Open…Sort of…Moving Mountains—Journal of a Plague Year, Week 10

The Burning of Conjuring Books
The Examination of Job
The Examination of Job, Satan pours on the plagues of Job, by William Blake


And with accusing fingers pointed at him they said,
“Oh, Job, what evil have you done to bring God’s wrath upon you?”

“Who’re these who claim to know my workings and all my ways?
Job has proved his faith and shall live joyous days.”
Yes, Job lived joyful days. Oh, yes, he did

—Jim Roberts / Seatrain
(Jim Roberts was my brother)

“Why me?”

The existential question that I imagine we all have asked more than ever recently.

And most of the world had had plenty of solitary time to dwell on such contemplative matters. Many are stewing in the “whys.”

As with Job, has this been some kind of test?

Last week’s story ended with the news that we could reopen the Frederick and Hagerstown stores Friday at 5pm per the guidelines issued by their respective counties’ leaders.

We have had people doing maintenance work during the lockdown in both already.

We did a “soft” unannounced opening for the weekend.

It was good to have 2 of the 3 shops open. We weren’t extremely busy. That is ok. We can only operate at 50% capacity. That number is based on our square footage. We instituted a number of our own rules as well. Like: “Only 1 person or family group per aisle.” We have 35 or so aisles in each store.

Of course, as every booklover and bookseller knows, there is always someone in the aisle YOU want to shop…or work in.

We started up our “No Touch” buying as well. For the peace of mind and safety of employees, customers bringing things in to sell must unload their own vehicles on to the parking lot. Buyers inspect the opened boxes from a safe distance and make an offer on them from there.

We don’t touch the boxes until the end of the day—after they’ve basked in the heat and UV light.

We need books to fuel the warehouse “beast.”

I hope a lot of people used their confinement time to pack up basement and attics and garages of unwanted books.

We need books.


I came in to the warehouse at 9 to open the place for the skeleton staff that does various duties here that can’t be done as well when the warehouse is staffed.

When I let Merry and Pippin out into the dockyard, I got the feeling I was being watched.

Indeed, there was a flock of vultures having a congress. There were 40 our so. There was no carcass nearby they were eyeing.

Congress of Vultures

But these two seemed to be whispering to each other.

Whispering Vultures

Perhaps they were remarking on their opinion as to my actuarial status.

“Not dead yet, but perhaps not too far off.”

“Yes, he is looking pretty slow.”

The rest of them were just perching about catching some morning sunlight. They are big birds!

Still, I knew they wouldn’t bug the dogs. They only go after creatures that are no longer moving.

Slider image
Slider image
Slider image


I was racing down Interstate 270 to visit the Gaithersburg store. The construction there is proceeding in fits and starts. “Someday” Montgomery County will let the little bookstore reopen “safely.” We need to be ready.

I wasn’t really racing. I’m a pretty conservative driver. Somehow I’ve gotten three “traffic scam” tickets in the mail in recent months. To challenge them, I’d need to go to court and spend a day. For $75, I can’t afford that. I think that is the rationale behind it. The vendors who give the local government a cut of the fines seem to have ratcheted up their pickiness. The chance of anyone fighting the “S-cam Tax” is pretty remote. I imagine they count on that.

Anyway, I was racing down I 270 going 55-56 mph. Cars were blowing by me. Motorcyclists have taken the pandemic and more open roads to turn highways into test tracks. One mistake, one person changing lanes suddenly, and they are hamburger on the highway.

A Prius came looming up in my side mirror. It must have been going 85. I glanced over, and an elderly man—maybe 85—was driving. He had the steering wheel in a death grip at 10 and 2. His face was close to the top of the steering wheel. His eyes locked forward. He was wearing a mask—alone—in his car.

That’s how many people are reacting to this. I had an employee here working out in the 7-acre field stacking dead branches from felled scrub trees so the mowing will be easier. There was no one within hundreds of yards. He chose to wear a mask. I made no comment.

