Winning the War

Ave Maria in Anglo Saxon

Ave Maria in Anglo Saxon.

Last Friday was an awful day.

No one at work could please me. The worst disappointment was myself.


My life changed substantially since Wednesday afternoon when the severity of the damage to the bone was made manifest by the doctor.

When he was through, the questions that remained were:

  • How long will it take to heal and rehab?
  • How much would it heal and rehab?

Those mysteries added to the uncertainty of my own life. How long will I have full-time care of three dogs with no one to help out so I could go away?

Will I be in the mix to take her to doctor appointments? Shopping? What else?

I was angry with the world, and I struggled to contain that anger, though just about everyone I interacted with disappointed me, frustrated me, angered me.

I had to bottle all that in. What I really wanted to do was scream. But that would not be seemly.

That night, I dreamed I knew a secret path up a mountain. It was brown and rocky—a desert mountain. You appeared and wanted to follow me, but I was hesitant to show and only started up a short distance. We paused and sat on a boulder. After a bit, something changed in you, and you remembered. You leaned in and rested your head on the nape of my neck. I reached down to touch your back but didn’t wish to awaken the tattoo I so disliked. We stayed for a while and did not go any higher.

Eventually, I rose, walked down and then across a field. I looked back and saw you walking toward me in the distance. I started back then stopped. I knew we were too far apart.

The storm predicted for Monday afternoon finally roared in. Torrents of rain were splashing onto the parking lot outside the book warehouse. There was no reason to go out into that. I went back to the pallet of old books I’d been working on when I decided to call it a day.

I’ve seen most of these books before. Some I remember and wonder that they didn’t sell online in however many years they waited on the shelves. At some point not long ago, we gave up on them. We needed shelving for fresh stock. The section these were in was “dead.” The prices have been cut over and over, to no avail. Books here were no longer selling.

With the modern, more common books, the process is different. Travis will fly through those sections and scan thousands of books with eyes, mind, experience and taste. Those that are marketable, he will set in boxes to be sent and priced at the stores. He writes the store’s abbreviated name (Frederick = 40, Hagerstown = HD, Gaithersburg = WG) and the price each book will be labeled on all four sides of each box. He uses a black marker and crosses off any previous markings if it is a box we are reusing. Those that fit in the many niches in our Books by the Foot catalog, he will put on carts to be rolled to that area. The rest will be recycled. We are the last stop. After we’ve done everything we can, there is no one we can pass books onto.

It is better news for the collectible sections. The latest solution is to put them into giant cardboard tubs—Gaylords. Those get adorned with blue CHUCK slips and a sign that reads “Chuck Kills.”

I have been going through this one over the past week, as time allows.

Everything in these sections is “good”—curated by hand—not by machine.

With this second (salvage) review, I make different decisions for most of them. They have already failed to sell online once—at a rock bottom final price. So I’m very selective about what I set on carts to go back online.

A lot are going to the stores. Especially the “beautiful” books. It is hard to market stunning books that have ambiguous or obscure titles or subjects. They have to be seen to be yearned for. I made the decision not very many years ago to start releasing these to the stores. I trust the management to shelve and display these carefully. I have to hope the customers will not mishandle them.

Some of the very small, spineless or fragile items will go into bags to be hung in the stores.

The rest will go to Books by the Foot.

I’m occasionally surprised by some of the items I “re-find.”

“What was I thinking (6 years ago)?” (i.e. Why did I put this obscure novel online?)


The lights in the warehouse went off and quickly flickered on.


Same thing.


The lights went out and stayed off.

I sat in the dark on the hard stool, waiting for them to come back on.

Little dots of light appeared as people turned on their mobile phone “flashlights.”

The EXIT lights and emergency guidance lights came on.

I waited for a bit and then gave up. I rose and headed for the office exit. It was no longer raining cats and dogs. Maybe just puppies and kittens.

I put a raincoat over my laptop and the two books I’d set aside from the Gaylord.

