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Imagine a world where nameless functionaries behind electronic screens somewhere far away can dictate what you see, read, believe, know…whom you can listen to…and just who or what they don’t feel is fit or safe for you to look at?

Who are they? Why do they do these things? Who orders them to do these things? Who pays them? Do they believe in their work—suppressing knowledge for what in their opinion is banned for the common good?

There were books written about such things.

1984 and Fahrenheit 451 leap to mind.

Books are truth. Real printed books are immutable.

The Plague.

Is it over?

Are we done with this mess—except for the masking?

How long will that go on?

This week it was as if time restarted.

The dark year—almost to the day—was gone. The lost year was “in the books” as it were.




A “real” year may lie ahead? Real spring, summer and fall?

I had a fire in the woodstove two nights. Other nights the bedroom windows were open.

I started carrying the potted plants outside. The 10-day forecast shows no night lower than 43 degrees. There is a little risk there will be a hard freeze after that, but I will take my chances. I can cover them if need be. They have occupied so much of my living space this winter. It will be good to get them out.

So Easter week brought hope and renewal and resurrection.

The roads are lined with white and pink blooming trees.

A joyous time, if indeed the Plague Year is ending.

Every thing is tentatively joyous but one change. A blow to knock what joy there is into perspective.

Thursday morning

I am rolling down Interstate 270. Travis is driving. We are going to inspect the Gaithersburg store. We lost the manager there a while back. Vanessa moved on to get her MBA while earning money as a government contractor working from home. I think she plans to open a Book Cat Store. Or a Cat Bookstore.

If she does it anywhere near me, I will do everything I can to put her out of business. Crush the arrogant upstart.

I am kidding.

I bet she will sell us the books she gets she doesn’t want.

I’ll give her any surplus cats that come our way.

So, Travis is now the semi-remote-default manager.

Things are going well there. Their March was far, far above last March. That makes sense. We were closed much of March 2020!

However, it is also the best March that bookstore has had since 2013 or earlier.

I only rescued it from closing in 2008.

All the stores had their best March’s in many, many years.

To what do I attribute this? COVID, of course.

The months the three stores were closed, we made many internal improvements. We opened up spaces for social distancing.

It is a hard lesson for someone with my temperament. “Less can be more?”


We culled every single section in every store, every nook and cranny, each dark dusty corner. Categories that were poor performers were reduced in size and prominence. Categories that deserved more space and better locations were enhanced.

While we were shuttered, we reinvented the old bookshops—front to back, side to side, top to bottom.

Maybe that is what happening.


Maybe we are essentially the last ones standing. Some shops are STILL closed—by choice or by edict.

The charities have not shown signs of having their book sales. I guess there would be no social distancing in the buying frenzies—the “scrums”, and some are still uncomfortable returning to their duties.

But then our Web/Mail orders in March were also the best—ever!

The only major change there involves human pricing more. (Versus automated computer pricing.)

I am “forcing” all manner of exotica on to online inventory—despite the effort and expense to create listings from scratch—listing books that no one else has felt it worth putting on.

I, and a couple other people here, are using our minds and experience to put prices on books. Experience gained from each of us having personally handled millions of books.

That and amazing continual innovations to the machinery that puts these books out into the ether where people all over the world can inspect and acquire them.

The proof is in the shipping section. A couple times every day I will go and inspect certain categories of books to see what people have bought, and for how much.

Looking at dozens of these books each day is anecdotal. But I do learn trends. I am surprised daily. I am gratified at the risks taken and the rewards gained.

The results of all this thought and work and experimentation?

The best March’s.

What will April bring?

Thursday afternoon

We are rolling back—northwest on I 270. There is a full load of books behind us in the van. These are books people have brought to the store to sell us. We don’t pay much perbook typically, but we do take everything.

More than money, I think, people want a good result for the books they are parting with. It is an open secret that most mega-sellers and most mega-charities pulp the older books they get. If they don’t have a barcode, they are unquantifiable to many.

I’ve often noted that 99% of old books are just “old books.”

I went down partly to work a little on this book story during the drive, but mostly because Jessica, the Books by the Foot Manager (among several other hats she wears), taped a sheet to my office doorframe. Among other things:

139 feet Well-Read Classics

For an HBO series.

That would be fun.

Culling is interesting and therapeutic.

And there is some money involved too.

Plus, it is good for the stores.

