The New Normal—Journal of a Plague Year, Week 8

Hunting Microbes

Hunting microbes in the year 2000.

People movin’ out, people movin’ in.
Why, because of the color of their skin.
Run, run, run, but you sho’ can’t hide
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
Vote for me and I’ll set you free
Rap on, brother, rap on.
Well, the only person talkin’ ’bout love thy brother is the preacher
And it seems nobody’s interested in learning but the teacher
Segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation,
humiliation, obligation to our nation
Ball Of Confusion that’s what the world is today (yeah, yeah)
The sale of pills is at an all time high
young folks walkin’ ’round with their heads in the sky
Cities aflame in the summer time, and oh the beat goes on
Eve of destruction, tax deduction,
City inspectors, bill collectors,
Evolution, revolution, gun control, the sound of soul,
Shootin’ rockets to the moon, kids growin’ up too soon
Politicians say more taxes will solve ev’rything, and the band played on.
Round and round and around we go, where the world’s headed nobody knows.
Great googa mooga, can’t you hear me talkin’ to you, just a
Ball of Confusion that’s what the world is today. (yeah, yeah)
Fear in the air, tension ev’rywhere
Unemployment rising fast, the Beatle’s new record’s a gas,
and the only safe place to live is on an Indian reservation,
and the band played on
Eve of destruction, tax deduction,
City inspectors, bill collectors, mod clothes in demand,
population out of hand, suicide too many bills, hippies movin’ to the hills
People all over the world are shouting end the war and the band played on.
Round and round and around we go, where the world’s headed nobody knows.
Great googa mooga, can’t you hear me talkin’ to you, just a
Ball of Confusion that’s what the world is today
Let me hear you, let me hear you, let me hear you
Ball Of Confusion that’s what the world is today

“Ball of Confusion” was recorded in 1970.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.*

(*The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

I wonder when this series of COVID era book stories will end? This is #8. Actually the Plague stories began with this “Prelude”—so we are up to 9 now. 9 Fridays. Over two months of this…mess.

I want to go on a house call. Or on a book trip.

I know I’m lucky to have a place to go to. Very lucky. I’ve been in every day for at least nine weeks. Likely more. Days, weeks and months are in a dreamlike fog now.

This week has been dizzying. Or perhaps it is this damn mask which constantly obstructs my breathing.

The New Normal.

May 1

After the last story was posted last Friday, on May Day, two old friends came by.

“What day is it?” one asked only partly facetiously.

We played the premier round of golf on the Wonder Book Warehouse Executive Course. This elite club consists of mowed grass surrounding the three-acre building. There were no tees or greens. We each carried one club (one a wedge and 2 had 9 irons) and one beer. They’re a bit older than I and have been cooped up a lot since the shutdown. The 14 acres the property sits upon was perfect for a walk in the sun.

It would be the first ball I’d hit in many, many months.

“If you break any windows, you’re paying for them!” I cautioned—only partly facetiously.


We chose targets like trees for the “holes.” The first hole was a giant sycamore about a hundred yards from the dockyard gate. It used to be part of a fence line when this was pastureland. I know this because another sycamore nearer the dockyard was dead when we moved in. I cut it down and harvested the wood. In the middle of the three-foot diameter trunk, my saw started sparking and grinding. I’d hit ancient barbed wire which the tree had grown around. When I put it all in perspective, I could tell that the other two old remaining sycamores followed a straight line.

We managed to get around the building in four “holes.” It was a beautiful day but starting to cloud up. One “round” was enough. We sat around the round steel picnic table in the dockyard I use to type on my laptop in good weather. We were well distanced socially. We had another beer and a wee nip as well and chatted about life, the universe and everything.


They are avid travelers—even more than I. We wondered when we would get on a plane again. The annual golf outing planned this year for August is likely to be canceled. We were all set upon to go to the Maritimes. Too bad. I’ve never been before.

