Picking Up the Pieces—Journal of a Plague Year, Week 11

Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year

(Last week’s story was very rushed. Things were crazy here—like always. So it has been updated, and many images added. Read it here.)

Everyone knows what a sophisticated, extremely technical piece of equipment a physical book is. This explains it far better than I could:

How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand…there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold.

― JRR Tolkien

The week has been yet another blur.

There are new and traditional problems everywhere. Yesterday when Ernest and I returned from the (still shuttered) Gaithersburg store, the vast floor of the loading dock portion of the building was soaking wet. It hadn’t rained. We had been slammed with a sudden burst of heat and high humidity. The cold concrete floor was “sweating”! Profusely. It was almost like a Biblical plague. The weeping building.

Gaithersburg…the renovations there are creeping along in a petty pace from day to day.

It is a mess.

We did get a big load of new bookcases installed on Tuesday.

New Bookcases

There are still thousands of books on the floor.

I’ve been concerned the county will announce a sudden opening, and we won’t be close to ready.

(I needn’t have. The County Executive announced Thursday evening that retail stores Phase 1 would begin next Monday. His version is “curbside” only. That means we won’t be having any customers. Bizarre. Costco, Walmart, Lowe’s, etc have been packing thousands of people in for months, but a small craft or jewelry store…or bookstore—who may see 10 or 20 customers a DAY—is STILL unsafe to open. Bizarre.)

It is Friday. I was there yesterday for a couple hours. I’ll go down again today to see if some sense can be made of all this.

Some day it WILL reopen.

So many moving parts. So many new things needing attention.

Where is the need the most?

Everywhere it seems.

There has been some substantial progress. We laid out all the old computer and electronic equipment that has been hoarded here over the years.

Computer Scraps

Clark was able to quickly scan the things he wanted for spare parts. He also destroyed old hard drives as necessary.

Reliable Recycling is only a few hundred yards away. Eric came by and took everything except the old monitors! He even paid us fifty bucks!

Space After Computers Gone

Space. So much space has opened up in the warehouse.

You would think that is a good thing. In some ways it is. We’ve sold or purged a lot of unneeded things.

But the unsorted books we need to keep the internet beast fed…the supply keeps dwindling. Frederick and Hagerstown are buying every day. I’m getting house call requests now the lockdown is over, and I’m sending them to scouts. But not at nearly the pre-Plague pace.

…We NEED books.


It was about this time of year in 1980 when I went into the Book Alcove of Gaithersburg and asked Carl Sickles if he was hiring summer help. I was hoping to go to Grad School at GW in the fall. I had just finished a weird stint as a door-to-door Census Taker. That was my last real (unreal) job.

He was a very Dickensian character. A retired VA Civil Servant who had been a tail-gunner in B-17s in World War II, he always wore “half glasses” on the very tip of his fairly long nose. There was a bit of a hair island standing straight up in the middle of his forehead. He often wore a carpenter’s apron because I think he enjoyed building bookcases more than anything else.

“Sure!” he said. “Can you start tomorrow?”

And as Robert Frost wrote: “That has made all the difference.”

40 years…

I was very young and impulsive. I am no longer young. I soon told him I wanted to open a store of my own.

The Frederick store opened September 21, 1980.

No. It doesn’t seem like yesterday. It seems like ancient history.

No. Time hasn’t flown by. But then it has never been as painfully slow as watching the second hand slowly go round and round on the round white faces of the school room clocks.

I have been very lucky living in this book culture—through bad times and good—where not a single day has gone by where I have not seen things I’ve never seen before. Mostly books.

Like this:

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It was on a random cart of old books set aside for my attention. Whoever put it there didn’t flag it to draw my attention. Likely it wasn’t opened. It was one of thousands I sorted through last weekend. The spine was dull, and I only opened it up out of habit—perhaps mixed with a bit of serendipity—perhaps with a pinch of divine intervention by my Book Muse.

Lady Chatterley's Lover Signature

Ahhhh…I’m very lucky.

The books are very lucky as well.

This would have been lost forever had we not done the fairly complex triage process on it as we do on every book that comes in.

Where did it come from? No idea. There wasn’t anything else on that cart that was very exciting. Indeed, most of the old books were just “old books.” Those I left on the cart to be rolled up to the Books by the Foot department. They have no value but for their looks—decorative books. No reader, collector or bookseller would buy them.

I went through dozens of carts last weekend. My weekdays are so busy I don’t get time to play with a lot of books.

