When Does Poetry Not Belong in the Poetry Section?

Misshelved Books

Tuesday, October 12th

It is insurance day!

Two health insurance reps are here today to consult with Wonder Book booksellers about their needs. Wonder Book has been offering health insurance since long before it became mandatory. People are given choices of several plans chosen by a committee here. Dental, vision, life and, now apparently, they can even get legal services!

It is hugely expensive. Our old plan was going to increase by 35% next year. The excellent brokering company found another provider with only a 15% increase.

It’s fine. We will figure something out.

The worst thing is the conferences are taking place in the Conference Room. All day!

That’s MY space! (Since my office is jam-packed currently.)

Damned inconvenient, I say… LOL…

2 weeks ago, it was the retirement account rep visiting the warehouse. Booksellers could meet and discuss how they wanted their portfolios handled.

So, I was forced out onto the floor most of the day. Week days—especially early in the week—there is a lot going on out in the warehouse.

Putting me out there in the mix was to become disruptive.

My intentions were good.

Let’s just say I stressed some people out.

“Let’s move these… stack these… cart up these… bury these… load those… condense these shelves… send those to the stores…”

“What if we…”

Eventually I saw enough dazed eyes that I backed off and got into some solitary work.

Still, by the end of the day, there were some solid improvements. Everyone had a little more space.

Throughout the day, each person was given a customized 30-page booklet explaining their benefits and options.

2021-2022 Wonder Book Benefits Book

Would I have dreamed of such complexity all those years ago?


I just wanted to find new homes for old books.

That’s what we do.

It is just on a different scale now.

The weekend was… the typical.


Carts, carts, carts…

One of the first things I found was this sweet treasure.

Suetonius Patini

It was a letdown. Why? Because it likely wouldn’t get better than this. It is the little discoveries… the fortunate rescues that enliven the labor of sorting through thousands of books for 8 or more hours every Saturday and Sunday.

The (long ago rebacked) binding on this was perfect. The contents too.

But were the fireworks over in the first hour of the weekend?

Awww, well. There were plenty of other neat discoveries, but this one trumped them all.

And then I have to see what Annika finds on the cart I piled up for her.

Annika Finds

And Madeline was sent some great eye candy for the glass cases at the Frederick store as well.

Coming home Saturday from a long day, my eye was drawn to a splash of brilliant orange next to my driveway. I stopped and walked over to it. A large patch of Jack-o’-lantern mushrooms had sprouted at the base of an old rotted tree.

Jack-o'-Lantern Mushrooms

Perfect for October.

Mushrooms are magical things. They often appear suddenly—in unexpected places. They usually fade quickly and melt back into the earth.

More nature thrust itself upon me last weekend as well.

Bumping down to work Sunday, I noticed some commotion at the edge of my driveway about halfway down. It was a big gray turkey poking into the leaf litter off the pavement. As I got closer, it hopped onto the low ridge bordering the drive. I slowed, hoping to observe and maybe get a picture.

Turkey Flock

There was a flock! I hadn’t seen a flock for a couple of years when I believe a bad winter with a lot of snow decimated the population. The big birds eyed me for a bit before trotting downhill. I drove along side them for a bit until they veered off and disappeared into the woods. They certainly look a lot like dinosaurs. Stupid dinosaurs.

Sunday at work was the usual workout. A number of collections have been being carted up for me. This gives a person or two here something to do that isn’t heavy work. Books on carts make my work go much faster. I can often just scan spines and only pull out candidates with potential. It seemed like a record number of carts. But, then, I think I’ve written those words in a lot of these stories in recent months.

I can’t be breaking a record every weekend.

We started carting Alan James Robinson’s art reference library. He’d brought it down in a hundred and fifty or so boxes a couple a couple years ago. Each book has a personally signed bookplate in it.

Alan James Robinson Cart

He called the books his “Google” before there was an internet. Most of them are inexpensive coffee table books. He’d use the pictures for his nature and other artwork.

Alan and I are beginning the second “If There Were No Books…” portfolio.

I came up with that concept about 6 years ago in a dream.


The phrase occurred to my subconscious, “If there were no books, there would be no… unicorns!”

