War Rooms—The Journal of a Plague Year, Week 4

Misty Forest

A light flashed in the blackness of my bedroom. Is someone coming up the driveway to get me?

Am I awake or asleep?

I awaken.

I reach for my phone. It comes alive and glows at my touch.

4am exactly.

I’m in a swirl of worry and paranoia.

Did I do something wrong? Is my nightmare coming to get me? Did he send people to get me? Is it him?

“Charlotte?”

Another flash.

It is lightning.

I hear no thunder though.


An apparently current employee posted a disgusting thing on our Facebook that we were operating illegally according to Governor Hogan’s Guidelines published March 23. This anonymous/pseudonymous (“Charlotte”) screed also included some personal insults which were false.

We removed it quickly. It was ugly. Pathologic.

Then a former employee posted on a personal Facebook account that we were operating illegally under the guidelines. That person stated a letter was written to Governor Hogan in their capacity as a self-appointed authority on Wonder Book health and science and business and personal my life. That person also published pages of inaccuracies about me and Wonder Book. The facts were wrong about what state I was living in (Maryland since 2010), my criminal record (ZERO—no arrests, indictments, convictions…nothing but some camera tickets), claiming we don’t pay our bills (in business since 1980 with an excellent reputation locally and nationally.) There were many, many other things including a copy of the post published by “Charlotte.” I reached out to my lawyer, who felt there was a lot that might be considered libelous. The lawyer sent out a multi-page document detailing the awful and false accusations. “Cease and Desist…” We are waiting for a response and will decide if we need to go to court.

I’ve been called a lot of things over the years. I blow most of them off. It goes with the territory.

But this was published publicly and was seen by current and former employees. Who knows to whom else it may have been forwarded. Plus there’s the correspondence sent to Governor Hogan that we were operating illegally and unsafely.

I barely remember the person who left 5 years ago. I thought the parting was on good terms considering the problems going on. I’ve always tried to be compassionate with employees needs while employed. When the time comes to separate, I have always thought it best to make the parting as gentle as possible. ALWAYS. Having a disgruntled former employee is a bad thing. Always.

So, in the midst of everything else, we kept wondering if the police would show up at the warehouse door and slap yellow tape across the door or something.

Were we doing ANYTHING WRONG?

No. When we finally figured out whom to reach out to, we got this response from the Maryland Department of Commerce:

Specific to the warehouse on Tilco Drive in Frederick, this may be reopened. Per Interpretive Guidance document #4 issued by the Governor’s Office of Legal Counsel on March 23, “warehousing and distribution companies” are among those businesses in the transportation sector which may remain open, according to section 2.m.ix of this document.

This was also confirmed by the office of the Frederick County Executive.

All the worry and paranoia, all the false accusations…in the midst of unprecedented personal and professional terror. Well, I hope there is such a thing as karma for those two.


Out in the blackness of the forest around me, rain begins to fall hard. I can sense it splattering on the roof beyond the white ceiling above my bed. On the porch roof not ten feet from where my head lays, the splashes are clearer, more distinct. The night screen on my phone already dark darkens more and then goes off.

Am I awake or asleep?

Awake. I am sure. This time.

Is someone coming to get me? Will I be taken away in cuffs? Violating the Guidelines was $5000 per day and/or a year in jail.

I will put up cameras around the property.

I long for sleep. I roll on my side and pull the comforter up to my neck. I turn my face into the soft pillow filled with feathers.

My eyes will not close.

Is it Wednesday? What is happening today?

The same.

Every day is the same. They are like a weekend day in many ways. The once bustling warehouse has but two, three, four people coming and going. Often I am in there alone as I am on weekends.

Another flash. It is dull light due to the rain and fog out in the forest that surrounds my home. There are no lights outside. Security lights will come on if the motion sensors are triggered.

My eyes will not close.

Am I doing anything wrong? Am I allowed to be in my own building even?

I stare into the blackness all around me.

Will they come to get me? Who hates me? Who is “Charlotte”?

Why would anyone have a heart so black as to do and say such things?

“Hush. Hush. Sweet Charlotte.”

I know the other one. I predict one will lead to the other when the first person is dealt with legally. Then we will look into “Charlotte”—legally and perhaps litigiously under the advice of legal council.

What horrible humans would do such a thing—not to me—but to a 40-year-old company whose mission is to rescue books…not just to me but to the 130 other people who work here…not just to me but to the thousands of people who have no where else to sell their books.

Not just to me but to the books no one else would take.

