What Kind of Business is This?

What kind of business is this?

The sun is slipping into view this morning.


The celestial clock’s movement from north to south continues. In a month, it will be halfway. The equinox.

I am tired and sad to the bones of my soul this morning. Thus, it has been for a few weeks now.

I wonder what sets off sad despairing times? Chemistry? Circumstances?



Well, the only cure I know is work.

It is Tuesday. Fred is driving us down to the Gaithersburg store. Why? Just to get out of town. Last time here, he ran out of things to do while I was culling for Books by the Foot. This time I thought ahead, and we are bringing a couple boxes of “Bag and Hang” and a mug full of pushpins.

Wonder Book Mug

That mug goes back 25 years or so.

I keep thinking we should resurrect Wonder Man. I think we dropped him when the stores starting performing so badly in the late 90s due to the GBE* caused by the World Wide Web making it so easy to find just about any book with a couple clicks—often at incredibly low prices like at WonderBook.com.

* Great Bookstore Extinction.

I’ll have Fred pin things up while I do my thing.

Over the weekend, I worked myself to exhaustion going through thousands of books. I’d had dinner with my buddy John Adams‘ wife on Friday. When he died suddenly in August 2020 (not COVID), there was no closure. I don’t recall if Maryland was still in lockdown, but there certainly weren’t funeral services going on. I hadn’t seen her in 25 years or so. When I got together with John, it was “guy” time. Orioles. Ravens. Golf. Books. Beer… His wife and I caught up on family stuff. They have 8 grandkids! John would be thrilled. He was all about family. Maybe that was a trigger to my moodiness.

I miss him very much. I miss a lot of people now. Some are still living.

COVID. I can blame everything on COVID. But for how long? What a waste. I’m so tired of eating reheated pizza at home. (Although slicing fresh tomatoes and peppers from the warehouse gardens makes it much better.) I’ve lost the mood to go to happy hours and fancy dinners that I had earlier in the summer.

And now there is no one to go with. And I’m not trying.

We are on the way back to Frederick.

Fred hung up a lot of stuff. I culled a lot—but not enough. If only we could achieve the balance—the same number of books being sold as we bring down to be priced. Too many books. Better than not enough. You can’t save them all.

I ordered an autographed The Very Hungry Caterpillar for a professional that works with us. He wanted it for his daughter because she loved it when she was young. Then he ordered a bunch of Eric Carle books off the website for his grandkids. We had a lot to choose from. That’s a good dad and granddad. I’m sure those books will be lifelong memories.

(I hope I sleep tonight. It’s been bad lately. I think I know why. Head problems.)

This weekend, I drove around the building site. It seems so much more… vast than it did when it was covered with brush.

They ran into stone, which is not good. But they’ll be able to get it out. It is just a little outcropping.


I walked up to it and saw long giant spikes of limestone… “A henge! I can erect a henge!”

I reached out to the contractor to see if they had other plans for the stone. He said “No. We would likely just break them up and bury them or hall them away.”

It would be so cool to have my own row of standing stones. They might stand a thousand years!

We will see if I can pull off this mad fantasy. I’m a nut for repurposing things. That would make happy. For a while.



I went home early yesterday. I felt awful. Body and soul. Everything at work is going well. I had sent myself an email late Monday.

“Reset. Good food. Moderation.”

I put clean sheets on the bed and turned on the A/C.

I tried to read. Treasures of the Bodleian. A big folio with reproductions of leaves from illuminated manuscripts. I’m excited about the trip to Oxford. Hurry, please. The Bodleian also holds the Gough map. It is a 14th century “road map” of the British Isles. It was all over the news feeds in the last few days. A couple of scholars believe they’ve discovered the Welsh Atlantis. Two large islands, a quarter the size of Anglesey, are depicted on the map just off the west coast. Today there is only sea. Did they sink? Were they swept away in a storm? Here is one of the stories. There are plenty more.


Some mention Ptolemy’s map and that his coordinates seem to indicate the West Coast of Great Britain was perhaps 8 miles further out than they are now.

Did the land sink or the oceans rise?

There are folk legends that try to explain what happened.

That reminded me of the Arthurian sunken land of Lyonesse off Cornwall. And the actual sunken forests on both coasts.

I remember being struck by the “Sea Henge” that was on display in the British Museum’s special exhibition about the world during the time of Stonehenge. That structure was also submerged long, long ago. I wrote about it here: https://www.wonderbk.com/bookseller/londons-june-jubilee/

Back to bed…

I struggled to write some more of a new silly bookseller Round and Round story. I was stymied. I kept picking up my phone or grabbing the Sudoku book.

I sent myself an email for the next day:

No Doomscrolling.