Ernest and I are rushing down I 270 to the Gaithersburg store. I have my window open so my breath will be drawn out that way. We can’t be 6 feet apart in a van. But then failure to social distance is no longer a social faux pas, much less a crime. There’s not much traffic. The government people and many others are working from home being paid. Many others are not being paid or are collecting unemployment or other public fund checks.

Montgomery County…one of the wealthiest places on earth—CLOSED.


There have been some bizarre and somewhat funny emails from customers.

This came to our Customer Service inbox:

I would like to sell my Limited Edition Harvard Classics Alumni Set, previously owned by my great-grandfather…who halped saved WW I and WW II.

Your website states you offer mobile service to come to your home if the collection is particularily large and/or valuable, which mine is.

My phone number is […], my name is […], and I hope we can do business together.

Thank you.

I replied as I often need to:

What town are the books in?

Usually these are from sellers in the Baltimore-Washington Region.

Her reply:

…—thank you for writing. My town is Apple Valley, CA 92308

As I understand from your website, you are able to drive here to purchase and collect the set?

Hoping so…

I could have been snarky and replied I’d be there in a few days—after the lockdown was over. But I gently replied it was too far to go and that I would try to find a colleague closer to her.

So far, no luck.

The Harvard Classics…my grandmother had a set in the old house in Texas. As a bookseller, the “Five Foot Shelf of Books” has always been a kind of white elephant. Nowadays, we can use them—complete or broken—for decorative purposes.

“Classics” ain’t what they used to be.

Then this one came into Customer Service:

Good morning and I hope you are all well. My inquiry is not urgent but I do look forward to your reply. I’m currently rewriting my Will, in which I donate my extensive collection of all manner of books to you. My books happen to be located in Italy 🙂 so my executor will ship them to you. Can you outline the procedure for that please? Many thanks, stay well, and whatever you do, DON’T GO OUT OF BUSINESS! You are an international treasure.

PS: I gave you my US phone number but it’s rarely in use as I live abroad.

I was very flattered and replied that it would be very expensive to ship them through the Pillars of Hercules and across the Atlantic. I inquired if they might be considered rare or valuable. I’m waiting to hear back.

An “international treasure”… That IS flattering. I wish there were millions more like her!

Well, I’m on my way back from Gaithersburg. It is closing in on noon. I met with the manager who has done a great job reinventing the place. That store is the same store where I took a summer job from Carl Sickles in 1980.

Carl was incredibly generous and good-hearted. But he was a child of the Great Depression. (I wonder if we are headed for a depression?) He could squeeze a penny so hard Abe Lincoln’s eyes would pop out. During the renovations of the last couple months. We have taken out a lot of the quirky bookcases he would shoehorn into nooks and crannies everywhere…EVERYWHERE. He would use every scrap of wood. For backing. he would also often use scraps of paneling as bracing.

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These are very sound. In 40 years, no bookcase he or I ever built failed. Occasionally a shelf would crack when a customer or novice employee tried to use one as a step, but those are easily repaired.

We even removed some that were built with finishing nails. I recall when I first bought a Makita battery operated screw gun, it took a physical demonstration and a lot of convincing to get him to drop the hundred dollars or so they cost back then. But he was quickly convinced when he saw how much time he would save using it. He was always full of practical aphorisms like:

“Time is money.”

It is strange to be changing the place where I started my career. (Don’t Worry! It is still very organic and quirky. If you look closely, you can still see a bit of the puke green original shag carpet. I was loath to remove it even though it had been worn through to the concrete in many places.) There is a continuity for me being in there.

Vanessa, the manager, thinks the place is haunted by a ghost. She won’t go in alone at night.

She even sent this picture as proof.

Gaithersburg Ghost

I think maybe she’s teasing. Don’t you?

If there is a spirit there, it would a gentle and blithe one. Carl (and his wife, Eleanor) were always upbeat and good-natured. After all, they had been through a depression AND a World War. The 80s and 90s were generally inoffensive.

There’s a lot of work to do there. I hope we are ready before the county says little retailers like us can open safely.

Gaithersburg in Progress
1000s of books on the floor during the Gaithersburg renovation.

I think it will be “Wonder”-ful. All your favorite categories will be larger and even better organized. The place will be full of fresh books, LPs, CDs and DVDs. The magnificent job Vanessa has done decorating the end caps throughout with antique prints and the eye candy will please you, I’m sure.

So be ready! Sign up for our monthly emails! AND the Frederick and Hagerstown stores are open every day 10-7.

Here’s a coupon you can print and bring in if you live close enough to visit in person: https://www.wonderbk.com/retail/coupon/

Over the years, we have collected several hundred thousand cans of food doing similar food drives. At this time, the need is greater than ever.

