Reinvention—Journal of a Plague Year, Week 7

Mask Required

April come she will
When streams are ripe and swelled with rain
May, she will stay
Resting in my arms again
June, she’ll change her tune
In restless walks she’ll prowl the night
July, she will fly
And give no warning to her flight
August, die she must
The autumn winds blow chilly and cold
September I’ll remember
A love once new has now grown old

It is early Sunday morning, April 26th. 61 degrees in. 42 out. It is raining heavily outside. I believe it rained all night. I’m not sure because…

I slept!

[The whistle on the teapot is screaming. Gotta go… Now I’m back in bed with the laptop propped against my knees.]

Sleep has been very problematic recently. Whatever gave me peace, I hope it returns every night.

I haven’t been making coffee or tea in the mornings for much of the past month. I’ve been in too much of a panic to get down in the valley and see what I can do to get the book company back to life. I haven’t stopped at 7-11 for a month or so now. I feel bad. Perla is always so sweet to me there.

“You gotta get the 7-11 App. Every seventh coffee is free!”

She can juggle 4 or 5 customers at the crowded sales counter in Spanish and English. I need to get her another gift certificate for when the store reopens. She likes books.

No, COVID has had me rushing out of here in the mornings—getting my caffeine from various flavors of diet sodas stacked in cases under the counter in the laundry room. When I get to work, I’ll make coffee in the Keurig. I wipe down the machine with bleach wipes afterward. The latest news last week was Isopropyl alcohol was even better to use. It kills the virus in seconds. Makes sense. Now we are looking for alcohol…too bad gin is not effective.

Also, I have been too tired after sleepless nights to go through complex exercise of boiling water and pouring it over coffee grounds in the French press… LOL. But this morning I’ll have hot black coffee.

When I pulled into the parking lot…


I stepped over and peered into the gaping void.

Groundhog Gaping Hole

I instantly became convinced then I am not dealing with ordinary groundhogs.

No, not ordinary.

I’ve pushed over 150 full size bottles into the earth there.

Groundhog Hole with Bottles

I have fought on this front for over 5 years now.

There’s “something” going on here.

These can be no ordinary Whistle Pigs.

No…there is more than woodchucking going on here.

Perversely, some people call the demons “Chucks!”


What a horrid moniker!

When I was a child, I was often taunted:

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck
if a woodchuck could chuck wood?
A woodchuck would chuck all the wood he could
if a woodchuck could chuck wood!

I never considered that funny.

Now such a tease might send me over the edge!

[The etymology of the name woodchuck is unrelated to wood or chucking. It stems from an Algonquian (possibly Narragansett) name for the animal, wuchak—this does not make me feel better.]

Peering into the abyss, I fantasized they may be the R.O.U.S.*

* Rodents of unusual size

I must still have The Princess Bride on my mind from last week.

Perhaps they have dug a bottomless hole on the Western Front.

When I was a kid, like most kids, I at one time tried to dig a hole to China in the backyard. Perhaps these demons have succeeded. Could they have dug all the way to…



There they could be in the thrall of none other than THE Giant Rat of Sumatra!

By Jove, I have so greatly underestimated my diabolical foes!

I shall redouble my efforts after taking into consideration the dire dangers I may be facing.

Should I unmask the actual G.R.O.S., my very life might be at stake. Perhaps the city of Frederick, Maryland as well. Maybe western civilization itself.

For he must surely be the Napoleon of Rodentia.

King Rat.

I must be cautious…

Does the answer lie in the bottle? Or would that stimulant be considered an instrument of evil?

I know now I shall never nap on the grass near those enormous dens pockmarking my propoerty, lest I be dragged beneath the earth, to the underworld, not by some Faerie Queene, but by an enormous coarse-haired monster with hideous yellow fangs.

Groundhog Fangs

Sherlock Holmes himself said: “[The Sumatran Rat tale was] a story for which the world is not yet prepared.”

It must be a dread beast. Perhaps somehow stymied by Holmes and Watson long ago, could it be unleashed upon the world now? Freed from whatever has contained it? Able to escape via this mineshaft to Hell?!

I went to the outdoor storeroom and retrieved a box of empty bottles.

Down went the Sauvignon Blanc. Wistfully…DOWN went the empty of A Midwinter’s Night Dram. Down bourbon, scotch, Hendricks gin and Rioja… A full Baker’s Dozen buried neck down.

Then I drove up into the field and found a heavy wide flat stone. I set that upon the uppermost bottles.

Plugged Groundhog Hole

I felt better, though I noted I was nearly panting and my heart was racing.

