Surrealistic Pillow Album


The books are stacked carefully here and there
Shelved neatly their spines rise and fall like a bar graph
I fall asleep surrounded by books
When I’m on the other side of consciousness
I wake in a different world
The books fly about the room
Their boards flap like wings
They smash into the walls and ceiling…
[rest of poem at the end of story]

Surrealistic Pillow Album

One begins to read between the pages of a book
The shape of sleepy music, and suddenly you’re hooked

“Comin’ Back To Me”—Marty Balin

Surreality in sleep.

Surreality while conscious.

Surreality everywhere but in nature and in books.

I find myself unsure of where I am more and more often.

I try to breathe slow and steady through the mask. But if I exert myself or if I’m training or explaining, I find myself breathless often. Almost panting.

My mind fogs over (as well as my glasses), and I am here and not here. I feel like I am slipping away…

I recall vividly buying Surrealistic Pillow when it was released. I was 12. I was buying more albums at that age rather than 45s. Once I bought an album, I would go up to the third floor in the stately old house on Washington Highway (not a “highway” but a quiet elm lined paradise) in Amherst…ummm Snyder, New York. The third floor was the domain of the eldest brother living at home. Joe had it til he left for the Naval Academy in 1957. Tony had it til 1960 when he left for the University of Pennsylvania. Jimmie had it til we moved away. I never had it. The whole home was oaky. Floor, paneling, crown molding, base molding, toe molding, doors (except my parents’ bedroom had a portiere), stairs, rails, window frames… The stairways rose and turned, rose and turned, rose and turned and rose. It was a very warm home, even in the beastly cold of western New York. The ceiling on the third floor rooms was uneven due to the roofline and dormers. It was its own place atop the pure comfort of the home below.

Jimmie was away a lot with friends, protesting at the University of Buffalo, hanging out with his best buddy, Andy Kulberg, wherever. They would soon go to Greenwich Village and get into the music scene with Al Kooper and The Blues Project before moving on to form Seatrain. But he never relinquished that room. So, I would go up and listen to music on his stereo. It was a “suitcase” Hi Fi.

Suitcase Stereo

The stereo speakers could easily fold in, and the whole thing closed up with a latch like a big suitcase. It had a suitcase handle to it as well. I never carried it anywhere until we moved away. It was quite large. And quite ugly, bound in two colors of cloth, salmon and white, if I recall. I would go up there and feel I was somewhere else. Hidden. Private. Alone. Grown up.

I likely had heard “White Rabbit” on WKBW AM 1520 on my transistor radio. That’s why I bought Surrealistic Pillow, I suppose.

When I got home with the album, I sliced open the shrink-wrap with a fingernail. Pulled out the album in its paper sleeve. Slid the gleaming ebony vinyl disc out of that. The little hole in the center fit over the steel spindle. The record stopped a few inches down on that metal rod. I pulled the lever, and the machine started. The turntable began spinning. The record dropped 4 or 5 inches from its perch to the turntable. The tone arm rose and moved to the edge of the 12 inch 33 1/3 rpm disc and slowly dropped onto it.


I had no idea where I was being taken. But taken away I was. I had never heard anything like this.

When the final track of side one had been played, the tone arm quickly slid to the paper label. That triggered it to rise and retract. It returned to its resting place. The turntable turned off and began to rotate slower and slower.

I lifted the LP and flipped it over and repeated the process on side 2.

When that was done, I sat drained and filled at the same time.

I had no idea about drugs or psychedelia. The most rebellious thing I’d done was sneaking some of my Mom’s Lark cigarettes. I found hidden places outdoors to smoke them. I’m so grateful I found them distasteful.


It is Thursday afternoon. We’ve begun evaluating the D. Douglas Fratz book collection.

It is “astounding” to use a science fiction term.

We rode down to Gaithersburg yesterday to pick up the bulk of it. We took three vans. Four people plus myself.

I’m under doctor’s orders to rest my knee. It is getting better. Gradually.

I had the new researcher, Annika, ride we me, so I could impart my vast biblio-wisdom upon her as we drove. We were masked. I found myself grasping for words and terms as we drove down I 270.

At the beautiful home, I limped in and the crew followed.

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I got them oriented and left to do a swap at the Gaithersburg store. I did my inspection tour. There were no customers. I stopped in a far corner to email the manager and myself some notes. I had to put on my glasses to text on the iPhone. I pulled the mask below my nose so the specs wouldn’t fog up.

I heard a sharp intake of breath, and about 20 feet away, a woman stood frozen. Her hands were up before her. There was terror and anger in her eyes.

I instantly pulled my mask up and mumbled: “Sorry.”

Mask hysteria.