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If Wonder Book is destroyed by evil, millions of books are also “silenced”—forever.

A friend commented Dante had a special ring or pit in the Inferno for sowers of discord…eight circle ninth pit or vice versa…the ninth and lowest circle is for falsifiers…


What will I do tomorrow? Ummmm…it is today. What will I do later this morning? I will talk to my bankers. I will email my bankers. I will text one of them. He likes that. I will email the accountants with questions the bankers and I want answers to. Perhaps I will call the accountants as well.

The insurance people too. They don’t want to pay. The employees are sitting at home, and they are charging a huge amount of Worker’s Comp money. An employee cannot very likely have a claim if they are sitting at home. All the vans and the truck are parked in the lot. The insurance wants us to pay premiums for vehicles that are parked all the time.

Business disruption? No. The insurance doesn’t want to pay for that. “That’s for damage like fire. Pandemics are not covered.”

Really?!

We weren’t closed by a pandemic. We were closed by the Governor, acting in an abundance of caution.

Landlords…we have three—plus I am my own landlord at the warehouse. The stores are closed. But they still want rent. More emails, texts, phone calls.

The lawyer is now a too frequent correspondent.

Every day I’m also reaching out for advice from friends—professionals who know the lingo and the ins and outs of banking and government and accounting and real estate and tenancy. I am also in constant contact with booksellers around the country. Both listening for advice and giving advice.

All I do most of these days is sit at my laptop and “communicate.” I beg. I wheedle. I debate. I inquire. I re-inquire. I make veiled threats—akin to “we will fire you as a [service] if you don’t…”

Every day is the same. But every day the debate changes. And the rules change too.

This person needs a new form.

This person wants numbers and projections.

They want projections?!

Projections? We are 95% out of business with no idea when we can reopen the three stores or bring in extra warehouse staff.

Project that.

There is nothing we can do but comply.

Am I awake or asleep? I get up and wander the lonely building. I know where I am and what I am doing. But out does not seem real. I am somewhere in between.

I yearn for the days my problems were mostly “bookish” dilemmas.”


Last week’s book story ended with us anxiously awaiting the opening of the magic Portal so we could apply for the PPP. The PPP is our lifeline and our employees’ lifeline. It is the best chance we have to stay open and keep the employees as whole as possible.


It is 2:48 pm on April 4th, Saturday. I’m in the office in the warehouse with two managers. They are feverishly working on the PPP application. We’ve already spent well over 100 hours preparing for this. It has been a Herculean effort to have any possible data that might be required on hand. Thousands of numbers and data. Thousands of pages both digital and printed.

The President announced the previous Tuesday that the program application process would go live on Friday, April 3. We hovered around the office all day Friday hoping the email would come through, and we could get into the magic PNC Portal. We waited til after 5 pm and then went home.

At 3 am, a manager emailed:

So the PNC app is online for companies with annual revenue less than 5 million…over 5 mil says to contact them.

Did you get anything?

Also looks like we may need to sign up for online banking to do it.

Of course I am awake and get his email and reply to it:

“Nope. Nothing.”

I forwarded the email to my PNC VP and asked him to contact me when he is up in the morning. I’m guessing he is working on Saturday nowadays.

I got in to the warehouse early that morning. Merry and Pippin, my two Jack Russells accompanied me. They’re outside in the dockyard cavorting and yapping at groundhogs outside the fence. My dogs are the sweetest gentlest creatures. But if they could, they would tear into a groundhog twice their size. It is in their blood. They pretty much live outside here on weekends. Sometimes they stay out over night. There’s a heavy chain on the gate. The chain-link fence is 8 feet tall. Three strands of barbed wire on top. They’re not getting out. No one is getting in.

My friend at PNC texted and called and emailed Saturday morning:

“I don’t know whether it will come out in 5 minutes or 5 hours, but if I hear anything, I’ll let you know.”

At about 10 am the PNC VP said: “We hope it will be very soon. Make sure you have Chrome. You must use Chrome.”

What’s Chrome?

I texted two managers: “I think you should come in. Do we do Chrome? PNC needs that.”

“There in 20 minutes or so,” they replied.

They got in and we waited…one did office work—like the new payroll provider we are moving to this payroll. (A major project that HAD to be done during all the other crises. Perfect timing. Another layer of work and problems and distractions.) The other wandered into the warehouse somewhere. I pulled up a stool before a pallet loaded with boxes of incredibly complex stuffed that had been put aside years ago. I should be working on easier things, but this is more like treasure hunting. Most or all of this I’ve seen—years ago. Back then I didn’t know as much as I do now. I’ve also learned what to try to force on to our internet stock—often using educated guesstimates for their retail price. I’ve learned to give up on some things and send them to the stores to display—and take their chances.

