Riding the Whirlwind



34 outside. 66 in.

Black outside and in but for the orange glow in the next room which is like a sleeping dragon with one eye propped open. The silent fire in the woodstove warms the home. The eye is but the window in the doors. The wood that I cut and gathered and split and stored in the barn last winter and spring brings warmth and comfort. The dragon’s eye, not twenty feet from my bed, glows but casts no shadows, spills no light in the black night within and without the house. The warm glow.

I let the Jack Russells, Merry and Pippin, jump into bed with me after I let each one out—separately—into the dark for their morning relief.

Dawn comes. Then the sunrise. It has moved south. It is almost in the trees.

There was frost on the green grass in the valley yesterday. But there was no freeze up here on the mountain. The cold air sinks and settles at the lowest levels. You wouldn’t think it would be warmer so much higher up.

I need to push this week’s story out early. So with my knees raised and the laptop propped upon a pillow, its lower edge resting on my diaphragm, I begin tapping out words.

The week has been a crush of things I had to do but were not the routine I’d thought I’d have.


Travis and I are heading down 270 to Gaithersburg.

The shelf builder contacted me Sunday afternoon with the news the record bins are built and he wants to deliver them… TODAY.

“After lunch.”

There went my plans for the day… and likely the week.

Currently, the LPs are stored in milk crates atop plastic tables.

Gaithersburg Record Room Before

We need to take all these off so the massive wooden flip bins can be installed. We will empty the crates into the bins.

That’s a lot of crates!

We will likely bring the crates back to Frederick and put them outside the dockyard gates so the hoarders can come and take them for free.

I just hate to throw anything away that someone can use.

We will need to bring the 8-foot plastic tables back too.

Clearing was smooth:

Gaithersburg Record Room During

But the result looked like this:

Gaithersburg Record Room After

Awesome, isn’t it?

We will have space for a lot more LPs too.

Win. Win.

It is a beautiful November first. Almost 60. Just a few puffy white clouds. Calm. Tomorrow the phone says rain and highs in the 40s. Freezes Tuesday night. And Wednesday. And Thursday.

I must get the rest of the plants in.

There will certainly be a fire in the woodstove tonight and every night for a while.

Well, we are here.

The same shop where I took a “summer job” in 1980. I was going to grad school in September.

No schooling since then. Except the H.K.U.*

* Hard Knocks University

I wonder what kind of young man I was then.

Shadows walk in and out of the haunted bookshop where I’ve trod for over 41 years.

All the people and books that have come in and gone out the same door. Such a different world in so many ways now.

But the books are unchanged. Cloth and paper and glue and ink; sometimes leather and sewn thread.

The books abide.

Well, we are back on the road. It went much faster than I anticipated.

The day was mostly shot by the time we were back in the warehouse. I was going to leave about an hour early, but Larry texted, “ETA 4.” I waited. He’d been away for his dad’s funeral. I wanted to give him my condolences and some money for whatever he was bringing.

When he texted “Here”, I walked across the building to Dock 1. His battered van was backed close to the building. Its rear doors open. Long white boxes were nearly spilling out from the stuffed vehicle.

“Comics,” I stated.

“10,000,” he replied.

“Text me when you’re done unloading.”


I walked out to the dock again.

10,000 comics. Three pallets stacked with long white storage boxes.

Comic Pallets


Well, we will figure out what to do with these.

Comics are tough to sell individually online. They’re fragile and time consuming and more of a burden to the stores nowadays.



Clif and I are driving east on I 70.

We are returning to Middle Earth—to my friend Michael Osborne’s home in Hobbits Glen, Columbia, Maryland.

We will gather up the flotsam and jetsam we didn’t get last week. We didn’t leave much.

It is 46 degrees and raining. A chill brutal first taste of winter.

