Old Times, Old Friends

Christopher Morley Quote

My phone brought up another photo this week… Me at my son’s wedding 2 years ago.

Chuck at Chuck's Wedding

It is so weird having a machine prompting me with what it thinks I want to remember.

😆 😆 😆 😆 😆 😆 😆 😆 😆 😆

Forwarded from Designer Services at Books by the Foot:

We have an Archives room within our newsroom that needs about 1000 feet of more journalism reference books. Again, it’s still 1992 in our world & essentially, we’re needing books comparable to our last order with you guys.

I’ve attached some reference photos to this email—not sure if you have anything like these?

If we could include the following again…
encyclopedias—If you have a couple of sets of different types of encyclopedias for reference that’d be fantastic (film, politics, photography, history of war, fashion, etc)
various journalism books
investigative journalism books
photo journalism books
maybe some poetry & prose
communications books
handbooks and style books
media profiles
media directories
biographical sources
dewey decimal system (maybe abridged versions?)
sears list of subject headings
library association directory of library books
old lexis/nexis computer manuals—(doubt you have these, never hurts to ask)
thesaurus & dictionaries (if you had 15-20 of each that’d be amazing—don’t need to match)—I don’t think you have any of these still but if you do…

Again, being a tv show—we need all these books by Tuesday, July 6th at the latest. Fingers crossed you can help me out again & let me know what you might be able to pull together for us!

Let me know your thoughts and thank you!—Same address as before! Feel free to give me a call if you have any questions!

I had just sat down on a stool out in the warehouse to attack a small collection in about 10 tubs that came in about a year ago. At that time, it had a certain aroma.

Cat Books

We set the collection aside to air out. I just couldn’t bring myself to pulp them. There were autographed early Wallace Stegner and Sigurd Olson. There were a lot of desirable and hard to find books of nature writing. There were also a lot of books about cats! I like cats. There is a cat currently doing excellent biblio-research and “cat”aloguing in the bookshop featured in the Round and Round stories I post here occasionally.

Did you know that aroma is actually a desirable attribute in fine wines?

I love a crisp flinty Sauvignon Blanc. I now avoid New Zealand’s fine SBs. They only use twist tops, and I consider that invention akin to the kindle.

Old school, I guess.

I came across the odoriferous pallet Wednesday while digging in nooks and crannies for ways to make space fast. As so often happens, we were desperate for space.

People are begging us—literally—to take their books.

I spoke with an old friend and mentor up north this week. We hadn’t talked since COVID began.

“Chuck, I’ve been closed for 15 months. The landlord is raising my rent on my warehouse. I’m 78, and I don’t want to move them again. There are a quarter million. I can give you a great deal…”

My eyes rolled back in their sockets.

He was abject. Almost pleading. An old friend in need.

It is a physical and financial impossibility.

“I’ll think about it…”

We couldn’t possibly squeeze them in.

Could we…?

So that is how the cat books with the erstwhile cat aroma came to be one of my tasks today.

They no longer smelled.

I know because I stuck my nose into any that were suspicious.

The charming romance of used and antiquarian bookselling ain’t pretty sometimes. I’ve dealt with some very dirty books over the years.

I glanced at my phone—just to take break—and there was the request for 1000 linear feet of books appropriate for a newsroom in 1992.

To ship tomorrow.

I did indeed “laugh out loud.”

My nearby coworkers glanced over—perhaps with a bit of concern on their countenances.

I have been acting strange lately.



And my heel has been hurting. Like “on fire.” I’m teasing myself about surgery again. I saw a specialist earlier this week. Not a foot specialist. I hadn’t been to this doctor since 2019.

“Where have you been?”

“Your office called and canceled my appointment last May [2020]. I thought they would call when they wanted to see me again.”

He shook his head.


“Well, the good news is nothing has changed. I’ll keep you going to your 90s.”

That was heartening.

We (he) chatted about COVID and stuff.

I asked one of the questions I have asked numerous doctors—old friends and those who are seeing me professionally.

“Did you actually know of anyone who died of it?”

Most answer in the negative. He answered, “Yes. Lots.”

Ahhhh, but that makes sense. His practice is for those with failing organs. Many are in assisted living. Others need treatments a couple times a week to get their blood cleansed.

I told him about the foot and the recommended surgery. It is pretty awful. Butchery. The recovery time is long, and I’d be off my feet for many weeks.

