The new iPhone does strange things. Of its own volition, it sent me this picture. An anniversary album of pictures I took on this date in 2017.
I’m not sure I like the invasion. But it was good to see myself when I was so much younger—in 2017. Pre-COVID. I was in New York City for the big Book Expo. Alone with no friends or employees—unlike the good old days.
It is May’s end.
The cicada song is screaming out in the forest. Louder and louder every day. This is my 4th 17-year cycle. But looking around the forest, it becomes clear—they have been doing this up here every 17 years for…ever. A million years? More?
(It was actually much louder this morning.)
May at the stores was huge!
Last May, Frederick and Hagerstown were partially closed. But compared to May 2019, both were upper double digits.
Gaithersburg was closed May 2020. COVID. May 2021 was its best month. Ever. (I bought it in 2008.) Maybe it will begin to break even someday.
And Books by the Foot had its best May—ever. Designers are back in business.
We don’t have the website sale figures yet since some of the sites we sell on haven’t closed out May.
I knew today’s mission was likely doomed.
Why did I agree to take it on?
For the trip as much as anything.
And I was called to do it. Maybe I could help.
Tuesday/Wednesday I had a miserable night. Martinis with friends didn’t help.
The day had started with a drop in to my doctor. I was due for my second vaccination.
Friends have told me this is a no-brainer. Others who have had shingles tell me how awful it is. Doctor friends and others tell me this vaccine is like having a raincoat and umbrella in a rainstorm—you are covered.
For some reason, my achilles heel flared a few days before and was excruciating. It just happened. Nothing caused it.
That night, I screamed at the ceiling, “WHY!!!???”
No answer. No idea.
The nurse saw my limp and said, “I don’t like to see anyone in pain. Let me get the doctor to see you.”
Prednisone again. It was a miracle cure last time.
When I got home after Italian food and martinis, I thought it a good idea to unload bags of mulch from the SUV. I was driving that car to the house call somewhere in Virginia Wednesday.
I put boots on. I never go into high greenery without boots.
I only see a bad one every couple years. And then it is well in advance.
A splinter in my other heel.
I finished and limped inside. Can you limp on both legs?
I contorted myself to access the center of my right heel and prodded, trying to get the splinter out.
Maybe. Too tired and unfocused to do more.
In the wee hours, both heels were aching.
I got a mirror out and performed surgery. It was a tiny sliver of glass?!
No sleep. But the operation was a success. One heel stopped aching.
A tree guy was coming at 8. The big oak next to porch was dying at the top. It soars up about 70 feet, I think. I looked last week, and though the lower canopy is fine, there are some large dead limbs way up high. The limbs would fall either where I usually park or on the roof of the house.
I got ready for him groggily. When he arrived, I asked, “What do you think?”
“It’s in a bad place.”
He’s been up a few times. I can take care of any trees in the forest—except those close to the house. I don’t trust myself for that.
He likes it up here and always wants to chat about the hostas and woods and dogs…
I bore the chat as best I could.
I knew I had a long drive to the house call. I needed to get in to work and find out where I was going.
COVID has meant no calendars and no plans for so long. Then I found I needed a calendar now—just last month. It is hard to find calendars in April.
An office manager printed one out for me on copy paper for April through December 2021.
It is filling up. A sign of normality returning.
“We need your passport information or your tour may be canceled.”
When I got to work, that was the first email that needed immediate attention.
I booked a trip the day before. It is a guided tour around the perimeter of Iceland in July. It is one of the only countries open at this time. I’d played around with the idea of driving it alone. I usually prefer doing things myself. But you can’t drive and look around at the same time—especially in foreign places. Studying the map and the stops and the roads…
A different hotel every night…
I pulled the trigger and sprung for letting someone do everything.
I dug out my passport.
“It has been a long time, old friend.”
I created an account and logged in and filled out the forms.
“Invalid zip code.”
I went through the whole process again.
“Invalid zip code.”
I emailed the info to my travel agent and asked him to do it.
“Text or call. I’ll be on the road all day.”
(Turns out he had put in my billing zip code rather than my residential one. Their computer didn’t like me having two zip codes.)
I checked in with Clif.