For the last week or so, there have been howls up the mountain behind the house. My neighbor—a quarter mile away—thinks it is coyotes. But it is not the traditional cowboy western sound of howling at the moon. It is more of a cacophony of painful yowls. It only happens in the wee hours. My dogs bristle at the sound and give off soft little woofs. It isn’t breeding season according to the internet. It lasts for a couple of minutes and then stops. Then it might start up again in a different spot. Fortunately not close to the house. Yet.


I’ve only seen one that wasn’t just a fleeting tail. It followed Merry and Pippin home a couple years ago. They had tricked me and ran off into the forest. If they are ever out together—loose—they will bolt. The call of the wild, I guess. I’ve often despaired, but they’ve always returned—usually hours later. I’m very careful. They get let out a few times every day, 365 days a year. On rare occasions, I might look away—distracted—for a moment while letting one in and the other out. ZOOM! Off they go! This was on a Saturday. I recall because I was anxious to get to the warehouse. I was quite displeased. I figured I’d go to work and come back in the early afternoon. They’d be done with their adventure by then. I got myself ready and was heading out when they came trotting across the big paved “landing” that is part of the upper driveway.

‘Early return,’ I thought curiously.

They had a strange demeanor and kept looking back over their shoulders. I followed their gaze and spotted the creature about 100 yards behind them. It stopped and tracked back and forth at that distance for a few minutes before turning and heading up into the wilderness. It was big. Low slung like a German shepherd. They say they get to about 60 pounds in the east.


If I’d gone to work, Merry and Pippin would have been killed.

Clif and I are on our way back. West on Interstate 70.

When we were getting the last few boxes out of Michael’s basement, I quipped, “Michael, did you sneak a lot of boxes down to the basement since we were here last week?”

I have an axiom: “There are always more books in a basement than you think there are.”

Another axiom is: “You always need more boxes than you think.”

This time, we had plenty of boxes. But our light “mop up” filled the van.

Full Van

Clif and I humped every box up from the basement.

Up, turn, up, turn, down, turn, down to the garage and across it to the van… about 100 times between us.

Hard work. My poor shoulder numbed by the cortisone last week is NOT being rested.

I swear the boxes must have multiplied in the last week. Why didn’t we bring a helper?

Because it was just going to be a light load—a mop up.

But we got everything that Michael wanted removed. I was so cold when we started. Now I’m still warm (and damp) 40 minutes after we left. My muscles tingled from the strain all the rest of the day.

Empty Basement

Ah… beautiful.

The ride back was dismal. Cold rain splattering the windshield. Passing cars splashing up even more water. The fall colors on the trees lining the highway were muted by the grayness.

This trip took a lot longer than I’d estimated.


The week has not been going as planned. I expected a calm evenly paced time to get things in order for my trip later in the month.


Less order.

More chaos.

My crazy but lovable nephew appeared later in the afternoon. He turns up some cool things, cleaning out houses and doing painting and light construction for the wealthy residents of Annapolis.

“Uncle Chucky. I got some really cool s***. Can I bring it to you?”

A strange man was approaching me rapidly in the warehouse. Bearded, with a ball cap pulled down on his head—I thought he might be some disgruntled customer out to attack me.

“Uncle Chucky!”

He’s only about 10 years younger than me. The second son of my eldest brother. I didn’t recognize him with a gray beard covering his face. Maybe it’s a COVID thing.

“Watcha got?” I asked as we walked up the warehouse, passing loading docks 5 through 21.

I’d spotted some remainders in the northeast corner of the building where we store a couple hundred pallets of new books. Most of the dock doors have trailers backed permanently to them. Most of those are loaded with pallets of remainders as well. Double stacked. These are all books that would be destroyed if we did not buy them—bidding more than pulp value on the titles we can use. The publishers have given up on them. They need room in their warehouse for fresh titles. They need the inventory off their books as well—for tax reasons. Earlier I’d seen a few hundred Dr Who books that are useless for Books by the Foot but would do well in the stores. I never understood the Dr Who phenomena. I tried watching it when I was young. It seemed like the kind of thing I would like. But I just didn’t “get it.” I started loading books from a Gaylord onto a cart. Gerry was chattering away, as is his wont.

