Check these books from Peter Matthiessen’s estate in our Collector’s Corner:
February 18, 2021. Thursday
The thermometer reads 62 degrees in / 25 degrees out.
There is another layer of snow outside in the blackness of 5 a.m. On the forest floor, it rests atop the layers of the 8 or so “winter weather events” we have had up here in the past month or so. Though the temperature has on occasion risen above 32, there has been no sustained melting. I went out on that snow pack Wednesday night. I wanted to add suet cakes to the metal cages hanging from chains suspended between trees beyond my bay windows. Walking out on that, I discovered it was about 6 inches high and very hard. It didn’t give way to a footprint from my heavy boots.
It is a beautiful blanket of white. It covers all the forest except some boulders and outcroppings too high and dark colored to bury. The trees too are uncovered, though they have been thickly dusted with soft powdery snow clinging to every branch and twig. It looked like a sugar-frosted forest. Then they have also been glazed in ice a couple times.
That has happened a few times—including twice this week. After working last Saturday, ice was predicted overnight. I parked at the base of my quarter-mile driveway and walked up from there. When I awoke Valentine’s Day morning, the forest was in icy splendor. Every branch and twig was encased. My driveway was as well. I walked down, keeping to the snowy edges so as not to slip. It was a magical descent in the early morning light. I was surrounded all around and above by a crystal forest. In the woods, I would hear occasional crashes as a dead tree branch surrendered to the weight it bore and fell to the ground. The sound was a combination of brittle cracking splintering crashing wood and thick breaking glass whose shards continue sliding on the hard ice covered snow pack. I would glance above to look for potential “widow makers”—fragile branches that might break and fall upon me.
When I got down to the bottom, my big black pickup Dodge Ram truck, nicknamed Bighorn by the manufacturer, was also covered in ice.
Since the rest of the mile-long descent is gravel and dirt, the ice is easily driven over as I can keep two wheels off the side of the road, which is covered in thick leaves and dirt and loose rock.
The road itself has a lot of loose gravel and is only slick at certain steep curvy points.
“Taptaptaptaptap…” go the brakes.
I got in very early on Valentine’s Day. I wanted to beat any further weather, and the dogs needed to be let out of the large pen in the warehouse where they had spent the night.
The weekend had begun with a very large number of carts laden with books that had blue slips of paper fluttering from them with “CHUCK” printed in black upon them.
I was in a “zone” that weekend, and I processed all that I had been given.
One group was a large mix of mostly hypermoderns delivered by another bookseller who had acquired a massive collection of beautiful literature—much of it signed, or at least with signed bookplates laid in. I had agreed to take the low-end books that they couldn’t effectively evaluate and put for sale online.
It was fun (and sad) to see books that were once hot but now are not. They are like old friends who have fallen out of favor or have been superseded by the new “new phenom” and forgotten.
Many I put on carts at a fixed price, checking to be sure they were firsts and not caring much if they were signed or not. In the interest of expediency and my faltering attention and the tens of thousands of other books awaiting my diagnosis, I decided that a fixed price wouldn’t hurt. Those that were too low would sell quickly, I am sure—and with no complaints. At $24.95, nothing is grossly overpriced for they are new condition books, Brodarted, sleek sexy beautifully designed books—albeit hypermodern. Besides, over time, the prices will come down and find their appropriate market level.
I had a quiet dinner with a friend. We chose a rustic pool hall sports bar. (I hadn’t shaved or showered for several days due to the weather.) I was decidedly shaggy. My hair is now a “mane.” I wore a battered old “yard work” coat. If I stepped into a “nice” restaurant, I might be asked if had money to afford food there—despite restaurants’ current desperation.
High times for the book mogul on a Saturday night. At least I don’t have a Rasputin beard like one of our oligarchs. Yet.
I drove home, and sleety balls were bouncing off my windshield as I ascended the mountain.
At the foot of the driveway, I stopped. I turned my high beams on and looked up. And up. And up. And up…my steep driveway.
Would it ice over tonight?
Better be safe than stranded. Or worse, slide into a ditch.
I parked and trudged up. And up. And up.
The book mogul clomping up a snow-covered mountain forest dressed and looking like some rustic old time hermit woodsman.