Saturday—May 2

My weekends alone in the vast warehouse have ended. 5 years is not a bad run. There were 5 or 6 people in. Sorting. Condensing books on shelves. Picking books that we can salvage from areas that have been condemned. Clearing previously cherry picked condemned sections.

One teenager upon arrival asked me how to clock in on his phone.

‘We can do that?’ I thought. Technology…amazing.

“I dunno,” I replied. “Just write your hours down on a piece of paper.”

New noises emanated from people working in remote parts of the building here, far from my sight.

The New Normal for weekends here.

Earlier in the week, I’d let Caryn, one of the two top sorters, go through an old pallet of mystery and sci-fi—mostly hypermoderns—I had bought from a collector some years ago. So many of these once valuable works of fiction now have very little value online. I didn’t want to put them on the web for a few bucks apiece. So years ago, I’d set them back for the future—when maybe a new strategy would occur to me.

Part of the New Normal is getting into things set aside until we had “Time to get to it.” Now we have time for a lot of things we didn’t before.

We are living in the “future.”

The aphorism I mentioned last week about business priorities at Wonder Book:

  • Things that must be done.
  • Things that should be done.
  • Things that can be done.

Has become even more pertinent in the New Normal.

It is a nearly constant task—assigning prioritized work to people of varying skills.

Hovering over this building is the finiteness of the books we have on hand to be sorted. With the stores closed and Governor Hogan’s Stay Home policy, we aren’t acquiring fresh stock. I walk through the building every day assessing what we have. There are no more fresh “raw” books on any of the trailers. We are throttling back the common book sorting, so we don’t run out too soon. I estimate we have a month’s supply of the “easy” raw. These are mostly modern books with most having barcodes or ISBNs. Most of the data entry people work on these. We are training more and more of them on how to do the more difficult “pre-ISBNs” and collectibles.

Back to the first edition mysteries and sci-fi… Most of these shiny Brodart-wrapped books had crashed in value when the internet ruined the Hyper-Modern Boom.

Hyper-Modern Cart

The strategy I’d come up with in the New Normal was to bypass the computer pricing on these books. I instructed Caryn to put them in yellow tubs at fixed prices. Most of them had old dealer penciled prices on the front free endpapers. I told her to use those as a guide. I hoped the quality and condition and our reputation as knowledgeable booksellers would allow that premium valuation to be viable. There are still horror stories of online buyers going for low ball pricing and getting what they paid for. Horror stories…plenty of “horror novels” in this lot as well. LOL.

She had put together a few shelves of books she thought potentially too valuable to give to data entry without being looked at by me. These were out of her comfort zone.

The books were beautiful. I spotted some intriguing things from 10 feet away.

Facsimile Jacket Books

‘This will be fun!’ I thought.

Indeed she had “caught” and segregated a group of first editions that the owner had put facsimile dust jackets on. For most collectible books, the presence of the original dust jacket vastly increases the value of the book. (Looking at the ABAA website a bunch of jacketless Great Gatsby first editions can be had for a few thousand dollars. The few copies in original jackets are 30 times that. If you found one in a very fine unrestored jacket…?)

The facsimile jackets are beautiful and not very expensive. They can really “dress up” your old first edition for eye appeal. But they don’t add much value. As an aside, when I found a first Gatsby some years ago, I bought a facsimile jacket for it. I think it is the only one I have purchased to date.

It is now prettified.

I had to go through each of these books one by one.

Howl’s Moving Castle!

Howl's Moving Castle

I love that movie! That’s a book that has defied the hypermodern bust. The old pencil price was $45. This copy was fine/fine. I’d put it out at $1000—IF I were willing to let go of it at this time.

There were some signed association copies. Three were warmly inscribed to mystery writer Julian Symons from mystery writer Michael Underwood.

Signed Underwood Books

The Underwoods are nothing to retire on but still nice finds.

The Big Knockover was another story entirely. These are stories by Dashiell Hammett. It was edited and published with a “warm memoir” by Lillian Hellman. Hellman was Hammett’s lover for many years. This copy is signed and inscribed by her “For Abram—because he was the only doctor Dash ever liked, Lillian” Abram Abeloff’s bookplate is on the pastedown.