Some things I STIILL need to put aside.

Take this stack of vintage Chinese Tin Tins (please!)

Chinese Tin Tins

(I think it’s Chinese. I’m in too much of a hurry to parse it. It doesn’t matter anyway. It will go somewhere to be re-re-reviewed in the future.)

Also, our computer program and data entry software has advanced substantially.

So much of this material is exotic.

The customers are likely as rare as the books are. We won’t make money on this.

But at least we will give them a chance. Better than sitting in a box…forever.

I’ve been checking my email constantly all day.

At 2 pm, I got a text from PNC:

“Check your email.”

Nothing.

Spam file.

Nothing.

Our IT manager thinks it may be being gray banned by our spam filter. He takes my laptop and puts in some codes.

It drops in. The Portal is opening.

My managers are speaking a foreign language. Data speak. I hang around in case they need my Social Security number or an ounce of blood or tissue sample. When things calm down to purely keyboard tapping, I ask if I can go back out to “my” work. “Page me if you need me.”

I am so lucky they are here. One has been here since he was a kid in the 80s. The other 13 years.

I am lucky for so many of the people who can do things I couldn’t possibly do.

Minutes go by. Then hours. The application is a Gordian knot. Those two Wonder Book heroes fight and navigate the rules and glitches. I get called up every time they need a new passcode to proceed. We got emailed 6 or more times: “To proceed you need a new password…”

I don’t dare let my phone or laptop die. That could happen at a crucial moment. Potentially deadly.

Finally, about 6 pm Saturday, they tell me:

“It has been accepted.”

Accepted NOT approved—yet.

There is no sense of victory. No sense of joy. Just relief. We have done EVERYTHING we could.

There is nothing more any of the three of us could do now.

“Good job!”

And they go home.


I went out and drove the dodge Ram truck up the grassy rise and cut wood.

Cutting Wood

My racing mind. My terror. My self-doubt—am I a terrible person?—and other demons went away for a little while.

Then I went home and drank some SmokeTown Patsy* IPA beer while I tossed logs from the truck on to the woodpile.

* Patsy Cline was a Fredericktonian.

SmokeTown Patsy IPA
Stacked Wood

That’s enough wood for all 2021 maybe. You never know. The next plague could be an instant Ice Age.

I will keep cutting regardless.

I NEED to. It keeps me sane.


Sunday

I came in early. I noticed some activity on the edge of the empty parking lot.

“Not again.”

Yep. The groundhogs were back. I’ve written about my battles with them since we moved in during 2013-2014 in various stories here.

I called this series of holes The Western Front. (When we first acquired this warehouse from the Post Office, there was a huge den. It is at the very edge of the western side of the property.) There are also Mount Suribachi and the Northwest Passage war zones.

Western Front Opened

I thought All Was Quieted on this Western Front last year.

I even wrote a poem about it a couple years back. It is called Burying Barbara’s Bottles.*

It was the first laugh I’d had in a while.

“The bastards!”

I still had about a dozen empty liquor and wine bottles out in the storage shed. Down they went.

Western Front Filled

Some happy memories were buried with them. There are now well over 100 wine. Liquor, and Belgian beer bottles underground. None ever come back to the surface. Is it a bottomless pit of Groundhog Hell?

I brought this gin back from London a while back.

Letherbee Gin

London…will I ever get back there?


I need to wrap this story up.

It is getting on into Friday afternoon.

The week went pretty much as I said in the beginning.

Begging, fighting, pleading, debating, warning, creating…words on this laptop and iPhone for survival.

Survival of Wonder Book. Its employees—most of whom are WONDERFUL. (Read some of the comments on the last couple blogs—I didn’t write those.)

Survival of the books.

…and my survival—I don’t think I could go on if all this ended. What would I do?

There are some heroes working here.

I am very lucky.

If you love Wonder Book—you are very lucky those people are here.

If you are bored and house bound—see if there’s anything interested amongst the 2 million books on WonderBook.com. We are now shipping pretty quickly.

The books need you.

You need books (from here or somewhere else.)

Right now especially, we need you.


I’ll be in alone this weekend. I hope I’ll be playing with old and potentially collectible books—finally.

I think my corresponding about the COVID-19 stuff will slow down next week.

What could possibly be left to do?

I will find out.

Daffodil

It is the end of a very, very hard week.