“We need a new trailer. We’re full.”
I’d decided to switch pulp recyclers. Why? The new guy promised $25 a ton for at least three months. For several years, we had been getting $0.00. The money will be nice. But service is much more important. When we fill a trailer with pulp paper, we need an empty one—NOW.
“Hmmmm…what’s the new guy’s name?” I thought.
My new iPhone had no Sols.
I went to email. “Stein?” No Sol Stein came up in a search…
Somehow, I found it was Kline.
I emailed him. The old recycler will need to haul away the full trailer and Sol can then deliver an empty one.
He called. And wanted to chat—to arrange things.
(I gotta get on the road! The morning is aging.)
A few other people wanted pieces of me, but I brushed them off.
“Now! Where am I going?”
I am still mostly in COVID mode, so I hadn’t planned anything other than noting June 2 “VA House call” on my new “calendar.”
“What’s her name?”
I did email searches using potential keywords.
Which Virginia bookselling colleague had referred me to this?
More email searches…what is wrong with me?!
I finally found it.
Crozet, Virginia. How could I forget?
I went to Mapquest for directions. (I know Mapquest is for dinosaurs. Old habits…)
2 hours and 40 minutes?! Really?! I’ll be gone all day.
I got to my SUV, and my travel agent was calling. I couldn’t duck him. I read off the passport and other info needed.
He wanted to chat…
Finally, I was on the road. I emailed the daughter with my ETA. I had originally thought 10. Now it would be closer to noon.
The phone led me through some “shortcuts” across Virginia in order to get to Interstate 81. I think I hit every red light from Charles Town through Berryville and on to Winchester. I finally got on I 81, and it was loaded with truckers. Always is, but today there were long lines of the big boxes on wheels. They often crawled along nose to tail. Inclines were the worst. They fill both lanes, and everyone goes only as fast as the slowest truck.
The highway follows the Shenandoah Valley, and the trip used to be beautiful. It still has some great views of the mountains—Skyline Drive region to the east. Blue Ridge Mountains to the west—but now every exit has the same group of fast-food eateries and gas stations. Gone it seems are the quirky Mom and Pop vintage places that used to be unique and unforgettable experiences.
I plowed on.
Still an hour to go?
I emailed her again from my phone with the new ETA.
At Staunton, I headed east on I 64. Last summer and fall, the Staunton Black Swan Bookstore closed—COVID, I think—and Nick’s son brought up thousands and thousands of books. We still have pallets to sort through. Mostly just nice old books of no great value.
Those are the worst for 21st century bookselling. Hard and slow to list online. Most get punted to the stores. Sentimentally, they are my favorites. Go figure. Money losers.
A few years ago, my golf buddies and I played atop a mountain near by. Wintergreen Resort. It was a stunning experience.
The Starter cautioned us that they’d seen a mountain lion in recent days and that bears would just run away unless you got too close to a mom and her cubs.
After Staunton and further on the highway, an electric sign cautioned that the next exit was completely blocked by a rockslide and to follow the alternate route.
There were some beautiful views along here. Civilization has not yet filled out this far.
Finally, the phone told me to exit here. Then turn there. Then proceed to…
“You have arrived.”
It was a field.
I turned around and started looking for numbers on the houses. I finally got to a woody space place between 606 and 610. I needed 608. Nothing. Nothing but, well, there’s a gravel path in the small gap between stonewalls leading into overgrown woods.
This can’t be it. I couldn’t even fit between the stones unless I went past it and turned around and approached from the other direction. I did. The gravel path led between trees and shrubs reaching out to grab and scratch my vehicle. Finally, I got to a car that was nearly buried by blackberry bushes. This must be it. I parked under a tree and between bushes and squeezed out. I came to a walkway and saw this.
I have been to similar hideaways. This one housed an elderly person or couple. They had lived there for many years. It got so they couldn’t keep the grounds and gardens up any longer. I was to find out more.
The house was invisible to the world. The world was invisible from the house.
On a bench on the porch was a woman—perhaps close to my age. A big cat was seated next to her.
“What took you so long?”
“I don’t know.”
And indeed I did not.