Then I turned the phone off.

I picked up one of the two Walter de la Mare poetry anthologies I pulled out of recycle Gaylord and took home.

Walter de la Mare Books

Come Hither.

There is peace in poetry. It is a pleasure and a comfort to let the books fall open to any page, start a poem and perhaps finish it.

Tom Tiddler’s Ground has a more kid-verse focus.

It reminded me of Richard Le Gallienne’s poem: “I Meant To Do My Work To-Day.”

I Meant To Do My Work To-Day

I meant to do my work to-day—
But a brown bird sang in the apple-tree,
And a butterfly flitted across the field,
And all the leaves were calling me.

And the wind went sighing over the land,
Tossing the grasses to and fro,
And a rainbow held out its shining hand—
So what could I do but laugh and go?

In high school, I went to see the movie Friends with my first girlfriend whom I saw in June for the class reunion. Elton John did the soundtrack, and it is a favorite album still. I first heard Le Gallienne’s poem in that movie.

The sheets were cool and clean. The air cool and fresh. Everything slowed a bit.

I made a simple dinner. A Chinese microwave food I got at Costco. Rice porridge with abalone. It was pretty good. But there was hardly any abalone in it. Not like the picture on the box.

Rice Porridge with Abalone

It was more like the equivalent of a few fingernail clippings.

Then I put water onto boil for some packaged gnocchi. It was spinach and imported from Italy. There were no cooking instructions on the package?! The water was boiling, and I turned my phone on and searched the web for cooking time. I went to the manufacturer. Nothing. I found some woman’s blog. “Don’t cook too long or it will fall apart.” It had only been a few minutes. It fell apart. I drizzled some olive oil and sprinkled some herbs on it. It wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t good either. I set aside the leftovers to mix in with the dog’s food. I had a dozen aging eggs. I scrambled them up with the gnocchi. It made three dog meals. They enjoyed it.

Thursday morning 5 a.m.

The ceiling fan pours cool air over me. Under a single sheet, I am bathed in it.

I decide to stay awake from many broken dreams.

A poem came. (See the end.)

Yesterday was a bit dreamlike. It went by quickly.

I rode down to the Gaithersburg store with Ernest to finish culling the worst areas so they could get the books off the floor. I think I’ve been in the stores every day since Monday a week ago. That’s unusual. But the purging, the pruning, must be done. I found junk on the shelves today from 2013! There is so much good stock waiting to be priced and shelved. The books are eager to show their spines and beg you for a new home. Space must be made for them.

When we got back, I found these had been delivered onto the loading docks.


What will we do with all that?

A news story dropped in. HBO is dropping 200 episodes of Sesame Street. Why? Who knows? Maybe politically incorrect. Although now you can stream them, you can’t see them anywhere—unless you have your own copy. Yet another cautionary tale to not depend on the internet for “everything” that has ever been filmed, recorded, printed… Add to that, if you don’t have an original, you won’t know if what you are using has been edited (likely “for your own good.”)

I decided a haircut might be good for my mental health. I called “Hair Mandi” from my iPhone contacts list.

“Well, hello, Wonder Book.”

“Hello. Who’s this?”

It was a former manager who had switched recently to hair. Hmmmm… A dilemma. Mandi has been cutting my hair for some years now.

“Is Mandi in today?”

She could see me… now. I headed over.

“The usual?”

The former Wonder Book manager came over, and we chatted while Mandi wetted and combed out my lengthy locks.

When it was done, I followed her to the till to pay.


It has been $18 for years. But I didn’t blink. And I added a generous tip. I had called for chimney cleaning this morning. $285. Last year it was $180. I stopped to buy a bottle of High West Rye for a neighbor who helps with the private road we share. $38. It was $30 last time I bought some.

The Gaithersburg landlord’s rep emailed that morning. They need to add $100 for water.

“Chuck, the WSSC has raised prices so high we have to.”

“We’re not paying as much as the restaurants you have, are we? We only use the common restrooms out in the hallway.”

“Oh, no.”

I could protest, but they’ve been good to me. $25 extra a week on top of whatever we were already paying. I wonder how much that is per flush? A lot.

The Frederick store is just across the street from Mandi’s, so I thought I’d check in. It looked great. Lots of shoppers. Lots of kids. That’s a good sign for the future of the book. The kid’s section is the largest in the store now, and I’m thinking of making it bigger. With all the culling I’ve done in the last months, I know there are categories that don’t pay the rent for the space they take up.