I didn’t care if I got wet.

One book was a thin Kate Greenaway plate book with stunning tipped-in plates.

Greenaway Plate Book

It was pencil priced at $20 and must have been knocked down to 5 or 6 dollars by the end.

Why didn’t it sell?

It must have been invisible online.

The other was this Ave Maria fine press book.

Ave Maria Book

It is a stunning production over 200 pages long. There are 8 or 10 iconic prayers and religious texts in multiple languages. But the Angelic Salutation (Hail Mary) is given 150 pages. It is reproduced in as many languages, beginning with Anglo Saxon and ending with Zulu.

Ave Maria in Anglo Saxon

Even Irish Ogham is represented.

Ave Maria in Irish Ogham

The calligraphic fonts are all enclosed in lovely borders. It gives the quarto tome a feel of an illuminated manuscript.

Why didn’t this book sell online? It was added in early 2018 at $55. I imagine its final markdown was around $10.

I suppose it had to be “seen.” If you’d ever seen it, you’d likely have bought it already if your interests lie in that direction. Online, it is just text on a computer screen.

I saw it, and although I am culling my collection heavily, I took it home.

I’m becoming more spiritual and mystical. I have always had those things, but now they are becoming a stronger presence as I seek comfort in something greater.

As I headed west, the rain stopped. I spent some time at the hospital and then went out to dinner with my older son.

When I headed back east, there was a magnificent rainbow arcing overhead. Its ends were anchored in the earth miles parts. As I traveled, I saw one end was buried in ground clouds on a ridge of South Mountain. It was on the western slope not many miles south of my place.

I wish I’d gotten a picture, but I didn’t want to stop on the Interstate.

Here’s a picture that Frederick City posted on its Instagram.

Magnificent Frederick Rainbow

It was actually much more dramatic where I saw it.

There’d been texts from my neighbors that the power was out. A couple of them had cleared a tree that had fallen across the road. That didn’t mean that my lane would be clear. I have a quarter mile of driveway, and I share another quarter mile with my only neighbor.

I prepared myself mentally to walk up there at some point to retrieve a chainsaw and come back to cut a path. But there were only leaves and small branches blown down all the way up.

The power was indeed off on the mountain.

I’ve mentioned that when it is dark up here, it is truly dark. That is only 99% true. Modern homes having plenty of litter lights in them. (Did I just coin “litter lights”?) My toaster, for example, has a half-inch round blue light on all the time. The stove and microwave have digital clocks. Thermostats. Smoke alarms. Burglar alarms…

The driveway’s solar ground lights glowed softly, but inside was completely dark. The alarm was beeping due to its batteries. I put in the code, and it shut up.

Silence and darkness.

Not a litter light to be seen.

I let the dogs out of the pen—one at a time.

Then I climbed into bed with plans to write or look at my phone, but quickly I was gone to another place where sometimes there are dreams.

It had been a very hard physical day.

The weekend had been more so.

Cart after cart after cart after… all laden with books that I needed to evaluate. Larry had dropped off 80 boxes of beautiful modern art books on Friday night. I helped Travis and the new kid lift them onto the loading dock in case it rained Sunday night. Art books are heavy.

Then to the hospital each night.

All the projects at home are on hold. They would have been, regardless. I should be in Ireland.

Monday morning before I got in, Larry dropped off several more pallets of framed “art.”

“What the hell will I do with these?” I texted with this image.

Bad Art

“We don’t have space for these at the stores. Don’t bring us bad bulk. Bring us nice collectibles.”


Maybe people will buy them to whitewash over and reuse. What else to do with bad art?

I had two prescriptions ready and one was aging. I got a van and picked them up. I also got more liverwurst. The best way I’ve found to give a dog a pill is to push it into a little ball of braunschweiger. Pip had a cough that was getting worse and worse. I took him to the vet last week and got $650 worth of X-rays, diagnoses, cautions, solicitations, but no conclusions. The cough pills and antibiotics seem to have worked. A week ago, I thought he was the family’s biggest problem.