Fortunately, I wrote those words down. I reached out to Alan, and he created two unicorn images for me. We made signed limited edition letterpress prints. Then we made t-shirts. We collaborated on many bookish images since then. I’d come up with concept and layout on most. He would then execute them. There was always a lot of tweaking. You can find the details on the single images and the first portfolio here.

Here are a couple of images from the second portfolio.

I hope we can bring the thing to fruition. It is a lot of work and certainly expensive and certainly not profitable.

A labor of love.

We’ve only added a small number of Alan’s books to the Collector’s Corner on the website. There are a LOT more to come.

We reviewed September’s sales at the three stores.



All three stores were well up over September 2020 and 2019. Indeed, Gaithersburg had its best September ever. Frederick and Hagerstown had their best September in many years.

Especially heartening is that the growth is mostly in book sales with LPs continuing to attract more and more buyers and collectors.


If I knew the answer, I might have had the vision to be a very successful bookseller.

We did a lot of renovations while we closed by COVID in 2020.

We’ve been blessed with excellent staff at all three stores.

We are sending a lot of great books to the stores that in the past we kept at the warehouse. Especially antiquarian books that we hope will be handled carefully by the public.

Art, prints, maps, gourmet sodas in glass bottles…there might even be a kitchen sink for sale at one of the bookstores.

Oh! And there are LPs, CDs, DVDs, ephemera, postcards, sheet music…

And… stuff… crockery, for God’s sake…

Maybe it is the astounding popularity of these book stories that is attracting new customers to see what the madness is all about? Sadly, that could account for a handful or less.

I think Ezra Pound said something about writing for the “select few.” The difference is that was his intent.


Anyway, it is pleasant to visit the stores I helped create and see them crowded (not too crowded!) with smiling customers.

It is especially pleasant to be part of a group of booksellers who enjoy and are passionate about the #bookrescue mission we all participate in.

Why on earth would anyone continue working at something they don’t enjoy? There are thousands of other kinds of jobs out there. It takes a special type of person to have the “feel” for working with old books and old and young book buyers.

When does a book of poetry not belong in the poetry section?

Answer: Most of the time.

We have our own way of doing things at Wonder Book. Some are trade secrets. Many evolved from trial and error. Others come from experience and frustration. I am always open to new ideas from anyone. My one firm rule is: “Don’t make changes without approval!”

(There are other firm rules, but I won’t go into those. Mostly because I’m drawing a blank on what rules are still “firm” in 2021.)

New staff members are especially apt to institute stocking changes according to their own personal opinions or whims or former policies at the stores or libraries where they’ve worked in the past. Sometimes they just think it is a good idea. If they go rogue and change a category or book stocking procedure, it may be weeks before it gets discovered. Then more time to clean up the mistake.

I only get a chance to go to each of the stores about once a week. Sometimes less. It often coincides with my being called on to swap a van fully laden with books with an empty one. Other times it is because Books by the Foot needs some subjects pulled for an order for a movie or another customer who wants books about, say, golf or literature or art or history, biography, sailing, military…

We got an urgent order for a Netflix show today. It has to go out today. I can’t say what it is until it airs. The show needs History, Cooking, Literature, Business, Travel…

No problem.

I’ve explained the Biography section at the stores before. There is none. After my first few years as a bookseller, I found it just didn’t make sense. It was by definition random. A biography section would be organized by subject rather than by author correct?

So, all the books about Cleopatra would be under “Cl…” Books about various Clintons would be close by in the “Cli…” section. Books about Lenin would be close to Lennon. Books about Beatles could be in B for Beatles or by member: M, H, S, L or B (for Peter Best.)

If the memoirs of some obscure Civil War Major were stocked under his name in a large general Biography section, it would likely never be found. If it is among fellow Civil War participants—well, that’s where its audience might find it.

How about the ultimate example—Shakespeare. Shakespeare books could be correctly shelved in literature, poetry, biography, drama/theater, criticism, history… I’m forgetting a few, I’m sure.

Long ago I decided there would be fewer shelving errors, the customer and staff would be better served and the books would have a better chance of being found IF we put any book by or about Shakespeare all together in under “Sha…” in Literature.

Though I eventually won the war of wills, skirmishes still flare up occasionally. Just this week, I visited one of the stores to cull books for a literature order.

