“Oh, NO!” I stood dumbfounded. “It has returned!”
I was leaving the warehouse Sunday evening. It was Father’s Day. The two boys came from the northeast and southeast with their partners. We picnicked out back in the dockyard. Some Chipotle-like Mexican tubs of food and Buffalo Wings and Roast Beef on Kimmelwick from the local Anchor Bar. That is a franchise of the original Anchor Bar in Buffalo where Buffalo Wings were invented. My wife brought down a $100 Cake she’d made from the old place in Pennsylvania.
The $100 Cake is a secret family recipe. The story goes my grandmother, Boppa, had traveled from San Marcos, Texas to New York City in the early 1900s. She ordered cake at a famous restaurant. Was it Delmonico’s? It was so good she asked if the chef would give her the recipe. The recipe was delivered to Texas—along with a bill for $100. That would be an exorbitant sum in those days. That story is likely apocryphal as I’ve heard other families have the same story.
My grandmother did cross the Great Plains in a covered wagon. She was a baby in the early 1880s when her father—a younger brother—left the Talmadge estate in Hinsdale, Illinois to strike out on his own in San Marcos, Texas. That story is true. I have some of the wagon accoutrements. I drove them from Texas to Maryland when the house my great-grandfather built was being sold.
It was a pleasant family get-together. A fairly rare event for us all to be together.
They left. I went inside and shut off the lights (they make a loud “clunk.”) At my car, I surveyed the empty parking lots.
There, on the far side of the employee lot, there was a lot of disruption on the grass border.
The Western Front was quiet no longer.
The Beast had returned.
I walked over to the mess.
I had never seen this kind of mess here before.
Obviously in a rage, the creature had dug out a LOT of empty bottles, rocks and debris. OR had it PUSHED it all out from some subterranean mine like hole…from BELOW?
The mess almost looks like an explosion of dirt and stone and bottles.
I have mentioned before that I have personally put over 150 wine and liquor bottles down that hole over the last 5 plus years.
When last I wrote on this, the Western Front, I was pretty certain I had silenced this pit to hell. I thought it would be quieted until at least next spring when a new generation of Whistle Pigs might come digging for a burrow. I believe they must have some kind of special sense to detect where there is a void beneath the earth.
I was too tired, too disheartened to address the situation.
I had worked so hard all day Saturday and Sunday—mostly sorting cartloads of old or unusual books set aside for me to determine if they are merely old—or if they are collectible.
I’d had a good heavy dinner and a couple beers or so as well.
Also, the sun was going down. I…I did not feel like being around should the Beast emerge from below or return to its lair to find me—ITS sworn enemy—standing dejectedly before this…this disastrous mess. For in the ongoing war, THIS battle is ITS latest victory…over me.
I don’t like losing.
But I swore to return and fill the hole with MORE bottles, to find more heavy flat stones to lay atop the apparently bottomless void to which this portal leads.
It is summer.
It is Monday.
I’d worked so hard over the weekend. I processed dozens of carts.
When Sunday evening was approaching and it was time to stop, I followed the other workers out at 4:30 and locked the front door up behind them.
I walked back to the sorting area and was so disheartened.
There are many, many carts I was unable to get to. In the middle of the building, there are even more carts aging, dusty but laden with wondrous (to me anyway) treasures. They need to be addressed one at a time. Each book or item on them needs to be addressed one at a time.
And beyond carts, there are pallets of books with wonderful collections that I have no time to burrow into.
Two book stories ago, I wrote that I had burrowed into an old dusty pallet with boxes stacked about five feet high atop it. I almost mocked a collection of S R Crockett first editions that filled a couple boxes. I expressed my dilemma. These would certainly sell quickly as attractive decor in Books by the Foot. I acted noble and romantic when I wrote that I chose to send them in another direction—online sales. I was sure their odds of selling were quite remote and that likely I would see them again in a couple few years being culled for fresh shelf space. The books would end up in Books by the Foot, anyway.
