I am driving up I 95 from Baltimore to Philadelphia. Two tough cities that at various times have been “homes”, albeit briefly. The traffic is surprisingly light. The weather is quite cool, but calm and bright. It would have been an introspective trip, but my new lawyer called and wanted to catch up on the “COVID case” that started (and should have ended) when Governor Hogan began shutting down Maryland businesses at the end of March 2020. My previous lawyer, who I’d known for many years—but seldom used professionally—had retired this fall after decades of capers with crooks and creeps and sad victims. As we chatted on speakerphone, the miles (and dollars) flew by.
Philadelphia… my first recollection of the place was when my second oldest brother, Tony, decided to go to the University of Pennsylvania. My eldest brother, Joe, was already at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. I can vaguely recall the trip from Buffalo driving him down. A big cushiony 1950s Buick—my dad was a “Buick man”—filled with Mom and Dad and my brothers Tony and Jim (who was about 15 then) and me—maybe 5 years old. I recall some fights about Tony’s driving. Dad was critical of him passing blindly on a mountain road. We stayed at a lodge in the Poconos, and I recall 5 bears’ corpses strung up on wooden pole frames outside the place. Much of that trip is lost in the fogs of time. Everyone is dead now. Tony passed away last April 15—he was the last witness to my youth.
Naturally, Tony wanted us gone as soon as possible, but Dad had some doctor friends at various universities and wanted to visit them. I wanted to see a Phillies baseball game. I loved baseball and would listen to distant games of my transistor radio (“Made in Japan”) or watch the game of the week broadcast on TV Saturdays. Out television was a big wooden box that held the black-and-white screen whose picture was always fuzzy. The rabbit ears antenna atop needed to be moved often. There was no baseball team in Buffalo. Cleveland was too far, Dad would say. I was a Dodgers fan because my first Little League team was the Dodgers. I followed them most of my life—religiously checking the box scores in the morning newspaper. No one else in the family seemed interested in going to a baseball game.
I was not to see a Major League baseball game in person for many years.
I recall we did go to Bookbinder’s Restaurant. I was too young to appreciate it and likely got a Salisbury Steak (hamburger) from the children’s menu. I wish I could go there now. The Drake Hotel in Chicago acquired their secret recipe for their iconic mock turtle soup. I have that every time I am near the Drake. It comes with the tiny “shot” of sherry that you pour into the soup if you wish. It is wonderful.
We would visit Tony periodically to pick him up and bring him home. There was no easy way to get from Philadelphia to Buffalo. I recall the horror and fear my parents had when he got blindsided in downtown Philly. He was driving a Vespa (which my parents didn’t know he had.) A car crossed multiple lanes and never saw him. He was laid up for quite a while.
One of those years—prior to 1962, when Joe graduated from Annapolis—we went down to see the Army Navy Football game in a huge old Philly stadium. It was freezing. I remember being bundled up in blankets and being given hot cocoa. And I do remember all the young men in their West Point or Academy uniforms cheering their teams. I think Roger Staubach may have been the Navy quarterback.
Then Tony met Kathy, who was a nursing student at Penn. She grew up in nearby Scranton. Wedding plans were made, but they eloped to Maryland, which was a popular place for elopement. I don’t recall why. I think the town was Rising Sun in the northeast corner of Maryland. After graduation, they stayed in Philly for a while because Tony was working as a teacher in the new Head Start programs.
They moved to Buffalo for further education. They lived on Grand Island in the Niagara River. My dad and mom and I soon moved from Buffalo to Maryland for his promotion to Chief of Medicine at the Ft. Howard hospital. I recall Tony wasn’t happy about that. I wasn’t either. I’d had an idyllic childhood. The brand new Maryland suburbs we moved into were a wasteland at the time. The kids in the neighborhood were nothing like the friends I’d had up north. Then my parents got sick and things were… just terrible.
My senior year, I wasn’t really paying attention to college applications. My high school was a dismal failure from administration to teachers to…
My dad found a good school for me—Connecticut College. They would take me because they had gone co-ed the year before and were desperate for men. So, I guess you could call it a kind of affirmative action?
It was there I met the woman who would be come my wife years later. She graduated a couple years ahead and went to law school in Philadelphia in 1974. I commuted there quite often and then began commuting home to Maryland when my parents’ health issues worsened. My dad died suddenly in 1975, and my mom was in and out of nursing homes.
Going to Philadelphia was often a stopping point on the way to or from home and school. Life was a mess. We had no money and lived like paupers in Germantown when I visited. It would be an extravagance to take her out to a Rustler Steak House dinner—probably $3.98 for the works. A typical meal was grilled cheese sandwiches—which wasn’t cheese but slabs cut from a long block of Velveeta. Her apartment was broken into a couple of times. It was a scary proposition to go outside anytime—but especially at night. There was a McDonalds just across the bridge above the 4-lane freeway. Mayor Rizzo was the strong-arm boss/mayor. His police wore jodhpurs, high black leather boots, helmets and sunglasses. She had no TV. We would listen to old-time radio shows rebroadcast while sitting in the dark. I did get to finally see a Major League Baseball game during that time. The Phillies were playing the Padres, and I got a seat in right field and snuck down to be closer. Dave Winfield of the Padres was dealing with hecklers.
