Survival and Recovery—Journal of a Plague Year, Week 5

Masks

A week ago, things were dismal here. Fear and doubt ruled this little book world.

Now I have a gut feeling that we will survive this.

Survival was in doubt last week.

Perhaps that little glow on the horizon is recovery. It is far away, and I know there are many pitfalls between here and there.

Dawn

Recovery…I yearn for the problems we had here six weeks ago.

I yearn to be a book person again.

I am exhausted emotionally from being a crisis leader. That’s not in my job description. Well, it is now.

The innovations set in place here in the last weeks are astounding.

Meetings, emails, drafts, renovations…

I hope the sun will set safely on the survival period soon.

Masks

I want to get back to work. Safely. A lot of other people do too.


It is Thursday, April 16. Late morning. This is the first moment I have had to sit, take a breath and try to write since last Friday’s story went out.

Hold on, I need to flip up my facemask. My glasses fog up when I have my mask on.

Masks

It’s ok. I’m in my private office.

I’ve got to brush the hair from my eyes. Soon it will be shoulder length like it was in high school and college.

This warehouse in many ways looks much as it has for the last few years. But if you were to compare it closely, you would see it is vastly different than a week ago.

It is cold in here. One safety precaution we instituted was to prop the doors open. I decided that people entering or leaving don’t need to touch anything like handles or key cards or jambs.

I don’t like touching other people’s doors any more—not that I go anywhere much.

My phone says it is 46 degrees outside.

It was 32 degrees outside at home when I awoke—or rather got up—this morning. I’d been somewhere between sleep and consciousness for hours. That is the new normal in my bed.

It is also the altered state of consciousness everywhere and always for me. And I assume almost everyone else.

Is this real?

I hope none of the potted plants I’d set outside at home and here at the warehouse were killed by the cold snap. I’ve nurtured the plants I rescued from Bonnie Vee’s abandoned home for nearly 3 years now.

Damn! If I’ve killed them, there is no excuse! Not even COVID’s distractions. I can always work harder. I always have when it comes to that.

Last week’s book story—War Rooms—The Journal of a Plague Year, Week 4—ended with the publishing of that story Friday afternoon. (That story has been updated with more details—about the Groundhog Wars for example.) I finished with my intent to drive up into our adjacent vacant 7-acre lot and cut wood after the last person left. I did that. My mind relaxed, and I was able to enter a Zen-like state. It was while cutting wood I knew what I had to do over the weekend. I couldn’t follow my heart’s desire and play with the old books set aside for me to evaluate.

Dammit!


Well, I did pass a cart and spot this familiar cover.

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats

A first edition! No dust jacket, but still…I love this stuff.

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My duty was revealed. I knew while tossing the wood I’d cut to woodstove length into the back of my Dodge Ram pickup truck what would be in store for me Saturday and Sunday.


Saturday, April 11

I rose with the dawn and headed down the mountain with Merry and Pippin beside me.

Dawn

Yesterday was the first payday there were no paychecks in the warehouse—EVER. The new payroll processor mailed all of them to the employees. They were almost all home, anyway. I wonder if mine came. Doesn’t matter. I won’t be cashing my checks for a VERY long time. I have 3 in hand now. I am glad I am a Luddite and don’t have direct deposit. I asked the accountants if I could stop taking one, or if I could go to minimum wage if I needed to stay on as a full-time employee. I was told the checks should continue to be printed to keep the payroll and hours as normal as possible for the government programs…which STILL has not come through—and we were one of the first to sign up with our mega bank.

My goal that morning was:

“Making Spaces.”

More and more people were asking to return to the warehouse to work with books even though they were getting full pay staying at home. I had to make sure they would have plenty of room for the new mantra “social distancing.”

My mindset has always been “more.” More books. More growth. More people. There are times when things are quite cramped in the 3-acre warehouse with its 4 million books.

However, with the stores closed for quite a while, we haven’t been getting books from the public. With Governor Hogan’s Stay Home edict, scouts and charities and individual and estate liquidators are not coming by to sell us books at the warehouse. In fact, the gates to the dockyard were closed and chained for about 2 weeks. Unheard of. Typically, vans, trucks, trailers… come and go through that portal dozens of times a day.