Michael Dirda wrote a comment to that story:
Chuck, You’ve inspired me to dig out my copy of “The Gardener’s Year,” which is with a stack of other Capek books. As it happens, too, just last year I bought a copy of S.R. Crockett’s “The Black Douglas,” a historical novel of chivalric romance, witchcraft and sorcery. As for Marryat: A few years back I acquired a half dozen volumes of Marryat from some place called Wonder Book and Video. Marryat is famous for his sea stories, but in “The Phantom Ship” he embeds “The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains,” one of the greatest of all werewolf stories. So, you never know: There may be other Crockett and Marryat readers out there. MD
Hmmmm…I am such a know-it-all. Until I’m not.
I’d discovered some pretty exotic aviation books in the boxes there too.
I’d complained there were boxes of not so old Sci Fi digests that: “are worthless. They won’t sell for even a buck a piece.”
I wondered if there were more author collections further down. Well, there was!
Now if Michael or someone tells me Frank Spearman is NOT a forgotten author, I may just have to eat one (figuratively consuming it by reading, not literally eating his words.)
I also discovered more Sci Fi digests. A couple hundred. In excellent shape. And not worthless and not modern…
Sorting through those was like time travel—going back to the 1950s Silver Age of Sci Fi and Fantasy.
Asimov, Heinlein, Dick, Sturgeon…
The world was such a different place then. The future was…the future.
I got interrupted and have not yet gotten to the last 10 or so boxes remaining there.
Maybe this weekend.
Back to late Monday afternoon. I came home early. I’m lying in bed. Looking out into the distant valley, I see it is clear and bright. Up here in my home, the thunder is booming and rain is splatting on the roof and leathery green leaves.
A tale of two climates. Down there it has “stormed” for months now. Plague and riot and panic and death and destruction.
Up here the season—the “lost spring” progressed beautifully, traditionally.
Yesterday was the Summer Solstice. June 21, 2020.
I am tired. Drained.
The weeks, the months now, of the Plague Era have taken so much out of me. I do feel older.
At work today, I wandered around the building. Things were working. There were a lot of people doing the various things people do here to keep the books flowing, round and round the building and back out gain.
I was not needed.
Weariness hit me.
I wanted to go home and rest. And write.
I had gone to the Gaithersburg store in the morning. Its first weekend back in business had been pretty successful.
There was only one masked customer in the place. I thought the top half of his face looked familiar.
‘Mark,’ I thought. ‘Mark Kelner…the artist who sometimes uses books as a medium.’
When we had affirmed we were who we thought we were, we greeted each other warmly.
I had last seen him just before the plague stopped so many from moving around. He had visited the warehouse to select books by color and by subject.
“I LOVE what you’ve done with the store. It’s so much…”
“Yes. I can actually stand back and look at things.”
“My old mentor Carl loved to shoehorn any odd bookcase he could, anywhere he could. If he could have figured a way to stock books on the ceiling, he would have built something for that purpose.”
“Yes. But it still has alcoves.” (When Carl and Eleanor owned the business, it was called The Book Alcove.)
I looked around. With numerous walls gone and many claustrophobia-inducing tight spaces having been removed, it really did feel like there was more air in the place.
I didn’t tell Mark my idea of painting the (bleccch) concrete parts of the floors bright yellow. I’m getting resistance from “Ayesha”*—the manager here a.k.a Vanessa.
*Ayesha the heroine of H Rider Haggard lost civilization novels. A millennia old beautiful Queen who was: “SHE—who must be obeyed.
His compliments felt good. I bid him adieu, and he asked when he could come visit the warehouse again to pick out more books for a new conceptual art project: books about the United States in red, white and blue spines.
“Any time. I’m there every day.”
I’ll write more about Mark and how he ties physical books into history and art in a future book story.
I complimented the two staff on duty, gave them a few minor tasks—just to show them I was paying attention—and took the van filled with books bought over the weekend. That left the empty one I’d driven down and another mostly full. That would be filled today and swapped out tomorrow.
We are getting books in again. More and more Post It notes are being taped to my office doorjamb. They are all asking for house calls.
That store looks great. The best it ever has—despite a bit of construction left to finish. Not a single book on the floor!
During the lockdown, the stores had worked to cull sections of old stock to make plenty of room for new arrivals.
Frederick and Hagerstown opened Saturday, May 16. Gaithersburg reopened Saturday, June 20.