I looked at my work. Everybody wants to save the world in some way. Perhaps this is why I was put in this parking lot in front of the sprawling book warehouse. Mayhap my real work is out here on the Western Front.

I will check this portal to the infernal region more often. I have little doubt my merely human efforts will sooner or later be breached by the subterranean demons.

I turned and headed for the office door, glancing over my shoulder every few paces—just in case.

Stepping inside, I reassessed. Is this an obsession or a duty? I…I am not sure. For the world is upside down. Things may not be as they seem. “Is all that we see or seem but a dream within a dream?”

I pray I am okay.

Sundays were once mine alone in the book warehouse. Now we are trying to get people in to do work that can’t be done on weekdays. This Sunday was this first attempt, and only two guys were coming in to clear shelves amongst the sprawling stacks of metal and wood bookcases which cover perhaps two acres of the three acres covered by the roof here. This culling must be done to make room for fresh stock. Whole swaths had been deleted from online inventory during the week. Previously the prices had been lowered to near cost. On Saturday, Travis, a very knowledgeable book person, had come in and cherry picked these “killed” sections. Mostly he was choosing books that were viable for the Books by the Foot program. They’d been on the shelves for several years and had never sold, even at a rock-bottom price. He might send some to the stores as well. Travis returned Sunday to do more. A helper came in and began clearing the shelving that had been cherry picked the day before. They were working separately in remote regions. Caryn was in sorting in her spacious southeast corner work area. Merry and Pippin were romping out in the dockyard.

My friend Michael Dirda (Pulitzer Prize-winning book columnist and critic for the Washington Post, author, lecturer…) had ordered some books online. In the past, I have allowed him, at odd hours, to go through our remote rooms full of antique books destined for Books by the Foot. 99% of all old books are just “old books” and are not desired by readers, collectors or other booksellers. Indeed, we buy many old books from other booksellers who are happy to monetize unsaleable books. He enjoys rummaging through the rooms, flashlight in hand. He finds some exotic, mostly forgotten, authors that are a specialty for his work. He also makes some surprising finds which have slipped through our nets. We catch a lot, and I dare say almost all the books of value that come through here. But like a good consulting detective, he can find some lost or hidden gems.

He was going out for groceries and wondered about a visit. I saw nothing wrong and said he could he pick up online books he had orders a while back and save us packing and shipping them. He arrived Sunday afternoon masked and gloved. I pushed the door open for him, masked and gloved. He disappeared into the rooms in the far northwest corner for a few hours.

I was delighted to work on carts of old and selected books set aside by sorters for my inspection. It had been weeks since I’d had time for that pleasure and duty.

All my days and weekends in the last 4 weeks or so have been spent on COVID crisis management and reinvention of this book business. And moving books in bulk to make space.

And meetings. And emails. And phone calls. And innovation and…reinvention.

It was fun to play with books one at a time again. …And I made some interesting discoveries.

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Michael emerged late in the afternoon pushing a cart.

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I at first groaned and then grinned. This was Michael’s version of #BookRescue.

For he had found some sweet prizes amongst the flotsam and jetsam.

“What a great eye. Take them. I’m glad they are going to a reader and collector instead of decoration,” I told him in admiration.

I let him pack them, so I wouldn’t be touching his finds. He also packed his online orders.

We then went out to the dockyard and sat at an appropriate distance and had a couple beers. We talked about books, life, the universe, the plague and everything…

Michael can discourse elaborately on anything bookish from Homer to Homer Simpson. It is a delight to be in his presence.

If I am a Keeper of the Books, he is the Book Incarnate.

When he departed, I was left heartened by his company. And by the work we both do at usually opposite ends of the book spectrum. And I was more than a little envious at his knowledge and capacity. I think perhaps with a modicum of envy he fantasizes to play with books as I do.

We both do important work to preserve, promote and carry forward the printed word.

The somewhat idyllic weekend ended, and Monday brought new problems every hour or so. More people were returning.

A manager sent an email to me and other managers:

…you had mentioned stools being clustered together last week. Did anything get decided on that? Clark and I were talking yesterday about how to handle stools and multiple adders/pullers handling them, and got back to the need to have them spread out soon.

That being said, I’m not sure how you handle the aforementioned problem. Stools are too cumbersome to have your own. Probably the cleanest solution (no pun intended) is a stool in each aisle, and the adders/pullers scoot them around with their feet. I’d label them somehow. Spray paint an aisle number on them. They stay there.

A stool problem. I hadn’t thought of that!

A light bulb appeared above my head—figuratively.

“I wonder…”

I went to the warehouse floor. Sure enough, they fit!

Cart and Stool

Now every puller and stocker will have their own stool.

I wish all the problems were so easy to solve.