“That’s crazy! There’s no laser or arthroscopic treatment!?”

“I know. It just seems counterintuitive. Ask around for me. You’ll be my hero if you find something.”

All right, back to the cat books and the 1000-foot order that would have to ship tomorrow.

I quickly finished the cat books. Some were stained. Those had to be tossed into recycling. After thoroughly washing my hands, I went to discuss the 1000 order with the Books by the Foot manager.

“Ask them if they would accept less. I bet we could do it, but it would be a stretch. Then we can talk price.”

She emailed, “They are down to 120 feet. Price?”

Darn! I was thinking at least 500.

I quoted a price and a 20% “rush” surcharge.

They came back at 90 feet.

“No problem.”

I found Clif out on the loading docks. “I need two vans. One for Frederick and one for Hagerstown. 20 big tubs in each. I’ll go to 40. [The store in Frederick is on Rt 40.] Ernest can go to Hagerstown.”

So, all my plans for the day went out the window…er, out the dock door.

When I headed out to the van, I noticed some swallows were trapped inside. The building has dozens of nests.

The babies are just starting to fledge.

Two babies flitted about in the steel joists high above. The parents would swoop in periodically and feed them.

“Clif, leave the dock doors open when we close tonight. The birds will go out when it is brighter outside than in. I’ll come back tonight and close everything up.”

I drove over to the Frederick store and started looking for appropriate reference books one might find in a 1992 newsroom reference library. We had already pulled a smaller order a week or two before, so the low hanging fruit was already picked. I tried thinking outside the box.

“What about baseball encyclopedias? Foreign language dictionaries? World history timelines…”

I found dated reference books in many categories. It was kind of fun. Most of the books I pulled likely shouldn’t have been at the store anyway. Therapeutic culling. On my hands and knees, atop (well, not exactly on the “top”) a stepladder, I read title after title. I dropped book after book into plastic tubs.

It is a wonderful life—playing with books for a living.

People tell me that often.

But there is always stress and worry. There are always problems. Any of the three stores might suddenly need immediate and focused attention. The vast warehouse has so many departments and sections. I wander through the vast space every day looking for things that need attention.

My work mantra:

  • What MUST be done.
  • What Should be done.
  • What can be done.

It has been like that since the very beginning.

When I had the idea of opening a little used bookshop in 1980, my parents were both recently dead. Friends and future in-laws cautioned, “It will never work. Old bookshops are what retirees do to kill time.”

Then later in the 80s, “Chuck, Erol’s and Blockbuster are coming to Frederick. You’ll be put out of business.”

Then in the 90s, “Chuck, Borders and Barnes and Noble—the “big boxes”—are coming to town. You’ll be crushed.”

Then in the late 90s, “There’s this World Wide Web thing. People are buying books on their computers. Open shops won’t be needed anymore.” Indeed, of the 120 or so used bookstores in the DC region in the late 90s—95% or more went dark by 2010 or so. I began getting call after call, “We’re closing. Will you buy our stock?”

Then around 2008, “The E Reader. The Kindle. The Nook. The printed book is doomed!” My brother, Tony, who just passed and who encouraged me to sell books online in the 90s, told me back then, “You’ll be the last bookseller. When it is over, switch off the lights and walk away.”

Then around 2010, “Chuck, we’re not going to renew your warehouse lease. We are knocking down this building to put up a Walmart. You’ll have to move or close.”

Thus began a 5 year sprint to find, negotiate, move a couple million books and settle into a new building acquired from, believe it or not, the US Post Office.

Then 2020… The most terrifying era of all—to date… March 23, 2020, “All retails stores must close by 5 p.m. tonight. All other non-essential businesses must close,” Governor Larry Hogan.

Since 1980, Wonder Book’s stores had NEVER closed (except for Christmas, Thanksgiving and occasional snow days.) “7 DAYS A WEEK. 10AM – 10PM” was the ad for many, many years. The hours have been reduced, but we are still open 7 days a week.

We immediately closed all three bookstores per the Governor’s instruction. Would we ever reopen?

The Governor also issued a list of businesses deemed to be “essential.” Those businesses could stay open. Some of the listed businesses were very clear—”well drillers”, “lawyers”, “banks”, “food stores.”

Others were a bit vague. “Warehouse/distribution facilities.”

I called my lawyer after sending him the edict.

“Does your reading of this have us fit into ‘warehouse/distribution facilities’?”