Then I went to the Frederick store. I’d culled the Reference section heavily on Friday. It was full of old junk. Dictionaries and Thesauri are tough to sell nowadays. The shelves were also loaded with very stale and very dull paperback texts on language, etc.

I pulled about 33% of the books off those shelves. About half of those went back to Books by the Foot. Half went to pulp. I brought a handful back that were obscure and interesting enough to put online. I made a stack of 40 or 50 to be restocked into more appropriate categories.

“If you condense this section, you’ll gain an entire bookcase. You can load that with all the sheet music books I’ve been sending over. You’re adjacent to the music section, and this way you’ll get them off the floor.”

I started up the big 24-foot box truck and let it warm up. It was full of books we’d bought from the public over the weekend. The monster rumbled and shook all the way to the warehouse.

I shook inside it the whole trip back.

The pastel dawn softly brightens the east. Its light is neither warm nor cool.

Pastel Dawn

Life has stopped up on the mountain. Evenings have been at the hospital. When I return, I’ve just enough energy to let the dogs run a bit. Then inside to decide if or how low to set the a/c. Or will I open a window and pull the chain on the ceiling fan? I haven’t been able to bring myself to go through the last boxes of my book collection from my old house just above the Mason Dixon Line. I have crossed that border thousands of times since I opened the bookstore in September 1980. In November that year, over Thanksgiving, I moved from Rockville, Maryland to the country south of Gettysburg. It was called Freedom Township, but there was no town, no police department—just a scattering of farms and country houses on a few acres. For the next thirty years, I would drive from Pennsylvania to Frederick, Maryland and open the bookshop most mornings.

I haven’t done any gardening or other woodland chores. I did lift the bags of mulch off the tail of the big black Ram pickup truck. They got wet in the rain and were very heavy. The truck bed had a few inches of light brown muddy water. The mud was from the dirt that clung to the rocks I’d gathered at the construction site to build another garden wall. The pickup was parked on a slight downhill slope, and that was why it held the pool of water. I haven’t set up the new garden wall either. Nor have I ordered the fall bulbs to plant in November, December and, if I’m lazy, January.

The big dog, Giles, is on the bed next to me. He is very sweet and calm except when he’s not. He will bark incessantly if he’s left alone. But he gets along with Merry and Pip, and they all share the Puppy Chalet outside when I’m away at work.

Speaking of wild animals, I may have finally won the groundhog wars. If you’ve been reading these stories awhile, you know I’ve done battle with the vermin for years. There were even named battlefields—The Western Front and Mount Suribachi. I trapped and released some. I tried smoking them out. I filled their holes with empty wine bottles to plug the tunnels. One vast warren—The Western Front has had hundreds of bottles pushed down into it. When we first moved here in 2013, I took a flashlight and peered in, and there was a cave they’d dug as big as a Volkswagen. The initial attempt was to stuff junk books down their holes. They just laughed at that and shredded them.

It evolved into years of victories and defeats. Some holes were silenced quickly and permanently. Others were reoccupied. I think the evil creatures have a way to sense there is an underground void and will dig around blockages to get to it. The 7-acre vacant lot next to the warehouse was a breeding ground. There were dozens of colonies—maybe hundreds of holes hidden in the high grass and scrub. When I’d drive the truck up there to cut firewood, I had to be careful that even the giant pickup truck wheels didn’t get stuck in one of their excavations. So, there was always an increasing population looking for places to move. My warehouse lawns next door were quite inviting.

The battle became so desperate that I wondered if supernatural forces were at work. The giant hole that swallowed up all the bottles and continued swallowing them—I wondered if perhaps it wasn’t endless. Maybe it went all the way through the earth to the other side. Maybe the source there was Sumatra. Maybe the arch villain was the Giant Rat of Sumatra, which Sherlock Holmes felt was his most daunting case.