All the above goes to the bookseller’s state mind, your Honor. His mind was in a discombobulated state.
And, indeed, it was.
“Do you want some water? Or a cookie? I made them this morning. Where do you want to start?”
“I always like to get an overview of everything.”
“Well, we can start at the top and work our way down. There are books in every room.”
She led me up the old stairway. A Stair Glide was built into it. The house was large—mid-19th century.
Crossing the threshold, there had been books on sideboards in the foyer. Peering into rooms on either side, I could see they were full of bookcases and stacks upon tables…
But it wasn’t a hoarding situation. In those cases, there are books on the floors, the steps, the bathroom…
Upstairs were the bedrooms. Tucked off one was “my dad’s office.”
My “book” mind was functioning on automatic pilot.
I’ve been doing this since 1980. I’ve seen so much I go pretty fast.
Room after room.
I sensed a kindred spirit. And, forensically, I was putting together his life from clues in each room. Photos and military memorabilia showed a World War 2 aviator. Bombers. B-17s. My mentor Carl Sickles had been a ball turret gunner in B-17s.
The survival rate for those boys was shockingly low.
Degrees and awards showed him to be a doctor.
Room after room of books—mostly organized by subject—showed him to have the same affliction (or is it a blessing) as I have.
His taste was excellent. The scope astounding. The quantity daunting.
Down the stairs, I limped behind her.
The kitchen, dining room, parlor…
“The library is through here.”
She opened a door to a long narrow passageway.
I followed. The passage was lined with books on both sides. And a wine rack…
Down a few steps into the library.
“He built this for himself—the design and everything.”
It was beautiful. A large room added inconspicuously to the far side of the home. A spiral staircase led up to rows of bookcases on a mezzanine level. Bookcases lined the walls and formed low islands throughout the room.
A sense of comfort and order came over me.
We chatted. I DID want to chat about this. I pulled books off shelves as we spoke. I’d inspect each and then slip it back onto the shelf.
“Now what do you do?” she asked.
“I’d like to go back through the house and look at the books.”
“Do you want me with you?”
“Whatever you prefer, but I usually do it alone. I’ll go pretty fast. After all these years, I can usually size things up quickly. Did you father keep anything he considered rare or valuable on any special shelves?”
“No. He just loved books. It is so nice today, I think I’ll just wait out on the porch.”
“I’ll find you when I’m done.”
She headed up the short flight of steps and down the long passageway.
I wandered through the library, reading spines.
A clutch of T S Eliot—thin jacket-less hardcovers. I pulled a couple off. Not firsts, and I found internal library markings.
It was the same throughout the vast collection.
In every room.
On every shelf.
Nice books. Literate subjects and titles. Condition—mostly just ok.
Most devastating—they were mostly old. Pre ISBN.
The vast majority not worth the expense of putting on the internet.
Store stock. For in person browsers.
We are vastly overstocked with similar wonderful books. These are the kind of books I’m a sucker for. A half dozen just like these are stacked next to my bed right now.
I was drained. I limped out to the porch to break the bad news.
She was seated in the warm spring sun. Her cat curled next to her.
“I didn’t tell you. There are more in the attic, and there’s an out building back there in the trees.”
I couldn’t bear climbing the steps again just now. My bad heel was throbbing. And I was…drained.
“I don’t need to see the attic.”
I hate to disappoint people.
“Would you like to see the outbuilding? I haven’t been in it. I’m worried those books are ruined.”
“A building with no heat and in the woods…the books may be moldy.”
But she wanted to see it. I followed down the walk to the grass covered gravel parking area. We had to get past my Excursion. We ducked under the branches reaching out to my windows and doors.
She turned the knob, and the door wouldn’t open. We circled the building, looking for another way in.
I peered through the dusty window. The books appeared as though an antique looking glass that has lost much of its silver.
“Well, he must have had a key somewhere.”
I twisted the knob and pushed. The door opened, and cobwebs stretched from the jamb until they broke.
“Magic touch.” I laughed. “The ceiling is intact. That’s a good sign. I always lift the dust jackets. If there are fuzzies beneath—that’s bad.”
No white fuzzies.