“Well, you’re here paying to see ME—aren’t you!”
Then she graduated and moved back to Waynesboro, Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia became a distant memory.
My mom died, and we moved in together on a little farm south of Gettysburg. I was opening my little bookstore while I moved from Rockville. We lived there from 1980 to 1990.
Sometime in the early 2000s, a friend convinced me I should join the ABAA. I had no idea why. But I did.
Unbeknownst to me, I was controversial. Some people who had never done business with me assumed I was unqualified because my company ended with “& Video.” Such a person could never be a quality bookseller.
I got a private message from a stranger encouraging me to carry on with fortitude. She wrote something like, “Personally, I am glad to see an ‘& Video’ in the org…”
She was a Philadelphia rare book dealer with impeccable pedigrees. She had a PhD. She and her partner worked with famous libraries and institutions. Their specialties included ancient books on Spanish America as well as ancient books from all over the world.
We became email “pen pals.”
We would only cross paths occasionally at book shows.
Once I came and visited their shop in Philly with my older son. I forget why we were in the area.
Their building, to all outward appearances, is a 19th-century stone mansion. But there is much more to it than that. It is on the grounds of a very old US military campus. The Arsenal. The building was originally used to store munitions. Part of it has extremely thick walls. Then it evolved, I believe, into the officers’ quarters. Now it is one of the loveliest antiquarian bookshops I have ever seen. Crossing the threshold is akin to stepping into another historic era. Furnished with beautiful rare and ancient books, the contents multiply the pleasure of a visit.
After that initial visit, my son became a big fan and has bought many books from them over the years.
A few months ago, he sent me a note that they had told private customers they were downsizing with the plan being that they would at some point liquidate their books and sell their beautiful antique building.
“There comes a time in everyone’s life… and this will be that time.”
I knew I had to visit one last time. To cement my memories as well as reinforce my now old friendship with Cynthy and her partner David.
Their kindnesses to me over the years have been many. But more valuable is the example they set for me as booksellers and booklovers. I set a time to visit earlier in the fall, but an illness prevented me from joining my son and his husband on a visit. Then November was complicated by the trip to Italy and many pressing business concerns. I had to go soon or it would be too late. I had to go, as I would never see its like again.
A date was set. Wednesday, December 8th. Nothing would stop it. Circumstances did try to derail me. Last Friday afternoon, while working away trying to keep up with the influx of books we are drowning in, I got a call from a landlord’s rep. He had contacted me about renewing a lease over a month before.
Friday afternoons… it always seems if trouble is coming, it comes on Fridays.
“The landlord needs to raise the rent…”
Stunned, I told him I would think about it.
Then another call. The buyer of the East Street property wanted a sudden last-minute large reduction in my selling price. I thought it was a good deal. I thought it was a done deal.
So, two major components of my business life were suddenly unraveling.
Friday afternoons… when nothing can be done.
I just went home and made a strong martini and watched more episodes of Route 66.
Monday was eaten up by searches for potential new store locations and strategizing.
We are also so swamped with work and orders that we were actually looking at ways to throttle down sales. We are well staffed, but hiring in the current environment is quite… “problematic.” It is not good business to accept orders you can’t fill promptly.
Things had been going pretty well, but now we were being blindsided by matters beyond our control.
A film crew from a military agency was visiting the Frederick store on Monday, documenting our “impact on the community.” They wanted to come to the warehouse on Wednesday and meet me and film there. I really enjoy showing people around the warehouse and the many positive facets of what we do with books and movies and music.
But Wednesday was Cynthy’s day. I couldn’t postpone that. I reluctantly informed them that I would have to delegate their visit to a top manager.
Life in Wonderland is often, well usually, a blur. Sometimes things are more blurry than others.
Oh! And we are getting in way too many books. We are out of space. If you’ve read these stories, you’ve heard that before. This time I really mean it. Really! We were leaving books outdoors in the parking lot because we couldn’t fit them inside.
“How can we slow down buying at the three stores?”
Wednesday came. I lingered long enough to give the film crew a quick tour of the facility. I was proud to hear the soldiers say “wow” at all the usual spots.
Then I was on the road. East on I 70. North around the Baltimore Beltway. Northeast on the infamous I 95.
My phone rang. It was my new lawyer. My old lawyer had retired in October. He had to speak with me “today.” “Urgently.” I put him on speakerphone, and we went over details of the lawsuit we are filing for well over an hour. It wasn’t a pleasant drive.