I limped out to the van and drove back to Frederick.

The crew returned in midafternoon.

“We got most of it. I left some packed boxes down there,” Clif told me.

Fratz Pallets
That’s 10 pallets of the Fratz collection.

That’s 10 pallets of the Fratz collection.

“There’s another room you haven’t seen yet,” I told him.

I’d gone through the first few boxes that had been researched by Annika. This kind of material is good for a beginner. Sci Fi firsts are most always easily quantifiable.

You determine if it is a first edition. You look for comparable listings online. You pick where you want to be price wise if there are matches.

Same with signed copies.

She’s doing very well. Excellent actually. I hope she stays a while.

Two chronic defects in the collection I’d missed on my first inspection. I evaluated the “forest” and didn’t inspect many individual “trees.” A lot of the signed books are actually signed on an adhesive label. Fratz would have mailed the labels to the authors. They likely knew him or knew of him. They’d autograph the labels and return them. Doug would affix the label inside his book. His first labels were pretty small—about 1″x3″—and the signatures therefore are a little cramped to fit. Later iterations of his labels were much larger.

The other “defect” is he would attach the printed “signed” or “first edition” or “first edition signed” stickers directly on the book’s spine. You either have to live with it or oh-so-carefully remove it.

I blame my oversight completely on COVID-19. I was masked! Rebreathing my own CO2.

I was also quite excited and overwhelmed by the sheer comprehensiveness of the collection.

There were meticulously shelved in a beautiful finished basement. The shelves lined some walls in each of four “rooms.”

Row after row. Phalanx after phalanx of gleaming Brodart* book jacket covers. Many were also slipped into plastic bags with the identification labels thankfully stuck on the outside.

* Brodart Book Jacket Covers: Clear plastic covers designed to protect a book’s cover and/or dust jacket from scratches, wear and tear, fingerprints, and moisture. —

But I’m being an idiot. A signature is better than no signature. And I was probably overexcited when I first visited. Hyperventilating under my mask.

Mr. Fratz did a magnificent job finding, protecting and organizing his collection. He must have enjoyed his sprawling sanctum sanctorum immensely.

So, I spent about an hour today going over the books that Annika had researched. We were both masked, and I tried to annunciate any comments, so she could understand me.

Neil Gaiman, Philip Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury…it is just surreal going through one beautiful fine condition book after another.

It leaves me breathless…or it aids in my breathlessness.

I stopped at Smoketown Brewing Station on my way home the day before. I gave David a little stack of Roy Clark restaurant placemats from the 1970s. He likes stuff related to people who performed at the Brunswick Firehall, which is now home to the original smoke town Brewery. I had a Patsy IPA (named after Patsy Cline.) Driving home, the skies opened. Going up the gravel road to my house, gushing little rivulets were threading their way down, washing small trenches into the drive. The road will be a lot bumpier for a while. I parked at the house and was drenched letting the dogs out before going inside. The miserable weather just added to my funk.

I made canned tuna “salad” and heated some frozen pizza slices and watched the surreal movie Interstellar. Very post apocalyptic—kind of like nowadays.

Dystopian future. Dystopian present.

I went to bed early. Tired, sore…down about my friend’s sudden death last week and the mass insanity in the world.

Trapped in paradise. My home and the Wonder Book warehouse. Being trapped anywhere is not healthy for humans I’ve come to learn.

I awoke around 2 am with the bizarre dream that opens this story and ends it. I scratched out the poem on the legal pad I keep beside me. I was still “awake.” My knee throbbed; my heel felt like a needle was going through it. I went and got a pill—something I rarely do.

Then I reached for something to read. A book. Elizabeth Daly. Murders in Volume 2.

Murders in Volume

The first edition copy came in with the mystery hoard I am still sorting through. I thought I’d read them all—the Henry Gamadge bibliomysteries—long, long ago. But if I’ve read this one, I can’t recall it. I even have a decent run of Daly first editions in dust jackets…somewhere. I need to dig those up. Likely they’re on the third floor in the old Pennsylvania manse. I have a built-in library there. They wait patiently like neglected friends. We used to be so close. Now I rarely visit.

It felt so good. So comfortable. I was transported to 1930s Manhattan. A genteel place. Old Dutch families in their mansions passed down from generation to generation to generation.

Henry Gamadge—bibliophile, wealthy gentleman and amateur detective is helping a woman with family troubles. It revolves around a book.

“Well, your lucky find [an odd volume from an early 19th century set of Byron] is in excellent condition; one would almost say that it had been in a state of suspended animation, if books could be called animate objects. Sometime I almost think they are.”

It took me away until sleep took me somewhere else.