139 linear feet… If the room you are in has an 8-foot ceiling, that is nearly 18 floor-to-ceiling stacks of well-worn hardcover literature.

We will go to all three stores and pull dupes and poor sellers for an order of this size. Does anyone read George Eliot or Thomas Hardy or … anymore?

So, at the Gaithersburg store, we dragged in plastic tubs to the literature section.

I stretched to pull dupes from the top shelves and bent to pull dupes from the bottom shelves.

I gently dropped book after book into tubs. I hate it when they “bounce.”

Tub after tub after…

Culling, pruning—what have you—is not just a physical endeavor—I can get into a zone—an altered state—where I’m doing several things on several planes at once.

Would “The Zen of Culling Books” be a bestseller?

How on earth did we get so much Chaucer here?

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One can only have too much Chaucer if the shelves simply cannot hold another The Canterbury Tales.

So I culled literature from A to Z. I had to skip past S because there was a customer browsing there. I could get so much work done if customers wouldn’t get in the way. When I got to Z (does anyone read Zola any more?)—I returned to S. He was gone. I pulled the two most worn copies of the seven copies of The Wayward Bus amongst the Steinbecks.

How many linear feet of books did I pull?

No idea.

When I was done there, I moved to paperback mystery. We had a 27 box order for those. Likely for a correctional facility’s library.


Actually, it is much more serene than that.

cullll, cullll…

While I was doing this, Travis was culling LPs and CDs and DVDs to make room for fresh stock in those sections of the store.

“I’m done. Let’s go back.”

It is Friday morning.

Damp and chill.

It was raining a little while ago.

The “Intermission” came late. Almost every night, I awaken at 1:37 or 2:19 or 3:43 or …

It is a COVID “thing.” I often struggle to return to sleep.

Sometimes I produce something during “Intermission.” More often all I produce is varied physical positions hoping posing this way or that will help me return to dreams.

This morning the “Intermission” came at four thirty…something. I looked at my phone for news and gossip. I had a couple texts, but I didn’t open them. I don’t look at them or emails in case there’s something disturbing that would never allow me to go back to sleep.

Then it was after 5. No reason to even try to go back to sleep. So I turned on the light and reached for the laptop—somewhere in the bedding—and began typing this.

I got up and closed the windows. It will only get to the 50s today—and wet.

I let one dog out.

Put water in the teakettle.

I’m going to have a Kahlua Black Russian for breakfast—Kahlua flavored coffee.

I swapped dogs and came back to bed to write.

Now the whistle is screaming.

Hot coffee will taste good.

I’m glad it rained. I transplanted a dozen or so Bleeding Heart volunteers Wednesday evening. Maybe 1 or 2 will be white variants. The rest pink and white. They love sprouting in the gravel patio. They prefer that to the soil in the raised bed with three feet of stacked rocks above the loose stone. Columbines do the same. As do…

Maybe I should cover the beds with gravel.

One of the dogs is gnawing on the smoked bone I got at Dietrich’s—a.k.a. the Stephen King Butcher Shop—a couple weeks ago on the return from the final visit to the university’s rare book room.

“Thump, thunk, thump.”

Birds are starting their wake-up songs. Soon the horizon will brighten, but I won’t see any sun this morning. I can tell the forest is filled with fog and mist.

Two friends came up here yesterday afternoon. The first “visitors” in a year. I urged them to come see the daffodils. Someone should enjoy them beside me. I opened a bottle of Midwinter’s Night Dram to celebrate the occasion. I poured them each a dram, and we walked around the gardens.

The first wave of daffodils is ending. The two warm days this week wilted many. But the second wave is beginning. The third wave will see us into May.

The hostas are just now poking from the earth. Soon the ferns will unfurl theirs croziers and stretch their prehistoric fronds of thousands of tiny “leaves.”

Things end.

New things begin.

I am happy with the many COVID rock bordered gardens I put in the past year.

COVID Garden

Including my tiniest garden ever.

COVID Garden

They are a little thin right now, but more things should emerge. If necessary, there is plenty I can transplant into them as well.

The newest terrace wall was all but completed this week.

COVID Garden

I will have to count how many there are now.

I will have to count and name each of the new COVID beds too.

Building them kept me busy and sane.

The Redbuds or Judas Trees are just beginning to color. Last fall I discovered dozens of seedlings—an unusual event up here. If they survived the winter, I will have plenty of nurturing and transplanting to do.