So, we have had managers in here sorting “raw” books—books we’ve bought from the many sources we used to acquire them. That is in preparation for when the Data Entry people return, and we begin putting fresh books online again. That has created some space. With a little wiggle room, one can accomplish some big things.

Where are the worst bottlenecks?

One of the most active crossroads in the building has been near the office doors that open on to the warehouse floor. There’s a table just outside where the stacks of printed orders/packing slips are set out each weekday morning. It was also a gathering area for rolling carts of problematic material and other odds and ends.

I had walked through the building to try to figure the safest people and product flow during the coming week. Fortunately, the whole building was set up for the books to flow in a circular motion. Clockwise, actually.

Most of the books come in the building via Docks 1 and 2 and are stored near the southeast corner.

From there the next stop is west into the sorting areas. From there, most of the books continue west in to the data entry area. After the books are added to our online inventory of over two and a half million items (WonderBook.com—currently on SALE), they head north into the vast stacks and numerous rows of shelving. They are stored on those shelves hoping someone will find them online and give them a new home.

Pullers take their printed orders out to the stacks and retrieve the fortunate titles that have been selected by readers and collectors from all over the world. They proceed east and then turn south to the shipping area.

In shipping, the orders are packed and address labels affixed. The packages are set there in various types of containers depending on how they will be delivered to their buyers—domestic and foreign. The loading dock for shipping is 7—north of the loading docks where most of the product comes in. (This crazy building has 21 loading docks! Crazy, eh?)

The Books by the Foot department—our #BookRescue innovation to recycle books for which there are no buyers or collectors or donatees—occupies a big chunk of the northeast section of the building and doesn’t really interact with other parts of the business. Their dedicated loading dock 17 is even farther north than receiving and shipping.

So, a typical book will arrive in the southeast corner, proceed west, turn north, then head east and turn south. It will then leave the building via a loading dock door about 30 yards north of the doors it arrives in.

“The Circle of (Book) Life.” LOL…

Making spaces and eliminating or greatly reducing interaction…that is my goal to take the first steps toward recovery.

So began a weekend of me and my pallet jack dancing around the warehouse.

Pallet Jack

I push the jack to a pallet and into gaps under the plastic or wooden pallets. Once in place, I pump the handle up and down, and the hydraulics raise 500 or a thousand pounds of books off the floor. When I feel there is enough clearance, I push or pull or sometimes wrestle the pallet into motion.

At best, they roll quite easily across the smooth warehouse floor. At worst, I need to grunt strain and curse the books into motion.

The 3 casters or wheels on the jack are perforce very small and very hard. The will NOT roll over even splinters of wood or other bits of hard detritus on the floor. I can be rolling along smoothly and suddenly with a screech or groan everything stops.

“Damn!” (or worse—I AM by myself here.)

“Are my arms still in their sockets?”

Then I push or pull the jack in the opposite directions and look on the floor under the obstacle appears. A little thing like this can stop a half-ton of books in a snap!

Splinter

Depending how angry I am, I’ll either kick it aside or bend and pick it up and toss into the oblivion of a recycling Gaylord so I’ll never see it again.

“Go to hell!”

(I’m fairly rational usually…well, pretty often. I know there’s a bit of pathology in swearing at splinters or tools. Perhaps I am emboldened in private because I’m just not the type to swear or scream at humans.)

By the end of the day, my arms and thighs were burning with fatigue. There would be no wood cutting this evening. Instead, I went out for a carryout pizza from BJs. A friend came, and we picnicked on half pineapple and half anchovy pizza. (Bizarre times call for bizarre concoctions?)

Bizarre Pizza

We set up at a little metal bistro table just outside the dockyard door. Merry and Pippin, my two Jack Russell terriers, sat at our feet occasionally looking up longingly in hopes of a gift from “god” or am I “DOG”—he who must be obeyed?

It was great fun—the warm late afternoon sun reddening the backs of our necks. We talked of life and death and books and how lucky we were to be part of the giant building of books beside us. We sipped wine and laughed at death and life and our helplessness at the world. We were alone from all I could tell in the middle of the industrial park where this building is. We could have been the last two people in the world. Merry and Pippin, the last two dogs. All the groundhogs burrowing outside the fence looked eager to be our successors if we failed at survival. That’s Mt Suribachi about 50 yards outside the fence.

Mt Suribachi View
Mt Suribachi is in the little grove just beyond the dockyard fence on the east side of the building.