The week has been less manic than previous ones. There is no risking any false sense of security, however. Our guidelines in the stores and at the warehouse are stricter than mandated.

The safety of our employees and customers is the top priority. But we are also trying to give everyone some peace of mind. So please be patient with us and our masks and rules. Just be glad we are open for you to buy and sell books and stuff.


Masks…have you noticed how everyone has been saying “What?” so much?

As Sister John Anthony—the terrifying nun who taught me one miserable semester in junior high—would beat into me (physically at times): “Annunciate!”

Yes. That was her real name. She was 4’10”, and her nose and chin both protruded extensively.

Still, I learned a lot of lessons from my brief sojourn as a Methodist—the only Protestant—in that parochial school.

And I think rebreathing so much of my own CO2 is causing some mental fog as well as fogging my occasionally needed reading glasses.

I find myself huffing and puffing and being a bit disoriented. I hope that stops when they change their minds and say masks are bad and unnecessary.

Since I can’t cut wood anymore and since spring is rapidly aging, I’ve been rushing home and gardening a lot. I am WAY behind. But of course every gardener is way behind.

Probably the best gardening book I’ve read is Karel Capek‘s The Gardener’s Year. It is full of eternal verdant verities.

One thing every gardener knows is that gardening is full of failure. Plants die. It goes with the territory…territory…lol.

One thing I’ve always remembered from Capek’s book is that gardeners must learn their lesson from failures but never dwell on them. He advises looking at the successes and remember them.

I’ll write more on this great author and humanitarian when I find my copy and reread it.

But here are a couple things to pique your interest.

Capek coined the word “robot” in his novel RUR.

Capek (I think it is pronounced Chop—eck) was second most wanted man in Czechoslovakia by the Nazis.

So, I’ve thrown my home time into some gardening this week. I live in the woods, so most of my plants are… woodland.

I love hostas and have dozens of different varieties around the place. Some tiny miniatures. Others big lush green juicy things over three feet high and in a clump five feet in diameter.

Hostas in Truck

I bought a couple big ones, and when I got home, I noticed the pots were full of baby hostas.

I couldn’t have them die in the shadow of their progenitors, so I cut them out and created “nursery gardens” like these:

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When they get bigger, I will transplant them. (If they don’t die.)

I also transplanted a bunch of “volunteers.” These are young plants that sowed themselves in areas where their future would be uncertain.


There was a clump of about 30 Trillium seedlings. They would never all survive packed together in one spot. So I got a long narrow shovel and “lifted” the clump from beneath the roof system. Then I carefully separated them from one another. Their roots were intertwined. I created a few spots for them in very loose soil. If I’m lucky, there will be a lot more Trilliums in my future…next spring…for hope spring eternal for gardeners…and, I hope, for all of us!

I even garden into the night as long as I have white wine to sustain me.

Gardening in the Dark

8 Comments on Article

  1. Gail Klemm commented on

    Hi, Chuck!
    I enjoyed your most recent post – I have missed a few, so settled in to read and was startled to see my town pop up as the location of the set of books the woman hoped that you would come to examine and buy!
    Apple Valley has only two zip codes, and hers indicates that she is somewhere south of my house. I am shaking my head, thinking that I have been here since 1983, listed in ABAA directories both national and local, and people still managed to miss that. A few years ago one of my southern CA colleagues asked if I would visit someone who had a library to sell, and advise on content. I was happy to oblige, and astonished to find this collector lived quite close, though our paths had never crossed. My main specialty was children’s books and I worked from home by appointment, so that meant most of my customers were not local. Still, one usually hears about avid collectors, one way or another.
    So, now I have been retired for nearly a year (my application for emeritus status was submitted, but I have had no communication. Stressful time for all, so I will hear eventually.)
    I wish I had a dollar for every time I have wished that Apple Valley were convenient for you! I have a lot of books just gathering dust because I haven’t done any business since my husband died. I finally said “Enough!” I should have invited colleagues to come make selections, but was too discombobulated, and just pulled the plug.
    Be well, my friend! I know that there is so much uncertainty for the book trade and everything else. Maybe my impulsive decision was not entirely ill-timed.
    My kids love their Jabberwocky prints – a happy reminder of their dad waking them in the morning, reciting the poem. Makes me happy!
    Warm regards, Gail

    1. Chuck replied on

      Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to write Gail.
      You have always been so kind to me.
      I appreciate it!
      I’ll reply privately as well.

