When I Paint My Masterpiece


Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs
Got to hurry on back to my hotel room
Where I’ve got me a date with Botticelli’s niece
She promised that she’d be right there with me
When I paint my masterpiece

It is December 1! The “season” is in full swing. Books and LPs seem to be prime choices for gifts this year.

Ernest and I are driving west on I 70. We are going to the Hagerstown Wonder Bookstore to “show the colors” and do some culling and pull some subject orders for Books by the Foot. It is hard to tap out words on the laptop in the van. It feels like Ernest is going too fast, but I leaned over to spy, and he is going the speed limit. The road is kind of bumpy. Makes for a lot of typos.

An old customer and friend just called. He’s been trying to handsell me a handful of collectible—but not too collectible—books. This has been bouncing back and forth for months. I know his expectations are not going to be met by my lack of enthusiasm. He is old school, and I don’t think he appreciates the ravages the internet has wrought on mid-level books. I told him to try the regional book auctions. Most of the books are about China. I reached out to a couple of China specialists and antiquarians with his list and images.

Nope. Not interested.

I had Annika research the titles and images he sent. Equivocal results.

“I don’t want them!!” I’m yelling inside.

“I don’t want them,” I tell him gently.

There’s not time for this. And I know he has thousands more. This could become an ongoing project.

Passive aggressive.

“I can’t help you the way you want to be helped… anymore. Things are different now.”

In the old days, he would tell me the rules of his house. For each book that came in, one had to leave. Back then, I could buy books one at a time.

He’s going to bring them to me. I was adamant I wouldn’t go 30 miles to West Virginia to (disappoint) him.

His computer is down. I need to call him back with directions… I can’t recall the number of the exit I use almost every day.

This has dragged on for months. I’ve spent a great deal of time on this handful of pretty good books on China.

I know he’s going to be disappointed.


My excellent scout dropped in Tuesday with a truckload of… “pulp.”

That deal had been percolating for months as well.

The story went there was a guy who was going to open a bookstore in West Virginia. He’d defaulted or died or disappeared, and the landlord wanted to rent the space to someone else.

My warning antennae went up.

I’ve seen plenty of these “stores” that “failed to launch.” Usually somebody gets a chance at a lot of books cheap and thinks, ‘How could I lose?’

The books are usually someone else’s culls or leftovers.

40? pallets of books.

“I don’t want them. We don’t have space, and I don’t need tons of less than mediocre books.”

He kept on pushing the project.


Why was he so hot on this big bad deal? I have no idea.

“Send me pictures.”

Why didn’t he send me pictures?

“Ok. Bring a sample pallet or two.”

Why didn’t he bring a sampling?

I’d been in a meeting with the insurance broker. This is that time of year. Mind numbing, but at least our rates went down. Our Workers’ Compensation “experience” had dropped last year. I got a text the scout was here.

“How much should I unload?”

“Wait til I get there.”

I didn’t know then he had bought the “store” anyway after I’d said, “No.”

When I got out there, they had already unloaded a couple hundred boxes.

They were terrible. Uniformly awful condition and titles.

“Are these from West Virginia?”


“I told you I didn’t want them. We don’t have room.”

“How many can I leave today?”

“None. I don’t want them. There is nothing here we can use. We lost money just unloading what is in here now.”

His big box truck was still 3/4 full. Side to side and floor to ceiling.

I walked around the pallets with boxes stacked atop them. I flipped opened random lids.



“There is nothing here we wouldn’t have to pulp.”

Was I angry? Maybe a little. But I was much more frustrated. This was so preventable.

I tore a hole in one of the big plastic trash bag. Books covered in mold spilled out.

I felt guilty. (Well, I always feel guilty.) I have always covered his mistakes in the past. But none have ever been this big, this bad. This… preventable.

He closed his mostly full truck and drove off.

I inspected the pallets of books he had left with Ernest.

“These are somebody’s leftovers. Somebody’s pulp. If any of the story is true, the guy that was going to open a bookstore with these would have failed miserably.

“Should we just pulp them?” I asked Ernest.

“No. I’ll go through them—quickly.”

“I hate to ask you to do that.”

“No, you don’t.”

Well I DID. It was his time that would be wasted. My money. And Wonder Book would lose even more because that time could be spent on decent collections.

I texted the scout a picture of the moldy books.

Moldy Books

“Don’t bring back any more of these. I can give you the name of a pulper who might pay something for these.”

I texted my pulper. He called back. Great guy. He can be a little chatty. I just wanted a ballpark price per ton for hundreds of boxes books. The pulper—the grim reaper—doesn’t care if the books are bad. He will pulp whatever is sent to him. He went on about different scenarios…

“He’s a nice guy. He just bought a big load of bad books, and I want him to get out of it as best he can.”

“Well, we will have to unbox them all.”

“He could dump the boxes into Gaylords at your place.”

“No. It’s too cold for that.”