I have friends who are bunkered down in their home until…?

Fear and terror fed by…the media?

Frederick County now has 96 COVID-19 deaths. The newspaper reported last week that 85% were in nursing homes. (I think Maryland reports that 95% of the deaths are over 50.) So maybe 14 people have died outside of nursing homes. How many of those 14 were:

  • Elderly staying at home or with family.
  • Substance abusers or homeless or others living on the edge.
  • On chemo or other immuno-suppressant regimens.
  • In their 50s or 60s with serious underlying health conditions like heart, kidney, diabetes, morbid obesity…

Those are the populations that need protections and perhaps quarantine more than anyone else, I would think.

Still, I would NOT want to catch it. I fit into a couple of the above categories. I’m doing everything I can to protect myself.

Exactly how many have died who are under 50 and in good health with no underlying conditions?!

Fear. Terror. For EVERYONE.

I’ve stopped watching the “panic” networks and news sources.

If you’re a grownup and able to make decisions about your own body, as long as you’re conscientious about protecting others…

Whatever you feel is your safe space, I guess… I don’t go to the few big box stores that are open unless I have to.


Bumping down the mountain toward the valley, I passed one of my “Lowlander” neighbors. Some color caught my eye in their little field. They had a Tulip Poplar with some low branches because it was surrounded by others as most are in forests or are pruned below a certain height. There was blossom I could just barely reach up to. I grasped the branch and drew it down enough to where I could take a photo.

Tulip Poplar

I decided I needed to check on the Hagerstown store. That location had been mostly dark during the lockdown. It was kind of a mess. A lot of books they had priced while closed were on the floor in many aisles.

I decided to institute a “No More Stocking Books on the Floor” edict—if you can’t put it on a shelf, take it back to the staging area.

We will see how this new policy fares. It will mean more work for the warehouse. More and quicker culling.

We culled there for space and expansion of a couple categories.

I culled for some Books by the Foot requests:

23′ of Modern/Classic Literature
3′ of Midcentury Cooking
Your books for Capitol Hill
1′ Survival/Gardening/Engineering (Pbk/Hbk mixture)

3’+7′ (10′ total) Mix of Transportation/Commercial vehicles/Factories/Manufacturing/Technology/Consumer Goods/Power/Energy/Construction/Pharmaceuticals/Silicon Valley—San Francisco
12 Pallets of Unsorted Mixed Kids
2 Pallet of assorted barcoded mmpbk.
2′ Catholicism (pbk/hbk)
2′ Chesapeake Bay (pbk/hbk)
2′ Horses
Mystery mmpbk (I think); Shelf Filler…

We need…we need…we need…

More…more…more …

Back to the warehouse. We need to reopen another desk in the office. It was too close for the new protocols. I needed to make some space to move it. There were some tubs of plates removed from defective books. We typically bag and hang these in the stores. It is another way to “rescue” at least parts of books. Plus some of these images are true eye candy worthy of dorm rooms, craft projects or even framing.

Slider image
Slider image

Here is 17th century folio proof that books existed in New Testament times…LOL.

The Burning of Conjuring Books

I sorted the tubs into boxes and stuck prices and destinations on each of the 8 boxes.

Lots of eye candy next time you’re in the stores!

That night I went home drained and sad.

I am so tired of eating at home. Alone. Usually melted leftovers from long ago restaurant dinners; back B.C. (Before COVID) when the world made sense and fear and terror and control by others did not rule our lives.

I sat at the top of the drive and made my first proper cocktail in quite a while. I’ve made plenty of drinks but haven’t performed the ritual. Mombasa Club Gin (I acquired this bottle in Madrid last year…when I could still travel.) Shaken, not stirred. I mentally channeled vermouth in as a “spirit-spirit.” Three blue cheese olives. Pip patiently observed the process, waiting for me to throw a golf ball down the steep drive for him to chase and fetch.

