I hate 3 a.m.
But perhaps 4 is worse
At 5 the birds awaken
There will be no rest
Sleep no more!
But those dark times push me
I often reach for the pad
And fumble for a pen
Then I forgive the wee hours
When dawn comes (too soon)
There will be a new work
scratched on the legal pad
Much more memorable
Than any dream not dreamt
All there is is memory.
And the moment.
That is all.
True and not true.
It is good to awaken to something new on the yellow paper beside me.
But I also had a waking dream. I was pulling into a Popeyes in a hot low-slung white and black convertible. My first girlfriend was in the back seat. The driver… I did not know. Dark and handsome. “That’s Adams!” I exclaimed, seeing him in a car in the parking lot. And we pulled up next to him. He rolled down his window. He was driving an old red Miata. The rear port panel was replaced in dull worn dark green. My dead best friend (August 2020—not COVID) smiled in welcoming greeting and spoke, but I do not recall the words. Then I awoke.
I wonder. Was that a preview of my entry into heaven?
When the Swallows Come Back to Wonder Book & Video.
The book warehouse is blessed with 15 or 20 swallows’ nests. They return every spring. It is such a pleasure to watch them weaving and diving and swooping in the sky. Aerial acrobats. Most of the nests are in an alcove covering an unused door. But there is one nest just outside the door that leads out to the dockyard. I go out this door frequently to stretch my legs and take the air and survey the domain.
Sure enough, a few weeks ago I saw signs a pair was nesting. Then some heads would occasionally protrude above the claylike nest.
The nest itself is a feat of architecture. The birds build it out of spit and mud, I think. It is reused every year, often with a bit of renovation.
This week the nestlings grew dramatically. I knew they would soon fledge.
Wednesday when I cautiously stepped out the door, a little flock of swallows fluttered out before me. It was the parents and five or more kids leaving the nest for the year. That afternoon, I stepped out and looked up into the brilliant cloudless blue sky and saw a few dozen swallows high above me.
It was beautiful.
Last Friday when I came to work, the road was lined with a dozen tractor-trailers. All were stacked with big white identical rectangular plastic bundles.
They were all there for us.
We had spent all week moving scrap metal and old steel shelving and fixtures to make room for this delivery. Some was moved by hand. There were a lot of wasps nesting in the stuff. It was hot heavy work. But fortunately, the forklift did most of the heavy lifting. Tools are good things.
I pulled into the dockyard and it was a hive of activity. There was a crane and a heavy-duty forklift. Lots of men in hard hats. One after another, the trucks were unloaded.
It was roofing material for the new warehouses. The contractor had an opportunity to get hold of it and urged me to take it in now, even though it won’t be needed for months. It is one of the supply chain commodities that are in short supply.
When it was all done, there was a mountain of the stuff dominating the lot.
Friday is always hectic. All three stores need to be given empty vans. 5 empty vans for the three stores. They also need to be reloaded with supplies and fresh stock. This involves perhaps 15-20 people at the warehouse all told. From drivers to office staff to book sorters to managers to me to…
Maintaining the stores is a complex process. It has been for 42 years. Sometimes I do too much. Too little. Too involved. Not involved enough…
And there was people drama, and I was at the center of it. The crazy part is most of it was personal—not work related. I still don’t know why. It’s ok. Goes with the territory.
I got a sweet email about last week’s story. I think it was a young person judging from the syntax and spelling. I was told my “whining” about the stores was bad for morale. I looked at the story and couldn’t find the whine. But I take any criticism to heart and will try to mend my ways.
I apologized to the correspondent and tried to explain what my role is here.
Anyway, let me clear the air:
The three stores are doing great!
They survived COVID, and with a great deal of investment of time and effort and money, they are doing better than ever—at least since the millennium when the new World Wide Web thingy began killing off 97% of the bookstores in the DC region.
The correspondent also blamed me for high turnover in staff. Well, we expect that. A lot of people who come here are in school or in between career changes. Some are training to become nurses or trades persons. Some get tired of working with the public. We do hire summer workers. Some just are looking for something to do for a while. Many sign on to get into the workforce while they look for the “career.” Some sign up thinking it is about reading and looking through books all day. Those get disillusioned to find it is “working” with books all day.
