We Just Rent the Books

Evil Groundhog

When I arrived Saturday morning, I noticed one of the animal traps had been sprung. When I stepped over to it, I was aghast. A creature had dug through the heavy wire mesh and escaped!

Damaged Groundhog Cage

I automatically looked toward the fence some 20 yards away.

“It’s BACK!!!”

The demon groundhog from the hellhole on the west side of the property. The little hole I’d shoved over 200 empty wine and liquor bottles into has reopened! I’ve battled this den of iniquity since we moved here in 2013.

Groundhog Trap

I’ve speculated the hole could go through the earth all the way to the other side of the world. Perhaps to Indonesia. Sumatra. Could the creature be or be related to the Giant Rat of Sumatra whose tale Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson said could never be written?

I shuddered as picked up the trap.

What next? This trap was only a few weeks old. It had caught several “normal” groundhogs which had been released in the woods far from human habitation.

I walked to the building, my shoulders slackened.

“What next?”

I’ll have the winter to strategize the next escalation. The monsters will hibernate soon. Not soon enough.

The weekend was another weekend of carts and books. LOTS of carts.

There were no thrillers like last weekend. I didn’t expect any. Most of the carts were stock from bookseller friends who have closed or severely downsized. Great books, but nothing extraordinary. Each cart had a “Chuck” slip on it and a handwritten sheet noting the source of the books.

I finished the last of the doctor from Crozet’s collection. 15,000 books at least. His daughter couldn’t bear for her father’s lifelong collection to go to oblivion. No one would take them. In a labor of love, she had packed three PODS, and we had paid for their delivery.

A collection built on love for books.

A collection saved by a daughter’s love.

Books rescued by us because… because that’s what we do. We can’t save them all—but we saved this one. This became a “mission.” I went through them all myself. They needed special handling.

Most of the books went to the stores. The doctor had a great eye for subjects and authors and titles but didn’t care much about condition. Most of us with the affliction—bibliomania—know that a well-worn copy of a very hard to find book is better than no copy at all.

(Chelsea winning their soccer match 7-0 Saturday WAS extraordinary. I’d love to get back to London. Soon.)


I wanted to get ahead of Michael Osborne’s collection. He has a deadline, and so do I.

I know from experience things take longer and are more expensive than you plan—almost always.

We filled two vans with empty boxes. Clif and Ernest drove. We had two young men as well. I followed in the SUV.

His house is in Hobbits Glen—a development in Columbia, Maryland—America’s first master planned city. Somehow they were able to use Tolkien characters and places. I guess it was started before the names were copyrighted. The streets have names like Green Dragon Court, Rivendell Lane and Wood Elves Way.

Hobbits Glen Signs

I always wanted to play the Hobbit’s Glen Golf Course with my buddy John Adams, who lived in Columbia. His road was Empty Song Way—not in Hobbits Glen. He was a Grateful Dead fan—another thing we had in common—though he went to far more concerts than my one venture.

I wonder if the golf course has any magic?

Now we will never get the chance. Do it while you can. Perhaps my first venture onto a golf course in more than two years will be to Hobbits Glen. I wonder if each hole is named like so many courses in the British Isles and Ireland?

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

We backed one van to Michael’s garage.

The path to the basement was through the garage, up a couple steps into the house, up 5 or 6 steps, down 7 or 8 steps to a landing, turn and down another 7 or 8 steps to the basement.

The landing was a bottleneck with three full bookcases, making passage difficult.

Osborne Landing

I’ve done so many of these. I know the exit strategy will be crucial.

“Let’s take a lot of empties into the basement. Four of us can pack while one of us empties the bookcases on the landing. When we can get the empty bookcases out of the way, we can start removing boxes from the basement.”

The exit strategy in the basement was a challenge. The tight aisles and blind alleys were fine for one bookseller to work among. For four of us, it was extremely cramped. It became like an excavation. I instructed the guys where to begin so we could get things to flow out smoothly and with more exit room with each box removed.