“It looks like it.”

The terror just increased from there. Too horrible to explain here.

It took a while to find and get through to the right authorities. A lot of offices were closed. A lot of officials were extremely busy. A lot of inquiries got no reply.

Then we got the affirmation from several government authorities—in Frederick and Annapolis, “You are essential.”

Thus began the hardest year of my life. It hurt physically and mentally.

A battle for survival.

I am getting older, but I’m not ready to give up.

Some people that work here need this place. It is a career for some. A necessary place to come to for others.

For me—it is “what I do.” My raison d’etre.

And then there are the books. If we closed, these books would have nowhere to go. We are the only ones taking in books in this manner and in this volume. No one else has the experience or quality people; no one has the precise formula to catch the good and rare books. No one else has the minds we have to think outside the box, to find homes for as many of the rest as we can.

The worst outcome is to pulp those for which there is no hope; no one wants these for any purpose. 20 tons a week. At least we keep that out of the landfills. And on the plus side, it gets turned into paper again.

It is a game, a passion and a bit of desperation to find a new home for every book we can. Whether we sell them in bulk for nickels and dimes or research and accurately describe them for many dollars. Or anything in between.

We even give them away. In the last week, two people who work distributing free food came in and picked out hundreds of kids books to give out with the food. Teachers, shelters, other organizations…if they need books for kids, they can come get them.

(Speaking of food—we collect canned food from our customers in exchange for deep discounts on books. The Rescue Mission picked up a thousand cans or so this week.)

Canned Food Donation

We are part of the ecosystem. 130,000 square feet and 21 dock doors.

I’m glad we survived that last challenge.

What else would I do? For a lot of people at Wonder Book, we just can’t imagine what else we would do.

The next challenge? Who knows…the grim reaper knows but isn’t talking.

There’s the constant and increasing challenge of “please take my books.”

Good morning Chuck,
I have a collection of 150,000 books that I would like to sell to your company. I am based in North Carolina. Would this be something you would be interested in?

Hi Chuck,

I hope you’re doing well. I am writing to you in the hopes that you can help me find a good home for a fairly substantial collection of books; there are some books from a home collection (the majority are Jewish books), but the bulk of the books I have are the whole contents of a psychiatrist’s library. I thought perhaps given the specificity of the collection, that you may be interested in knowing more about it, and I would love to find a home for these.

Please let me know if I can give you any further info, or send photos etc. The collection is in Millburn NJ.

Hello Chuck,

My name is [xxx]. I am a contractor in New York.

Recently I was in charge of a library renovation job and was suckered into doing some additional free work. As a punishment for my good deed, I was given close to two thousand books.

All are in great shape. I came across your contact information on the website.

My goal is to get a few dollars so I can use it for helping my Niece with her college tuition. She starts in August.

I have included here a few pictures and I am working on an inventory list. So far I have a few hundred on this list.

The purpose is just to give you an idea of this collection.

Although it would be great, I don’t expect you to purchase all of them but if you could help with a few I would appreciate it.

If it helps I am willing to drive out to Maryland and deliver them if that would help.

Please let me know what you think.

In advance thank you for your attention to this matter.

We have the all the sets though they are not all pictures here. We wanted to know if there was an interest in any of our collections. Please let me know. Thanks.

Hello Charles,

I am selling my father’s lifetime collection of books and was referred by a New England bookseller to you and your store. He mentioned that you consider large libraries and suggested I reach out to you. The library I have consists of antiquarian, fine bindings, first editions, signed, contemporary—and covers a multitude of genres (Bibles, biographies, children, history, poetry, presidents, Vermont, war, to name a few.) There are leather bound volumes, sets, and ephemera including journals, ledgers, some photographs and advertising items. I am including a few photos—my father began collecting around 1930.

The collection has been well housed and shelved, and is easy to view if you would consider traveling to our location in Jeffersonville, Vermont. I am looking to sell the library over these coming summer months and hope to hear from you.

Thank you…

These are all from THIS week!

And there were more!

It is July 1, 2021.

In the last 24 hours, Frederick County (population ~280,000) has reported 3 new COVID cases and 0 deaths. The positivity rate is 0.41%. 332 deaths are attributed to COVID in the 450 or so days since this first casualty.