“Then I’ll put my face in close—between the front board and endpapers.”
Nope. Not musty.
But dusty. And old. And worn.
We went back to the sunny porch. I ruminated along the way—how to break the bad news.
Well, I didn’t exactly. I don’t like disappointing people—especially in person. But I told her it would cost a fortune in man-hours and travel to pack and transport these all to Maryland.
“How far are we from Monticello?”
That was a non sequitur.
“About 20 miles.”
“Maybe I’ll go there. I’ll send you an email tomorrow outlining my thoughts.”
The phone told me Thomas Jefferson’s home was only 15 minutes away.
Why not? I wouldn’t be getting back til late, regardless.
So I drove to Monticello and limped through the fabulous grounds and gardens, the mansion, the wine and beer cellars.
There was some, but not too much of, forcing the 21st mores on the 18th century contexts that were…what they were over two hundred years ago.
I limped through his library*. The books were nice. But I would have had more pleasure with those 15 miles away.
* Those are replacements. Contemporary books chosen to match those he actually had. His own books form the core of the Library of Congress. They are on display in the foyer of that wondrous temple to books.
I limped down the long path to his grave.
The words were his own epitaph.
Jefferson had raised much of civilization from a very dark past over some previously insurmountable hurdles. Some aspects of his life were a product of the times and institutions that were what they were in the 18th century.
If things are improved in the 21st century, his words and actions speeded the way from then to now. He instituted societal and political changes that had never been dreamed possible before.
I noted the date of his death. July 4, 1826. 50 years to the day after July 4, 1776.
I recalled the anecdote of his “frenemy,” fellow President and Founding Father John Adams on his death bed far away in Massachusetts: “Jefferson survives.”
No. He didn’t. Nor did Adams. He died the very same day.
I limped back up the path.
I stopped at the gift shop and bought two bottles of Monticello wine and two Monticello plants.
It would be a long drive home.
I wanted something special for dinner. I searched BBQ on my phone. Nothing exciting. I got on the highway. Near Luray, I pulled off a searched for Uncle Buck’s. It was diner I stopped at with a friend near New Year’s—December 2019. It had been classic. Buckwheat pancakes.
COVID, I presume.
I continued north. A sign for the exit to Middletown said there was a barbecue place and Nana’s Irish Restaurant there. I got off and followed the signs. They led me into the old downtown on Rt 11—once a major road going north and south.
Nana’s had a For Sale sign on her window. COVID, I presume. I didn’t see the barbecue going in or coming out.
But I had seen this old inn and tavern going in.
Would it be locals and all eyes on me when I limped in?
It was classic. Scotch Eggs and the wing special. The wings were “enormous”—indeed they were full size pieces of chicken.
And the martini was…classic.
I took a picture of it.
There were 7 or 8 middle age bikers at the bar with me. Jolly fellows in black t-shirts yucking it up. Talking of going to Sturgis.
“Sir!” a pause, “Sir!”
Was one talking to me? I looked up.
“Why did you take a picture of your drink?”
I was off guard. And exhausted. What could I say? I’m one of those guys? Instagram?
“Because it’s perfect, and I don’t want to forget it.”
That seemed to be acceptable, and they returned to their jollity.
I chatted with the bartender (out of central casting.) I asked how long this had been the bar.
“Well, I don’t know. But this wing is the oldest part of the Inn.”
How the world has changed since carriages or horsemen stopped here in the late 1700s and had their tipple.
I slept hard on Wednesday night. As promised, I composed a letter to the daughter. I tweaked and proofed it a couple times before sending it off.
I really enjoyed seeing your parents’ place and the book collection.
Your dad had good taste and interests.
The down sides are what I mentioned.
The distance and cost of moving.
Plus, the books are mostly common and there are some condition problems. We have 10,000s of similar books, and although it is the kind of material I like personally, it does not do well on the internet for the kind of seller we are.
In my cursory inspection, I saw very few books that might be collectible.
I reached out to [bookseller friends in Southern Virginia] already.
I think an auction might work well. Small sellers—flea marketers and eBay folks might really go after these in box lots.
But I believe [my friends] would know better about that.
I also asked if they knew anyone else who could handle such a quantity.