Knockover Signature

That is an association that strikes me. One degree of separation from Dashiell Hammett. Cool!

Later in the day, a bookseller delivered a copy of The First Men in the Moon. I didn’t trust the book being shipped in this the New Normal. There’s too much risk out there.

I spent the rest of the day going through old books set aside for me in the past weeks. I’ve been so busy on weekdays doing crisis management and creative innovations I rarely get to look at books.

Am I still a bookseller if I don’t handle books?

That evening an old friend came over and cooked pasta. I harvested fresh Italian parsley and garlic chives and oregano outside.

After, we watched Dr Strangelove—Or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. This classic black and white film by Stanley Kubrick is one of my all-time favorites. The world faces annihilation…

Le plus change…

We watched the movie late into the night with some pretty good wine.

I was groggy for a couple reasons when I awoke Sunday morning and had to rush out to let the weekend staff into the building. I’d forgotten dog food for Merry and Pippin, who were weekending in the vast dockyard. After I opened, I went to the nearby Costco. I was one of the first ones there, but it was still a surreal experience. I’ve read about the long lines and crowds. There were more employees than customers when I pushed my cart through. I hadn’t shopped for food for a while, so I loaded up on some good cheese and fresh tuna and… The place started to crowd up. I don’t know if it is the lighting, but all the masked people around me had a certain tone. The look in the exposed eyes was uniformly wary. People going down the wrong way on one-way aisles were glared at. People were looking at clothes, jewelry, electronics, books, garden plants…while all the independent clothing, jewelry, book… stores were still shuttered. I’m glad Costco is there but…I don’t get it.

I know my eyes showed…something… I shopped in “self defense” from “others.” I left as soon as I could.

Tuesday morning

I worked so hard Monday. The New Normal means new protocols and procedures are being created constantly. I need to be everywhere in the building. We need carts, tubs, supplies…

In the afternoon, I drove a van down to the Gaithersburg store. The expansion there is well underway.

Gaithersburg Expansion

There is some consolation in being closed. The store is a complete mess. I hope it is all put back together when we are allowed to reopen.

When can we open…

When I finally got home, I knew I had to throw myself into the gardens no matter how I felt. It is May! The planting and transplanting must be done. I must get the lilies and crocosmia in the earth. I dug and dug. I pulled weeds as necessary. I was so pleased to see the Jack-in-the-Pulpits I transplanted last year are coming up here and there. They are so fragile and picky about being handled.


I remember as a second grader going on a field trip to the school librarian’s country place. We were shown all kinds of nature things that kids didn’t see in Amherst, New York. Do I recall my teacher Miss Young and the librarian tittering when “Jack” was exposed? Maybe… I didn’t get the joke, obviously.

I transplanted…a lot of things in the cool spring air.

Other Flowers

When it was getting dark, I took a break and made a simple Mai Tai.

Simple Mai Tai

I first discovered this version in Hawaii many, many years ago. The secret is the Myers Dark. 1 part Myers. 3 parts pineapple juice. But 50/50 would be fine too. In the New Normal, you could even go 3 to 1. If you’re out of pineapple juice…govern yourselves accordingly.

After dark, I emptied more firewood from the truck. I took the wood rings off the side porch. That is a sure sign winter is behind me here. They will be stored in the barn til fall.

There will be more fires on chill nights, but I won’t need to store loads close at hand any longer.

Wood Rings

Then I blew the wood debris off the porch. The indoor plants will migrate onto the porch from the downstairs room where they wintered over.

I continued with the orange Husqvarna machine on to the drive and blew off the sawdust, dead leaves and spring tassels and maple helicopters and tulip poplar flower petals and other detritus fallen from high above.

The tulip poplar blooms only for those who can fly. The tree can grow extremely high. I only see the flowers themselves when a storm breaks branches that fall to earth.