The rest of the week was a blur. I wandered through the warehouse constantly looking, looking…

Without all the vans in play, the three warehouse folks were getting caught up on things. Usually we are constantly loading, unloading, shuttling the 8 vans and trucks to the stores or other book venues. With them mothballed in the dockyard…

They can always build boxes!

Many Boxes


A huge problem!

Plus, we are not getting any books from the public. “Stay at Home.” We can’t go get any either.

Our huge backlog is not infinite.

I went inspecting.

Do we have a month left before we run out of “raw” books?

Counting pallets of books…

I am seeing spaces throughout the warehouse I haven’t seen for years!

New Space

The docks where each of the dozen or so trailers backed to permanently has a handwritten inventory of the contents taped up high. I walk the length of the building looking for the magic word “Raw” followed by a number indicating the number of pallets.

I am so glad I hoarded hundreds of pallets of books. Some bulk lots from charities I had been cursing myself for acquiring. Now they are a lifeline. If we run out of books, we run out of work for data entry.

We do have hundreds of far more complex pallets of books. The Gach hoard, the William Safire collection and many other crunchy or crumbly or exotic collections. These books are not for entry-level data entry people (nor the faint of heart.) I am sure many of them will soon come into play though.

So will the Barbara Mertz/Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels collection from her Lothlorien estate.

In the old days when I was in the stores every day, I used to train managers. All our promotions have always come from within, I think. One of the most difficult things to teach was “prioritization.” Over the years, I came up with a stock phrase:

There are three kinds of tasks here:
Things that MUST be done.
Things that should be done.
Things that can be done.

Managers need to know what things come first:

  • Opening on time.
  • Taking care of the customer in front of you.
  • Knowing what you don’t know and finding the answers to questions from someone here who does. (I came up with a Yoda like: “Don’t think—KNOW.”)

A customer on the phone is a lower priority than the one who is before you in person.

Long ago, a novice manager assigned themself a task. Every Harlequin romance was arranged in numerical order! I was horrified at the hours wasted. I didn’t get angry. In fact, I still laugh about it. That sort of thing engendered the Project Book every store manager fills out daily. This guides the staff to the Manager’s wishes as to what MUST, should and can be done.

Now, in the evolving “new normal” here, I find myself looking for things that CAN be done.

Reinvention and innovation…

I wander around the three-acre building very often. Looking for projects. Looking for new things that “can” be done.

I made a decision at the shuttered stores. To keep the 2 people we bring in for multiple shifts and weekends for maintenance busy, I decided to cull the ENTIRE store in Frederick and Gaithersburg. When we reopen, the stores will be loaded with fresh books. This helps with the backlog of “Store Not Raw” pallets that are accumulating here. The two primary sorters here, Caryn and Ernest, have been sorting store stock for over a month now. We will need spaces to put them.

Store Not Raw

Gaithersburg was already completely culled in 2019. But at that venerable location, changes are happening. Walls are being removed. When we reopen, we will be bigger! More books!

The old stock is coming back to the warehouse for Books by the Foot. We are promoting Instant Libraries for those stuck at home. If you want 3 or 5 or 35 linear feet of biography, history, military, mystery, kids, crafts, art … let us know.


Someone who reads these stories and often comments directly to me noted my collection of cacti and succulents in one of them. This spring (that has been no “spring” except in nature) has been so cold and wet I only started carrying the heavy pots outs yesterday—in the rain. (Those I took out a couple weeks ago got a little frosted but will recover in time.) I was told to keep an eye out for a box addressed to my attention. Sure enough, a BIG box arrived. The return address was an exotic and much warmer locale.

It made me think of California and my trip there in February. That seems so long ago. The world was different then.


I was told there was a yard full of these beauties at that home. I’ll do my best to get them rooted and flourishing.


Masks …

Mask Required

I am getting quite tired of my collection of “kilt masks.” I keep forgetting them at home or in another vehicle. I think I have four now from the group we acquired in anticipation of the Mask Era. They are actually from a kilt manufacturer who came up early with an idea for using up kilt scraps.

I don’t always need my readings glass but keep a couple dozen or so handy around the office and home. When I’m doing close work in “public” and slip a pair on, they always fog up if I am masked. The mask also causes them to slip off if I tilt my head forward.

And everyone here now is “mumbling.” It is not just me. Even the younger managers are saying “What?” when someone’s voice is mask muffled.

And my phone no longer recognized me. I must unmask myself or punch a code in with my forefinger.

But I guess mask requirements are for our own good…until they aren’t.

They also make my nose stuffy, and if I’m doing hard work, breathing is a bit impaired.