I’ve surrendered that territory to them—for now. I’d never drink enough to generate enough bottles to fill all those holes.

Mt Suribachi

Perhaps some day, I’ll choose the nuclear option and rent a bulldozer and flatten the dirt mound. I can just imagine them squealing and whistling at me in derision as they escape out their bolt holes and cross the street to infest a neighbor’s property. There is a reason groundhogs are also known as “whistle pigs.”


Sunday

The moving of pallets continued. Clif came in for a few hours, and we filled one of the empty trailers we have backed up against unused loading docks. The 53-foot trailers hold 40 double-stacked pallets.

That helped.

My goal was to open up work spaces in shipping and Books by the Foot areas.

I had come up with a “One Touch” policy in the building. This was designed so that no book or piece of equipment would be touched more than once per day.

I sacrificed some pallets of really junky stuff that I’d been saving for… What was I thinking?

They went on the recycling trailer.

We had a dozen or so pallets of new softcovers hanging around that we had acquired when Daedalus Books shuttered. We pulled off what we needed for online sales and the stores. We can sell a LOT of the Annotated Dracula—but not 2 thousand copies. I put the rest on the recycling trailer. I told my recycler they were a gift and perhaps he could sell them to another book company. They deal with a lot of them in the region. I’d hate to see them pulped.

Pallets with heavy Gaylords of books atop them rumbled across the warehouse floor.

All the while, I was thinking of how we can safely get the online and decorator book departments going again. Any drips of revenue would be welcome—a miracle of sorts. Hmmm…

We prop the doors open.

We move all the empty carts to the west wall after they’ve been wiped down.

The pullers will use only those carts.

The pullers will park their loaded carts against the east wall north of shipping.

Those carts will “rest” there over night.

One person will move those rested carts down to shipping the next day.

The carts shipping empties that day will get tucked around the corner and not reused until they are wiped and moved to the west wall the next day.

The “Circle of (Cart) Life”? LOL…

The same would apply to carts in Books by the Foot.

I saw a dusty old flimsy Gaylord. I vaguely recalled that beneath a layer of cardboard there was art and prints and maybe some good stuff I’d squirreled away many, many years ago.

Hard to believe we have been selling online since 1997. Harder to believe that September 21, 2020 will mark 40 years since I opened the bookstore as a sole proprietor. I invested $1000 in pine boards and nails and the first and last months’ rents.

‘That’s going to be a problem to move,’ I thought.

Sure enough, when I got the forks of the pallet jack underneath it, pumped the handle to get it off the ground and started to ease it out into the aisle, the single ply cardboard split and all kinds of paper things began spilling out.

Broken Pallet

The last thing I wanted was to stop and pick stuff up from the floor.

“Mom?”

Chuck's Mom's Pastel

An ancient pastel of my mother framed in the mid 60s appeared. It was a pretty bad portrait. Everyone in the family hated it. Still, it took my breath away.

My dad’s Selective Service Award!

Chuck's Dad's Award

He was proud of that. He always wanted to be a soldier. He was 4-F in World War 2. He had had cancer and was the father of three small boys. (I was not to appear until the distant future.) The government thought he’d better serve stateside as a doctor. He did medical exams for the Selective Service along with his duties at Gallenger Hospital (the old DC General) and research and teaching.

My dad’s military dreams came true when he was called up to active duty during the Vietnam War at age 59. The Army was desperate for doctors. He had been in the Reserves for many years. He spent time at Walter Reed and retired a full Colonel. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. It was just a few days before my 21st birthday. Mom was buried there 18 months later.

Ike? JFK?

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Late 18th century Japanese wood-block prints?

Japanese Prints

The treasures buried in this place…and the junk.

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Some have likened it to the warehouse at the end of Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I gently picked the stuff up and set much of it into a new short multi-ply Gaylord. I left Mom and Dad out.

“I really will need to get into that stuff when there is time.”

There are hundreds of things stacked in there. I think it happened when we were in a rush, moving from one warehouse to another in the early 2000s. Our current warehouse is the 4th location.

What is in those layers?

I put some post impressionist prints aside long ago, signed by…I forget which one.

This looks like archaeological strata.

Broken Pallet

And I am the Indiana Jones of books…LOL

I sighed longingly. I want to play with books and stuff. I’ve barely touched a book for a couple weeks now. Or is it longer? Shorter?