IT has been a very, very hard month.

Many people have much more difficult crosses to bear. Believe me, I am aware of that.

But this is a book story.

With nary a book in it!

What will I do when this story is published and the warehouse closes today? I’ll drive up and cut some wood. On the way, I will check on the Western Front and see how the battle fares.


* Burying Barbara’s Bottles

We were two connoisseurs—
old and not quite as old.
I’d often bring her tribute—
gin from adventures afar.
Or gin discovered newly stocked
in shops, many shops,
I’d search ’round the region.
Waters from Spain, Iceland, Scotland
or domestic—Michigan, Vermont, Colorado.
Captured, infused in sculpted glass.
For gin was an intimate currency between us.
With ceremony we’d inspect the package
and read the label about magic within.
Botanicals, formulas, secrets.
“Well, we should try it.”
“Yes. How ’bout a little something.”
“This might be the most memorable ever.”
With a twist the cork would slip out
and so release the djinn in the bottle.
The spirit would inspire epiphanic conversation.
Secrets of the universe would unfold
(and be irretrievable the next morning.)
The empty shells she saved—
icons to the memory of good times.
Beautiful, though now impotent, objects.
Totems to a time, a place and friendship

She is gone—
a couple years on.
I inherited the odd collection—
empty vessels full of memories
meaningful to only two
and an odd possession to the survivor.
They’re just old liquor bottles
rational thought posits.
A dust collecting eyesore
lifeless now and meaningless
to any others seeing the glass.
Relegated to the basement
they’d meant something to two.
To the one remaining
they’re cold transparent specters.
Sad, lonely things.
once full of words and dreams
Now holding ghosts of summer afternoons
under the old River Birch; next to the waterfall
Or winter days in the solarium
watching snow accumulate on the glass above us

What to do?
I’ll keep a few…

There’s a vast field where I work
It’s plagued by whistle pigs.
Ugly dangerous holes in the grass
and on a little hill pockmarked by burrows.
I’ve fought them before.
Filled the holes with rubble and scrap.
I eye their tunnels—
warrens nasty dark.
“Those shapes are just right
I’ll fill those voids with empties.
I’ll know just where the memories are
until and, maybe after, I’m put underground.””
“Ha!”
Down go Bombay,
Van Gogh and Old Tom Hayman.
Down goes Greenalls.
Down Tanqueray and the Old Raj.
I seal the tombs with rubble.
I pack it tight
No grave robbing rodent
will unseal these passages.

I look about this field.
There are more burrows.
I have more bottles…

24 Comments on Article

  1. Tobi D commented on

    Stay Strong Chuck! I miss the books too and am ready to get back to work as soon as we can. I know it’s silly but I think of the books on the pallets beside my station as just sitting there waiting for me. Maybe they miss me! LOL. Thank you and everyone helping for all you are trying to do. Hope to see you and the books soon!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      I miss you and Severa and everyone.
      We will need you back soon!
      I’m making social distance space today -you wont recognize the place LOL
      I really appreciate your words!
      Best
      Chuck

  2. Vanessa Dai commented on

    I’m really sorry you have to go through this, and absolutely disgusted that you are going through this.

    Just because you have a few bad apples doesn’t mean that the whole barrel is spoiled. Please know that you have you have a lot of employees who stand behind you, including us at Gaithersburg. We all thank you for what you are doing for us, and we look forward to being back in the store when it reopens.

    1. Chuck replied on

      Thank you Vanessa!
      You will be getting some great books at Gaithersburg soon!
      Chuck

  3. David commented on

    So sorry to hear that you are dealing with smears on your excellent reputation Chuck. Unfortunately, this chaotic situation brings out the worst in some. Planning to spend some time this afternoon shopping with my lovely wife at WonderBook.com I know we’ll find treasures. Stay safe, well, and strong my friend.

    1. Chuck replied on

      Thank you David!
      Have fun treasure hunting!
      Chuck

  4. Andy Moursund commented on

    Chuck, if you ever need a character witness to back you up against your slandering accusers, I know I’m not the only one who would be there for you. Every book dealer I know would be in your corner.

    And thanks for keeping up your blog. This latest entry is worthy of reaching a much wider audience, hint hint if Michael Dirda’s reading this.

    1. Chuck replied on

      That is gratifying Andy.
      Nightmares are hard to ignore.
      The next story should be interesting w some “recovery” … I hope and pray.
      Chuck

  5. Norv commented on

    Perhaps you and the pups could spend a couple nights at the WonderBook retreat, Camp Clark on East Street, to forget about life for a while and dream of its potential to embrace an emerging new normal

    1. Chuck/Wonder Book replied on

      Thank you Norv.
      I’m in the warehouse today continuing the “war”….
      making space for “social distancing.”