I was shocked, SHOCKED I say, to find Swift’s poetry in poetry. Robert Lowell’s too. A Baudelaire biography…

(George Bernard) Shaw’s Moral Vision, V S Pritchett’s The Tale Bearers, Studies in Hamlet were randomly in Criticism.

Gilbert and Sullivan in drama.


  • We Dream of Honour: John Berryman’s Letters to His Mother
  • Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Rape of the Lock
  • Evelyn Waugh and His World
  • And about 40 more books…

All hopelessly “lost” by being randomly shelved in generic poetry, criticism, drama sections.

I pulled them all off and set them gently on the floor. I took some pictures.

Back at the warehouse, I printed out the images. Wherever there was a legible author or subject’s name, I highlighted it. I hand wrote a note explaining why it would be much easier for customers to find these books by author in Literature.

“The Poetry section is only for anthologies, books on writing poetry, the history of poetry…”

“The Drama section is only for the history of the theater, stagecraft…”

Rather than trying to single one or two people out, I asked everyone to read and initial it.

I wasn’t upset or frustrated. It is interesting how this same dilemma reoccurs from time to time.

The battle continues.

We want everyone “on the same page” in a bookstore. If our mission is #bookrescue, then the customers and all the booksellers employed—current and future—should know the “Rules.”

Of course, the “Rules” are subject to change. Nothing is permanently etched in stone.

Except: “Don’t make changes without approval.”

October is half over.

The sunrise has moved across my limited window on the world.

But I can’t tell how far. It has been cloudy or foggy every morning for well over a week.

But this morning, Thursday, the fog was low enough that there was a show.

Sunrise and Fog

That’s a sea of fog down in the valley.

I just can’t tell exactly where the sun is rising on the horizon.

I’ve transplanted about a dozen more redbuds this week. Most are in the many loose stone terraces I’ve put in on the slope going down from the house. The trees don’t grow very high because of the sin forced on them so long ago. So they will never obstruct the view. Rather, they will add another layer between the forest floor, fern brakes and short plants and the tall trees and their canopies so high above.

I’ve begun planting spring bulbs—mostly daffodil varieties. Deer and other creatures don’t bother daffodils. And once in, the flowers tend to last forever.

I’m already looking forward to the riot of color next spring with the thousands I’ve already planted. Plus, I’ll be adding lots of new splotches this November and December.

But the autumn riot of color is next. And pretty soon. The forest canopy will be red and gold and yellow and orange.

The dreary task of bringing in all the potted plants looms.

Maybe if I discipline myself and bring in one every time I enter the house, it won’t be such a burden.

I have plenty of firewood cut and split and stacked. But I’ll probably get into more of that soon. I enjoy woodcutting—almost always dead wood. Though my shoulder is still tender. Maybe I should…

Oddly, the heel fire that has tormented me for years has gone dormant. Let’s hope it is extinct.

In a month, I’ll be hiking all over Italy. COVID and other things permitting.

I so want to get away.

I love the life of a bookseller and the rustic existence on Lonely Mountain, but I’m ready for new things.

The Plague has stolen so much time and travel already. I will fight to get some back.

Speaking of which… I got a robocall a little while ago. I usually disconnect as soon as I hear a recorded voice. But for this one I listened long enough to hear “…Maryland Health…”

I was being solicited to go in for the third jab. “Our records show…” If I get it and then get a Cortisone shot, I will have 8 this year so far!

“Now we know how many holes it takes to fill…”

The cool nights silence the night insects and other small creatures. It has been so cloudy lately my room is often completely black and silent.

It is odd to have that sensory deprivation. No sight. No hearing. Only the feel of the cool sheets and chill air flowing over whatever skin is exposed.

If I waken early—as I am wont to do—I will lie in the darkness and think.

“What should I do?”

“What am I doing wrong?”

“Should I change my contemplative life? Get out more?”

“What would I do if I spent less time with old books?”

“I miss you…”

Then comes the false dawn that awakens the first bird. Soon sound and light fill the room and my thoughts go elsewhere.

The day begins.

Dogs. Shower. News. Dry. Dress. Food and water for Merry and Pippin. Bump down the mountain. Often coffee at the 7-11 that is too conveniently on my path. I walk into the office and ask the 1 to 3 managers in that big room, “How are we doing? Anything I should know about?”