Time is different right now.

I started moving things again, and when the day was over, I had vastly expanded the area outside the office.

Office Space

In the shipping areas, I created a landing zone for the carts that would be filled with orders to “rest” overnight. I moved a LOT of empty carts over to the west wall.

My biggest accomplishment was in Books by the Foot. I greatly expanded the main section, I created a large work zone on the other side of the dock wall—large enough for three work stations and a smaller area with two 8-foot tables near where the fork lift charges.

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I was done. My arms and shoulder and thighs burned. My throat was dry with dust.

I stored the pallet jack under a random pallet.

I breathed.

Easter? Today is Easter?

Visions of a toddler me came into my mind. Easter was a big deal in our home. Mom would dress me in new leather sandals.

Easter Sandals

White socks with scalloped tops. A jumper with a white shirt and clasped on bow tie.

Easter Jumper

We’d go in the back yard, and Dad would take endless pictures of me and my three older brothers and Mom. He was a real photo bug. He had a complex Exacta German 35 mm camera.

Memory speaks. There were always hyacinths blooming the border gardens. That sweet smell takes me back to Amherst, New York every year when they bloom.

After church, we would return home for a huge Thanksgiving-like feast. It was always ham, I think. Mom would stick rings of pineapple and push in cloves all over its surface.

Easter…

This was the Easter that wasn’t.

This has been the spring that wasn’t.

After the too mild winter that wasn’t.

I texted Easter greetings to my distant family.


Monday was all meetings, emails, texts, phone calls…

We came up with a whole new page of COVID guidelines following the ever-changing scripts of what should and should not be done.

We had turned off all the internet selling platforms except WonderBook.com*. The fear was if we closed suddenly and had thousands of paid orders unfilled, our ratings would be sunk—permanently. No more Amazon. Also, we had been under threat from a self-appointed “science and commerce” expert who had sent a letter to the governor. That cost us a lot of days. It cost a lot of pain. Dante: Eighth Circle, Ninth Pit: Makers of Discord. Tenth Pit: Falsifiers.

Wonder Book Sales
* There is a Sale there. And discounted Gift Certificates for when the stores open again. For I am sure now that they will reopen…sometime. What they will look like…well, we will be told what to do in order to open.

Should we turn on Amazon? Can we handle it? A lot of people wanted to come in to help. They were being paid to stay home, but they wanted to come in. We offered a bit of hourly bonus pay to thank them.

We decided to try.

The next day:

Boom!

Carts of Orders

It was like booklovers around the country were waiting at our virtual front door. (We haven’t opened internationally yet—too problematic.)

The order came from Annapolis that everyone needed to start wearing masks. We had anticipated that. Last week, I texted two employees who I knew were “crafty.” They agreed to make some at home. We had ordered some from a Kilt making company I had heard about on the radio.

Kilt Masks

Who was that new person? I thought she looked familiar. I won’t know now. Everyone’s face is covered.


The week wore on. It was all innovation and hard labor.

More safety guidelines. More space. More new rules and policies.

A friend was bored stuck at home. I offered jokingly:

“You can come up to the mountain and stack wood. There’s no one up there for acres and acres.”

…except for deer and turkey and, yes, a bear knocked over my recycling trolley this week. There wasn’t anything in there to eat, but maybe there was some scent left on a can or jar.

Surprisingly, she said yes. Desperate times, indeed.

When I got home, she had stacked everything except the larger pieces that will need splitting.

Guess what the difference between her stacking and mine is?

Stacked Wood

Friday

I awaken in the dark like every night nowadays. I reach for the Honeywell “Atomic clock.” It is somehow connected to the real Atomic Clock. I press the button, and its dial glows electric blue—like the old TVs when I was a kid. When you walked down a street, most every house had a blue light glowing from a window where someone was watching ABC or CBS or NBC…there were no other options.

2:43.

I reach for a legal pad and write some notes for the day ahead.

I try to go back to sleep.

No luck.

I fade from weird conscious mini dreams to consciousness.

How many hours before the dawn will brighten the room and signs I must soon rise?

I look out the window, and the Redbuds or Judas Trees are peaking their pink/lavender blossoms. There is an ancient legend about them. That’s why some call them Judas—the Betrayer.

I get to work, and the warehouse is normal.