Was it surreal to be transported to prewar Manhattan? It was magical. The magic created by the mind and the printed word.

I give thanks I love books. I am very lucky.

And Elizabeth Daly—there’s not much info about her online, which I find odd. She didn’t publish her first book until she was 62!

I hope you discover Elizabeth Daly. She wrote smart bookish and comforting mysteries.

It is Thursday afternoon near closing. I’ve handled thousands of beautiful books today. I am surrounded by beauty and meaning.

It all feels so empty.

A few days before John passed away, the cactus I inherited from my friend Barbara started a new blossom.

Cactus Flower

It has never bloomed after spring before. I took it as an omen, a portent of hope and change.

It has faded now.

Maybe there are things to look forward to. If so, they are far away.

American Airlines called to tell me my flight to Venice was canceled. Will I ever get there? I have great friends and brothers that won’t. My parents never got to Europe. I have hopes. Distant hopes.

Yesterday I came across an early edition of A Thousand Miles Up the Nile by 19th century author, traveler and Egyptologist Amelia Edwards.

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My friend Barbara Mertz used her as an inspiration for all the Amelia Peabody mysteries she wrote under her pen name Elizabeth Peters.

Maybe that was the reason behind the blossom on the epiphyllum.

Don’t give up.

Looking at the title page, I see Edwards wrote a novel: Barbara’s History. Surreal. She also wrote some ghost stories.

I’ll keep limping forward. It’s all I can do. Maybe I’ll get to Luxor next winter—this winter! Summer 2020 is half done!


Some time after we bought Book Alcove in Gaithersburg in 2008, we began discovering odd things on the shelves. They weren’t leftovers from Book Alcove. They had our price stickers on them!

“Are we trying to sell junk mail?” I asked all the prospective in-house culprits.

Everyone pleaded ignorance.

But we would still find things like this stuck randomly on the shelves.

Stickered Junk Mail

Upon closer inspection, I could tell the price stickers had been tampered with.

Someone was bringing in their junk mail into the bookstore and putting one of our stickers on it.

We never caught the person, and the quirky obsession has mostly quieted in recent years.

I don’t know if the person was some kind of hoarder or had another kind of pathology. I don’t know if the books the stickers were removed from were stolen, and the junk mail was some kind of “trade.”

Maybe the person was an obsessive recycler and thought he or she was keeping their junk mail out of the landfill…

What is my favorite find of the week?

There are two of them.

One is this little thing:

The Brave Little Toaster

It is a charmer and quite valuable.

The other came in a big white envelope.

Maxim’s de Paris! I love their products. My two visits there were iconic.

But what is Maxim’s Beijing?

Maxim's Christmas Card

Looking online, I see that in 1983 Maxim’s opened a branch in “Pekin.”

Also included was this embroidered serviette.

Maxim's Card & Serviette

Upon closer inspection, I believe the Beijing piece above is original art. I thought perhaps it is a prototype for their menu.

Maxim's Christmas Card

No. It is a big elaborate Christmas card!

The big menu is the real thing. It has 39 entries in French, English and Chinese. It is priced in “Yuans.”

Maxim's Beijing Menu

Where did the package come from?

No idea.

But I love it.

I’m pretty sure I won’t get to Beijing.

I hope I get back to Maxim’s de Paris.

If not, I have this connection to it.

Maxim's Beijing Menu

The Brave Little Toaster takes me back to when my kids were little, and I’d watch movies with them. Those were good years. Maxim’s takes me back to my too few Paris trips. I hope I return. Soon. Good years.

Last year, 2019, had some great times. Then that changed for some reason.

Then this year happened…

Chicago…that beautiful classic city…mass insanity.

Here’s that nightmare poem in its entirety:


The books are stacked carefully here and there
Shelved neatly their spines rise and fall like a bar graph
I fall asleep surrounded by books
When I’m on the other side of consciousness
I wake in a different world
The books fly about the room
Their boards flap like wings
They smash into the walls and ceiling
The crash splayed upon the floor
They dash inches above my face
I dare not rise
I lie in darkness while madness flashes about my bed
A nightmare of color paper bindings
The fallen rise and fly about
Books bashing into one another
They do not tire
Nor do the collisions damage them
A massive tome dives toward my helpless face!

Moonlight pours through my windows
My white gray black room is calm
Shadowy piles stand neat about me
Bookcases line the walls
Shelves are filled left to right top to bottom
My heart and breath settle
I am so weary of this nightly nightmare
I long for sleep and rest and peace
But I dare not close my eyes

16 Comments on Article

  1. Thanks for another Friday tale. I believe I had the same record player. “Inherited” from my sister when she went to college.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      They were pretty complex machines in retrospect!
      Probably highly collectible in playable condition.
      Thanks Richard!