  6. linda tiller commented on

    The good, the bad, and the ugly…they are always out there. But so are the LOYAL. Sorry, I can’t type much now, I have to get over to the website and start ordering gobs of books. 20% OFF 5 items! I love the gin bottle “GIN FOR WELLNESS” …I could sure use some of that! Who doesn’t want to be well these days?
    Stay in the fight, and hold your head high. I feel sure you will prevail, even over the pesky groundhogs!

    1. Chuck replied on

      Happy treasure hunting Linda!
      It is hard to ignore nightmares even though you know they aren’t “real”.
      I am so gratified so many great people are fighting for the books – both inside Wonder Book and out.
      Thank you so much for writing – it helps!
      Best
      Chuck

  7. cap and nancy commented on

    Hang in there Chuck. Do the best you can and get some sleep at night. Don’t let the #!&**! get you down!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      I want to go to a bar and have a martini with you!
      Its hard to ignore nightmares but cathartic to get them exorcised.
      Thank you for everything all these years!
      Chuck

  8. Patrick Roan commented on

    It’s really hard to fathom how someone could do something that cruel and vindictive in a time like this with so many going through so many tribulations. Just know that so many of us in this community have your back and support you and the work you do.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Patrick. I really appreciate you writing. It helps to hear that!
      We are working hard to come back better than ever!
      Best
      Chuck

  9. Jon commented on

    Just placed an order online-as convenient as it is, I surely miss walking in stores such as yours. Will certainly be worth the drive when things resume. Wishing you and yours the best throughout!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      I really appreciate your reading and commenting! I hope we will be open for you soon. We are working hard at every level for survival. I see recovery on the horizon and we will work and innovate and do whatever is necessary to get there. Thank you again – it really helps to hear this
      Chuck

  10. Steven Rodgers commented on

    Nightmares? YOU? Mr. Roberts, if it all ends tomorrow, nothing and no one can take away your profound accomplishment—in WB you created a diamond that put Fred/Hag on the map for me. I have no doubt your community appreciates you more than you might ever know. I spent my younger years scouring every nook and cranny of NYC building my collections. After being sorta forcibly (and miserably) relocated to Northern Virginia, it was only the opening of Tower Records at Tyson’s Corner and my discovery of YOUR stores that made me figure perhaps it wasn’t so intolerable living in phony Fairfax. It was me who cleared out your entire section of Caedman spoken word box sets back in ’87. It’s still me who makes regular trips up 270 to spend hours pawing through my favorite sections. I know what I like and I know when I’ve found it. I also visit other great places like Memory Lane Antiques on Dual Highway, and after 33 years, I’m never dismayed by the people I encounter in your part of the region. You are good people. No one is getting rich from what you do, and yet the community gains so much by having you as a part of it. I can’t speculate on what motivated those employees, I can only say, with certainty, that if only the opportunity to work at Wonder Book was presented to me when I was a young person, wow, it would have been a privilege. Thanks for all that you do, stay strong, and in the words of Francis Albert, “sleep warm”—no nightmares!!!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Nightmares are hard to ignore. But when I read something like you’ve written it is clear where the balance is. Thank you for opening my eyes. We are in survival mode here now but I see recovery on the horizon. I hope there are no deadly pits between here and there.
      All we can do is work toward it and deal with whatever is put in our way.
      I hope we will be open for a sojourn for you soon.
      Thank you. Thank you.
      Chuck

      1. Michael Dirda replied on

        Chuck, those “Japanese tins” look to be illustrated by scenes from Herge’s Tin-tin graphic novels. Perhaps someone else has said this. I’m just catching up.–md

        1. Charles Roberts replied on

          Yes there are, Michael.
          And they actually did sell to an ABAA colleague whose niece collects Tin Tin!
          Thanks for touching base!
          Stay safe!

          Best
          Chuck

  11. Diane Strickland commented on

    Wow, diabolical. As if you needed anything else to worry about. You’re doing everything right. Be safe and well. Keep writing your blog!

    1. chuck replied on

      Yes. Perfect storm.
      So much fear and uncertainty and this monster tries to torpedo us.
      Though EVERYthing written was wrong how would authorities know that in the panic of the moment?
      Thank you so much for reading and writing Diana.
      Best
      Chuck

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