When I awoke on Valentine’s Day morning—a day that used to have so much meaning—and well, you know the rest… I was certainly glad I was not stupid and lazy enough to drive up the night before.
I thought I might be alone but, no, the nice high school employee arrived and needed work projects. Usually those are spelled out on a clipboard for him. This day I had to wing it. Not exactly easy, since he is only trained on the most basic tasks.
I had him empty a LOT of carts laden with vintage books. Since all the bookcases are currently full, I instructed him to stack them on the floor of our erstwhile spacious break room. It is very lightly used nowadays. COVID. Most folks take their breaks out in their vehicles.
When he’d finished that, I had him LOAD some carts. One mystery pallet appeared to be mostly old vintage cloth. I recognized them! An Ohio colleague had inquired recently about our failure to pay for a load dropped off in December. I recognized the dreary massive run of The Nation periodical.
What on earth will I do with that?!
Still, it was good to have that mystery solved.
“Check’s in the mail!” Checks are taking longer and longer to arrive—there and here!
COVID, you know.
Then I had him load up a pallet of William Safire books. We had a large quantity of Braille books come in, and since I didn’t know what to do with them, I had put them on top of the partially sorted Safire boxes.
‘Maybe we can try the Braille on eBay?’ I thought.
We will see.
Soon he appeared at my side, anxious for the next task.
I LIKE that attitude.
“Let’s look around…”
We wandered together out onto the loading docks, looking for something that would help the cause.
The FRATZ collection! That enormous sci-fi, fantasy…well-organized hoard. Doug had segregated his mass-market paperbacks away from his hardcovers. We had packed and stacked them on their own pallets. I’d been brainstorming about these. A small fraction are pretty valuable. Many, MANY were signed. But most were just nice vintage sci-fi paperbacks in generally great condition.
It would take a great deal of time to sort the wheat from the chaff. No one here is savvy enough to plow through them unassisted except me. To pay Annika to research every one would be foolish and wasteful.
When they were carted, I sat myself upon a stool and stared at one. At that level, I could read the titles. I could never bring myself to go through ALL these one by one. Nor did I want the computer to decide the pricing in this instance.
I looked and thought. And thought. And thought…
(I loved some of the prix fixe meals I would have in Europe. I miss them so…)
Each of the autographed books was bagged and had a label on the outside of the bag. I got a marker and some scrap paper and dictated the pricing on those sheets. I put one sheet on each side of each cart.
My high school helper and I had solved a massive problem in one fell swoop! (What is a fell swoop? Sounds like a deadly swing of a blade…)
While he was implementing my brainstorm, I worked on the other carts he had done and that still remained from the weekdays.
One was mostly foreign titles.
These are always a burden. I’m conversant in most languages using the Roman alphabet—at least as far a parsing out the title or at least the subject. Still, they are hard work and generally very low profit items.
But profit isn’t everything. “Something” must be done with every book that comes—great and small. Some of the dreariest tasks fall to me as their last resort because I’m still the only one here conversant in some of the exotica.
So I girded my loins or hitched my jeans or whatever and sat myself on a stool before the cart of foreigners.
This one was mainly South and Central American and Caribbean titles. There were some exotic vintage cookbooks. I find these exciting. There can’t be many Guatemalan cookbooks from the 1930s left in the world. Can there?
There was a long run Gabriel García Márquez from the 60s and 70s. Most were published in Argentina. I glanced quickly inside each one to see if I could quickly ascertain if they were first editions. Those I felt might be I sent to Annika for further research. The others I treated as nice old reading copies and priced them accordingly for the website or stores. (Turns out I was wrong about a lot of the purported firsts I sent her. Annika inserted slips in each. “17th printing…”)
Somehow we had gotten someone’s Costa Rica collection. Maybe 25 or 30 books published in that country. They’re unusual here in my experience. There were authors from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. Most I had never heard of. A substantial number were signed. I decided to force them on to the Collector’s Corner in a Costa Rica category. That way they can be found quickly in a single keyword search.
Technology is amazing.
I had fallen way behind the numerous credit card statements as well as my own personal business in the COVID months.
This is dreary work.
But it was time. I forced myself to plow through EVERYTHING.
I also did the numerous monthly banking statements. To my right at the conference room table is a large box of recycling paper now.