Tulip Poplar Blooms

I quit and had dinner that had been heating for an hour or so—leftovers from a restaurant meal long ago. Braised short ribs and vegetables from… I just couldn’t remember where I would have ordered that. I don’t eat much meat. I sat on the long right angled black leather couch and watched a couple Anthony Bourdains the satellite had sent down to be recorded. The first was from an idyllic spot and iconic restaurant in Andalucia. The second was from Nicaragua. His guilt at being an exotic foodie in the midst of all the human desperation there was palpable.

Then bed. I was so tired. I hadn’t used gardening muscles for a long time. I was sore but in a good satisfying way. I slept hard til 4 and then awoke. My Achilles heel was shooting pain occasionally. I’ve looked into getting it fixed. So far the cure seems much worse than the infrequent suffering. Too many years standing on concrete, maybe. The left is afflicted. The right not.

The cure that is worse than the disease… I think it is time…where it can be done safely.

Tossing and turning sleep stays at bay. I’m so often in a state of half dreams half consciousness.

In the dark, I put a pillow over my head to keep the dawn bird songs from my senses, as they must surely be waking soon.

I must have slept some. For I was vividly on a rocky beach on San Francisco Bay. I started wading into the icy water. Though I knew it would be death to swim out far. Then my arms were extended into the air, waves lapping up to my chin…

Then I was back in bed. I drew the comforter up over my shoulder and to my neck and hoped to sleep again.

“Rat a tat tat.”

A red-bellied woodpecker was banging on sunflower seeds on the porch roof just outside my bedroom windows. It visits quite often.

“Rat a tat tat tat.”

The pillow couldn’t keep that sound out.

Sleep no more…

Down in the valley at work, the recycling trailer was full, and we were running out of Gaylords. The cull pallets were backing up.

“We need a swap…”

Recycling Trailer

We need. We need. We need…

“We need Gaylords. We are completely out.”

We began scrounging around the warehouse for scruffy Gaylords we could empty and repair. Without Gaylords, a lot of the work here stops.

I took a break and went to Southern States. The glass cases holding all the baby chickens and ducklings were marked “Sold.” Everyone is looking to grow their own now.

A neighbor who lives at the foot of the mountain on the private lane texted the rest of us asking we wanted eggs. His restaurant is shut. When I got home, there were two dozen in my mailbox.


The New Normal…

I’d gotten bags of compost and mulch at the farmers’ co-op. More gardening into the dark. More pain—pleasant and not so—in the wee hours.


The Books by the Foot branch of the company has been a lifesaver. It is providing much needed revenue while the stores are closed and online sales are ramping up.

A lot of people cooped up at home are looking to books for comfort. Some one at a time. Some in bulk.

We’ve always offered Books By Subject. Now the Instant Library concept is giving people the chance to get a bunch of history, literature, cooking, art…while the stores are closed. We can provide just about any subject you can imagine.

Instant Libraries

We even got an order for 40 feet of Bibles from a Maryland Biker who distributes them around the world with

It is very satisfying save books from oblivion. #BookRescue.

Some are just plain beautiful.

Leather Books

It was another day of spinning around. It is not a 3-ring circus. More like a 30-ring juggling act.

The swap came overnight.

When I arrived Thursday morning, the groundhogs were at it again. They’d given up on the primary hole I’d blocked on the Western Front. They were trying to reopen one of the long silenced auxiliary holes. But they’d been stymied.

I pushed a few more bottles in the hole and found a big flat stone to set atop it.

Take that!

I hope it serves as a tombstone.

I doubt it though.

Groundhog Hole

Inside, Clif was already filling the empty trailer.

“No Gaylords.”

I texted my recycler friend.

“Later today.”

I wandered back into Books by the Foot. We’ve been emptying trailers of remainder books to reload the shelves by color with “new” books the publishers would have pulped had we not acquired them.

I recognized an old Gaylord by its marking: “Old German Texts.” I recalled filling it years ago with mostly crumbly Pennsylvania Dutch 18th and early 19th century tomes. I lifted the flap.