There were no categories in desperate need of culling. Then I remembered the Bibles. There’s a pretty long run of those giant fat 19th century leather Bibles atop the glass cases which hold collectible and beautiful books. I’d been ignoring them for years. They were an eyesore in their now-dirty (from leather dust) plastic bags. I pulled down one after another—one at a time because they are so heavy and fragile. These were likely the most important books in peoples’ homes long ago. Many or most contain handwritten genealogy. Births, deaths, marriages… Tragic. But what can we do?

I reduced the price on each substantially. Some had been up on that shelf, yep, since 2013. I instructed the staff not to rebag them. Some were actually quite beautiful. Full calf bindings. A number had the ornate carved looking gilded boards called… what? The boards are almost one inch thick and deeply embossed with lots of gilt. I should know the correct term. They almost look like carved furniture.

The schedule for the Wonder Book Classic Film Series was announced. The last series we sponsored got canceled—COVID.

New Wonder Book Classic Film Series

The Wonder Book Classic Film Series will be shown at the beautiful Vaudeville era theater, The Weinberg Center for the Arts, in Frederick. I helped choose the films: Frankenstein (1931), Murder She Said (Agatha Christie 1961), A Christmas Carol (1951), The Thin Man (1934), Wuthering Heights (1939), Catch-22 (1970), East of Eden (1955), Tom Jones (1963), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). Please come and see them all—perhaps for the first time on the BIG Screen!

Back at the warehouse, I picked some peppers, tomatoes and cukes. The sunflowers I planted so late are up to 15 feet high and in bloom.

I did a little work but felt burned out. I left early to go home and do some yard work.

First, I took the bottle of rye over on my ATV and dropped it off. I sent him a picture to be sure he saw it.

I had a chainsaw with me and stopped near the foot of my drive to cut up some more of the trees that I had dropped to open the canopy so the redbuds I planted last spring could get enough light. The Japanese stilt grass (an invasive species wreaking havoc on the forests) is calf high and thick as a plush rug. I stepped gingerly so as not to step in a hole or trip on a rock. When I was done, I decided not to drag any of it to the pavement. Too risky. I can wait til winter kills the grass and I can see where I’m stepping. The wood is too green to burn until spring, and I have way too much firewood as it is.

Then I went up and began weeding in the beds behind the house. For some reason, these beds are the only ones which get many weeds. I’ve tried so many things to get them as lush as the rest. Maybe I’ll pour a lot of topsoil on. Again. I had a big plastic tub and filled it with weeds twice. I dumped them out of sight behind a giant fallen tree which is slowly moldering back into the earth.

I had enough energy to take the sprayer around to attack some of the carpets of stilt grass nearer the house. When I moved in, there was none. It has marched up the mountain like an army. Fortunately, the fern brakes seem to withstand their onslaught. As it is, there is so much green carpeting up here. This time of year there isn’t much color except green. Lots of greens above and below and all about.


Cool air wafts over me. The forest is black outside. I slept well and long. I hope I am in for a longer reset this time. Too many problems. Too many negatives. Too much insurmountable works and duties. Hovering over it all, there is my constant companion “Old Mortality” who is no friend but rather a watcher studying me for every slip.

My arms and shoulders are so tired from work and injury that I don’t know if they are strong enough to pull me out of the pit this time. I suppose they must, no matter the pain.

Thursday, I wandered into Annika’s space. I knew she had some problematic books for me to make decisions on.


She just tortured me with 2 cartloads of Sammelbands* mostly of expeditions in the 19th and early 20th century searching and recording Arctic flora—especially Greenland. And massive trade catalogs (population: 0 WorldCat. 0 auction records)—carriages, sleds, phaetons… Obscure Peru. Very obscure. Notebooks of signed Chinese poetry monographs… Mind numbing good stuff that is just so much work.

* A sammelband, sometimes called a nonce-volume, is a book comprising a number of separately printed or manuscript works that are subsequently bound together. — Wikipedia

Some of my favorite finds earlier in the week were cookbooks.

But there were so many more. So many… doomed, but for what we do.

Last night, I went downtown after work. I wanted to see the ruins of the Record Exchange. A fire in their building early Thursday destroyed everything.

I wanted to pay my respects to a fellow businessman’s disaster—far worse than the disasters conjured in my mind so much lately.

Though it was early, I continued down Market Street to La Paz. That Tex-Mex-ish restaurant opened about the same time I did. 1980. A different world. Their food was so good (to my tastes—others find it not traditional enough.) I would meet my wife there so many Saturdays after work. It was a great treat to our impoverished selves to have exotic dishes like queso, guacamole, nachos (their version is a few flat hard tortillas as a base, refried beans spread generously over them, lots of melted cheese atop dotted with way too many sliced jalapenos.) They were very inexpensive. Still are. I would have 2 or 3 of their margaritas. Their margaritas—again, some don’t like them. Others, like me, love them. Whatever their recipes, they thrive here on the Promenade along Carroll Creek forty years on. Back then, they were the only Mexican place in town. Now, there must be twenty Mexican and Central American places. I sat at the bar their sole customer at that hour and ate and drank the memories of the old times. Memories of the struggling bookseller trying to make a living and then evolving into modest incremental successes and striving never to fall back.