I also made a hotel reservation! The first in a year! My old Hilton account worked like a charm. I got the feeling the site was happy to see me back. I’m going away next week—not far—to look at a collection. I wonder what the COVID “Free Breakfast” will look like?
I had made an appointment to go look at a collection from a bookseller who had passed away last fall. I didn’t know him well. I’d see him for about 10 minutes every couple months when he was dropping off books he didn’t want. He had described his operation. He had connections at Ivy League and other top schools in New England. He would go up there and buy deceased or retiring professors’ collections and bring them back south.
So, I headed to Harper’s Ferry. It was the first break in the weather in weeks, it seemed.
My parents first went to Wild Wonderful West Virginia well before John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” I was just a kid, and we toured Civil War battlefields and caves and natural and historic stuff. I recall staying in the Hilltop House—which was a building right out of Mark Twain with lots of rocking chairs on the veranda. My parents quickly made friends with the owner. They could both make friends instantly. That is a skill I never acquired. I often feel I repel strangers. Maybe it is the horns?
That was the beginning of a love affair with the state for my family. My dad bought a little rustic (VERY rustic) cabin above the Shenandoah River. We would go there on weekends or in the summer. It was this suburban boy’s first “country” life experience. I loved everything about it.
(Except the ticks—which I developed a phobia of.) I would catch fish and clean them and grill them. (I learned to clean fish as an Amalgamated Meat Cutter Union member working at Giant Food fish counters in high school. I smelled so bad after work my mom would make me change in the garage.)
It even had a woodstove. My doctor dad had an aversion to power tools. He’d seen too many amputations and grisly accidents. But he got me a little gas chainsaw.
So, I was very familiar with the V-shaped little town rising up a hill with the Potomac on one side and the Shenandoah on the other. The town comes to a point where the two rivers meet.
I met the father and brother at the bookseller’s house. It was a bright yellow brick pre Civil War building.
Inside, the rooms were small—because people were smaller back then. The rooms were made smaller by all the clutter. I was led from room to room. Down into the basement. Up to the second floor and then the attic.
Books and stuff and tubs…of books.
We went outside to two outbuildings. One they called “slave quarters.” There were books out there as well.
Nothing looked great or terrible. Packing and loading it all would be a PIA. I was not excited.
Then we drove to the Funeral Parlor a few blocks away. This odd building had long ago served that purpose.
I suppose the rough stained-glass window was some kind of nod to religiosity and the afterlife.
The books were on the second floor.
This was quite different. Hundreds and hundreds of big plastic tubs full of books. They were all online at one time. When something sold, someone would go to the tub and root through it to find the book.
My estimation of this bookseller went up. He was much larger and more organized than I’d thought from our brief encounters.
We stepped outside, and the sun shone! We stood on the sidewalk and basked in it.
I asked what they wanted me to do?
We went back and forth. I told them books in the house would likely have very little value if we had to come and box and tote from the basement, attic, outbuildings and nook and cranny rooms.
The Funeral Home was another matter entirely. Those I would pay a lot for. I think. Loading out would be relatively easy.
Oh! And there is a larger warehouse currently inaccessible. This guy had 80,000 books!?
I left and drove over the Shenandoah. I was briefly in Virginia before crossing the Potomac and being in Maryland again.
There was a beautiful dawn. The first in a while. The mountain has been fogged or snowed in so much. The sun barely peaked through because of the orange fiery clouds on the horizon.
The driveway was clear, and I was able to drive a different vehicle than the pickup truck. It was the first time in over two weeks.
I took all the paperwork to accountant. Then I went a got a shot. Not THE shot. A Shingles shot that a friend recommended after a bad bout.
Then I went to the Frederick store to pull books by subject for Books by the Foot. 6 feet of Sports. 20 feet of Travel. 8 feet of Modern Classic Lit…
I gave the staff a little pep talk. A few had bruised feelings about last week’s blog. That surprised me. It was just the truth. And part of being a bookseller. The place always needs “something.” If it was always perfect, what would I have to do?
I’d be obsolete!
When I went back to the warehouse, we met about the design of the new Books by the Foot website.
The old one is working fine but is getting antiquated.
My “vision” was to keep it sleek and stylish. The debate has proceeded between me and my managers and website designers.