The nuclear option happened last summer when the new warehouse project finally began. Bulldozers came to level the land. The vermin skedaddled when the machinery approached, I was told. There’s a park and a creek nearby, and I assume that is where they fled.

The pie-shaped little plot on the eastern edge was excavated for the site’s drainage pond. That is where Mt Suribachi was. It was just a large pile of dirt and rubble the post office had leftover from one of their construction projects. It was pretty easy digging, and it looked kind of like Swiss cheese.

It had scrub trees and bushes growing on it and doing battle there mano a mano was quite difficult. When the big yellow excavator came, Mt Suribachi was quickly leveled. The driver told me he saw a bunch of the giant rodents flee across the street and into the woods.

That left only one active hole on the 14 acres. The Northwest Territory Outpost.

Groundhog Outpost

I’ve driven up there a dozen times this spring and summer. Bottles. Smokers… Every time I plugged the hole, a new one would open up next to it. I lifted some big flat rocks over the silt fence at the construction site just a few yards away. I covered the plugged holes with them.

I had been spreading some mothballs on last year’s garden to deter the squirrel or other creature that was digging up the daffodil bulbs I’d planted last fall. The thing was just doing it for fun, as they are not edible. I’d go down there and find hundreds of bulbs turned up and resting on the surface.


Only to vex me, I was sure.

Then the light went on. What if I put mothballs down that groundhog hole?

It seems to have worked. I sealed the last entrance about a month ago, and so far, there are no new diggings.

Have I won the war?

The 7-acre lot has two 52,000 square foot buildings sitting on it. The rest of the property is paved. The planting beds there won’t be conducive to the creatures because there’s no grass or other forage nearby.

They’ve left a few scars on the property. This last one is the worst. It will eventually get reabsorbed into the landscape. I hope there will be no new excavations.

But I’ll be ready.

And now I have a new weapon. Mothballs. And I still empty the occasional wine bottle. I’m saving some—just in case.



It was an airborne week. It just flew by.

My week in Dublin would be wrapping up.

Did I get ahead by staying behind?

I certainly worked hard.

But most of it was just the usual.

Chasing space in the warehouse.

Books… thousands of books.

I had memorable dreams again last night.

In one, I was in an icy slushy snowy puddly parking lot, looking for a spot. I’d start to pull into one. Too small. Or blocked with a pile of snow inside. I got out and went looking on foot. I crossed a big glacier-like mound, surveying the sprawling lot for a parking space. A small car was driving by me. I heard a crash. It had driven into a huge pothole not much bigger than the car. But it was deep. The little car was underwater to its roof. I peered into it and saw a young couple inside waiting for water to get in. How could they be gotten out? The walls of the pothole prevented the doors from opening.

In another, I was at a city university with venerable old stone buildings. We (I don’t know who accompanied me) walked through one, and it had a large Portuguese restaurant in it. It was very impressive, but not open yet. We went away and had wine and conversation alfresco. When I went back and asked for a table for five, they said they were full, though most of the tables were empty.

In the last that stuck, I returned from the big city to my dorm. Soccer practice was still going on, and I could see it out the window in the quad. Although I had told them I’d be absent, I thought I should join. I tried getting ready, but nothing would work. I couldn’t tie my shoes, though I tried numerous times. Often the laces were soft colorful yarn. The coach would not be pleased if he knew I could have made it but didn’t.

I’ve been working extra hard this week.

Physical work drives problems and bad thoughts from my mind.

My work is also almost always mental, as I’m constantly reading titles and studying bindings to make decisions on their fates.

As I wrote above, I got it into my mind to cull the Reference section at the Frederick store last Friday. Why? I don’t know. Part of it was the huge collections of sheet music books I’ve been coming across. Some sell well online. Heavy Metal bands, James Taylor, Dylan, Songs from The Music Man

The classics, not so much. Not so many folks play Beethoven on pianos anymore. Anyway, those books were in piles on the floor and overflowing the regular single song sheet music bins. Those music books should be near the Music section.