When bookcases in the basement were emptied, I’d slide them back to the bookcase across from it, closing the now empty aisle but making a wider pathway to get to the books further in.

We’d arrived just after 10. The guys made amazing progress.

Up, turn, up, turn, down, turn, down, across to the back of the van, over and over and over…

At noon, I’d noticed we hadn’t brought drinks. The guys needed a break too. I headed out, using my phone to find the nearest shopping center. It had a Subway. I don’t like Subway. But… any port in a storm.

I walked in and stood alone in the customer area. Across the glass cases filled with colorful foods stood three people.

I tried to order. They didn’t understand me. I didn’t understand the system. I pointed at the large colorful signs above them. The subs come in 3 sizes. Small, FL, FL Extra. I wanted the medium size.

I pointed and tried to annunciate clearly, “Smoked Turkey 8 19.” ($8.19)

They stared blankly at me.

After one more interaction. Words on my part. Blank stares on theirs, one of them said:

“Foot long?”

Ah, that’s what FL means!

“Yes!” and I rattled off three more sub styles.

I was baffled when only one of them started one sub—slowly.

Again. I was the only one there.

When it came to toppings, I knew I should simplify things.

“Everything. Same on each one.”

Blank stare.




Oh, there are three or four choices.

“Provolone?” I said hopefully.

A hand reached into a metal container and peeled a few slices off.

“Lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise. Same on each one.”

Eventually, I got my bag of four big subs and a bag of 4 Gatorades in the other and headed back.

They had filled one van and had backed the other in.

“Take a break.”

I found Michael and asked him to go over some things with me. He had wanted to save some things, and I’d been careful that we avoided them. I wanted clarification on some other things.

Then we were back at it.

I carried folios and other things too big to box out to my SUV.

Then we were all filled in the second van. We’d gotten most of it. We would have to return to mop up the remnants. Just two of us. Likely Clif and I.

Back at the warehouse, they began unloading. 239 boxes. 12 pallets. Not including the 100 boxes Clif and I had picked up the week before. Nor the SUV—which is full and still waits to be unloaded.

Osborne Pallets

This will be a lot of work. And most of it will fall to me.

Michael wrote he was sad to see them go but thanked me for the prompt removal. It was a burden lifted.

I hope he will be happy with what I pay. You never know. I don’t know yet. I have no idea what we got. I couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Or is it more accurate I couldn’t see the trees (individual books) for the forest?

What I did see looked very cool. Except all the City Planning books. His passion. Not mine.

And he had kept all the “good stuff” for his next, smaller, home.

Wednesday, October 28

October has flown by.

The mighty winds blew the first bite of winter in last night.

When will I light the first fire in the woodstove?

I’ve been bringing the potted plants in before the first freeze—which is past due.

Why so many plants? I guess they just grow on me. Some are so big I can barely lift them now. Plant success can be attractive—at a distance and if you don’t need to move them.

I was gifted a bunch of cacti and succulents early in COVID from friends out west.

I’m also bringing in lots and lots of wooden wine crates as temporary plant stands.

Books destined for pulping are used as a barrier between the saucer the clay pot rests upon and whatever the plant is placed upon. That way, the wood or other interior surface won’t get damaged. My home is beginning to look like a nursery.


They are beautiful. They are alive. They need me. They please me.

I awoke at 3 a.m. with a cramp. Hurt like hell. I know it was all the lifting and boxing and stairs Tuesday in Middle Earth. I keep some Gatorade on hand for such occurrences.

My dad used to make me sit for an hour after eating before I could swim again. He said I might get a cramp.

“What’s a cramp?” I’d ask.

I never had a cramp in my life until the last couple of years. Clif counted 239 boxes. My SUV is full of lots of loose folios and other items too big to box.

Osborne Folios

The wind was still roaring and whistling; the trees groaning and creaking; the forest leaves whooshing and slapping.