  2. Steven Rodgers commented on

    Dear Mr. Roberts: Given the outrageous executive press conference and policy announcement in MC regarding the status of retail openings, I’m delighted to learn that you’re still not ready to open. Take your time, this will take a while! Curbside pickup certainly works for stores like staples, but what about gift shops, book shops, record stores, thrift stores and countless other specialty shops where the customer needs to actually see the stuff and where, I’m sure, many buying decisions only materialize in the store itself. It’s called browsing. So, while our big boxers continue to thrive, you guys in MC can just sit there, take it and like it. I get it that you experience this as “bizarre,” but I would also like to suggest to you that the decision taken might actually be an expected outcome when one party, particularly THAT party, runs the game without any opposition. Certain people and issues can easily become invisible, and that’s what appears to have occurred in your case. It’s so obvious on its face that curbside pick-up only does nothing for your retail sector. Could it be that (present company excepted if applicable) most small business owners have shall we say, different political sensibilities, and that the gang calling the shots stays fat and sassy catering to our very secure government ruling class? If true, then there’s nothing bizarre about what’s transpiring. And don’t expect much sympathy from the general populace of MC. In a recent poll, over 70% of MC residents were reported as in favor of the county’s covid policies. The future is likely to mirror the present, I can only extend my sympathies to those small business owners who are trying to stave off the edge, all the while curling into a ball and muttering, how did I get myself into this? These are very sad times, and mark me, there is no guarantee in the concept pent-up demand, particularly in terms of how people spend discretionary income. You break a spending pattern, people often evaluate, and they can easily move on to something else. I was recently suspended by my local “neighborhood fill in the blank” internet posting site because I got into a debate over such and such store just reopened in our local shopping center, “Are they allowed to do that?” I pointed out, among other things, that the shopping center tenants were reporting about a 90 percent decline in revenue, but no matter, I was advocating for the wrong side, somebody tattled, and I got the ax. I’ve learned my lesson, going forward, it’s all about catching the people who don’t clean up their dog’s poop. Mr. Roberts, this post should probably be deleted right after you read it, might be the safe thing to do. I will understand. Steve R

    1. chuck replied on

      Dear Steve
      Thank you for writing.
      Being in business I must be meticulously neutral in the community and amongst the employees.
      The State of Maryland owns the playing field and we must follow their rules.
      I really appreciate your writing and commenting

      1. Michael Dirda replied on

        Okay, Chuck, how is it that the deer don’t eat all your hostas? They do around here–and it drives my wife Marian crazy. She’s a terrific and dedicated gardener, but spends half her time trying to figure out what plants she likes and that the deer don’t.
        Your Gaithersburg operation reminds me of what I’m doing here. I’ve emptied my basement of books and filled up a mobile storage unit parked in the driveway. Actually, the big container would only take half the books, but enough so I can work on cleaing and washing walls and installing new bookcases. I’m probably going to buy wire shelving from Home Depot that i can put together in situ. In years past, I built many a wooden bookcase, but just don’t feel like spending the time doing that now. As it is, I’m going to be culling my books enough so that I only keep the ones that will fit on shelves. No more boxes. We’ll see how hat goes.–md

        1. chuc replied on

          The deer dont come close to the house often.
          They are everywhere else up there.
          Perhaps it is because the dogs “chalet” is out there and they would bark at any approach
          Also, perhaps their scent helps.
          I dont plant any costa too far from the house because they do get eaten.
          Occasionally I have sprayed or spread repellants
          Thanks for reading and writing!

          1. Tom Hicks replied on

            The mule deer roam the streets here in Pacific Grove, helping themselves to any treat they find in your yard. It’s never clear who you’re gardening for — yourself or the deer. In spring, the does shepherd their young around town, showing them all the best eating spots. On occasion, the does have been known to chase dogs and their owners if they think they’re too near.

            I set out a pot of hostas for the deer today.
            Soon enough the doe appeared with her fawn
            Uninvited mischievous magic. I almost didn’t mind
            They made such a dainty feast for themselves
            The mother her head up and down keeping close watch
            The fawn nestled close learning the trick of it
            Leaves and stems, all my work disappeared
            Like the doe and her fawn when the dog got wind of the pair
            Knocking over the pot of hostas for the deer.
            (C) Tom Hicks 2020

          2. chuck replied on

            That’s beautiful Tom
            The deer are a plague to the forest here.
            They destroy the under story by consumption.

            I think they stay away from the house because of the dogs’ pen proximity

            The dogs also mark their territory around the house.

            (I must I do as well sometimes. Its an advantage to living where no one can see you.

            Thanks for reading and writing!

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