Having a “vision” is a double-edged sword. If it works, I look…brilliant. If not, it is back to the drawing and a lot more money out of my pocket.
It finally got to the point where I (crudely) put my thoughts to paper.
There were complaints about the size and shape of the boxes and aspect ratios and where shopping carts traditionally belong… But I sometimes think outside the box.
“Let’s do it with this general format. If it doesn’t work, we can go back to some of the other ideas.” (which I did NOT like)
Then I met with Clark and my son to review much of the past year on the many sites we sell books on. There were huge hits in March and April when we were shut down by a threatening letter ostensibly sent to the governor by a former employee. Everything…EVERYTHING (that I can recall) was false in that letter. It terrorized me and others here. It cost a lot of employees and a lot of money. It gave us doubts at to our survival in those frightening times. The courts will decide the outcome. How some people can be so mean-spirited and destructive for no reason is…baffling.
The rest of the year was all about recovery. We reinvented the way we do many, many things here.
Clark’s genius implemented ideas he and I and other people put forth here.
We have an amazing team.
That evening I went to Le Parc Bistro. I toasted a departed friend and mentor. George who has replaced Rance as bartender made a masterful Sazerac.
I had maybe the most perfect bowl of French Onion soup ever.
I really like picking the crusty cheese off the side of the crock.
I also knew Thursday was not boding well. Storms all day and night were predicted.
The snow began at 3 am, apparently. When I awoke at 5, there was four inches and more was coming down. The phone claimed 100% chances of snow for the next 7 hours and decreasing percentages there after.
I stepped to the door and looked outside. The last time I plowed when it was snowing, an icy glaze formed on the driveway, and I was truly trapped.
I got a text notification that the warehouse was closed.
I toyed with the idea of descending to work and then surrendered to nature. I can sometimes compete, but this might prove to be foolish.
I spent the day in bed, mostly. I wrote a couple snow poems. I transposed a number of old manuscript poems. I did some chores. I cleaned up a few things. I played “find the golfball in the snow bank” with the dogs. I went in the little barn and started up the splitter and broke apart some logs that would be too big for the stove.
I brought in a lot of firewood. I reloaded the cage with three more cakes of suet. I kept tossing scoops of seed out onto the porch roof. The birds were ravenous, and the snow kept covering up the seed they hadn’t gotten to.
Eventually, the day wore on, and I felt I could start dinner and make myself an Old Fashioned.
I decided to plow after sunup. There was a slight chance of more precipitation.
I showered and got the dogs settled. I started the truck with the defrosters going full blast to melt the snow and ice covering it. I did everything else I would need so that I could make the descent as soon as I’d finished plowing, lest an icy coating appear and could trap me again.
It worked. I am at work. I’m tap-tap-tapping at this story.
I was hoping some real exciting book would show up this week.
But there are still a couple hours to go.
Oh! A new version of the Books by the Foot website was sent to us. It is very close to what my “vision” is.
The Man Who Knew Tolstoy
This book proved to be interesting, though likely not very valuable. It is an English language book of Tolstoy stories published in Moscow during the 1950s. At first, I was just going to push it through with a price I’d come up with using experience and “guestimation.” On a hunch, I sent a couple images to an ABAA colleague who specialized in Slavic language books.
“Are you interested in this?”
Cool—Sergei Sheremetv (Serge Cheremeteff) was the grandson of Mariia Nikolaevna Romanova, daughter of Emperor Nicholas I.
Send along. Thank you, as always!
Sometimes books can speak.
2/18/21 Mt Snowstorm
To go or no?
I awake in darkness
The soft orange eye
over in the next room,
the light of the wood fire,
held in a iron box,
glows through the sooty windows
on the stove’s steel doors
I twist beneath the blankets
and turn toward the windows
It is near blackness without
but there is a dull metal gray curtain
competing with the night
It is the white snow falling
and the white of the snow blanket
which covers the mountain forest
and the distant valley beyond
I turn back and face the dark inside
I curl and pull the blankets above my neck
I will doze until dawn
There is no sunrise
The world merely brightens a little
Dark gray becomes lighter
and white bits fall in constant motion
There are often times I can compete with nature
Test my strength wits and resolve
But this day? No
I dare not cannot go
There is naught to do
but sit inside
sheltered from the show
and wait til
the soft storm goes