June 2021…

The preliminary numbers show the sales at all three stores are up significantly over June 2020 AND June 2019. The Frederick store may have had its best month since the Millennium (when the internet began killing almost all the bookstores and Wonder Book retail sales began plummeting.) The Gaithersburg store appears to have had its best month ever—well, since I bought it to prevent its closure in 2008.

We will see how the internet sales have done soon. There are problems in Europe. Almost every country wants VAT taxes on books shipped across their borders. The process is incredibly complex. Even our shipping company with hundreds of other clients was asking us if we had any ideas. We may have to turn off sales to France. Germany? The UK? But there are many, many books being packed and going out on the numerous trucks that come every day.

Book by the Foot was up substantially over June 2020 and 2019. Tons of books we cannot sell to readers or collectors go out on trucks that way every day. It is a good sign, as many of our clients are designers for larger companies. Recovery?

I am tired. Drained. Sore. Lonely.

It has been a good fight.

I was in the trenches almost every day.

In the early days of COVID, I was pushing and pulling pallets of books.

Reinventing the warehouse spaces.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

From the ashes of COVID, we reinvented ourselves on so many levels.

And it worked!

Good job to every one here!

I don’t think I could do it again.

How long can you live with a “gun to your head”? Never knowing what or who will kill your life’s work?

Well, it is almost 41 years just now. A lifetime.

I’m tired.

My birthday in two weeks. I will not be celebrating.

And there is one more battle coming. Perhaps the nastiest ever. And I can’t duck or delegate it.

Once more into the breach…

Parnassus on Wheels

Long, long ago when I was just a beginner bookseller, someone told me I should read Parnassus on Wheels.

Never heard of it.

But a copy came in one day not much later. I think it was Doubleday. Maybe it looked like this:

Parnassus on Wheels

After the first page, I was transported.

I was a primitive bookseller even by the standards of those days. 1980. All receipts were handwritten. I totaled the numbers in my head. At the subtotal, I calculated 10%. I cut that in half. For back then, the Maryland Sales Tax was 5%. Most people paid by cash or check. I put the money in the green metal fishing tackle box that was my cash “drawer.” If there was change, I would count it out on the worn plywood sales counter between the customer and myself. We would both be standing. (Maybe 40 years of standing on concrete floors hurt my foot.) I would put a bookmark in each book. I would make sure about an inch of bookmark protruded from the top of each. My mentor, Carl Sickles, had emphasized how important this was.

“Your customer may not even take the books out of their shopping bag for quite a while. Or they might shelve the books to look at a later date. When they do open the book, whether it is in a day and or a year, you want them to know where they had gotten it. It is the best advertising we can afford. And it is permanent.”

I bet we have printed a million Wonder Book bookmarks since then. The latest generation were reproduced literary images created for us by Alan James Robinson.


You should try to collect all 12…or is it 24?

The customer would depart. The little brass bell above the door would make its little chime.

I could hope, but in reality, there would likely be no more customers for an hour or so.

So, I would slip the collar of the canvas carpenter’s apron over my head and head back to the little storeroom—or more likely—into the rear parking lot beyond the back door. Depending where I’d left off, I would either turn on the Sears 8-inch circular saw and cut uprights, cross pieces or shelves. Or I would put on rubber gloves and dip the rag into the gallon of Minwax Special Walnut stain and spread and smear it across the bare #2 pine wood. (Carl taught me this was much faster and more efficient than using a paint brush.) Or I would reach into the wide pocket at the bottom of the apron just below my waist and draw out a dozen or so 2″ finishing nails and place them between my lips. I would manage to hold the wood at right angles while still squeezing a single nail between my thumb and forefinger—pressing it against the wood. A couple gentle taps with the hammer would get it started. Then I could bang away at the nail head in earnest, trying to maintain aim and concentration so as not to miss and crush my thumb.


Primitive bookselling by a primitive bookseller.

Parnassus On Wheels

I came across a modern paperback version a few months ago.

Christopher Morley Bookshop Books

There was also a copy of its sequel The Haunted Bookshop.

I reread them in the spring. I was reading The Haunted Bookshop in the hotel the night my brother passed away a couple miles away in San Francisco.

I dogeared many pages. I highlighted many quotes. I would never do that with a collectible copy—or even just a vintage hardcover. But this was a dispensable paperback. And I knew I would write about it. It was worth sacrificing those cheap softcovers if it gets even one person to pick up Christopher Morley’s books about books and bookselling.

Christopher Morley Quote

When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue—you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night—there’s all heaven and earth in a book, a real book I mean.