Some of the people here with asthma are complaining. We are looking into face shields…

A week ago, I got quite excited listening to the radio on the way home. A Frederick scientist from Ft Detrick was speaking and said there is exciting research from MY town that seems to show UV light and sunlight may kill COVID almost instantly.

I thought that was GOOD news and shared it with other booksellers.

THAT was controversial?!?!

If by Rudyard Kipling

We’ve started opening the dock doors so the carts of books can bathe in the sunlight we get til noon or so.

Sunbathing Carts

There’s no downside to it. If it doesn’t work, no harm done.

ANYTHING that gets rid of the little buggers is a good thing!

Same with groundhogs. I’ve been driving up the grassy rise to field after work every couple few evenings. I cut wood and cleanse my mind and get a workout.

And I get some late day sun as well.

As I’ve said before, the 7-acre lot is pockmarked with woodchuck holes. Some are enormous!

Groundhog Hole

In frustration, I plugged one of the big ones that would be distressing to drive over.

Log in Groundhog Hole

This Chuck does chuck wood.

[I’m sure the beast that owns this pit went scurrying out his back door laughing heartily at my lame attempt—like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike I could never plug them all.]

I may go out and hit some golf balls in that lunar landscape this afternoon. I don’t enjoy golf as much as I used to. I would just walk around with a wedge and my pockets full of balls. The grass is mostly high up there. If any manage to go in a hole, you can rest assured I won’t reach down into it. I wouldn’t want to be dragged to the netherworld.

There’s a good chance I may touch the moon this weekend. If so, I will write about it next week.

It’s Friday afternoon and time to end this.

It is May Day. Most years a day to be cheerful and watch the “parade” on the news.

It is a beautiful day. Sunny with small cotton puffs of clouds sailing overhead.

April was completely lost.

May possibly will be the same but without as much terror (I PRAY!)

Perhaps June will change the tune.

In July, maybe we can fly again…

When I stepped out this morning—taking Merry and Pippin and their breakfast to their puppy “chalet”—I noticed this.

Cactus Flower

I had carried one of the cacti I inherited from Barbara Mertz out in the dark last night and set it upon the wall. I had no idea a blossom was opening on it. Nor that it would adorn the iron lady who has leant against the stone wall for a few years now.

This tableau was not staged by me.

Did you do this, Barbara?

Hope springs…

8 Comments on Article

  1. Richard commented on

    Always enjoy the read. Not much to say but I blogged for a season a decade or so back in time and I know a comment encourages. …..liked the placement of the Kipling.


    1. chuck replied on

      Certainly crazy times Richard. I do appreciate hearing from readers.
      Thank you for reading and writing!

  2. Erin commented on

    In regard to the disinfectant…I believe I saw that Tenth Ward is selling surface disinfectant.

    Always enjoy reading your stories and I can’t wait until I get to wander your aisles again

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Great idea!
      I think you will like the improvements at the store.
      Thank you for reading and commenting.

  3. Norv commented on

    QUESTION ANSWERED! Too many times during my Frederick (City and County) life I drove past a little lane that led to a very cool looking place. Perhaps one time I dared to venture down, but realized it was private, and turned around quick as I could. But I always wondered what that place was all about. Even dreamed of living there…. It remained a memorable nugget despite moving away from the area many years ago. This weekend I Googled “Barbara Mertz” to learn more about your friend. Through a furious series of clicks, which included obits and tributes, lots of pictures, and a reference to Libertytown (close by where I lived for a short while in the county), I finally landed on your May 11, 2018, blog. I started reading it in starts and stops today. “Where is this place, anyway? Perhaps she was a neighbor, and I never knew it?” And then I saw a picture of a street sign. Back to Google. OMG. Mystery Solved! THANKS!!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      It is a magical place.
      Now owned by two of her (real) Egyptologist friends.
      They are doing wonders to the place inside and out.
      They have even put in 500 wine vines!
      Maybe there will be another story there too.
      Thank you for reading and writing Norv!
      It really helps!

  4. linda tiller commented on

    Thanks for including the song. I had forgotten how hauntingly beautiful Art’s voice was, and the sentiment as well.. Needed a good cry this morning. I look forward to reading your dispatch from the front every Saturday Chuck, from gnarly groundhogs to sweet surprises from Barbara, to operational efficiency.
    I breathed a sigh of relief that you were able to relax and have some beers with a friend….even if it was on on the dock and not in a cozy craft brewery.
    Thank you,

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Linda.
      Angelic voice for sure.
      Thank God the panic mode is slowing and we are adjusting to the new normal here.

      Still plenty to be worried about…

      I’m anxious for the stores to open.

      Taking time to write me is so kind!


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