The Futility of Labor Except as Therapy

Leather-Bound Books

September… November…

October 30. Friday cold, dark and rainy. Another month stolen by Plague and madness.

I have never spent so much time alone.

I have gotten a lot done. There have also been many COVID Era plans I just haven’t gotten around to.


When the Plague started in March, I numbered each of these weekly stories for months then stopped. Number fatigue. But everything has undertones and overtones of the Plague.

What number is this? I’ll let my editor count and fill in the blank: 28.

I did one last planting Wednesday evening. It gets dark so early. I searched around the property for errant or overcrowded specimens to dig up and place in the newest stone bed.

(How many tons of stone have I hauled up the mountain by hand since spring? Well, not exactly all the way by hand. I chose and lifted each into my truck or ATV and drove them up the mountain. And I did unload and place them by hand on many parts of the property. There is a satisfaction “bringing them back up.” The mountain is so vast up here and down below no one would notice. But I know. I can walk around the property and note which stones came up here during the Plague.)

Many perennials have already retreated back into the earth for the winter. Soon the above ground vestiges of most all the rest will have composted and returned to soil. But I found plenty of things to transplant. Those and the hostas I bought at Ashcombe a week ago Wednesday have filled this bed already. It is not small. Irregular in shape due to terrain and the desire to tie an immovable boulder into it, I estimate it is 200 square feet.

New Garden Bed

It will be something to look forward to next spring.

If spring comes.

This year surprisingly produced dozens of Redbud tree seedlings along the drive. It is also called the Judas Tree from medieval Christian mythology. There are several dozen along the drive which were planted by the man from whom I bought this place.

There are now quite large for “small” trees.

I also planted five at an oblique angle from the drive about 8 years ago.

They have grown very well.

They line the first part of the path that allows me to get my truck from the drive through the wild to the north side of the house. It curves out and up for nearly a quarter mile. That area is inaccessible from any other direction. My guess is that the very mild winter triggered the sprouting of all these seedlings. I have tried to transplant Redbud seedlings in the past with no luck. But it is no challenge just to go and buy trees. Many of the seedlings are serendipitously growing in opportune locations. With luck, they may grow and line the other side of the drive and path. Those little gems I mounded black soil around—in a kind of dirt collar. That way, when winter ends, I will be able to recognize, protect and perhaps nurture them. Maybe I will attempt to transplant some (or many—who knows how I will want to spend my time those precious days) of the seedlings in bad or risky locations as well.

I lit a fire last night. The second of the season. I had laid it in anticipation of the cold and damp Wednesday evening. A well-laid fire will light with just one match. This one did. The house is warm and cozy this morning.

Wednesday evening I put on another episode of Route 66. This one starred Dorothy Malone as a chanteuse of a certain age. Michael Rennie (Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still) was her estranged husband. He had been a combat pilot in World War 2. All the fire and death had scarred his soul. He was working as a crop duster flying biplanes in Phoenix when Buz and Tod came to town looking for a job.

Buz fell in love with her when she sang “September Song.” She was substantially older than him.

To keep this literary: “September Song” was written by Kurt Weill (who also composed the music for Die Dreigroschenoper also known as The Threepenny Opera) and Maxwell Anderson (who also wrote the screenplay Key Largo and adapted All Quiet on the Western Front to film, etc.)

Dorothy Malone played the young bespectacled bookseller in The Big Sleep (1946) when she was just over 20.

You’ll have to find the old TV show somehow to see how it all goes on Rt 66.

September Song

Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time for the waiting game

Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you
These precious days I’ll spend with you

When I was a young man courting the girls
I played me a waiting game
If a maid refused me with tossing curls
I’d let the old Earth take a couple of whirls
While I plied her with tears in lieu of pearls
And as time came around she came my way
As time came around she came

When you meet with the young girls early in the spring
You court them in song and rhyme
They answer with words and a clover ring
But if you could examine the goods they bring
They have little to offer but the songs they sing
And the plentiful waste of time of day
A plentiful waste of time

Oh, it’s a long, long while from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
When the autumn weather turns the leaves to flame
One hasn’t got time for the waiting game

Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days I’ll spend with you
These precious days I’ll spend with you

Here’s the original version:

But it’s a long, long while
From May to December
And the days grow short
When you reach September
And I have lost one tooth
And I walk a little lame
And I haven’t got time
For the waiting game

And the days turn to gold
As they grow few
September, November
And these few golden days
I’d spend with you
These golden days I’d spend with you

When you meet with a young girl early in spring
They court you in song and rhyme
They woo you with words and a clover ring
But if you examine the goods they bring
They have little to offer but the songs they sing
And a plentiful waste of time of day
A plentiful waste of time

(Chorus 2)
But it’s a long, long while
From May to December
Will the clovering last
Till you reach September?
And I’m not quite equipped
For the waiting game
But I have a little money
And I have a little fame

And the days dwindle down
To a precious few
September, November
And these few precious days
I’d spend with you
These precious days I’d spend with you.

It hit me like a sock in the choppers.

November is almost here…

The precious days are getting shorter.

Monday, October 26, 2020.

I awoke about 6 am. For the first time since spring, there is an orange eye glowing 7 paces from my bed. Sunday had been in the 40s with occasional rain all day. When I got home, it was all I could do to light a fire in the Vermont Castings Defiant woodstove.

Fortunately, I had already laid the wood in the iron box. Twigs and small sticks and a couple wrist thick lengths. One match to the crumpled scrap papers—used paper napkins, an egg carton…—and the flames began dancing up through the tangle of wood. The twigs soon joined in the conflagration, then the sticks. Quite soon I was comfortable setting a 10 by 20 inch oak log in.

A well-laid fire lights with just one match…did I coin that phrase. Probably not? Maybe I read it somewhere.

Then I fell into bed.

It was a fire designed not for the very cold nights to be. Just enough to take the edge off.

I call it a slow fire. I let it smolder once a largish log is put in and it catches.

It did just fine. This morning it is 46 degrees outside. 62 in.

I let the dogs out in the dark morning—one at a time. If I let them loose together, they become a “pack” and take off despite my sternest protestations. In that case, the little mostly white Jack Russells will be gone for hours, sprinting through the woods that surround me for miles.

I always worry: “Will they ever return?”

So far, I’ve been lucky. We’ve been lucky. I am very careful. Most always.

A neighbor—about half a mile away as the crow flies, texted Saturday: “Can I hunt for bear on your property? I drew a permit.”

There are coyotes all around as well, so I don’t like it when the dogs get loose.

They are 9 and 1/2 years old. Brothers. Littermates. They show no sign of slowing down.

So I stepped out with the first one. The automatic exterior spotlights popped on. The driveway’s upper landing was nearly covered in dead brown leaves. A light rain with heavy drops was splattering them with a soft percussion.

I grabbed a couple logs from the cart and carried them in. The glowing shell of last night’s big log collapsed into coals when I dropped the new wood upon it. It emanated crinkling, near clinking, sounds as well as the whoosh and popping of sparks. This fire spoke to me. This fire could continue perhaps all week. The forecast says lows in the 40s each night. The first freeze may arrive Saturday with a predicted low of 30.

It is late this year. Which is good. I still have many potted cacti and tender succulents to bring in.

So it begins. The cold season.

Monday at work…

An email was forwarded to me from the generic mailbox:

To whom it may concern:

I am the curator of Clermont State Historic Site in New York. Recently your blog about finding Robert R. Livingston books was brought to my attention. Could you please send me information on how many books and what books you found? We are always interested in learning more about the Chancellor’s library. We are also always interested in bringing his books back “home” as it were. If there is any possible way we could make this happen I would be happy to discuss it with you. Thank you for your time.

Geoff Benton
Curator of Collections and Education
Clermont State Historic Site

I replied and forwarded an image.

The curator’s reply was:


Thank you for your reply. The image in the article is definitely one of the Chancellor’s book plates. It was a great find. After the Chancellor died his massive library was divided among his siblings and children. Are there any names or initials written or stamped in the front of the books such as E.P.L or Robert L. Livingston? Can you also tell me the dimensions of the books?

Geoff Benton
Curator of Education and Collections
Clermont State Historic Site

How cool!


I worked so hard over the weekend I just couldn’t bear to be in the warehouse.

I decided to escape work by going to Hagerstown.

Books by the Foot needs more books—Golf (again), Mystery paperbacks, and “short thick books” (think pocket dictionaries, etc.)

Clif is driving.

It is cold misty and foggy.

You can’t see the valley up ahead.

Drive to Hagerstown

My trips since March are circumscribed to central Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. (And not much of that!)

I have zero desire to go into DC or Baltimore in these times. Maybe I’ll make some kind of expedition to Virginia—a winery?

But I don’t need anything. I’m trying to reduce my wine inventory, and I really enjoy European wine much more.

Books? Nope.

What else is there?

I guess I could go walk around a park somewhere…

So, a second field trip to a remote store in less than a week is kind of an escape. Escaping work to work.

The work of pulling books and climbing up and down ladders was good therapy. We brought a LOT of culls and duplicates back to the Frederick warehouse.

The weather predictions changed for the week ahead. When I got home, I let the still glowing fire spend itself to cold ashes.

The weekend…

So much for quiet peaceful work weekends. This weekend was a mess.

I worked so hard over the weekend.

About every half hour someone needed me to get off my stool and do something. I long for the days when I had the place to myself on weekends. I don’t think that’s gonna ever be the norm again.

It is a good time for some projects. There are few people in the building, so working on large projects doesn’t mean you’re in anyone’s way.

No pallet jacks are banging and clanking where I tend to work during the week. It is a kind of commuter center. Quiet and less populated on weekends.

For me—I can watch Premier League soccer or golf or listen to podcasts and none can hear them but me.

I can spread out my work area as well.

When I’m doing my thing, I tend to have very many choices for the disposition of the books that are designated for my attention.

What happened?

Ridgley was in sorting records. We moved him down to Dock 11 because there was a load of REALLY JUNKY records that a scout dropped off. Someone else’s culls. Dock 11 is where the roll off dumpster is. He might as well work there, since that’s where most of the stuff would go. Also, the Dock 1 area where he usually works is now hopelessly congested. Oh, and Dock 1 stopped working. A giant spring just gave out and broke. That meant all our loading and unloading had to come through Dock 2. We have 21 loading docks, but only 1 and 2 are “low docks” where you can unload vans. The other docks are about 5 feet high and designed for big trucks.

Saturday, I grinded away at carts loaded with books for my inspection and disposal. I was grumpy and depressed. The usual reasons.

Plus, I’d had too many beers at the Anchor Bar Friday night. The usual reasons.

They had Hofbrau Haus Octoberfest on tap. I loved Munich. The original Hofbrau is a delight of beer and German food and people watching.

Germany…will I ever go again? I’ve never been to Berlin.

But I got a lot done. There will be plenty of carts for Monday’s orders.

Cart Herd

I call that a “Herd of Book Carts.”

The madness started early Sunday afternoon.

Larry dropped off a load of books overnight on the ground at Dock 2. A gentleman was bringing in the rest of his deceased father’s Civil War collection—some really great books! Friday was so busy that Docks 1 and 2 were still cluttered with boxes and stuff.

The Gaithersburg store called and said both vans there were full. I sent Travis down to do a swap. That required some manipulations that I no longer enjoy doing…on weekends…when all I really want to do is play with books!

Ridgley finished at Dock 11 and decided to work in cramped quarters at Dock 1.

Repairs began surprisingly on Dock 1. That meant it had to be cleared for a man lift to be rolled in place.

Travis returned with a van.

“Don’t park it at Dock 2.”

The guy arrived with a truckload of Civil War.

Suddenly Dock 1 and 2 (they’re very close together) was a hive of people and books on a day when no one is usually there.

We had to clear books off Dock 1 and 2 while also bringing lot of books in through Dock 2.


The pickup truck had one of those hard tops over the bed, and it took a bit of figuring on how to get the panels to flip up.

We had 6 people at Dock 1 and 2.

I clambered up onto the pickup to drag the heavy boxes from under the front panels. My knees did not like the bumpy metal truck bed.

Eventually, I suggested Ridgley leave early for the day. Eventually, all the books and boxes and stuff were cleared from Dock 1 and 2. Eventually I could return to my carts and stool.

But I was so stressed and grumpy. I’ve been that way for weeks.

I headed for the secret antique book rooms here. Few people know about them. Even those who work here. They’re annexes to the building that are full of very old cloth and leather-bound books. Nothing rare and valuable (I hope!) Those books are stocked for Books by the Foot. It is so peaceful.

I was surrounded by the work of old authors and old bookbinders and long dead booksellers. The aroma is delightful. The scent of old leather and clothbound books takes me back to the shops and book barns I would visit long ago. Very like Proust’s Madeleines.

Vintage Room

If you could only smell these rooms.

Maybe I should offer Book Immersion Experiences?

How much would you pay per hour?

When I need a break (or a picture for the Instagram accounts), I’ll go back there.

“Sometimes I sits and thinks. Sometimes I just sits.”

Change of Occupation

I went back into the breach to face my demons. I work hard to keep the demons away. I work hard to keep the demons away.

There were demons today.

In this case, the demons were six carts loaded with mostly radical and communist and socialist pamphlets and books. Almost all are not in English. Most are important historical artifacts published in “Peking”, Havana, Central and South America, Portugal, Africa…

Radical Carts

They’ve been in my face in the main part of the warehouse for months, defying me to work on them.

They are difficult for any number of reasons. They are hard to list online. Hard to read. Hard to put prices on. Just HARD to work on.

They are very time-consuming for me. More time consuming for the data entry people to put online.

They are slow sellers. Many are fragile.

Facing several thousands of polemics was…demonic.

I surrendered.

I paged the young kid who works weekends, and we moved them to a remote part of the warehouse.

I “punted” the radicals.

Maybe some day a less painful solution will evolve.

We brought down some of the Barbara Mertz carts from the middle of the warehouse, and I spent the rest of Sunday going through.

MUCH more enjoyable.

Her collection is nearly completely added. You can find the books that were in her estate—Lothlorien—when she passed in 2013 here.

Tuesday was notable in that the new young warehouse person asked to leave early for lunch.

“I didn’t have any breakfast.”

He never returned.

We have 5 people here that have been with Wonder Book since the 80s.

Over the years, more than a few have left for lunch on their first day and never returned.

This kid had been here a couple weeks.

He had told me a few days earlier: “This is the best job I’ve ever had.”

Maybe it was his third or fourth.

New laws say we can’t ask about work histories anymore.


There news stories that The Strand and Shakespeare and Co are in danger of closing due to COVID. Friends have said Powell’s in Portland is troubled.

The Plague…are we throwing the babies out with the bath water?

“The positives keep going up.”

So does the testing:

COVID-19 Daily Testing

There are so many reports on how bad the US is doing with COVID. But you don’t see these kinds of statistics reported.

COVID-19 Cases Per Capita

This graph is highly problematic to my thinking. It doesn’t show any large countries that may have dubious reporting due to politics or the remote and primitive nature of their populations.

Think India, China, Russia, Indonesia (4th most populous), Pakistan (5th), Nigeria (7th), Bangladesh (8th), Mexico (10th)…

You can Google the US trends for new cases. Keep in mind the amount of new testing.

COVID-19 New Cases

Google the trends for deaths.

COVID-19 Deaths

So, if we shut down, what are the human and child developmental and cultural costs?

I’ll just work harder and harder to keep the demons away.

Thursday, I went through a pallet of books that were dropped off over the weekend.

I was unsure what they all were, but I saw enough to know I would end up with them, anyway.

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It was almost all old leather and clothbound books.

I unpacked and carted them all.

Nearly three carts were, in my opinion, eye candy. Beautiful books no one would buy for their contents. Nothing “collectible.”

One cart I filled half full of books with “potential.” Potential collectibles—with inherent value between their beautiful covers.

Can you tell from the picture which is which? I can.

Annika is looking at the books with “potential.”

The “eye candy” is likely headed for The Boutique in Books by the Foot.

The concept got off to a slow start but is picking up steam (and sales.)

This is the only hope for these books.

We are there only hope. No other bookseller is taking this kind of material.

How do I know the difference between “eye candy” and “books with potential”?



I’ve handled millions of books over the years.

Do I make mistakes?

I’m sure I do.

Maybe I have some instincts as well as experience.

Maybe there’s some divine interference from my Book Muse. She hasn’t been around lately.

Or maybe she has and is not letting it be known.

Thursday night, I went up to the old homestead in Pennsylvania. It was to celebrate my younger son’s birthday.

The house is full of books. But the core of my old collection is in a room on the third floor where I designed built-in bookcases on two walls.

They look like this:

Built-In Bookcases

On them is the core of my collection built in the 80s and 90s.

I knew the room had some books that I’ve been yearning for.

Comfort reading.

Indeed, I found my Elizabeth Daly hardcover first editions!

Elizabeth Daly Books

These will give me some peaceful times when I awake troubled in the wee hours and need to read to get distraction from the Plague and upheaval and madness.

After all, I can’t work hard so late at night.

That labor would be futile. It would keep me awake!

I need Daly’s gentle literate touch in bed.

She calms me with soft civilized words.

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Next week, the world will likely be different.

Maybe. Or perhaps the madness will linger on like the Plague has done.

I’m not looking forward to the results, no matter what happens.

8 Comments on Article

  1. Charlie Downs commented on

    Sad to see warm weather end. The frost last night was a heavy one and finished off my green beans.
    Any good regimental histories in the Civil War books? These are my favorites, especially the ones written by the veterans.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Hi Charlie,
      I didn’t see the collection. another guy here is a reenact and CW buff.
      I bet we have a number of regimentals on the website.
      Maybe try key word search “regiment” and see if any “fish” rise to it.
      Email any problems or questions.
      Thanks for writing!

  2. Nancy McCollough commented on

    Love reading your words each week It’s as if I am actually hanging out with you in person.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Nancy.
      The Plague is getting tedious…and now winter!
      Thanks for writing
      Great to hear from you!

  3. Rick Banning commented on

    Chuck, I wonder if you have a few old books where the binding is in terrible shape, with small engravings of people that are in good shape that I wouldn’t feel guilty about cutting up for collage? Are you up for mailing one or two of the above as I don’t seem to be traveling much just now, yes, because of the virus?
    I’m glad you can keep working, even when you don’t feel like it. Me? I just keep drawing in one of my sketchbooks in the pile by my chair. It helps distract me from the world outside. Regards, Rick

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Sure. Email customer service and they will forward it to me.
      Any problems contact me here.

      Thanks for reading and writing !

  4. Thomas commented on

    Look forward to your blog. It is as addictive as bibliomania. But what is a little Gentle Madness among friends. I hope my letter concerning Ex Libris found it’s way to you.
    Ciao for Niao,
    Th. S-Wixon

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Thomas
      Great to hear from you!
      I have a small box of unopened mail I need to get to.
      Likely tomorrow now that it is November.
      I really appreciate the compliments and comments!

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