  2. Nelson commented on

    Doug fratz wrote a semi pro fanzine original name Thrust as I recall.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Yes and lots of other reviews and things

  3. Terry commented on

    I remember those “oddly” priced items in Gaithersburg. Some of us thought for awhile it was you. Checking to see if they would be noticed by us!
    Better times are coming. Keep writing, keep the knee safe.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      LOL….crazy customers!
      Thanks Terry. The knee is doing better.
      I’m ready for some better times!


  4. Morris Hornik commented on

    Thanks once again for sharing your book-filled life! Your dreams might benefit from the animated short film “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” ( Please view this winner of the 2012 Academy Award to find a happier framework for flying books, and a vision of how important appreciating books can be in an individual’s life.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      I remember that! Thank you for reminding me and the kind comment!

  5. Andy Moursund commented on

    That Surrealistic Pillow album cover brought back memories. My college roommate first showed it to me in 1967, and I did a double take when I saw that one of its members was a guy I knew back in 8th grade—-Jack Casady. I was strictly an R&B fan and never cared much for the San Francisco sound, so I didn’t even realize that he’d gone on to bigger and better things since he was a featured artist at the Alice Deal Friday Night Club dances back in Jr. High School. Next to Warren Buffett, he may be Wilson High School’s most famous alum.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      I know he and Jorma Kaukonen (sp?) were from the DC region and played together in school.
      I thought one or both had gone to Wheaton HS.
      Cool memories about school shows!
      Thanks for bringing back those memories Andy

  6. Michael Dirda commented on

    I used to know Doug Fratz but–hangs head in shame–didn’t realize or had forgotten he had died a couple of years ago. Too young.
    I wonder if he had much sf and fantasy from before World War II, which is what interests me. While I like pretty books and, on older titles, try to preserve their jackets with mylar, I dislike owning anything I have to put in a box or treat like Limoges china. Books are meant to be read, not worshipped.
    As it happens, I reviewed “The Brave Little Toaster” and its sequel, “The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars.” Tom Disch used to write pretty regularly for me at Book World and we became friends. I visited him several times at his Union Square apartment and enjoyed toast from the very toaster that inspired his beguiling fairy tale. Tom got rooked by Disney–a familiar story for writers involved with that media behemoth–and got almost nothing from the animated version. He was certainly one of the most versatile writers I’ve ever met, being equally accomplished at poetry, criticism, fiction and much else. As I recall, he even created an early computer game called “Amnesia.”
    Tom grew increasingly bitter about the world after the death of his partner Charlie Naylor. His physical debilities (from diabetes) started to keep him house-bound and he spent his last years producing his blog and ranting about the decline of everything but doing so with his usual insight and wit. He killed himself on July 4, 2008. I, along with many others, miss him to this day. I often wonder what he would have had to say about the world of 2020. –md

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      The collection is almost post 1970s. So, no real high spots I’m afraid.
      We’ve just done the tip onf the iceberg thus far.
      Many will be common hypermoderns.
      That is so sad about Disch.
      Coincidentally, I watched the cartoon a couple months ago. It has some kind of twisted bits in it…
      But I still enjoyed.
      Sad to know the end story now.
      I’m sure you’ve read Elizabeth Daly.

  7. Hi Chuck, yes, I have fond memories of visiting Quill and Brush in Bethesda, on Old Georgetown Rd, and later in their amazing house by Sugarloaf Mtn. Who wouldn’t be impressed by the wall of reference books, the upper parts probably accessed by balloon. ( Opps, I just realized I’m reacting to your piece that you wrote when Pat Ahearn died in 2014 ).
    Your current Plague piece-your comment about being in the presence of beauty not canceling out the all too pervasive presence of the virus seems all too true. I try to fight it by drawing things in a sketchbook. Works for awhile. Rick Banning

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Good memories of that wondrous home.
      There are a couple other old stories about the Ahearn. I was there the last night he stayed.

      Thank you for the thoughtful comments!


  8. Gregory commented on

    Your claustrophobia worries me a bit. Are we so fidgety that we can’t stay in one place for a year without feeling suffocated? Yes, it would be great to go to Paris or Egypt, but if travel is the only thing that makes our lives bearable, it is a sad commentary on the lives we have built.

    This isn’t criticism—just an observation. I am often comforted by Hamlet’s observation that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

    I hope your spirits raise themselves soon.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      “Trapped in paradise” is far better than where many are trapped.
      At my age each “year” is a sentence.
      Book shows, museums, live entertainment…
      It is a sentence – at this point – as I have been in every day for over 5 months.
      My own addiction …

      Thank you for reading and writing the kind words.

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