Slider image
Slider image
Slider image

The rest of the week at work was a combination of wandering the vast warehouse and doing mostly LPs at the end of the days.

Part of me is still stuck in panic/crisis mode. I’m worried. Worried about what is yet to come.

…the Second Wave…

Everyone is talking about that. For many, there was no First Wave that was like the tidal waves that swamped some places.

The Second Wave may be economic. I fear, as bad as things are now, that when we are out of the lockdowns and the dust settles, we may see vast swaths of empty businesses. Places where people worked, earned paychecks and paid taxes.

I live my life in the business trenches. This place has been under ever increasing assault in recent years. Much of it are the “unfunded mandates” pressed upon us by various governments.

From hugely expensive health care costs and criteria (we’ve always paid 2/3 of premiums for employees who wanted insurance. Now we have to pay for everyone whether they want it or not. Sometimes much more than 2/3s.)

To the ever increasing Minimum Wage rates in Maryland. It will soon be $15 per hour. I understand the concept. The reality here is that many of our jobs are entry level—high school kids’ first time out. Young people in between classes or career decisions—temps. Older folks who just want something to do to keep busy. These are people who do not need or want a “living wage.”

Then there is the nationwide state and jurisdictional Sales Tax money grab. We have to calculate, collect and remit dozens of sales taxes now. It is a huge expense of time and labor. Often the amount is just “pennies” per month. Here’s a recent edict from California:

California Edict

And that’s just the updates for a handful of jurisdictions in that bizarre state.

I’m told there is one zip code in Colorado that has 4 DIFFERENT sales tax rates we must comply with!

There are plenty of other artificed things assaulting small business beside COVID-19…but I won’t whine.

Suffice it to say I will worry. That money and time has to come from somewhere.

Does it affect whom we hire? Does it affect the pay of people who have devoted years working here?

I don’t know how we are still in business.

I’m glad there are some smart people here who can navigate the madness.

The bottomless pits of government seem to think small businesses that can’t run up infinite deficits are bottomless pits of revenue and will somehow find money for anything they decide to require us to do.

So I imagine a lot of businesses were struggling already. Being smacked for months by COVID-19 and lockdowns…how many familiar places will stay dark when this over?

In the Rare Book Trade, Book Fairs and Institutional* sales were the lifeblood for many specialists.

* University, Museum, Foundation, etc. libraries

I don’t know when there will be another real “full contact” book fair. I pitched the idea of “Virtual Bookfairs” a couple months ago. There is technology. Here’s an example:

You can use the controls at the bottom to zoom in and out. Up and down. Left, right, 180 degrees, 360 degrees…

Now imagine doing this with a typical booth at a book fair. You could “attend” that booth. Zoom in on the shelves or tables or glass cases. Booksellers could have an online printed catalog you can cross-reference. The bookseller could be available (during show hours?) via Direct Messaging or text or phone to answer questions and send more images…

Amazing…and cheaper than flying your books across country and risking mishandling before, during or after the fair.

It has to be exciting though. It has to be a “Show.”

But who will be the buyers be if the Institutions stay closed and aren’t getting tuitions, etc.?

If the collectors are short of money?

If other booksellers can’t afford to buy from other booksellers…?

Worries…about THAT Second Wave…

I wander around the warehouse worrying…am I missing anything…

We are bringing a lot of people in just to keep them employed. I fret about what they can all do—safely—and what the priorities are.

At night I often wake in the wee hours, my body shuddering…

On Wednesday, I experienced a couple “Lasts.”

I drove up into the field to cut and gather more downed wood. The grass up there is now hip high in places. There are deer in the 7-acre vacant lot often. Ticks… I won’t be wading into the grass til things get cold again in fall I imagine.

I don’t want to catch Tick Disease either.

At home that night it was about 53 degrees inside and 53 out. (This time of year there is often equilibrium in and out.) It was getting colder. There’s still some scruffy wood I’ve dragged in from dead falls near the porch.