I’d closed the windows. Put on flannel pants and a Wonder Book hoodie (given to me at Christmas by an employee maybe 20 years ago.) Pulled the comforter to my neck. Put a pillow over my head to keep the sound out. Wrapped my arms around another pillow and cradled it to my chest. And… lay awake.

So tired, but I slept no more.

I’d gotten a cortisone shot in my shoulder on Monday. I was so tired on the house call. I looked it up later, and the internet says the shot can make you tired. Does it also cause sleeplessness? I’ll have to search that.

I hope all the packing and lifting didn’t aggravate my numbed shoulder. I won’t know til the cortisone wears off.

Soreness. It goes with the territory.

Bookselling. And Brother Age. How did he sneak up on me?

When the false dawn brought a bit of light, the winds were still raging.

49 degrees outside.

No sunrise. Just a bright spot between the clouds on the horizon.


I had to get to work. Guests were coming for a warehouse tour. Booksellers from Georgia who have read some of these stories and wanted to see the place.

They arrived at 10. Masked. I told them they were welcome to wear them, but most of the warehouse chooses not to at this time. They’d just come from Montgomery County where masks were required. (That ended Thursday night.)

I’ve given so many of these now I have developed a routine and a path and talking points.

It is always a circular tour. They usually begin at the entrance, although a better starting point is across the building at Dock 1. Dock 1 is a portal for many of the millions of books that flow in here each year. It is also an exit for many of the books that are being sent to the stores. So, Dock 1 is a logical beginning and ending point in the Mandala of the book “world” here. But it is a long way across the building—so I just start the tour near the offices and data entry region.

I’ve done so many that I usually know where the “Wows” will take place.

These were experienced antiquarian and collectible booksellers—so they saw things that, say, a new vendor or other non-book VIP wouldn’t notice.

They had some great questions.

We crossed the building through the 30 or so data entry stations, past the 5 sorting stations and out onto the loading docks. (There are 21 of them!)

“This is where the bulk recycling goes out…”

“This is shipping…”

(Everyone loves the Rube Goldberg packing machine where books are laid on a conveyor, and a scanner reads a barcode on the order form/packing slip. The conveyor moves the book into a stainless steel enclosure where it is weighed and postage applied. An electric eye reads the dimensions of the book. Heavy packing paper is applied from above and below and cut to size. An address label is slapped on top of it, and a completed package is carried out the other side and dropped into a box—all ready to be shipped!)


(And hugely expensive, complex… I have no idea how it works. I know my limitations. When we looked into it, we consulted experts before deciding to bring the thing in.)

Then we progressed up the docks til we entered the Books by the Foot region. There are always brightly colored spines being staged on carts as well as antiquarian books (of no collector’s value)… and all kinds of other quirky book “design” projects we are always working on.

I always emphasize that all these books would be pulped if we didn’t “rescue” them.

“These are all books we can’t sell online or in the stores. Charities wouldn’t take them. They sell their books to us!”

Most people get it now. But there was a time when I was “controversial.” Hard to believe, isn’t it? The old wounds still sting occasionally.

From that northeast corner of the building, we again cross the warehouse. The cross aisle takes us past the many, many LONG rows of online inventory.

“This is what 2.5 million looks like,” is one of my pat lines.

At the west side of the building, the first stop is the former post office cafeteria and patios (smoking and non-smoking.) We’ve lined those rooms with books—most over one hundred years old—that no antiquarian bookseller would want in their inventory. Indeed, we buy a lot of these from other booksellers.

We continue down west side of the building where there are three rooms of collectibles.

I’ve told sellers for years, “Some old books are valuable. Most are just old.”

Going further down south, we stop at the research and photo and advanced data entry room.

I introduced them to Annika and asked her if she’d found anything interesting today.

She pulled a few things off the cart, but what caught their eye were the sci-fi rarities that I’d discovered the weekend before last. I’d left them on the black cloth on the table we use for photos. I’d left them there to glow like a hoard of gold for a while. I finally gave the anxious Annika permission to research them.