Sunday morning, May 18, 7:30 a.m. I issued an edict to all the managers from my bed:
New Policy: No stocking books on floor.
Keep on display or carts until there is space to put on shelves.
Stockers inform managers of areas where there is no room, and managers send lists of cull needs daily.
We had all worked very hard during the shutdown to clean out and clean up the three brick and mortars. I promised from my end to not let the bad habits slip back into play.
Things are running themselves. Gaithersburg. Frederick. The warehouse…
I drove back up to Frederick and made my first “house call” in the COVID-19 Era. A phone message taped to my office doorjamb told of a collection in an antique mall in the historic district downtown. I had called and set up a meeting with the woman who owns the business.
I met her at the back entrance. The Antiques Emporium is a sprawling operation in what used to be a large car dealership and, I think, some other buildings cobbled together. You can wander through dozens of individual vendors’ booths. The place is far more “antique” than “flea market.” Sandy led me out onto the sunny sidewalk. We walked a bit and then turned and headed down a cobblestone ramp circling back toward the “mall” building. She told me the collection had been abandoned some years back. The rent stopped being paid and eventually the books were hers. She unlocked an old wooden door and a low ceilinged space opened before us. It was a sprawling storeroom—a former storage garage?—below the glittering antiques above. Old furniture and dozens of indeterminate antique objects stretched into the distance.
The books were stacked next to and behind a tall armoire. They were boxed. Stacked floor to ceiling. Maybe 10 stacks coming out from the wall.
Being underground, my first concern was if the books might be musty. I pulled the heavy tape off a few to get them open. They passed the smell test. From that sampling, I got a feel for what was there. I wasn’t in the mood to pull down more boxes. I went with my instinct and said “$10 a box?” That’s pretty high, I felt.
Sandy just wanted the bad debt gone. Then there’d be more space to store a mannequin or hurricane lamp. I told her I’d plan to return tomorrow to sweep them all away.
Back at the warehouse, I wandered around the vast building some more.
There are thousands of things I “could” be doing. But searching…searching…there was nothing there that I HAD to do.
I went out to my Ford Explorer. I pulled the mask from my face and let it dangle around my neck.
There are restaurants open. Are there Happy Hours yet? Can I sit at a bar now?
Doesn’t matter. I just wanted to go home and climb into bed…and try to write. And rest.
And so I did.
I lay in bed. A storm raging outside. The calm clicking of the keys of my laptop trying to make sense of things.
Monday…a lost day—but I managed to put some words on paper and this laptop.
We were having people problems. Some are unhappy with the constant masking. Others are worried that maskless people threaten their safety.
I don’t like “people problems.” I am a bookseller. Books make sense. Always. People often don’t.
More and different people problems arose at one of the stores. Insults and arguments. He said. She said.
You cannot win people problems.
I escaped into books. I mentioned at the end of the last story that Larry—who becoming a better and better scout—had dropped off an estate which included a lot of Easton Press, Library of America and Folio Society publications. They were all in perfect shape. I knew this after he left because I had those particular boxes put on carts for me to inspect over the weekend.
And I did.
The last carts I sorted Sunday were these.
These publications are always beautiful. Eye candy. Some have value beyond their objectification.
I sorted some individually—putting yellow Post Its with a handwritten price on each. Others I sorted onto carts and made up a matching fixed price for every book on that cart. I made one cart…for me.
I collect Folio Society books. I have for years. I even used to subscribe. I once kept every one that came in.
I played with the ones I thought I might want. I set them up on a cart of their own.
I know I have some of the Lang’s Coloured Fairy Tale books at home. I know I don’t have a dozen.
I first discovered Chris Van Sandwyk years ago when a friend showed me the one he’d illustrated. Van Sandwyk has been an expensive passion since then.
These were stunning.
There were many other irresistible Folios too.
It saddened me.
I can’t have the beauty I want. I know that now. It only took a year, a year and three months…so far to find out.
These books…I have no room at home for them. I would have to cull there to make space.
That saddened me. Those Folios are still carted. Waiting.
They sadden me still. Will I take some or all of these home, make room on shelves somehow and store the beauty in my house? To what end? For me to look at and appreciate and then recall the trip to Seattle all those years ago when I was introduced to Chris Van Sandwyk’s work?