The “new” normal. About 20% of the work force, and they all are masked.

We haven’t gotten the PPP yet. We were one of the first to successfully apply. My banker friend is being oddly reticent.

“Still working on applications.”

I have to decide if we can continue to pay all the employees out of pocket. Today is the end of the third week I had promised. Each week is about $55,000—$60,000.

Please God…

Is this what I’ve been saving money for my whole working life?

Ok…another week… I can’t pull the plug on them.

Sweet Jesus…

Please God, keep us all safe…


Next week we may go to two shifts.

I’ve agreed to let a few people come in and join me over the weekend. I won’t be working here alone anymore.

One success story during the closure was my own “hand selling.” I belong to the ABAA. It is a venerable organization dedicated to rare and collectible books. I know a lot of these people and what their specialties are. When I see an unusual item, I snap a few pictures and email them. Sometimes I put a price on the item. Other times: “Can I send it, and you pay what you feel is fair?” I also post items for sale on a special listserv that only goes to members. My success rate is pretty good. About 50% of the offers get snapped up.

But “hand selling” is like a craft—I can’t do very many per day. Only two posts are permitted. I can only squeeze so many images and brief descriptions into one email.

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It is fun.

A little victory whenever I get a reply: “I’d like that if it is still available.”

After all, when I’m not a crisis manager or a CEO or a biblio-survivalist—I am, at the core, a bookseller, and that is not a bad gig for a lifetime.

10 Comments on Article

  1. Debbie Schnibbe commented on

    Chuck I applaud your vigilance and dedication to your company and employees. I am looking forward to getting back to work. A couple of days a week is worth it. Thank you for looking out for and protecting your employees no matter what anyone says.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      I miss you Debbie! Thank you ! We will see you soon I hope.
      Best
      Chuck

  2. Severa Drabczyk commented on

    Hello Chuck,

    I just wanted to give you a small token of my appreciation here on your blog for all you’ve done. I have always been so grateful to work at Wonder Book and I feel that even more so now. This is an emotionally, mentally, financially and physically trying time for everyone and it is apparent that you are doing everything you can for the business, customers and us. I will be returning to work on Monday and I am looking forward to working and being with our books once again. I will be one of several people that will stick with Wonder Book until we come out on the other side of this crisis. Thank you for everything.

    -Severa D.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      It will be so good to see you!
      The place looks different for sure.
      Thank you for saying those things. It does help.
      Chuck

  3. Geoffrey Hughes commented on

    Glad to see things are trending in the right direction.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Baby steps…
      Thanks Geoff!
      Stay safe. thank you for writing
      Chuck

  4. Ken Schultz commented on

    Chuck, Your Dad and I may have crossed paths. I was a Military Policeman stationed at Walter Reed (March to September 1969) after a year in Vietnam. I was on duty the day President Eisenhower died at Walter Reed.

    Your dad and the other doctors there had very difficult duty treating the causalities of war.

    I remember the pine boards and nails in your first store and often wondered (hoped) you were a good carpenter as I looked through stacks of books from floor to ceiling on those shelves you built.

    I look forward to wandering through Wonder again.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      That is cool Ken!
      You probably saw m too.
      I had my tonsils out in a hallway there in 68 I think.
      The doctor was Vietnamese I think and didn’t believe in anesthesia.
      Felt like he was using a dull butter knife!
      I was there often w my sick mom.
      I spent one summer at AFIP when I was premed in 73 I think.
      My mentor Carl taught me how to build shelves.
      Those first ones are still in use!
      Thanks for reading and writing!
      Best
      Chuck

  5. Askold Skalsky commented on

    Dear Chuck, This is your old friend from that time long ago in the George Washington literature class on 18th Century English Lit. So touching to read your comments. We are all biblio-survivalists now. I have always considered myself lucky to have lived most of my life close to your 3 stores. You are a treasure to book lovers everywhere. Be assured that I am waiting for the opening of Wonder Book–and I do fervently believe that you will rebound financially. Even to the point of starting that “Barn’ of used books that you were planning! God Bless you.

    Askold

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      It has been a long road Askold.
      Those english profs were encouraging me to go to grad school.
      That was the plan til I asked Carl at Book alcove for a “summer job”
      It has always been great seeing you in the stores.
      It seemed your son grew up there…
      Thanks for writing and please keep in touch!
      Chuck

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