and tubs were packed carefully into Gaylords. The collection will be segregated in some protected out of traffic space in the warehouse until…we figure out where to start.

At the head?

Or the tail?

Or both ends at once?

We have not yet unpacked a single box.

Well, that’s not true. The last trip—while the crew was having lunch, I packed a box of beautiful poetry books. Many are signed. I didn’t want that box getting lost in the “stew”, so I took it home. I spread them out on a table to put “Signed” slips into them.

Without a signed slip, the books are kind of anonymous.

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With the signed slip, the owner and whatever future bookseller comes across it will know without looking there are additional enhancements inside that volume.

I wonder if the John Quincy Adams’ books had had 3 or 29 signed slips in it—would that have made a difference?

We can’t look inside every book of the three hundred thousand or so we go through each month.

Most of the time, it is not worth the bother. Signed Patricia Cornwell, James Patterson, Nora Roberts…they are $5 books.

But we will look inside each of the university books.

Last weekend, I went through three carts of the Ashburn collection. I’d foolishly had a pallet carted for my inspection months ago. The books still smelled of mothballs. So the carts have been stagnant—airing out. The owner had a vast cookbook collection. (I actually didn’t want those carted first—I wanted the Beat writers.) Julia Child, Jacque Pepin…a few Continental chefs from the 30s, 40s and 50s… Diaz?

All signed. All because instinct had me look inside each of them.


How grand to sit upon a high slope
and watch the sunlight retreat across the valley.
At the end of a good hard day
filled with hard and good works
I crack a nut between thumb and fore
and drop the shell between splayed legs.
A sip of wine, an earthy nugget.
The day cools but does not chill
as the wide world dims around me.
My dinner boils within.
I should rise and go.
My home now glows;
warm lights in the window.
Daytime has ended.
I should rise and go.
I turn and push and I’m on my feet;
the tired body warm from the day’s exertions.
I turn to go but look back
at the world spreading far below
and reflect on those moments of calm emptiness.
The value and knowledge gained
sitting silently upon a high slope
and watching the day ebb away.
A sip of wine and an earthy nugget
cracked between my thumb and forefinger.

8 Comments on Article

  1. Joshua commented on

    The Starry Night, what a great idea! I enjoy that more than the rows a of single color.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      This comment just dropped in!
      Thank you for reading the story and writing!
      I’m glads you liked it!

  2. Charles Wilson commented on

    I have a small book stall in an antique mall vs a huge book business but still identify with your treasure hunt. I also appreciate a recent mail purchase from your store, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” for my reading.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Charles a group of comments on the story just dropped in today!
      Thank you reading the story and taking time to comment!

  3. Gary Fowler commented on

    Great poem at the end– and yes, I see “Starry Night” in that book display. Thanks for your blogs. Stay safe.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      The comments from this story just dropped in today!
      That is so kind of you!
      Thank you for reading and taking the time to write!

  4. A. Heller commented on

    This is my second time reading your blog. The first was during the first part of the great covid shutdown. This time it appears you are busy with acquiring books from a convent or Catholic school perhaps. Geesh! I hope the 2nd Visitation Academy hasn’t closed their doors. Anyway, I just thought I would let you know how envious I am of your close acquaintances with all this literature. How in the world do you not get overwhelmed? I guess you must have some really good help, or maybe a passion is never a chore? I’m glad you are who you are. Thanks for what you do, and writing about it too. Sincerely , Aggie Heller

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Hi Aggie,
      The comments on this story went awry and just dropped in today!
      The books came from a “rare book room” at St Elizabeth’s U in New Jersey.
      The school and the rest of the library are fine!
      Thank you for reading and writing!

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