I texted my scout and told him he could bring the books here and dump them in Gaylords. I’d pay him what I’d get. $55 per ton currently.

Haven’t heard back.

December 2nd, 5 a.m.

I slept well again.

Maybe Italy reset me.

In a world of problems—solving the sleep problem is great success. I’ll see how it goes day by day… er… night by night.

I got up early to work on this story some. It is Thursday. The day will be busy. I’m going to a Bob Dylan concert in D.C. this evening. I’ll meet my older son there. It will be my first trip into the city since all the insanity began. We have to get there early. You can’t just go to a concert anymore. My tickets are on my phone—an “app.” I’ll need my vax card and a mask. They are warning entry will take a while. I hope the traffic isn’t bad.

Oops. It is the National Christmas Tree lighting tonight… half the city will be blocked off.

It is 64 inside. 46 outside. It is black outside my window. The shortest day of the year is still a couple of weeks off. Sunrise is not until 7:12. The first light of dawn will be about a half hour before. When there is enough light, I will go out and plant more flower bulbs. I still have a thousand or so to go. I’ve been planting some mornings before work. I’ve come home a little early a couple times, but it gets dark so early. The big new walled garden I want to plant the bulbs in is hard and rocky. I need to rake away the heavy layer of leaves that covers everything on the forest floor. The dry brown things remind me of paper. Millions of slips of notepaper each calling to have something nice written on them. I use a heavy mattock to break the soil and create rows. If the mattock strikes a hidden rock, the shock moves up the wooden handle and stings my hands and jars my shoulders. I’ve found if I loosen the grip on the tool, the pain is lessened. Then I need to test and find the edge of the hidden stone. I strike just beyond the edge, and if I’m lucky, the heavy metal blade will sink deep along it, and I can then pry the stone out. I’ve made a pretty good pile of various sized stones. I toss the ones I’ve dug up to the base of a tree a few yards away. A couple of stones have been just too big to dig out. I can’t find where they begin or end. With these, I plant around the edges I’m able to locate. So, progress had been a little slow. When this bed is put to bed, I’ll move on to softer places, and the planting will go much faster.

I let the fire die down last night. The forecast is 64 degrees today.

The warehouse building has filled up again. We are stuffed with books. I thought that perhaps with society opening up some of the charities and school sales would start taking books again and people would have many more options for their unwanted books other than us.

Yesterday, as Ernest and I were heading out of the building for the Hagerstown store, two men were coming in.


I didn’t recognize him. He had a bright blue sleeveless jacket on with the Rotary Club logo on his chest. That’s what drew my attention.

“I’m from Books for International Goodwill.”

I looked at his face rather than his logo. I recognized him although he has a silver-red beard now. Have I seen him since COVID?

March 2020. 21 months ago. How life has changed. And the damn disease just won’t go away. 3 shots, and I’m still wary. My polio and smallpox vaccines have lasted all my life. Is this plague manmade? Weaponized to continue evolving, adapting to avoid mitigation?

“Hi! Great to see you!” I shook hands. (There is still the pause to see if the person wants to shake or fist bump or keep their distance.)

They bring us good books. Almost all for Books by the Foot. Their mission is to send children’s books and textbooks overseas to impoverished countries starving for books. They bring us what they can’t use. Modern novels and such and old pre-1940 “vintage” books. It is a win-win relationship. We will likely pay a couple thousand dollars for books they can’t use. We will get some much needed stock for the interior designers. Their books will be staged on carts, and I will scan them for collectibles or books that serve better for stock.

It is good to see some of the regulars returning.

That reminds me. The Sherlock Holmes collection is on carts awaiting my perusal. I’m looking forward to that. Maybe today…

Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Sunday (does it have a special name?) and Cyber Monday were all busy.


The three brick and mortar stores and Books by the Foot were up double digits from November 2020. Of course, late 2020 was a second wave period. But we are up over 2019 as well. Books by the Foot is doing so well we are pulling people from other areas just to fill orders!

…robbing Peter to pay Paul…

By the way: WE ARE HIRING!

Much of the Wonder Book “machine” is working so well right now. There are so many good people at all three stores. If the stores are operating well, it takes that distraction away, and I can focus on other things.

There are millions of moving parts in Wonder World. Most are taken care of by others, other parts take care of themselves. The things that need my attention are often surprises…

7:12 a.m.

Another beautiful dawn. The sky is layered—bands of cloud, sky, horizon.


Time to get up and shower. Then go out and try to plant a couple few hundred bulbs. Wash my hands and then head down the mountain and see what I find in the vast building full of books.

Last weekend was my first after being in Italy for 12 days (2 weekends.)

I feel I am still there sometimes. Herculaneum, Pompeii, Vesuvius, Sorrento are all a part of me now. I’ve been there. I can “see” them in my mind’s eye.

Missing two weekends… I use weekends to catch up on books set aside for my review.

I was WAY behind. But I was fresh and in the mood. And I had done some of the carts during the week.