“Put each into a plastic bag to protect the jacket. Put the slip of paper with your results on top of the book so I can review it without removing the book,” I’d told her earlier in the week.

The younger visitor—the type of zealot who saved babysitting money to buy a Bradbury first edition when she was a teen—was it Something Wicked This Way Comes?—couldn’t tear herself away from the table.

Bagged Sci-Fi Books

“Those Heinleins are special subscription first editions. The signature pages were tipped in…” Annika explained.

(‘I didn’t know that,’ I thought. ‘Suggesting she attend CABS this summer was a great idea. Will the pupil become the master?’)

We exited the room and were back at the entrance hall. If I don’t think it will be boring, I’ll continue into the offices and maybe even into my sanctum sanctorum—although it is only the “elect few” that get to see that part of the madness. Most visitors wouldn’t “get it.”

I led them into my office. You have to step gingerly among the piles on the floor. They “got it.”

“Here’s a Dali Alice in Wonderland!”

It was in the middle of a large stack of folios atop a glass-fronted bookcase. I should’ve hauled it out, but that would have been an exercise in deconstruction. We would’ve had to leave the room to find a table to open the massive tome up on. Instead, I stepped across the room and picked up two slipcased Alices.

Slipcased Alice Books

“These are favorites of mine.”

I pulled one out and opened it.

“Alice signed by Alice”

Signed Alice Books

These were done by the Limited Edition Club in the 30s when Alice was in her 80s, I think. She apparently didn’t sign the entire run. Too frail, perhaps.

“Do you ever come in here and just bask in the books?”

“Rarely. There’s too much going on out there in the warehouse. Any hour I spend away is just that many more books that don’t get attended to.”

“Is it wonderful to have such things?”

“Yes. For a while. After all, we never own any book forever. We just rent it for… as long as we have it.”

Then we were done. I assured them I enjoyed it as much as they.

It is almost always a very positive experience. There had been oohs and aahs and a couple of wows at the usual spots around the building.

I bid adieu—always a bit elated, but soon deflation comes.

“I haven’t done enough…”

But I know my cup runneth over. I am so lucky…

Comes a time when the blind man takes your hand
Says “don’t you see?”
Gotta make it somehow
On the dreams you still believe
Don’t give it up
You got an empty cup
Only love can fill
Only love can fill

Been walking all morning
Went walking all night
I can’t see much difference
Between the dark and light
And I feel the wind
And I taste the rain
Never in my mind
To cause so much pain

From day to day
Just letting it ride
You get so far away
From how it feels inside
You can’t let go
‘Cause you’re afraid to fall
But the day may come
When you can’t feel at all

Lyrics Robert Hunter. Music Jerry Garcia

It is Friday morning.

Rain and wind all day. The week has alternated between chilling wind and rain and azure blue basking afternoons.

I was even inspired:

Two morning poems in two mornings*.

* After the end of the story.

Thursday evening I came straight home, as I do so often now. I blame it on COVID.

I’d dug up a sprawling cactus plant a tenant had left behind at the Farm. Yes, there is a species that can survive the winter here.

Hardy Cactus

These are just pieces I will root in the warehouse gardens.

I planted it—in several parts. It will get very large and have electric yellow flowers in the spring.

I dug up two more Redbuds and planted them where I think they will be aesthetically pleasing in future years—when they are no longer sprigs.

And I planted daffodil bulbs in the holes I’d dug. I cast seeds about the fresh soil spread out on those sites.

Garlic chives, echinacea, blackberry lilies—all harvested from dying plants around the property.

I put in what I call a pocket garden between two trees. The spot and the stones I’d brought up the mountain just recently seemed destined for each other.

Pocket Garden

I’ll decide what to plant there soon.

I carried in more potted plants. There are many still out there.

Oddly, we haven’t had a freeze yet, and though the lows will get into the 30s next week, no day will get below 36, apparently.

I know the woodstove will begin working next week—or sooner.