I sadly have to pass, as it would cost a fortune to move the books, and we are vastly overstocked with similar material.
I wish I had better news.
It was great meeting you. I did go to Monticello for the first time—I don’t know why it never happened before.
I’m sorry I was late.
I was able to see the love of books and nature your father had and would like to consider myself a kindred spirit.
My head was still in two places (at least.) I slogged through the day. I looked forward to visiting friends in the late afternoon. I often looked at the time, hoping it would soon be the hour I could go.
I opened a package that came in from California. I’d ordered it last week.
Good-Bye to All That. Robert Graves’ memoirs of the horrors of World War 1 (among other things.)
This is the first issue edition. He had written some antiwar sentiments that were too controversial at the time. Those lines had been expurgated. This was one of about 100 copies that survived with the original text. I’ve collected Graves ever since I began bookselling. Likely, watching the mini series I, Claudius got me hooked.
Who are the censors now?
The week is ending as it began.
Cold and wet.
I slept well and deeply. The COVID “intermissions” are no longer every night. And often they are shorter in duration and intensity. Read a few pages and roll on my side, and sleep actually DOES return.
I went to Barbara’s Lothlorien last night. My friends there invited me over for dinner.
When I got out of the car, I was buffeted by the scent of roses. Barbara loved heirloom roses and had a large arbor and several beds devoted to them. They’d been in decline in her later years. And when the house sat unoccupied but for a few cats who were allowed to live out their last in their home. (Plus, I swear I saw a ghost crossing behind a large pane of glass one visit when I came to pickup up some deadfall wood.) Her friends who bought the place have lovingly restored them. They’ve even completed the “dial garden” she’d barely begun. It is like a knot garden but more like a medieval dial shape. And there are roses not herbs and boxwood.
It was soft sweet perfume in the dim overcast evening light.
It made me think of some lines:
Drink wine and look at the moon
and think of all the civilizations
the moon has seen passing by.
Maybe it was because I’d glanced at this humble book at Wonder Book before coming over.
At first glance, Rubaiyat is just another edition of Omar Khayyam. Upon closer inspection, the little book is an ad and an homage for Rubaiyat Whiskey. And the cover is a facsimile of its label.
“A quatrain of 24 carat whiskey.”
Drink! for your know not whence you came nor why;
Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where.
Long, long ago an old man would come into the bookshop.
He would purchase any edition of Rubaiyat that he didn’t already own.
I wondered at the time, being a young man, why this fellow was so romantic at his advanced age…
At my friends’, I turned and faced the warm golden light pouring out from the Last Homely House that was Barbara’s is now their home. I stepped across the familiar stones paving the way inside. The door was opened, and I’d crossed threshold I’d been crossing for so many years of my life.
My friends were welcoming and genial.
We sat in the familiar room.
We caught up on many things. The Plague us kept apart almost completely the past year and more.
It was delightful, but I felt like I’d forgotten something.
How to talk?
Communicate with people outside of work?
Part of my mind was somewhere else. Far, far away.
And I’m just so tired. A COVID toll, I think.
They’d made bread. They opened wine they’d made. A meal was being prepared—much of it from their gardens.
I gave them a Monticello wine and native iris.
A dream within a dream.
A book of verses beneath the bough
A jug of wine, a loaf of bread—and Thou
beside me singing in the Wilderness
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise now.
I know why that old man—long, long gone now—was buying those books.
He was remembering.
I didn’t check my emails until later this morning. The daughter had replied:
Thanks for making the trip to Crozet. I enjoyed talking with you and I’m sure that you and my dad would have had amazing conversations.
I understand the difficulties of moving the books. My goal has never been to make a profit off them, but rather to find a home for them that is not the Ivy Landfill. Your description of how your company deals with books was just what I wanted to hear.
To that end, here’s an offer. What if I split the packing and moving costs with you? Would that make it worth your while to remove them?
Thanks for considering this idea. Glad you made it to Jefferson’s house. He was another book lover.
It is a forlorn hope most likely. But as some seeds take root and flourish, so this may turn out. I still doubt it. Too many variables. And…what am I thinking?! There are millions here already.