I put soccer on and began scanning the carts.

This is like treasure hunting for me.

It was good to be back.

I got so much done. I even got to some of the aging very dusty carts.

I did two of the four William Morris carts I’d been setting aside. THAT was SO much fun. Lots of great press books from the 19th and early 20th century. A lot of William Morris titles, including lots of The Earthly Paradise.

I now have a few dozen William Morris books I’ve never heard of before. No new Kelmscott’s though. The minister/choir director couldn’t afford those or someone else got them. I bet someone else got them.

Books can be so beautiful…

I refound the little photo album of my great-great-uncle Talmadge, who was an Illinois soldier in the Civil War. I inherited a box of his letters sent home detailing Sherman’s march to the sea. The photos are of comrades and a few are marked “killed” and where. Family heirlooms. The album got boxed up accidentally when I was packing some of my Pennsylvania home collection months ago.

I wonder what my distant relative was like? Leaving the Talmadge estate in Hinsdale, Illinois must have been quite an adventure. He doesn’t look like any relative I’ve known.

There was my mug shot as well.

Actually, it was for a school ID in the old days when photos were sepia toned… LOL.

I’d set some stuff aside on a cart months ago—for safekeeping. Well, at least I found them again.

There were some nice new finds as well.

This Emily Dickinson complete poems.

The Complete Poem of Emily Dickinson

Why bother to look inside?

I’m glad I did. The endpaper has an inscription:

“For Aunt Emily—Martha Dickinson Bianchi.”

The Complete Poem of Emily Dickinson

Emily’s niece, “Mattie”, did much to revive interest in Emily’s work.

Then there was this illustrated Of Human Bondage. A classic no one reads anymore. I wouldn’t think Maugham would sign a later edition.

On Human Bondage

And it is Christmas. This humble Edward Gorey Christmas title looked like a cheap gift edition. I’m glad I flipped to the back where it is signed and numbered and also signed by John Updike.


I didn’t get home from the Dylan concert til after midnight. I was wound up and stayed awake watching Route 66 a while. I awoke at 5 thinking I need to finish this week’s story.

Friday mornings have a strange vibe here. People are anticipating their weekend and free time. I’m looking forward to my weekend. The 5 or 6 carts of Sherlock Holmes books are calling. The game’s afoot!

Dylan… I’d sneak up to the 3rd floor garret in my childhood home on Washington Highway in Amherst, New York. It wasn’t a highway but a rather narrow tree lined side street. When I was little, it was all elm trees. They arched over from each side, and their branches commingled high above. It was a magical place to grow up. Then Dutch Elm Disease came and killed them all. When I was there a couple months ago, the trees were mature again.

Dylan… my brother Jimmie was so excited about him. I would go up and play his albums when my brother was away.

I had every album and as many albums with even a hint of him on it that I could find.

He’s been a motif playing in the background of my entire cognitive life. His first album came out when I was 7 years old. I bet I scratched Jimmie’s copy.

I saw Dylan a couple of years ago, and he was mostly incoherent.

Last night, the 2016 Nobel Prize winner was much better.

He turned 80 last May. Last night, he looked frail and tiny. He spent much of the concert nearly hidden behind an upright piano. When he would emerge, he would hold on to a mic stand as if using it for support. He growled out most songs, and sometimes it took a bit to figure out what the song was.

We were in the second row of the newish Anthem theater on DC’s completely remade wharf area. My son and I had cocktails and oysters at Hanks before the show. The area is packed with brand new upscale restaurants.

Of course, I had a “Martini Roma.”

Martini Roma

Filming or photos were prohibited at the concert. If security saw you had a phone out, they would shine a bright light on you. I thought I’d get a picture on the encore—but he just stopped after about 90 minutes. I only got a bad one as he stood for a moment before leaving the stage.

Bob Dylan

My photo is so grainy I ran it through filters. Looks like a painting now, doesn’t it?

Here’s brief clip someone posted. He is nearly invisible behind the piano.

DEC 2, 2021
Washington, DC
The Anthem—Set List

• Watching the River Flow
• Most Likely You Go Your Way (and I’ll Go Mine)
• I Contain Multitudes
• False Prophet
• When I Paint My Masterpiece
• Black Rider
• I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight
• My Own Version of You
• Early Roman Kings
• To Be Alone with You
• Key West (Philosopher Pirate)
• Gotta Serve Somebody
• I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You
• Melancholy Mood
• Mother of Muses
• Goodbye Jimmy Reed
• Every Grain of Sand

Thanksgiving 2021 1 am

In a dream
you looked back at me
turning your head
over your shoulder
your eyes warm wide
Then I woke in blackness
Why did I leave you?
I closed my eyes
I tried to return
but could not find my way

2 Comments on Article

  1. Ellen Stacy commented on

    I thoroughly enjoyed this missive. Bravo!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you so much!
      It is gratifying to hear things like that.
      I really appreciate your taking the time to comment!

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