It is Friday morning.

Cool. Silent and black.

I flipped open the MacBook Pro, and it came to life and light. It is propped on a pillow on my belly. Its edge presses lightly on my diaphragm.

I want to wrap up this story. Unusual in that it is mostly written already. There are a few things I want to include. I’ll give it one last reading. Then I’ll email to the office down in the valley.

My words will fly through the ether and enter my editor’s computer.

The “business week” will end today. This blog will go out late in the afternoon. Consecutive Friday #222.

I guess some might call that an obsession.

These stories have become part of my weekly “circadian rhythm.” (Is there a scientific term for the 7-day cycle that has evolved to give structure to much of the world?)

My “book weekend” will begin either late this afternoon or early tomorrow morning.

The cycle will begin again on Monday.

The new Books by the Foot website went live yesterday.

BBTF Homepage

It works!


www.BooksByTheFoot.com—let me know how you like it?

Or if you have any suggestions.

Or if you encounter any glitches or problems.

That part of our company has “rescued” millions of books—almost all of which would have been destroyed. Landfilled by most others. Pulped by us.

I find books to be beautiful. I’m glad designers and others do as well.

Hard to believe how controversial this program was not many years ago.

I had to argue and fight with many booksellers and lay people who thought we were demeaning the objects.

“Do you want a 1,000? 10,000? I’ll let you have them for a dime a piece. Come get ’em,” I told some.

None stepped up to my offer.

Some began to understand. Grudgingly. There’s an early book story about this.

Some got to understand it and like the concept even better when I started buying their old unsellable books from them!

Some years ago, Bob Garfield of WNYC/NPR visited and did a short radio story about us.

I think it is pretty funny. You can turn it on here. It is only about 10 minute long.

What’s my favorite part of Books by the Foot?

The concept of #bookrescue of course.

But physically… there are two little semi-secret rooms tucked behind the wall of a storeroom in a back corner of the warehouse. Sometimes I will slip back there unseen and sit on a stool and think. The space is permeated by “old book smell.”


Because all the books surrounding me—side to side, floor to ceiling—are more than 100 years old. But they are worthless to any other bookseller. Forgotten authors, worthless reprint editions, broken sets, obsolete textbooks…

Sometimes I’ll go and think—unwind, problem solve.

Other times I’ll go and just sit, breathe in the “book air” and think of the millions of old words everywhere around me.

Vintage Book Room

(There are many more images like this on our Instagram @booksbythefoot.)

We’ve been culling the LPs online in recent weeks.

They’ve been online for years and haven’t sold. The prices were lowered over time to a point where it would be break even or worse if someone bought one.

We need the space for fresh stock.

We know of no one currently recycling plastic or vinyl.

There are too many for our $1 sidewalk bins at the stores and classical music doesn’t sell well at any price.

But these are beautiful and in great shape. (That’s how they made the cut to go online—you can’t really offer less than perfect records and sleeves on the website.)


But I decided to save rather than landfill them.

My managers looked at me askance.

We do offer LPs “By the Foot.”

It’s not a big seller… yet.

We just need to think of a way to find the audience that perhaps doesn’t yet know they want these…

I’ll slip back into the old book rooms and think about it.

But the coolest things go to the stores.

Billie Holiday LP

4 Comments on Article

  1. Andy Moursund commented on

    What always amused me about the critics of BooksByTheFoot is that there was a similar venture in midtown Manhattan that I visited in the late 70’s, and although this shop were charging a LOT more than $5.99 a foot, I never heard much criticism of them.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      It’s been common for a couple centuries
      I think perhaps the name and the fact it was Wonder/me made it a target?

  2. Susan Bruner commented on

    Chuck I have been Halloween busy, I own a shop so themed, Mall1031 so my days are not my own. I got caught up with you today and became enamored with the concept of deep meditation in your “secret rooms” of old books. The thought of all those stories embracing my brain as I sit and consider all those lovely books safe from the landfill. How calming. How wonderful to imagine. Have a great week. See you here on your blog.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      I hope you have a great season!
      If you’re ever out this way I’d enjoy giving you a tour.
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting.
      It really helps to get feedback


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