I asked a long-time manager who started in the early 2000s. She left for a while and then decided to return. She has evolved to the very top 4 of the company. (Three are sort of coequal.)
“At the end of the day, I’ve seen people who absolutely love this company have to leave. And there are people that hate the company that seem to refuse to leave.”
Not so simple, is it?
That said… I did a census.
Out of 110 people in the current payroll, I counted 31 who have been here 5 years or more. I added up the years from their start dates.
424 years at Wonder Book.
FOUR HUNDRED TWENTY FOUR!
Throw me in, and it is 466.
This is a used book business. This in one of the wealthiest states in the country. Montgomery and Frederick counties have always had plenty of good jobs.
And everyone here started at entry level. Including me.
So, the Wonder Book stores have survived the invasion of the big-box booksellers (Borders, Barnes and Noble) that killed off most of the independent booksellers. The rise of internet used and rare bookselling which killed off almost all of the used bookstores. The e-readers which were going to be the demise of the printed word. COVID.
I “wonder” what the reason is?
Well, there are definitely reasons. The DC region has always been a great place for books and booklovers. Wonder Book, with all its faults, has always attracted a lot of great people who love to work with books.
Is there something else? What am I forgetting?
Anyway, these stories are supposed to be truthful and report faithfully on the joys and sorrows, trials and tribulations of bookselling in the 80s, 90s, aughts, teens and now the 20s. So, if I whine occasionally, I hope no one is offended. Just look at is as “Chuck is whining again.” And move on.
I’ll look at it as trying to do my job and make things better for everyone—booklovers and booksellers.
I know I make some bad decisions. I do have good advisors who will likely look askance at some of this defensiveness. But 42 years… not a bad run. To survive that long, I’d estimate I make at least 51% good decisions.
Friday afternoon, I left a bit early and drove down to Rockville. I met an old friend at Hank Dietle’s. It was the only place I could think of that was still in business down there since I was a kid. Indeed, it has been there for over 100 years. It used to be a dive bar that was so sketchy I think my dad only took me there once. Now it is upscale and has music. Respectable for sure.
We sat across from one another at a hard metal high top. A lifetime ago, we were going to be married. This evening was our big high school reunion. She went onto great things. Ivy League professor. Author. Brilliant.
We had a beer and caught up on things. Lots of memories of the dreadful high school in the (then) barren and sterile Montgomery County. The one teacher who changed our lives dramatically. I’d forgotten I was in three of his plays: Billy Budd, Man of La Mancha, Mame. Just the chorus, though. Other teachers who were good or bad.
Then it was time to face the “event.” Neither one of us wanted to. But it was another rite of passage—just like all those years ago. We headed out to the Rockville Marriott. I got there first and was surprised the parking lot was almost empty. In the lobby, I was told several other people had been there asking about the reunion as well. I was given the street address for the other Rockville Marriott. My friend followed. When the phone said, “You have arrived,”—no Marriott. We were in one of those modern developments with shopping and restaurants and a lake with swan pedal boats and hotels. We had passed yet another Marriott a short way back, and I decided to head there. When we parked, she told me she had seen the correct Marriott in the heart of the development, where I had only seen restaurants and hundreds of people. You could actually see it from the wrong Marriott, so we decided to walk. It was only about a quarter mile. There was a path to and around the lake. It was all a bit surreal. My companion and our history, the swan boats gliding by, the hundreds of humans coming and going. Even more surreal was having to walk through a large dance area covered with artificial turf. There was a marimba band and dozens of people dancing. We both simultaneously felt we were in a 1960s spy movie and that we were being stalked by an assassin.
We got to the third Marriott, and indeed this one had the “Mixer” party going on in a fairly large meeting room. It was very crowded—with OLD people! Doubling the confusion, the class one year older than us was in the same room since their reunion had been delayed by COVID. The peel and stick nametags didn’t reflect which year was which when you wrote your name on it.
Sooooo… what a mess. I didn’t know most of my 624 classmates back then. Now I was in a room where half of them I never ever could have known. I stood in line to get a wine for me and water for her. A half hour and $25 dollars later, I went to find her.