Scruffy Wood

If I don’t burn it, I will have to drag it…someplace else.

So the little fire I built in the woodstove Wednesday night may be the last in the woodstove til fall as well.

Moving Mountains

When I first moved to the mountain a decade ago, I fantasized: “What if I brought up a stone from the road side every time I came home?”

Of course, I didn’t keep up. Otherwise there would be thousands making my part of the mountain “higher.”

Lately though, I have been scouting as I drive down. I look for interesting stones in the right of way on either side of the mile long private drive I share with a handful of neighbors. (I look for rocks that I believe I can lift.) If I remember (and I’m still in the mood) when I drive home, I’ll stop and put some in my truck.


I dunno. There are rocks everywhere up there. EVERYWHERE. I can’t put a shovel in the ground without hitting stone.

So even though I’d nearly filled the truck with wood, I stopped and hefted some stones that looked interesting onto the tailgate and then proceeded up the mountain—slowly, so they wouldn’t roll off.

I’m moving rocks that came down this ancient mountain long, long ago back up toward the top.

I’m moving the mountain. Rebuilding it in my minuscule (but humanly heavy) way.

Thousands? Actually, I have imported many thousands over the years. They come up on pallets like this:

Pallets of Stones

They become terraces and walls and steps and seats.

Slider image
Slider image
Slider image

I love rock walls and seats and follies.

Stone Steps

I guess you could call me stone crazy…


It is Memorial Day Weekend!

That used to mean a lot. We’d go to cookouts and parties…

For many years now—not so much.

This year…maybe I’ll go for a ride sometime this weekend since the lockdown is partially ended.

I dunno.

I checked the three Instagram accounts when I awoke.

We’ve got this many “followers”:

7476 4015 720

Not Kardashian numbers, but not embarrassing either.

I checked my new Journal which began in Mid March.

5540 3514 735

The first number is @booksbythefoot.
The second is @wonderbookandvideo.
The third is me @merryandpippinlotr.

I’m losing ground?!

What’s wrong with me…nobody likes me…


It is a fun, mostly worthless numbers “game.” I don’t gamble—so there!

I’ve been posting a lot of “comfort” images. Mostly shelves of antique books of only decorative value. People seem to “like” those a lot!

Before rolling downhill, I tied up a bunch of Praying Mantis egg cases around the property. They are amazing creatures. Maybe they’ll help if the Killer Hornets from across the Pacific get this far…LOL.

I bought 50. Why? It was a great deal to buy in volume.

I do know I’ll be in Saturday and Sunday to play with books…and sort of supervise the weekend crew.

There’s a whole herd of carts with my name on them.

I need some weekend management help…that’ll be like pulling teeth.

But weekends don’t really mean anything anymore, do they? In the current COVID Era, all days are the same.

I’m so glad I have a job I can go to. I am VERY lucky.

We have a dozen pallets of children’s books going out somewhere today.

Slider image
Slider image

Those giant boxes are called “Gaylords.”

It is not much money—only pennies per book—but it really feels GOOD to not have to pulp these. Tens of thousands of kids will get books…because our mission is #BookRescue.

We’ve been sending a lot of paperbacks for pennies to prisons lately as well.

I’ve been too busy doing executive and management and COVID-19 things to get into too many books this week.

I did see a lot of very cool vinyl records. Including a nice run of old obscure African American titles

Slider image
Slider image
Slider image
Slider image
Slider image

This find is full of “power.” World War II Naval power.

Naval Airline Transport Service

A large collection of Marxist and communist literature from the 50s and 60s was sorted.

That’ll be a tough slog.

A highlight arrival during the COVID-19 Era was my own copy of the If There Were No Books portfolio.