“I was cleaning out this guy’s attic. He’s 87 and can’t climb the ladder to get up there. He was in Vietnam when Dad was. [His dad, my brother, was a helicopter pilot. He passed away in 2018 age 79.] The old guy was a fighter pilot. He let me take his gear.”

I pushed the cart over to a shelf with a bunch of big red slipcased “Love” books. Poetry and art by… someone. I’d seen one sell for 50 bucks up in shipping a few days ago. They were just collecting dust in Books by the Foot. They didn’t fit into any niche for BBTF*. Maybe this dog for decorators could turn into a swan for collectors. I began loading a stack onto the cart.

* Books by the Foot

“You must have a million books, Uncle Chucky.”

“Maybe 5.”

“I got a wooden statue from the Vasa! And a pueblo pottery canteen. A guy said it was 800 years old.”


Some of my nephew’s finds are real. Some are… “aspirational.”

He kept on chattering as I pushed that cart back across the warehouse and then south toward the data entry area. When we got to the entrance hallway I said, “Why don’t you go out and bring in whatever it is you want me to see.”

I need to take charge with him sometimes. He could ramble the day away if I didn’t.

I went into the conference whose sprawling table I was planning to clear off—but had only added stuff to the chaos there.

Gerry soon rattled in with one of our metal shopping carts that we sometimes use to pull internet orders. In it were two big olive drab duffle bags. He unzipped one and then the other. He began pulling out flight suits and a helmet and a flak jacket… chattering the whole time.

“You know they kept gold coins in these. For survival in case they were shot down…”

He began rooting through the pouches and pockets.

“There was a gun in here, but I told the guy I couldn’t take that.”

A big knife, whistle, reflecting mirror, infrared beacon… stuff we couldn’t figure out what the purposes were for.

I took some pictures and emailed them to a colleague who wants to open a Vietnam museum someday.

I didn’t think the Vasa wooden figure was from the Vasa—likely broken off from some other old thing. The Pueblo pot—out of my purview. 800 years old or 8?

“Pack the stuff up, Gerry. I gotta get to work.”

I bought a nice old typewriter and a few other things. Typewriters sell very well in the bookstore.

And I bought the “Vasa.” One can dream, can’t one? I look at it with aspiration.

I ushered him out of the building, pushing the shopping cart.

“I got rare Legos, Uncle Chucky. They call them ‘plastic gold.’ Here’s the Yellow Submarine with all four Beatles. Mint in the box.”

“Cool, Gerry. You gotta go now.”

I have to blunt with him. It is the only thing that works. Plus, you can be impolite with relatives.

It was cold outside. The muscles in my arms and legs were tingling from the unexpected exertion at Michael’s. When I left, I passed my big red Ford Expedition. It is still filled with books from our last visit to Hobbits Glen a week ago. I took a different vehicle home.

‘I really gotta empty the SUV,’ I thought. ‘…sometime.’

The sun was going down. The air got colder. The phone said there’d be a freeze overnight. I really didn’t feel like hauling in the rest of the potted plants tonight. But I had to. I had already schlepped in 30 or 40 over last week or so. I’d left the biggest ones til last.


I tossed some junk books I’d pulled out of pulp Gaylords onto the floor. I brought a stack of terra cotta plant saucers in from the garage and set one atop each book. With a book underneath, any dampness won’t ruin the surfaces the plants are resting upon.

OMG. They were so heavy. 2 of the cacti are over four feet tall. I had to duck them down to get through the door. One of them has prickers that get in me with the lightest touch. I think there’s one in my back somehow. How do you remove a pricker from your back?

I was beat by the time I got the last one in.

I have an axiom: “Too much lifting makes one a sore tired boy.”

I was pretty warm, but the house was not. I lit the first fire of the season.