I need to bring the cast-iron wood rings from the barn and put them on the porch where some of the potted plants had been. Then I need to wheel some firewood from the barn across the upper landing and drive and fill them.

I need to keep the chill outside.

The new Books by the Foot website is a hit. Clark did some analytics. It had 10 million views! Wonder Book is still way ahead with 15 million views.

Website Views

Crazy numbers.

I went to the Frederick store on Thursday to swap a van. I was chatting with a couple of managers when a tall man approached. He put a strong arm over my shoulder and squeezed a bit.

“I just wanted to thank you. I’ve found a lot of books here. And I read your stories.”

“Thank you! That’s very kind.”

My cup runneth over.

‘How did he know who I was?’ I wondered.

When I got into the van and leaned to turn the key, I saw I was wearing one of the 20-year-old hoodies.

Chuck Hoodie


May your:
spine never get faded
hinges never begin separating
jacket never get torn
ears never become dogged

Feel free to add your own contributions.

* Poems:


A good night
I did not see 1, 2 or 3
I slept through 4 and 5
When I reached and touched
the clock lit up
Six oh six
Weird dreams fled with wakefulness

When I’d put down my head
raindrops were splattering leaves in the dark
When I awoke there was calm blackness outside
Balmy air flows in the window
A good night
Rested I will face another day
Warm bright and clear



The cold wind whooshes through the trees outside
The warm autumn has been swept away
A biting taste of winter is being served
The windows are shut
The quilt pulled up
My body warms the nest I’ve built
The winds whistle up the first light
How the trees cling to the earth I don’t know
When I rise I will seek warm clothes
A heavy top plucked from stacks
folded and put away when last spring warmed

8 Comments on Article

  1. Mel Soule commented on

    Another perfectly good saturday morning hour gone to Chuck’s blog. Too damned interesting to leave it. Addictive

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Great to hear from you Mel!
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting!Great times with you and Jim.

  2. W. White commented on

    You say your friend Michael kept all the “good books.” But those “Plums of New York” and “Colonial and Historic Homes of Maryland” look like pretty good books to me. They would certainly look on my bookshelves, though I doubt my bank account would look as healthy once I put them there.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you so much for reading the story AND for writing.
      Those are good books but not “great”.
      You’d need BIG shelves for them!

  3. Linda Tiller commented on

    thought of you when I came across this article! Carnal or courtly book love…?!
    My Saturday morning routine is to pour juice, get vitamins, start coffee….read your blog, once…then go prepare my cup of coffee, and settle in for a second read! Thanks for putting in the work. I am spoiled, for sure…”my body warms the nest I’ve built”. A perfect thought for fall.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Those words are so kind. Thank you! It gives me tingles to hear someone likes the stories.
      It is a very selfish endeavor on my part.

      That is a great story! OK if I put a link in one of the stories?
      Thank you so much for writing !

      1. Linda Tiller replied on

        yes, of course. I snagged the link from another writers Facebook page. (Eiz. Berg). I am going to read some more of Ann Fadiman. I just figured out her father, Clifton Fadiman once managed The New Yorker book review section, was editor of Cricket Magazine and edited the very lovely World Treasury of Children’s Literature, 3 volumes. And I read this and loved it: Fadiman’s witticisms and sayings were frequently printed in newspapers and magazines. “When you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before, you see more in you than there was before” . What a remarkable family…wouldn’t you have loved to be a guest at their dinner table! And…to get a look at their book collections?! Chuck, have you ever read Rick Bragg’s essay “Words on Paper”..it makes me cry every time. He is a fine writer; “something like magic floods the room. I sit in a big, soft chair, and the words that are bound here come loose all around me…”…https://www.southernliving.com/culture/rick-bragg-southern-journals-7

        1. Charles Roberts replied on

          I remember seeing Clifton on TV and maybe in schools on the movie projector(?)

          I will check out the Bragg.

          Thank you so much! Please write anytime!

          Crazy week…


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