Alan James Robinson hand watercolored each of the 24 images we collaborated on. He extra enhanced my versions with specs and suggestions I requested. Plus, there are a few hidden surprises he snuck in that I’m still discovering…

Slider image
Slider image
Slider image
Slider image

17 Comments on Article

  1. David commented on

    Have you thought about donating the gaylords of children’s books to Dolly Parton’s imagination library? Might be some nice tax advantages and you could probably move all you have:

    1. chuc replied on

      We give a LOT of them away!
      Mostly regionally.

      Right now we are sold out!


    2. chuck replied on

      We give a LOT of them away!
      Mostly regionally.

      Right now we are sold out!


  2. Eric commented on

    It may seem silly to wear a mask alone in a car. I don’t disagree. But I find myself wearing it by default to limit the amount of times I have to put it on and take it off as I visit various shops (yours included this past Sunday) in the span of one trip.

    I’m trying to avoid putting my hands in the vicinity of my face while I’m out, especially after shopping and touching products. The chance is remote, I know – I just don’t want to pass it to others in my family, young or old.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      I understand completely.
      We all wear masks at work.
      I find myself pulling it up blocks away from work.
      Thanks for reading and writing!

      1. Michael Dirda replied on

        My wife Marian picks up rocks the way you do. Whenever she passes a construction site, she asks if she can have some of the rocks. We also buy them from Irwin Stone–a real workingman’s place in Rockville. We used them in the gullies on the edge of our corner property, both as decoraton and to prevent erosion.

        1. Charles Roberts replied on

          There’s an Irwin Stone a few hundred yards away from the warehouse!
          I’ve had many pallets trucked up the mountain.
          When it is comfortable you guys should come see my stone piles and walls.

          It is yet another Gentle Madness…

          This blog was rushed – not edited and many photos didnt get uploaded…It will be fixed Monday

          Thanks for writing Michael!

    2. Gregory replied on

      Yes, sometimes I just find that I have forgotten to take my mask off. And if you’re going in and out, it would be better to just leave it on for the trip.

      1. Charles Roberts replied on

        I often have my mask up at unnecessary times…its becoming part of me.
        Thank you for reading and writing!

  3. Joshua commented on

    I have thoroughly enjoyed these posts every Saturday. When I heard the Frederick store was open on Saturday, I had to take a trip to buy a couple books from the greatest store of all time!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you so much. I really thought these times should be recorded.
      I really appreciate your taking the time to write!
      (And visiting the store!)

  4. Geoffrey Hughes commented on

    Chuck, Any idea why Books by the Foot has the most followers? Just photos of bindings and colors? I love the aesthetics of books, but not just spines. Don’t get it.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Eye candy.
      They love the old book rooms even though they’re not collectible.
      Comfort food…
      This story was rushed and needs editing.
      More than half the pics didnt get put up either
      Thanks for writing Geoff!

  5. Tom Hicks commented on

    Congratulations on reopening, Chuck. It will be interesting to hear about your journey from here on out.

    Sad to say, I’m one of those California customers who will complicate your life with the Byzantine tax rates you have to collect. You know that it was Prop 13 that ushered in the era of creative taxing when property owners decided they didn’t want to pay for services with property taxes, but didn’t reduce their appetite for government services. It all has something to do with balloon mechanics — push it down on one end, and it pops up on the other. I’ll try to hold my purchases to amass enough volume to justify the effort of calculating the tax. I suppose God decided never to test Job with tax issues because even he had a limit on the cruelty he’d impose on an essentially good man. Take good care. Wear your mask (solo-driving coverage optional). And let us know how the life of a bookseller progresses.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      LOL Tom!
      Don’t stop ordering.
      We have an (expensive) software service that calculates, collects and remits the vast array of sales taxes
      We always wear our masks here. I do find myself pulling my mask up at odd times like driving as well.
      I imagine Job had taxes – but they were probably much simpler!
      Thanks for writing (and reading)

  6. Ben Abbate commented on

    Thanks so much for another great blog! Enjoy these and wait for more ..!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank for reading and writing!
      I really appreciate it.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *