A year ago, after my last brother died, I wondered if I had a dozen good years left. He was twelve years older than I. If so, there are now eleven springs remaining.
The forest floor, bare and brown a month ago, is now in many places a sea of bright light green. The ferns brakes are up.
When I first moved here thirteen years ago, a visiting friend asked if I had planted them.
“No. God did.”
There are acres of them. Since the property is in a conservation status, I get a visit every five years from a forestry agent. He told me they were hay-scented ferns and emit chemicals which suppress competing plants.
The gardens are extraordinary this year. The many “COVID Gardens” I planted in 2020 as therapy have filled out with lush foliage and flowers.
The daffodils have passed, and it is columbine and bleeding heart and allium… rising for the next act. Succession planting.
The pair of rose-breasted grosbeaks that pass through each spring were here last week. They rest here for some days before continuing north to the Canadian pine forests. I couldn’t get a good picture of him because the windows were so often wet from rain.
I was able to sneak up on this red-bellied woodpecker. When he isn’t pulverizing a sunflower seed against the roof, his head is in constant motion looking up, down and all around for danger.
What does one do when one senses trouble? Confront it? Or run away?
I am running away at the end of May. I pulled the trigger and booked a ticket to London. The flight is free except for $700 in Heathrow Airport taxes. I am staying at my favorite hotel, the Paddington Hilton. It was formerly the Great Western Railway Hub Hotel. Paddington Train Station is directly beyond its beautifully glazed rear entrance. There’s a bronze statue of Paddington Bear in the station. The hotel was built in the early 1850s in the “Second Empire” style by Charles Hardwick.
I haven’t any plans. Just to run away and try to put things in order in a confused mind. I will look to see if there are any shows or exhibitions I should get reservations for. I know I will walk and walk and walk. I will immerse myself in the city I love so much.
Two and a half years away is too long.
There are no COVID restrictions going over or coming back as of today.
COVID. Is it over? Can I “come out” for good?
When I return, perhaps the danger will have gone. If not, perhaps I will just run away again.
Last week’s story ended with me picking up the pieces from the visit of six booksellers on their way to the first Georgetown Rare Book Fair.
Was that story consecutive Friday #250? The first story was put out on July 27, 2017. Some weeks have had extra stories. This week, for example, has another chapter in the Round and Round stories. It will be #34. They take place in a magic bookshop where the hapless bookseller is often confronted with events beyond his control. Kind of like real life. I like them. They don’t seem very popular, though. That draws inspiration out of me. That is why there aren’t more. But it doesn’t really matter. I write these things for myself. Those Round and Round stories are a kind of surreal autobiography; to put down events and experiences while memory is yet green. But I use the conceit of writing things that may really be happening in the setting of a magic unreal place. I can say and do things without really doing them. Hopes, dreams, wishes, conflicts can be put down in an impossible third person. I can lie, invent, prevaricate with impunity. I can also make wishes come true with a few keystrokes. Pipe dreams. Harmless things.
The Georgetown Rare Book Show
I left Frederick about 3 p.m. Friday afternoon is never a good time to head toward DC. A lot of commuters are hurrying home. A lot of area residents are leaving town for the mountains or the shore. Visitors are flocking into the city for the weekend or shows or concerts or sporting events.
Down Interstate 270 to the DC Beltway. Counterclockwise across the Potomac. Onto the George Washington Parkway, which winds through woodlands high above the river. Across the Key Bridge into the city. Right on M St. Down, down, down into a parking garage on Wisconsin Ave. just south of its intersection with M.
The heart of Georgetown.
The trip took about an hour and forty-five minutes.
I met a friend at Clyde’s. The show wouldn’t open for an hour. We were seated at a high top in the window. There was a parade of people walking along the sidewalk on M just a few feet away. Tourists and teens. Lawyers. Beautiful men and women. Shop. See. Be seen. Eat. Drink. I sipped a glass of Gruner Veltliner. That took me back to the vineyard slopes above Vienna. The Danube far below. That was so long ago. I need to return…
Clyde’s is a classic DC power bar and restaurant. Lots of polished dark wood and vintage graphics. I am sure it is haunted by the ghosts of dead Elephants and Donkeys. (Republicans and Democrats.) Journalists. Movers and shakers. Lobbyists.
I’ve been to Georgetown so many times. I recall a high school teacher, Mr Gibbs, took some of us down to the legendary Savile bookstore. It was my first visit to a great bookstore. Maybe some seeds were planted that afternoon. Perhaps it was on the way to the Kennedy Center to see an opera or ballet he was taking us to. I was very lucky to be chosen for his experimental class. It was a kind of “civilization” class. We studied all the arts. He exposed our group to many facets of human culture that the wasteland of Rockville, Maryland in the 1970s and Peary High School in particular could never dream of—except for him and whoever gave him permission to teach that course. He would play movies in the classroom on Friday nights. How else would I have ever seen Lillian Gish? (Oh, how I fell in love with her black and white shadows on the classroom wall.) The Blue Angel where Marlene Dietrich uses her charms to drive the respectable professor into playing a fool in a cabaret before going mad. (A cautionary tale.) Wild Strawberries…
I have a major high school reunion next month. I have signed up, but I may bail. I don’t know if I can face those ghosts.
When my brother Jimmie’s rock group became popular, I would go to the legendary Cellar Door for concerts. That used to be just across M and half a block west. One night Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert were opening for Seatrain. They called themselves Fat City. John Denver joined them on stage and sang a song they’d just wrote together. “Country Roads.” (That’s not the way Wikipedia says it premiered, but I’ll stick with my memory, fantasy or no. They were all there for sure. And I was on the couch in the Green Room when Denver walked in.)
My brother’s career reached a familial pinnacle when my parents and I went to see them at the Kennedy Center. My rogue brother who’d left college, with less than a semester left, to live in New York City and join the late 60s music scene showed his parents something that night. I know they were incredibly proud and likely equally awed.
Georgetown… a place high schoolers and college kids like me would go to shop and be seen on a Saturday night.
I took a summer course in pre-med physics at Georgetown University.
I finished my degree at George Washington University nearby. I would drive down every day from Rockville. Sometimes I would hang out in Georgetown if there was someone to watch my ailing mom. The English Department really liked me, and I was encouraged to return for grad school the next fall. Then I took a summer job in a used bookstore.
I haven’t been in recent years—even before COVID. My interests now would lie further east—toward the center of the city. But I recall some trips to the Kennedy Center… 2015. Carmen. Front row. Late night dinner after… in a French bistro in Georgetown. Pigeon for dinner.
No reason to go since then.
Back to 2022 and the rare book show…
So, I know Georgetown pretty well. But I had never heard of the City Tavern. When I got to M St, I walked right past it. It was invisible. An old brass plate stated “Members Only.”
Ahh… that explains why I’d never seen or heard of it. It was designed to be invisible.
The drinks were finished, and we headed a few doors down from Clyde’s to the City Tavern Club. I pulled the heavy door open by its ancient brass knob and stepped into a different world.
Carpets and random stairways and old paintings and colonial era wall graphics, chandeliers… a colonial mansion was the feel of the place.
I found out that Friday was an exclusive invitation-only event that my bookselling friends had gotten me into. It was nice to be among the select few, even though I wasn’t a member. The booksellers were set up in numerous spaces and rooms on several floors.
Here’s an example:
It was open bar. And immaculate staff walked around with canapés on trays.
I looked for my friends and saw Joe first. Since he bought so much from me, I thought I should see his stock first. He had a beautifully framed illuminated leaf from the 14th or 15th century. I love illuminated manuscripts. They are very affordable if they are relatively unadorned. The more action on the page, the more valuable they can be. Basic calligraphic text with some capitals illuminated in colored ink would be the basic. Add some drops of gold and perhaps some flowers, and the value goes up. If there are animals painted on, it is knocked up a bit higher. If there are human figures, the price goes up, often WAY up. Joe’s had a dragon as the opening capital letter! I’d never seen an illuminated leaf with a classic dragon.
“Put this aside for me, Joe,” I said softly.
There was a 3 or 4 piece chamber ensemble playing throughout in the corner of the third floor.
The two-hour preview passed quickly. I barely had time to visit each of the 34 booths, much less inspect all the stock on display.
There was a dinner after closing for all the booksellers and attending members. I was glad I dressed up a bit in my blue blazer.
Free food and drink. That kind of thing sets booksellers on fire. We were seated below street level in the “Taproom.” Wine came. Red in one hand. White in the other. We reminisced about bookselling, booksellers and bookshops long gone. It was a grand evening. My cup runnethed over—several times.
Saturday, I got back to work. Carts. Carts. Carts.
My son and his husband wanted to attend the book show Saturday. They’ve become book collectors without any pressure from me. I headed down about 3. Saturday afternoons are usually quiet. Indeed, I was back in Georgetown in 45 minutes or so. So, I had another couple hours to look more closely at booths I skimmed past the night before. My friends at Capitol Hill Books brought this time traveler and a couple of other things I couldn’t resist:
My bookselling friends finagled dinner invitations for my son, his partner and me! After the show closed, there was a speaker in the third-floor bookselling room. He is the Librarian at Mt Vernon. He spoke about George Washington’s personal library and the attempts to reconstruct it. I was shyly standing at the back of the room in someone’s booth. I looked down, and there was an Oscar Wilde. I have a few nice Wildes. Perhaps I was in a Wilde mood, as that morning I’d come across a couple of vintage images of him in the warehouse.
I saw it as an omen and purchased it. The bookseller didn’t know me from Adam, but when I presented my card, he said, “Oh, Wonder Book! I read your stories.”
Then we headed downstairs for another lavish meal. The chargers were removed. The wine kept being poured.
We sat at a round table with one club member and perhaps five or six other booksellers. John and Karen from Bartleby’s books were there. Our history goes back nearly to the beginning. We had kids about the same time…
There was a lot of history discussed.
It was a great event and great evening. I drove home and slept hard and happily.
Sunday was back at the warehouse.
Carts, carts, carts.
I worked hard all day.
Around three, I became very tired. Perhaps it is my very active social life over the last couple of weeks catching up with me.
I wanted to go sit in a field in a vineyard with a bottle of wine and try to write.
And so I did.
New Market Plains Vineyard is only about 10 minutes from the warehouse. It is just off Interstate 70.
I first visited it last fall with friends who have their own beginning vineyard.
The owners are old friends and former booksellers. They took a leap of faith and established a vineyard and winery on the old family farm. Sue’s ancestors have lived there since the 1760s. She is a direct descendent of the founder of New Market and the 9th generation to live on the farm. Her dad, C W Wood, was an old school bookseller when I was just beginning. He had a magical twinkle in his eye that belied his antiquarian book expertise. If he was at a country auction, I knew I wouldn’t be getting any bargains… or perhaps anything at all.
So I headed over there. I bought a bottle of 2016 Chard and walked out into the field. There are picnic tables and plenty of other places to sit. It was pretty near closing time. There was a group lingering in one of the tents. Otherwise, I had acres and acres to myself.
So I opened my laptop and poured a glass of wine and breathed the perfect spring day.
And then the unexpected things began, and the afternoon became magical.
Sue appeared and sat across from me.
A few moments later, Howard bumped over in a golf cart.
“It looks like a storm is coming. You might want to come inside.”
Indeed, the horizon beyond the vineyard was now blackish gray. I thought we were going to one of the tents, but he bumped past those, and the winery building with its huge stainless steel tanks inside and other assorted outbuildings—some quite ancient.
We stopped at the long wooden porch of the 18th-century manor house. Somehow, I still had my glass of wine, the bottle and my laptop in my hands. We crossed the wooden slats of the porch. Each step took us years back in time. Farm cats threaded through us as we walked. Across the threshold into the wide kitchen. A thin cat rose from a pillow on the floor next to the huge old hearth.
“She’s 24 years old.”
She circled herself a couple of times and then returned to her pillow.
They led me through the dining room and into what I suppose one would call a drawing room.
We were surrounded. Three walls were covered by 19th-century oil paintings of ancestors.
“It was awkward sitting in here when we were courting.” Howard chuckled.
I can see why. All the eyes looking down at you would be a little off-putting.
The thunderstorm broke outside and lightning flashes blinked through the windows. The day darkened and made the old drawing room moody.
We talked about the past and the present. They took a leap of faith when they decided to cash in their 401ks to open the winery and plant the vineyards. The results are stunning.
“Do you want to stay for dinner?”
As we rose, I thought I noticed some movement on one of the paintings. Did her eyes move?
“Who is that?” I asked, pointing at one of the paintings.
“This is my great-great-great-grandmother, Eliza Catherine Wright Shipley, the great-niece of Barbara Fritchie,” Sue replied.
Thunder boomed outside the wall she had been on for 170 years.
We sat round the big old farm table. I felt more at ease and welcome than I have for a long, long time.
Skewered chicken, homegrown asparagus and wonderful potato salad, so much like my mom used to make. It was finished with strawberries on homemade pound cake and vanilla ice cream.
Oh! And there was plenty of wonderful wine too!
So, for the third night in a row, I had dinner in an 18th-century room. What a strange thing this “living” stuff can be.
When it was time to go, I asked them to sell me a case of their best wine. Howard led me outside. The rain had moved off. A rainbow rose like a rocket trail toward heaven.
We crossed to the winery building. Stacks of white boxes rose to the ceiling. Cases and cases of great wine.
As I drove down the long farm lane, I was struck:
This is a love story.
Sue and Howard. Books. Wine. Friendship. Family. I was so lucky to have been in the right place at the right time.
When I got to my road, the sun was setting behind the mountain where I live.
That night, I had a strange dream. A beautiful woman’s face was before me, and I sensed I was being told to surrender.
‘It is you.’ I thought and held my pillow tight. ‘I won’t run away again.’
This was my third visit to New Market Plains Vineyard. Last fall I went with friends and then another time solo.
I will go back more and more often. It is a peaceful beautiful place. The large field overlooking the vines is a great spot, with plenty of tables and tents. Maybe bring a picnic with you. Then there are more secluded outdoor seating areas on the other side of the winery building. There’s music on Saturday afternoons. This week Irish. Often Bluegrass.
If you see a guy sitting alone with a laptop in front of him, it could me. Maybe I will be writing the Great American Novel.
Oh, and they have wine there! All you could wish for.
All the wines I have tasted are wonderful.
I planted more in the gardens at the warehouse. Sunflowers, peas, beans…
That afternoon, I went to Smoketown Brewery and sat outside with friends. The “Clustered Spires” of Frederick are on view from their tent protected picnic tables. We lingered and chatted about travel and books.
That was stolen from me by COVID. Maybe…
Pipe dreams. Harmless things.
We’ve Got the Blues. That’s one of our color styles on the Books by the Foot website.
“Chuck, we are out of blue books.”
Blue is one of the most common spine colors. Black is the most common.
Someone in the Caribbean has ordered 1000 linear feet for a hotel. Blue is not a great seller. Red is worse. We have always had plenty of blue-spined books.
“We are sold out.”
Impossible. We always have too many blue books.
Well, they will fill back in like sand on a beach.
That evening, I met a friend for dinner in Urbana. Mangia Bevi. We sat outside with a view of Sugarloaf Mountain. The last time I ate there was with my old friend and mentor Allen Ahearn. We had helped him clear out the low-end books from the sprawling book mansion he and his late wife Pat built long ago for Quill and Brush and family. It was to be his last night in the house.
I awoke adrift in a sea of cool cotton. Morning sun poured in the windows. Shadows of leaves and branches waved on the walls. Birdsong from near and far filled the air. I took a deep breath and realized I was living a poem.
I had gone out every night since last Wednesday. The last few weeks have been a blur. A happy scary blur.
How long will this “Coming Out” poem I am living in last?
Dunno. It is nice to care about some things again.
At work, I dumped out the expired candy that had been part of the clutter in my office. We have another Gum Ball Garden. I went to Southern States and got some bags of soil as well as tomato and pepper plants. Andrew buried the candy. I’ll plant the veggies soon.
I made some good finds late in the day going through the slush pile carts. A signed Robert Frost. A first of Charlotte’s Web. A vintage set of Rabelais with some really twisted color plates.
Then I was tired.
I decided to go home for a change. I climbed in bed and am tapping away at this.
And I am trying to understand these weeks of friends and family, food and wine, people and places, music and books and maybe something more. Whatever swept me up, I thank fate for the ride thus far.
I reread Charlie Everitt’s The Adventures of a Treasure Hunter last week. It is full of tales. Some, I am very sure, are “tall tales.” The book is full of braggadocio and crowing at all his successes. There are rare failures sprinkled in. I think because he had to have a few humble pages in the book to serve as contrast. Perhaps his editor insisted.
For all that, he finishes it on a sad bittersweet note:
Looking back over five decades, I find the net result is a few hundred old books and glorious memories. When I stop to wonder about the money that poured through my hands, I guess it must have been the landlords and the printers [for his catalogs] and the promising friends that took it.
That book is also a love story. He loved his work and life. That poured out on his pages.
Maybe like these stories.
One can never have too many love stories.
Love… I think I may be falling. But the age difference is insurmountable. I’m… “mature.”
And Eliza has been dead 150 years.