There is a woman behind every word here, if you must know. Every essay, every book story, every fabulous tale, every reminiscence, every funny anecdote, every heart-rending “book end”—there’s a woman behind each word.
That saddened me. No one will look upon my books with me. No book adventures and discoveries will be shared.
I got Clif to follow me to the Emporium. He took an empty van. I took my Explorer. I love that new car. It is a shiny black rocket with more devices built into it than I’ll ever be able to understand.
We turned down the cobbled ramp. Straight ahead is the McClintock Distillery. We went there just before the plague shut the world down. That was a good day.
Clif backed the van to the old wooden. We began carrying boxes out to the van. An assistant of Sandy stood by.
“Are you counting the boxes?”
“Yes, I am,” he spoke genteelly with an almost southern inflection.
“Good. Then we don’t need to!”
The 77 boxes were largish, and the van was pretty full.
“I’ll see you at the warehouse. I have an appointment.”
I repeated louder and annunciated: “Go on back! I have to meet someone!”
The meeting was at my Frederick City Farm. A year ago, I was so excited with the concept of a boutique bookshop that was also a craft brewery or winery or brew pub or bar. I spent a lot of time and money on plans and concepts and meetings. The right match never came together. It came close a few times.
In retrospect, I am so glad it didn’t get off the ground. Opening the doors only to have them slammed shut by the Plague would have been…disheartening.
And hugely expensive.
We sat around the large Scandinavian dining room table and chatted.
I liked her concept. I liked her passion. I liked her. If I could help her build her dream, she could buy the property eventually. She even hinted there might be books in it.
I left the meeting with mixed emotions. Perhaps my concept was just not meant to be. But I am looking at other book ventures right now…
It is late Thursday afternoon. Yet again, I left work early to go home and lie down and write.
Those Folio books are still on the cart.
I went to the Southern States Cooperative Tuesday. I needed more sunflower seeds. A lot of the ones I’ve planted never sprouted.
I put in 5 or so new beds between the yew hedges at the warehouse.
Tomatoes, peppers, beans, cukes…
Southern States had a selection of large handkerchiefs suitable for tying behind one’s head as a mask. Only $2.19 each. I bought 4 different colors.
What do you think? How do you like my COVID haircut? Uncut. The longest it has been in many years. That mask masks the fact that it reaches my shoulders now.
I like the bandanna…whatever.
These are a little easier to breathe through than the tartan strap-ons I’ve been sporting since March.
Wednesday, I decided to do the swap at one of the stores. There’d been escalating people problems.
When I walked in, there was nothing going on. Nothing.
I walked through the store. It was filthy. Trash littered floors everywhere.
“Is your vacuum cleaner broken?”
There were books all over the floors.
“Didn’t you get the memo about no books on the floors?”
I felt like I’d been physically struck. Gob smacked. Blindsided.
I thought we had a deal. I paid for a lot of people to stay home during the worst times. Everyone was getting extra pay for working right now.
I thought I’d done everything from my end to hold the place together. I’d been devoted to keeping the place going. I’d been working every single day since early March…or before. I don’t use the time clock.
I was embarrassed.
I was angry. Furious.
I didn’t yell. (I NEVER “yell.” Employees sometimes say: “Chuck yelled at us.” If I speak in a certain tone, that is sometimes enough for the very sensitive to accuse me of “yelling.” The last time I acted out was in early 2014 during the big warehouse “Move.” The payroll had not been delivered on time. I vividly recall throwing an empty plastic tub to the floor at my feet and raising my voice “Take it over now!”)
As I walked through the store with the managers, I would casually point to messes and say:
“I just don’t know what to say.”
I left there disheartened. I drove back to the warehouse disheartened.
When I went home, I threw myself in gardening.
I planted and transplanted. I potted and repotted. I dug. I hauled bags of soil. I watered…until it started getting dark.
I grilled some chicken and a hot dog.
A small miracle has been happening. The epiphyllum cactus I inherited from my friend Barbara Mertz is blooming…at the end of June!
I’ve had this one for almost seven years, and it never bloomed this late. There are 8 or more flower buds on it.