There are three ingredients in the good life: learning, earning, and yearning. A man should be learning as he goes; and he should be earning bread for himself and others; and he should be yearning, too: yearning to know the unknowable.

What absurd victims of contrary desires we are! If a man is settled in one place he yearns to wander; when he wanders he yearns to have a home. And yet how bestial is content—all the great things in life are done by discontented people.

I think reading a good book makes one modest. When you see the marvelous insight into human nature which a truly great book shows, it is bound to make you feel small—like looking at the Dipper on a clear night, or seeing the winter sunrise when you go out to collect the morning eggs. And anything that makes you feel small is mighty good for you.

And here I go loaded with everlasting salvation—yes, ma’am, salvation for their little, stunted minds—and it’s hard to make ’em see it. That’s what makes it worth while—I’m doing something that nobody else from Nazareth, Maine, to Walla Walla, Washington, has ever thought of. It’s a new field, but by the bones of Whitman, it’s worth while. That’s what this country needs—more books!

Summer was over, and we were no longer young, but there were great things before us.

There are many more.

Pick up a copy at a Wonder Book store. Order one from www.wonderbook.com. (I hope we have some copies.)

It is a quick read. You’ve nothing to lose. And it may change your life.

I was already a fledgling bookseller when I first read them.

I am glad I reread those books this spring—as a mature bookseller.

Repeating something is not a sign of a lack of imagination; rather, if something can change you twice, it bears repeating.

I went through some of my old books again the week. I’m selling some. Some were old friends. Some forgotten things. Shelved decades ago in Pennsylvania.

Looking through them took me back to many places.

Spring training baseball games in Florida in the 1980s when I would drive down to exhibit at the show in Tampa and then St Pete.

Old Tickets and Bookmarks

Old ticket stubs fell out of some. Bookmarks. Their reappearance had me sitting on splintery wooden benches again in old decrepit ballparks.

Long, long ago when I liked baseball and laying on the beach.

And I found the first “antiquarian” book I ever bought. A “double decker” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

It was October. I was a freshman at Connecticut College. There was an antique show in the lobby of the Crozier Williams Center on campus.

There was a young bookseller there. The name on his booth was Isaiah Thomas.

I saw Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The price was $45. It was a lot of money. But I knew it was an important book. I went to the library and did research. It was worth thousands!

I returned to the booth and took advantage of the poor fellow.

It wasn’t til much later that I found that the words “Fifteenth Thousand” on the title page meant it was a later printing. I was a college freshman and not a seasoned bookman.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

And that it was worth about $45.

It wasn’t til much, much later I became a bookselling colleague of “Isaiah”—only his name isn’t Thomas. It is Jim Visbeck. And you can still visit his shop on Cape Cod. I think he’s in an old pink clapboard house.

Old friends…

It is Friday morning.

When I get home tonight, a favorite oak will be gone.

Old Oak Tree

It has grown so much since I came to the mountain.

Its top is dying. The branches overhang the house and drive. I have looked up at it with a feeling of impending doom.

I’ve asked them to leave a three-foot stump. Perhaps I’ll use it as a seat. Or a plant stand.

I like to reuse things if at all possible.

6 Comments on Article

  1. Andy Moursund commented on

    Chuck, since you’re touting Parnassus On Wheels, you might want to add my favorite quote from the book, which IIRC was posted on a sign that Morley once saw in a book shop. I’m paraphrasing, so the quote may not be exact, but it reflects the sentiment 100%. It could be the slogan of every book shop worth its salt:


    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      That’s a good Andy.
      I have a painted sign the paraphrases that in the Frederick store – I had done in the 80s I think – I’ll try to include both in the next story.
      Thank you for reading and writing!

  2. Lauren Baker commented on

    You may want to try a rolfer before the knife. I think there is one in Frederick. If not there is an excellent one in Bel Air. Structural Integration. Everything is connected in the body and little things can throw off other things. Its so easy to knock things out of place that then tug on something else.
    Best of Luck,
    PS I’m off next week and will be heading up for a wonderbook visit. Hoping the bathroom is back open. Its a long trip from Bel Air especially after drinking morning tea on the way!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Lauren. I will look into it.

      I’ll check on the stores. Changes are being made weekly – a lot depends on employee levels of concern.

      Happy book hunting!


  3. sharie bernard commented on

    Lovely commentary on the book business!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you so much Sharie!

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