“There’s no one here,” she said.
Well, there were classmates whose names we vaguely recalled…
“Someone said there was a private suite event for our class in the other Marriott [Wrong Marriott #2].”
We walked back there through the throngs. The suite wasn’t much bigger than a standard room. There was enough food and drink for 100. About a dozen people were crammed in there.
At least we could be sure these people were in our class—except about a third of them were spouses.
There was one guy I was pretty good friends with. But none of our circle of Wonder Boys and the equal number of her girlfriends were there. A few others whose names I recalled seemed aloof and disinterested. I REALLY tried to be chatty and social. THAT was a stretch.
It was dreadful—but SO like our high school experience. It was reaffirming in some ways. We were very glad each other was there. It was very reaffirming how lucky we were to have known each other. Time to go. Not another word to be wasted there. She was staying at Wrong Marriott #1. Her phone was dead, and she asked me to lead her back there. We hugged in the parking lot, and I headed back to the mountain. The car lights flashed on a Luna moth perched on a flower stalk.
I let the dogs run a bit and went inside and fell into bed.
Quite a surreal day. A dozen truckloads at the old book business. People upset with me. Lots of grumpiness and disgruntlement to be mollified. Yep. I unintentionally screwed up again. A surreal evening with someone who had been the most important person in the world for four years a lifetime ago… and then back where the day had started.
The weekend was the usual. Carts. Carts. Carts.
The Saturday night reunion dinner I did not attend. Nor did I attend the tour of the old building. It is now a K-12 Jewish school. I didn’t need to see the old penitentiary. Its halls and rooms and layout are etched in my dreams… ummm, nightmares. I heard from an old buddy it wasn’t much better and that only one person of special interest to us attended.
On Sunday, I decided to get into something different. At our last warehouse (2003-2014), there was a small windowless storeroom. It was about 8×10 and constructed out of cinder block. It had a heavy steel door. I think the previous owner, Frederick Trading Co., likely kept valuable stuff in there. Someone decided it should be called Chuck’s Closet. I did store some clothes in there so I could change from grubby work clothes. Often I would enter that room wearing work clothes and emerge looking like I was going out. One friend there called it the Bat Cave. I had a much more active social life then. I also kept some things in there that were cool but I didn’t know what to do with. Those things could be valuable but were unmarketable for whatever reason. When we were getting to the deadline of our move—June 30, 2014—I had to begin packing my office and that room. But then I became paralyzed. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It wasn’t slacking. I’d driven hundreds of truckloads over the nine months it took us to move. I just… couldn’t… do it. Fortunately, a manager who has been here since 1997 took pity and intervened and did it for me. She put the stuff in some Gaylords and labeled them Chuck’s Closet. They’ve been collecting dust here since.
A relatively new employee saw it and asked what it was.
“I don’t know. I’ve forgotten.”
That planted the seed in my mind.
It was time to discover what had been in Chuck’s Closet that was so important?
It was landlocked amongst other nondescript pallets laden with boxes and bags and plastic tubs of books that we will eventually sort through. I got a pallet jack. I rolled it into position. The heavy iron and steel beast rumbles with heavy metallic sounds across the concrete floor. Its movement creates a cacophony of industrial clanks, scrapes, bangs and rattles with every step. I pushed its two tines into the slots of a wooden pallet until it was in position under the pallet. Then I pumped down and up on the 4-foot metal handle that is used to push, pull or steer. This engages the hydraulics which raise the tines and the pallet begins to slowly rise off the floor. When the pallet is up a couple inches, I set my feet and lean back, pulling on the handle to get it in motion. A pallet loaded with books can weigh a thousand pounds or more. A heavily loaded jack makes a low rumbling sound as it trundles over the concrete floor. One after another, I pulled out pallets of books from the row and took them away. When I got them to their new destination, I squeezed a lever on the handle. That disengages the hydraulics, and the pallet slowly sinks to the floor. I pulled the jack out from under and repeated the process until I was finally able to get to the Closet pallet. That I set in an open space so there was plenty of room to empty its contents. I pulled a box cutter from my pocket to cut the heavy fiber infused brown paper tape that had been affixed to keep the flap or “gate” closed. And then I began pulling things out.