I ate too much. And I still brought a couple pounds of leftovers home.

I fell into bed and picked up Jacob Zeitlin’s University of Kansas pamphlet “What kind of business is this?” (1959.) Zeitlin was an iconic—perhaps the iconic—bookseller of the 20th century.

What kind of business is this?

His pamphlet had been on my bedroom floor amongst a sprawl of books and papers that had littered the bedroom for months. Wednesday, I picked everything up. No, I didn’t sort it all out as I should have. I piled it off to the side. I wanted to vacuum. The carpets and wood floors had enough dog hair that it was just too much. The Shark vacuum did a great job picking everything up.

Zeitlin begins his second paragraph:

Bookselling is my business. This faintly reminds me of Raymond Chandler’s title “Murder is My Business”, and an episode there in which the detective is interviewing a character without much success. He says “He looked at me with the clear innocent eyes of a used car dealer.” … Bookselling has been called a very pleasant way of making very little money. That is a sweet sentiment, but not necessarily true. I grant that it is not a big business, but the rewards of bookselling are proportionate to the intelligence and imagination of the man engaging in it.

Later he describes how met, hired, married and became partners with Josephine Ver Brugge—a dozen years his junior. The details would not be politically correct in 2022 but are charming in the context of the 1930s.

Some of my friends have said I never amounted to anything until I met Jo Ver Brugge from Kansas and formed the firm of Zeitlin and Ver Brugge, and I will not deny it.

They kept the partnership til Zeitlin died in 1985. Ver Brugge passed in 2005.

He finishes:

What kind of business is this? I would say that for me it is an exciting adventure full of many wonderful encounters and discoveries… For me bookselling is the business of life itself and it has brought me the best in things in life.


Happy. Your hand in mine
My head upon your chest
just below your shoulder
We rest. You supine
Me upon my left
My eyes flutter in the dark
My hand is empty
I close it to be sure
I am in my bed
Curled on my right
My left arm round a pillow
as if I was holding you

6 Comments on Article

  1. Kelly W. commented on

    Go for the stone henge! Post pictures when it is complete. Maybe make it a compass. North, East, South, West.
    Have they unearthed all of your empty wine and liquor bottles that you put in the groundhog holes? I can just about picture it.
    Thank you for your stories. I find them entertaining.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      LOL… The bottle filled holes are in the lawns and parts of the of the property already developed – where the warehouse is.
      The adjacent field was full of them. So, I think there are a lot of homeless ground hogs in the area now.
      I reserved some stones and they are going to bring them over.
      The next step will be finding someone to put them in the ground.
      It would be a cool project if I can pull it off.
      Thank you for the kind words!

  2. Gary Fowler commented on

    Those old family Bibles with recorded family history: I’ve handled some, and even when I’ve somehow located related families, none (so far) has chosen to receive it even as a gift. I’ve given some to genealogical libraries etc, choosing those that plan to preserve at least the information in some way, and maybe the Bible too… that maybe counts as book rescue and info rescue as well?

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Yes, like family photo albums and photos most don’t want them back.
      We get a LOT of them unfortunately.
      Maybe some one will come in and photocopy them.
      Some parts of this business are melancholy.
      But all e can do is save as many as possible
      Thanks for writing!

  3. Jack Walsh commented on

    I was introduced to poetry in high school by a ten volume set from my grandmother. “I meant to do my work to-day” made a large impression on me then. I had a copy of it hanging in my office. When I really needed to get out of the office, for whatever reason, I would put the poem on my chair and have it face the door. I had a really great boss at the time who never asked questions when I returned.

    It seems like you are at the same point in life that I am. I go to call a friend and then remember that he passed lass year or was it the year before. I am very fortunate that I have several friends, through common interests and hobbies, that are years younger than I am. Even with that there are times, very unexpectedly, that sadness sets in. Getting busy with anything helps. The Washington Post just had an article on “Nostalgia” where it was found that looking back at good times really does help reduce the sadness you are experiencing.

    Please remember that you are not alone.


    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Yep! It comes and goes.
      Writing helps. As does work.
      I had a new friend I was kind of counting on but thing got weird.
      It’s the old friends that are living that have changed and haven’t come out again…
      Oh well, it will either get better or ti won’t.

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