Is it an omen? Is Barbara telling me something from her astral plane?
I hope it is a good omen.
I looked up into the darkening woods above the house and thought “Black Forest.” I’d visited there 20 or more years ago now. In that instant, I decided to build a Books by the Foot color palette from those impressions.
It is Thursday evening. Thunder starting cracking the sky an hour or so ago. There wasn’t any rain forecast today in Frederick. It’s become quite foreboding as I lie here typing away and then pausing to read or check my phone or look something up. I brought the dogs inside. Merry especially doesn’t like thunder. He starts panting and shaking.
Now there’s a gentle rain pattering on the roof and leaves outside my window.
That’s a good thing. It will help with the success of all the garden work I did last night.
I was tired and sore when I awoke.
I had Ernest drive me up to the store that was so disappointing on Wednesday. We had 30 or so large plastic tubs for culling. I knew there more waiting there in the back room.
When I walked in, there was a different group working. The floors had been vacuumed. The books were off the floor, mostly. It was no longer the ****show it had been the day before (and however many days before that.)
Ernest and I separated and attacked the most crowded cluttered looking sections.
On my knees, on my feet, atop a metal stool, I culled and culled.
Duplicates, old stock, damaged books, mis-stocked volumes…dropped into tubs for Data Entry or for Books by the Foot. And for the hapless hopeless ones—”Pulp Tubs”—to be recycled to make new paper—saving some trees and perhaps becoming books again sometime in the future.
Clif brought up a second van to haul back all the heavy tubs we’d filled.
I left giant tub after tub in my wake. Clif and Joey and others followed and wheeled them out to an empty van at the curb. Dozens of tubs. Thousands of books.
I shouldn’t have to do this kind of crap.
I should. It is my store. It is my duty. They are my books. I do what needs to be done.
For this workout, this particular moment rose to level of:
“Things that MUST be done.”
When we got back to the warehouse in the afternoon, I was tired.
I was disheartened.
I felt foreboding.
I went outside and strode toward the Western Front. I pushed the bottles back down into the void. I added another dozen freshly emptied ones. I went to my nearby drainage ditch and found the largest flat stone I could carry. I set it atop the plugged void like a lid. I even tossed a couple of bags of topsoil onto it.
I went home early and wrote this and some other stuff.
I’d like to get out another part of the fantastical bookstore in the Round and Round series. There’s a room in that bookstore that seems to be haunted by… I think I know now by what. I just need to get it all written down.
The spring bulb catalogs have already arrived.
I have been marking spaces where new plantings would work.
2020 summer’s just begun, and I am thinking spring 2021.
Last order, the Erythronium Pagoda—the Dog’s Tooth Violet—was sold old. I should get this order in early. I need more Dog’s Tooth Violets.
I have plans.
This far future—it could be a good thing. Next year.
I was awake intermittently all night writing, trying to shake off bad omens and bad energy.
Friday means the vans will all be swapped at all three stores. The first time this has happened since March when most of the “fleet” was mothballed by the COVID-19 shutdowns.
It also means this story must go out.
I go in early and walked around the building. In and out.
The Western Front remains capped…for now.
Outside the Books by the Foot door is one of 25 or so swallows’ mud nests “glued” to the building.
How on earth did these creature evolve this architectural skill? They have no hands.
These fellows will fledge soon and join their parents and cousins swirling and swarming in their graceful aerial ballets.
Dozens and dozens swirl around my building every evening. Until they migrate.
A friend sent me a Doves Press—doubling my collection, I think. 1 of 20 on vellum.
It was awaiting me when I arrived this morning.
It’s perfect. It is perfectly nice. Goethe—supposedly the smartest man who ever lived according to… I forget…
The weekend ahead…I’m not looking forward to it.
I need something different.
Something different and GOOD.
I didn’t report that seven days ago—last Friday—I had my first professional Martini in months.
I met a friend, and we walked the Wine Kitchen on Carroll Creek.
Actually, that was a Vesper—a drink invented by James Bond.
After a second, we walked to Il Porto. It was almost empty.
There I had another and then another.
And a wonderful fish dinner.
And then…it was Saturday.