Antique toys from a very memorable book buy, old boxes of Britain’s metal soldiers. Vintage Harry Potter stuff. Tomorrow issues. A big box marked, “Rare Whittier, Mann, etc.” Occupied Japan porcelain sets. Creepy dolls…
A time capsule.
I still don’t know what to do with some of the stuff. I hid that in a back storeroom.
Sunday, I went down to Fairfax to see my younger son play in his semi-pro soccer semi-final. They won. We went to Outback, which used to be a family destination. It was ok. But not as good as it used to be. The final is this Sunday.
Monday and so on.
The roofer emailed and wants to start repairs on the existing building. $58k.
This enormous dictionary appeared on a cart.
Of course, I had to see how many pages it had. Someone had overbound the boards in thick corduroy, but the beast was still very tightly held together. A real feat of bookbinding. The pagination ends at 7046.
Right after that, an unpaginated supplement begins. It is about 3 inches thick. So, I’d estimate there are 9000-10,000 pages all together. When I posted pictures of it on my Instagram @merryandpippinlotr, one comment read:
“Is that a book about how to understand us women?”
“It would take about 10 of these,” I replied.
“That would just about cover the intro.”
Another person added, “Keep the supplements coming.”
That book contrasts with Borges’ The Library of Babel.
It is only 36 pages long, and this edition includes many illustrations in those pages. I took this book to London to read and savor. It has stuck by me and lies on the bed next to me this early Friday morning.
“The Universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries. In the center of each gallery is a ventilation shaft bounded by a low railing. From any hexagon one can see the floors above and below—one after another, endlessly. The arrangement of the galleries is always the same: Twenty bookshelves, five to a side, line four of the hexagon’s six sides; the height of the bookshelves, floor to ceiling, is hardly greater than the height of a normal librarian.”
The book ends, “…those who picture the world as unlimited forget that the number of possible books is not. I will be bold enough to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The Library is unlimited but periodic. If an eternal traveler should journey in any direction, he would find after untold centuries that the same volumes are repeated in the same disorder—which, repeated, becomes order: the Order. My solitude is cheered by that elegant hope.”
Another deadline looms.
Summer is nearly here. I woke to 77 degrees inside. I failed to turn on the ceiling fan when I dropped into bed last night. The birds began their lauds (morning prayer) in the dark about 5. The sunrise at 5:42. Last night, just after sunset—about 8:39—I sat out on the pavement and listened to their vespers or compline. It was a very different chorale.
So, the first week since I cast myself adrift for the greater good is passed.
I had two fantastic meals in keeping with the May “Coming Out.” Tuesday was Lobster Bucatini after Cap left. We’d had two cocktails, and he’d needed to go. Thursday I reached out to Bob and Kerry, and we met at the same place. Tasting Room. We had drinks and stayed on for dinner. They’d hibernated a lot during COVID. Bob’s an architect. Kerry manages the office. They did well working remotely. Bob told me he took up printmaking as a hobby. On his phone, he showed me an image of a copperplate engraving he had made.
“Do you have any books on prints and printmaking?”
“Maybe a few… thousand.”
I ordered a Wedge Salad followed by a filet.
“Can you cook it Pittsburg style?”
It was perfect. Really, the best steak I have had in years. Reminiscent of the cuts you get in Chicago. I really think they keep the best beef in the midwest—unwilling to ship it east.
Maybe I will start going to happy hour again like I did before March 2020.
Two years of solitary home-cooked meals—often consisted of withdrawing a frozen slab of pizza wrapped in foil and waiting for it to melt and then get hot.
That means two solitary days in the warehouse working out with books.
Things change and then change back.
My friend Alan Robinson sent me a big package last week. I wasn’t expecting anything. I didn’t get a chance to open it til this Wednesday.
He had promised me this book about whales years ago. It took him a long time to put it all together.
It may be the most beautiful modern book I know of.
He loaded it with as many extra “State Proofs” as he could find. I could paper a large room with whales.
Sigh… books are beautiful. Books are infinite.
I want to go somewhere.
I am cast adrift again. But then, I was not really tethered this time.