For supper I heated a can of soup. I made popcorn. I use an air popper. As the popped corn starts billowing out the chute, I sprinkle olive oil on it. Then I dump some truffle salt in my palm and toss it on. Then some dry basil. I opened a bottle St Emilion. I took my gourmet dinner into the Great Room, turned the heater on in my recliner and watched a few episodes of Route 66—Season 2. There are so many young future stars in almost each episode. Robert Duvall, Robert Redford, Ed Asner… Buzz and Todd are STILL trying to discover America. The writer— Stirling Silliphant mostly—is becoming more and more preachy. Political correctness of many sorts was alive and well in ’62. But there is plenty of skirt chasing in every episode. THAT was certainly one of their discovery motives for driving the Corvette all over America. Maybe what I like most is the scenery and decor—very authentic. Restaurants, hotels, bars, homes, workplaces…


I have an axiom: “Everything costs more and takes longer than you planned.”

I met with the master contractor, architect, real estate guy, project advisor about the two 52,000 square foot warehouse buildings we are constructing on the 7 acre vacant lot adjacent to the current warehouse.

Almost 3 hours reviewing spreadsheets, drawings… columns and columns of numbers.

It was dizzying. The costs were astronomical. The projected ROE* infinitesimal.

* Return on Equity

I left the big boardroom numbed. As I drove back, a wave of depression swept over me.

I should stick to books and bookselling. I understand those numbers. You spend a dollar and try to turn it into two.

Back at the warehouse, I walked past Ernest’s area.

“These look pretty good.”

Ernest's Finds

Nice. Then I looked inside:

Ernest's Finds Signed

[Well, sadly the MLK Jr. is likely secretarial. That means an assistant signed the book for him.]


I should stick to books…

We got remainder samples. These are the type of books I wrote about above.

The remainder company sends them. We stage them on carts. Jessica, the Books by the Foot guru, separates the ones she likes and the ones she REALLY likes and the ones she doesn’t want at any price.

Then I review them. I put bid prices on the inventory sheet next to the good ones. I try to make an offer on the total quantity they have. This is a courtesy, as when they are ready to go, the seller wants them all gone.

Why, there are two titles with my friend Michael Dirda‘s name on them.

Michael Dirda Books

They have a 1000 of one. 1700 of the other. Not great spine colors though… I wonder if Michael would autograph 1700 books? I mean 2700.

I think I bid on about 40,000 books. #bookrescue.


I need to wrap this up. Early deadline this week.

There was a lot of frost driving in. The windshield on the SUV was completely iced over at the warehouse. It was time to unload it. I waited til the sun had mostly melted the frost covering on the windshield.

It is noon. I’m WAY behind. A teacher friend came in and picked out books for her classroom. I got a call the electricity was off at the Farm. I rushed over there. I had to rush something to the accountant. I made a bank deposit for the company and checked to see why I hadn’t gotten my personal statement. (I still like paper.) A rep brought some bag samples in and wanted to chat. I got a stack of checks to sign…

Check Stack

All three store managers are on their way to review October’s sales. All three stores did great.

I’m amazed all three stores are going through a renaissance. A lot of it has to do with the people—the booksellers—at each store. It is gratifying that people still love books.

Lots of books!

Maybe I should stick to books…

4 Comments on Article

  1. Andy Moursund commented on

    Chuck, FYI just in case you hadn’t seen another signed copy of that MLK book recently, the MLK signature is secretarial. I have the same book with an identical signature. The real MLK signature is nowhere as neat.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      That’s sad Andy
      I only glanced at it and it hasn’t gotten to research yet.
      Thanks for the heads up

  2. Jeff S. commented on

    When I hear about booming sales at stores like yours, and when I see people buying books by the cartload at similar stores when I travel around the country, I start to think that perhaps a great many people still love to read. They just don’t want to read whatever the publishing industry has christened as new and trendy on the tables at Barnes & Noble. It’s an interesting notion.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you so much
      It is cool people are coming back
      Unfortunately there’s so many fewer stores than there were 20 years ago.
      That’s part of the equation
      I appreciate you reading and taking time to write

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