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As we walked, I would bend and pinch off a daffodil near its base and hand it to her. When we were finished, she had a clutch of about 2 dozen very different varieties. I put the stems in a used plastic shopping bag with some damp paper towels for her to take home.

We agreed to meet at Le Parc Bistro downtown—in the valley far below.

My favorite restaurant was nearly empty. The owner sidled over and said they were closing at the end of the month. They will reopen in a new incarnation in Hagerstown.

Things end.

Things begin.

I had a Sazerac. The best French Onion Soup around. And a big bowl of Cassoulet. I took most of the Cassoulet home.

I might return tonight. I’m pretty sure I will.

COVID. What an awful year.

I spent much of the week going through the books Larry imported from Miami. 286 boxes. He had touted the vast manga collection. That was a turn off.

I don’t know nuthin’ bout manga. But Clark does. I’m seeing them go out at 30, 50, 100 dollars.

Who knew?

No, it was the books Larry DIDN’T tout that got my attention. I had those carted for my appraisal.

Wodehouse and More

How often do you see 3 dozen Wodehouse? 2 dozen Constance and Gwyneth Little? Gaiman (I met him—barely—a couple years ago at the Weinberg—when will its first show take place?) Phoebe Atwood Taylor. Arthurian works. Wales. Philip K Dick. Rue Morgue Press. Subterranean Press.

Nothing rare. Not many over $100. But cart after cart of hip popular stuff.

Like popcorn for this bookseller. Cheese popcorn in a plastic bag like I’d get as a kid. It would stain my fingers orange.

And there’s a run of old departed friend Elizabeth Peters (a.k.a. Barbara Mertz.)

Mertz Books

Sad and evocative, this spring of 2021. Brilliant and joyous.

The CDC came out this week and said you can’t catch COVID by touching things.

All the spraying and wiping. Chemicals. Damage. Time. Dollars. A Kabuki show.

What else was Kabuki this year?

I have a lot of suspicions.

The end of “hygiene theater”

You can put away the disinfectant and stop wiping down your groceries.

This week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidelines on the dangers of coronavirus infection from touching a doorknob, a subway pole, or other surface. The risk is extremely low.

The announcement was an about-face from the early days of the pandemic when the C.D.C. warned that the virus could survive on surfaces for days, and potentially infect people who touched a contaminated surface and then touched their faces.

That early guidance ushered in an era of what The Atlantic described as “hygiene theater,” in which Americans obsessively scrubbed their homes, quarantined packages, and ransacked drugstores for Clorox wipes. Companies and schools closed regularly for deep cleanings, and New York City subway cars were disinfected every night.

We now know those elaborate steps did not provide much—if any—protection from the virus.

“There’s really no evidence that anyone has ever gotten Covid-19 by touching a contaminated surface,” said an expert on airborne viruses.

In the early days of the pandemic, many experts believed the virus was spread primarily though large respiratory droplets that could theoretically fall onto surfaces, and then be picked up by touch and then passed to mucous membranes in the nose and the eyes. But we’ve learned over the past year that the virus spreads almost entirely through the air.

Experts now say that while it’s theoretically possible to catch the virus from a surface, it requires something of a perfect storm: lots of recently deposited virus particles on a surface that are then quickly transferred to someone’s hand, and then to the face. The updated guidelines from the C.D.C. say that chemical disinfectants are not needed to keep surface transmission low—just hand-washing, mask wearing and, in most cases, cleaning surfaces with regular soap and water.

Joseph Allen, a building safety expert at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that for organizations like schools, businesses and other institutions, the new guidance “should be the end of deep cleaning.”

“It has led to closed playgrounds, it has led to taking nets off basketball courts, it has led to quarantining books in the library,” he said. “This frees up a lot of organizations to spend that money better.” (Although we wouldn’t mind if New York City subway cars continue to get a regular deep scrub.)

The New York Times

Last Friday was last Friday’s book story. A lot like this one. So much the same each week this year. But soon I will be traveling. I have 900,000 American Airline miles. I started looking where I could go.

It was Good Friday. That horrible glorious day. I got my second vaccination early in the morning. I yawned the rest of the day.

Easter weekend…

Saturday, I went into work. The warehouse was cold. 50 degrees. The heaters have been off for a while now. But it was near 70 outside. I went and push the button on the dock door. The big metal plane rattled and rose. Light and warmth poured in.