“What on earth?!”

Fox Kits

Little furry babies were wriggling around in the old “shrift” printed paper. They barely made a sound.

I’m pretty good with animals. I was a zoology major in college. Not kittens. We’ve had feral cats move into a trailer from time to time. Not a possum or raccoon. Certainly not vermin. They looked like…puppies. Foxes? I got a jack and put the pallet back on the trailer and closed the dock door, hoping the mother would return. I’ve called the Humane Society twice now.

“Gaylords are here.”

What a relief!


But so many!!

Another problem…the New Normal.

I spent some time going through the books whose prices had been researched in the office. There was a lot of fun stuff. During the COVID Era, one researcher left for another job in North Dakota. One researcher needed to stay away during the pandemic. The other has only been in intermittently. So, we are behind there. More and more I am bypassing them out of necessity. I just use my instincts with many of the books that pass through my hands. I price them with “experience.” Kind of like John Henry trying to outdo the steam-driving machine. In this case, it is because there is not enough people to operate this part of the “machine” here—the computer…

One of the books that had been researched was a nice first edition of You Will Go to the Moon in dust jacket.

You Will Go the Moon

You Will Go To The Moon is a work of children’s literature written by Mae and Ira Freeman and illustrated by Robert Patterson, published in 1959, ten years before the first moon landing.

I read that books as a child. I always dreamt I’d touch the moon. One of the very first book stories here addressed that.

At the end of the day, I opened a package from my friend Alan James Robinson. The package had “rested” the requisite amount of time. Still I opened it “remotely” with a paper towel between my gloved hands and the corrugated box.

Stunning! A masterpiece. The first in a series of “Authors” I’ve commissioned. Next is Robert Graves. Then Milton. Then Borges.

He told he had likely had COVID-19. The doctor said he’d had the symptoms. He couldn’t get tested in Massachusetts. If so, he is the only person I know who has had it.

He also sent preliminaries of the next “If There Were No Books” series—Beowulf.

And a penciled beginning of Graves.

That was a happy ending to very tough day.

Now it is noon Friday. The day is going smoothly so far. I need to wrap this story up so it can get edited and put online.

In July 2018, I sent Nelson a lead on a house call in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He went and emailed that I should go. There were lots and lots of leather books.

“Probably for Books by the Foot,” he opined.

I went. It was a sprawling mansion that William Safire lived in. His widow, Helene, was still quite active. She had a fancy workshop in the house devoted to making boutique jewelry which was sold at high-end jewelers in Manhattan and elsewhere. She was finally parting with some of the things in the house with the help of an estate assistant. The first phase was the disposition of the books in the basement. But I was given permission to wander through the house. She still had housekeepers—some in white and pink livery with pink piping. It was a wondrous home. Full of family and friends’ pictures.

I spent a couple days visiting the basement and evaluating the books there. I really wanted them. I offered 5 figures. Sometime later, I was informed I’d made the highest bid. It was quite a project, but we moved all the books out. I haven’t touched the collection. It’s been almost 2 years.

Safire Collection

I was waiting because I thought I might get the winning bid on the Mr Safire’s office library—Phase 2—when the time came. The time came last year in 2019. The assistant had me in, and I chatted with Helene over tea.

I was sent a list of books they considered high points:

Chuck —
Still awaiting a proposal from other dealers, but in the meantime that I would send you the attached list of those books the women who’ve been helping Mrs Safire identified as special. Note that the spreadsheet has three tabs.

Will keep in touch,

Most of the books I had noted already. But one had escaped my scrutiny.

Some years I started putting in “Signed slips” into every autographed book that we came across.

Signed Slips

We’ve gotten so many great signed books that we only discover by strict protocols in data entry. Some are discovered by chance. Some perhaps by instinct. Maybe sometimes by divine intervention.

You should really flag your autographed books with these.

One book on her list struck me.

“Can you send an image?”

I raised my bid on Mr Safire’s library by high four figures.