I crossed through Delaware and into Pennsylvania. I recalled then I had been to Philly a number of times in recent years—albeit just to the airport, pretty far to the south of the city. American Airlines—where I have a lot of “miles”—flies to many places from Philly. From the three DC region airports—not so much. I found it much less hassle to drive the two hours to that airport rather than drive over an hour to a closer flight but risk the loss of luggage or missing a connection. Most of the trips canceled by COVID in 2020 would have left from Philadelphia.
I also recalled we had visited South Philly for a large and fairly tragic house call. It was 12 years ago. We drove up with a crew of 8 in the truck, a van, and the Suburban. It was a dilapidated brick row house filled with pretty good books in jumbled disorder. I recall wooden crates somehow running up the stairs. There was also lots of old porn. Someone else was buying that. He had been a kind of bookseller/porn purveyor but had ended as a hoarder.* (see near end) It was a massive long-distance book buy.
Past the airport and past all the dockyards and waterfront factories, I finally got to the rough and tough city proper. Then to the Arsenal only a few minutes off the Interstate. I stopped at the guard shack. It is no longer a military institution, but it still has guards to protect its campus, which has schools and other entities in its many buildings.
“I’m going to the bookstore.”
The barrier arm arose, and I was waved through. PRB&M’s home is on a bucolic lane that borders what must have one been the parade ground. Groundskeepers were blowing autumn’s leaves off the road. One was in my way and couldn’t hear my approach. I gently tapped the horn. No reaction. One of his mates signaled him, and he reluctantly moved off.
Then I pulled up in front of the building. Still with the 6 rocking chairs on the porch, but now dressed up for Christmas.
I pushed the doorbell, and Cynthy appeared in the sidelight of the big old door. COVID has been unkind to me, I feel, but Cynthy is unchanged. She let me in, and the years apart vanished in the cheer and goodwill of the grand place.
She sat me at the dining room table—which is now used mostly for visitors to inspect books—especially very large—and old and rare books.
We had a cup of coffee and a cookie and caught up with one another’s lives.
Then she toured me through room after room of the massive mansion.
That began in the large foyer with heavy wooden balustrades of the winding stairway spiraling up toward the skylight high above.
Displayed on a table, there was perhaps the most beautiful set of books I have ever seen. A traveling library from the 18th century. I knew I had to have it from 20 feet away.
Room after room after room… all containing beautiful books.
She took me out to the garage where some of the more mundane books are shelved.
Re-entering, I noted even the back entrance evokes the charm and informality of such a formal venue.
Part of their business is named Sessa’s Books. Sessa was the bookstore cat long ago.
Finally, I’d seen everything but had looked at nothing.
“Do you want to look around on your own now?”
Well… yeah! I’d been tantalized at every step we had taken.
I answered in the affirmative.
“Then I will release you into the shop’s wild.”
I got a text from my son asking if I’d ever gotten to Cynthy.
I responded with an image of one of the grand rooms.
He responded with a want list of a couple of PRB&M’s books and “would you mind picking them up?”
What a blessing to have a son who is an antiquarian book lover. I’m proud I planted those biblioseeds early on.
Time passed, and a pile of books formed itself upon the dining room table.
Finally, I was saturated. I don’t want my obituary to read:
“He died of a surfeit of old and rare tomes.”
She tallied my choices and wrapped them in bubbles.
It was too early for dinner and too late for lunch—although I tried.
Dismantling a masterpiece takes times and effort and a great deal of consideration.
She was busy.
We carried my choices to my vehicle and hugged many times. To say I am awkward at farewells is a gross understatement.
But we will meet again. Maybe she will need my services for lower-end leftovers—if there are any in 2022.
She waved from the porch.
I drove around the parade ground, and we waved again across the old field of martial dreams.
Then I left that magical oasis. A beautiful place with beautiful contents run by magical people—yet for all that–“cozy” and never daunting. We will never see its like again.
Soon I was on the rough streets of the tough city again, and the voice in my phone guided me home.
It is Friday morning.
December is already flying.
There is so much I want to do, but business circumstances are tugging me away from what I’d rather do toward what I must do.
I still have a few hundred flower bulbs to plant. Then I can start cutting wood for next winter—or more likely the winter of ’23-’24.
I’ll be in the warehouse this weekend going through books—trying to get the best results for each. I’ll search for more space. Nooks and crannies to squeeze more books in so we don’t have to turn any away.
* (see above) My editor sent me this story about book hoarders.I don’t know if she’s dropping a hint. I consider myself a professional. I hoard books for profit. That’s my claim, and I am sticking to it.
Then comes Monday, and I will look to the future and act on what I can act on. I will react to things that are thrust upon me.
And I will think about yet another friend semi-retiring and know I will miss seeing her and David’s biblioperfection ever again.
But I have locked it up in my mind’s eye forever.
And if you have read this far, you have a slight inkling of what was.