I played with books into the afternoon and then drove to the old family home in Pennsylvania.

Both sons and their partners were visiting.

We had a great dinner, and they wanted to watch the big basketball game. So we all sat around the electronic hearth. My older son’s phone rang.

“No. This is younger Chuck. I’ll put my dad on.”

It was my big brother Tony calling from the hospital in San Francisco. His familiar voice cracked. It was brittle and distant.

“They’re sending me home as soon as the hospital bed gets delivered…”

Visions poured into me as tears welled.

Easter long ago in Amherst, New York. They would all dress up. Mom would doll me up in new leather tooled fretwork sandals. White socks. Shorts with straps that would go over the shoulder and button to the waist to hold them up. (What are those called?) A white shirt and a bow tie. My blondish hair was slicked back. I was very uncomfortable.

Short Suspenders
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But we had to get the Easter photo before church. My parents were so proud of their four boys.

I was so proud of my big brothers. There were giants. 10, 12 and 15 years older than I.

Joe—soon to be a Marine and then the Naval Academy. Then Nam. Stern and gruff.

Jimmie—nearest to me, but still ten years older. Rebellious, funny and creative.

And Tony. Alton Ochsner. Named after a famous New Orleans doctor who mentored my father so, so long ago.

Tony—the smartest. Ivy League. He knew things. He could fix anything. He would give me a book every Christmas and Birthday.

Hardy Boys at first and then stuff like The Old Man and the Sea

I went around the old house looking for pictures I could text him.

Chuck's Family

Easter morning, I went into work.

From what I could tell, I was the only person in the office park.

Me, birds, flowers, Merry and Pip and books.

But what could I do for Tony so far away?

Kimmelweck rolls!

In Buffalo, we always loved roast beef on kimmelweck. “Beef on Weck.” Kimmelweck rolls are Polish. Kind of like Kaiser rolls with caraway seeds (Kümmel) and large crunchy salt crystals adhered to the top.

I searched online. The places in Buffalo were temporarily closed or “pick up only.” COVID.

I placed an order with one. When I got to “checkout”: “I’m sorry. We don’t ship to that state.” ?!

I finally found one. The minimum order was 2 dozen. Why not? I had them overnighted.

Then I emailed my travel agent. I hoped he was still in business. I hadn’t interacted with him since he helped cancel the flight to the Maritimes to play golf last summer.

“Hi Tim. I hope you’re doing ok in this crazy year. Can you get me to San Francisco? …”

It is time to send this off to my editor already at work down in the valley below.

When I get in, I’ll email Tim which flight to book me on.

I’ll check which Hilton I should stay at and book a room online. I’ll call Hertz.

Then I’ll see what the books are up to today.

6 Comments on Article

  1. Stever commented on

    Thank you for being you!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      I wish it was easier!

      THANK YOU!
      Made my day!

  2. susan commented on

    As a used bookseller on a much smaller scale, I look forward to your blog every week. Bud and I celebrated our 22nd year of owning our shop that already had 22 years before that. I guess I need to stop telling customers we are the ‘new owners’ now.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Susan!
      After 22 years there are likely few that remember the earlier shop.
      But maybe it is like moving to a small town. You’re never a native unless you were born there – no matter how many years!

  3. Linda Tiller commented on

    Oh, Chuck, What a sweet photo of your family! This will be a hard trip but I am sure you will never be sorry that you made it. A delicious taste of the past will be a wonderful gift for Tony. (I order a special mustard from Buffalo! ) I lost a brother in Covid times too. I traveled extensively; flew, rented cars, stayed in hotels, was in 3 different hospitals,6 different airports, found my way to unfamiliar stores and restaurants in distant cities. Everything turned out just fine. Except. My brother died. I am so thankful I did not hesitate to go to him.
    On a lighter note..I work for a busy state retirement system, phones ringing all day long from members needing help. My go-to get-a-laugh line at work in the midst of the chaos is: This would be a great place to work if only these phones would stop ringing! So I laughed out loud at your line: I could get so much work done if customers wouldn’t get in the way.
    Thanks for another great read!
    Take care in your travels.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you so much Linda.
      I’m sorry for your loss.
      I’m ready to travel now – with the vaccine and the news that so much of what has being on is a kabuki show.
      Customers … lol … but we have to endure them to do the work we enjoy.

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