I waited and waited. Then sometime later, I saw a colleague in DC advertising the Safire Collection on Instagram. (I’m a bit of an IG junkie. I don’t Twitter or Facebook. Instagram is such a benign place. If you don’t like something you simply don’t “Like” it a move on. Debate is rare. Politics…if you’re foolish enough to pollute this sanctuary, people just move on. @wonderbookandvideo, @booksbythefoot, @merryandpippinlotr)

I’d been outbid?!

I reached out to my friend in DC.

“Sold to another dealer.”

“You only regret the book you didn’t buy,” is an old book lover’s aphorism. It was certainly apt here.

I’ve thought about that book often in the many months since then.

When I writing recently about the groundhog pockmarks in the field adjacent the warehouse, I dubbed that area the Lunar Landscape. For some reason, I reached out to the bookseller who had my “avatar.”

In the New Normal, we struck a deal. Payments over time.

I had my first edition of The First Men in the Moon. It was inscribed too.

The First Men in the Moon

But not by HG.

It is an “association copy.”

The First Men in the Moon

“Neil Armstrong Apollo 11.”

I imagine Safire had this autographed in the Nixon White House.

Maybe some things are meant to be.

Maybe my Book Muse had a hand in this.


Maybe it is time to get into the Safire collection and become a book man again.

Meanwhile, I just “Touched the Moon.”

14 Comments on Article

  1. David commented on

    Time to leave the groundhogs to the professionals. Don’t let them become your Moby Dick, Captain!

    1. chuc replied on

      I have not yet begun to fight

      1. Michael Dirda replied on

        Glad you finally got that First Men in the Moon. I remember how disappointed you were to miss it. But I’m a little confused: You mention being outbid for the Safire collection, then talk about getting into the Safire books, which suggests you have them n the warehouse. Which is it?
        But maids and housekeepers in uniform!
        Safire once spoke at a rare book librarians’s meeting in DC. He mentioned that he usually carried around some of those publishers slips printed “With the compliments of the author.” At bookstores he would insert them into copies of the Bible.
        I collect, sort of, prints of authors, so I look forward to AJR’s Poe, Graves et al.
        Say hi to Caryn for me–and thanks for sending the books, which arrived yesterday.

        1. chuck replied on

          Hi Michael,
          I’ll clarify when I edit next week.
          I got Mr Safire’s “basement” in 2018.
          10,000? books. Haven’t touched his books yet.
          I was outbid in 2019 for his “office” upstairs…
          I’ll do the Safire story soon I think. Lots of photos…
          Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Gregory commented on

    Great to see and hear about actual books again!

    1. Chuck replied on

      I agree, Gregory!
      Settling into the New Normal I may actually get to play w books more.
      Actually doing that right now on Saturday!
      Thank you for reading and writing!

  3. Michelle commented on

    Those might be baby raccoons.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Youre right!
      When I came in Saturday morning one was gone and the other two appeared dead. When I picked one up to bury it barely moved. Cold as ice.
      I found a wildlife rescue that was open and drove them to it.
      In the car they warmed and started wriggling and squawking.
      The lady there said they have a pretty good chance. I think the mom came and took one overnight.
      More in the next story.
      Thanks for reading and writing!

  4. Buddy commented on

    So what were the “little furry babies” and what happened to them? Enjoy your blogs! I grew up in Silver Spring in the 50’s and 60’s. (Forest Grove, Sligo, Northwood)

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      When I came in Saturday morning one was gone and the other two looked deceased.
      I picked one up to bury and it barely moved. Cold as ice. I found a wildlife rescue that was open and drove them to it. As the car warmed they started moving and making noise.
      The woman told me they were raccoons!
      More details in the next story. Thank you for reading and commenting! Chuck

  5. Benjamin Abbate commented on

    what a charming blog! thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you, Ben!
      I appreciate your writing and commenting!

  6. George commented on

    First time reading your blog. Well done, enjoyed it very much.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you so much George.
      I really appreciate your reading it and taking time to write!
      It helps to hear things like that!


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