The Reference section—which includes books on writing and grammar—was a dumping ground. If someone wasn’t sure where something went, they’d stuff it into Reference. If the title had the word “Dictionary” in it, some thought it should go in Reference. Dictionaries of Art, Spanish… It was full of old “How to Spell” paperbacks as well as sad-looking old mass market English dictionaries and thesauri.


There were a lot of cool things too. Books on signs and symbols—they’d do better in Mythology and its related sections. The hilarious Karen Elizabeth Gordon Transitive Vampire grammar books—lost in the muddle of old trade paper “Language” texts.

An idea lit up. Doesn’t reference and writing and language belong over in the Literature realm—maybe next to Books About Books…?

I culled heavily on Friday and Monday. Wednesday, I went back and threw myself at the back wall where Anthologies, Books about Books, Theater, Dance and Journalism molder.

Journalism? Does anyone care about old TV newsmen—dead talking heads—or defunct newspapers anymore?

I culled about half of it for pulp and Books by the Foot. From the date codes, I was finding books that had languished on the shelves for up to 8 years. Also, it was a dumping ground for things like New Yorker cartoon anthologies.


I made a pile of books that would clearly sell better elsewhere to review with staff.

Theater was filled with sad old play anthologies—anonymous and tedious-looking on the outside. Sad and pathetic paperbacks of the “Best Plays of …”

Dance? Why do we have so much? That’s a hard subject to find. Does Dance belong next to Theater or would it do better with Music five aisles over?

I worked from the floor to the top of the 8-foot shelves for hours. Ernest was over in Music, culling dead wood out of there.


It feels good to actually “DO” things.

I pulled some exciting finds from each of the categories and carried them up to the bookcases up front where New Arrivals and Fun Finds are shelved. I carved out small sections for Theater (“Act Up”), Writing (“You Should Write a Book!!”), Books About Books (“Book Love.”) With signs urging readers to check out those sections.

Fun Finds Section

Theater and Reference and Journalism will be much smaller in the future.

Theater etc. Sections

The hard work felt good, and when we were back at the warehouse, I did more book work. Mostly carts.

I brought another pallet of “Chuck Kills” from the back of the warehouse to the front.

Chuck Kills

I will be mining in there for gold as soon as I can.

That evening, I went to the hospital for the 6th time in 7 days. I hate hospitals, though the Hagerstown Meritus puts on a great show. Big, airy, bright, friendly, clean…

When will things return to normal? Ever?

Until then, I have three dogs and new family duties that I never thought I’d have.

Friday morning

The driveway is damp. We have finally been getting rain.

The big goofy dog Giles is grooming himself on the bed next to me.

“Slurp. Slurp. Slurp.”

Yesterday, I got into a terrible funk. I might need to cancel my trip to the Baltic states and Finland at the end of the month. So many little things were going wrong at work, but they added up. I should be returning from Ireland today.

I tried to distract myself by working on that “Chuck Kills” Gaylord. It was difficult work. Every book was “good.” Every book demanded a close look to decide what I should do with it.

Advanced bookselling.

My mining yielded a lot of interesting results.

I put a dent in the huge cube of books.

Chuck Kills

I took home some cardboard flats. My wonderful new housekeeper wants to clean around my battalion of lead soldiers and historical figures. They haven’t moved in ten years. They and the tartan cloth they stand upon are very dusty.

“Maybe it is time to put them away. Or sell them?”

I recall exactly when I got them. Well, most of them. I’ve added on over the years.

It was 1992. I went on a house call in Prince George’s County.

It was a house of mystery. Really. Most of the rooms in the medium-size 1950s tract house were lined with first edition mysteries. It was a wondrous collection—if you like those sorts of things.

I did then. I would subscribe to signed new release first editions from specialty mystery bookshops. There used to be a lot of those around the country. Authors would visit and do signings. If you couldn’t be present, you could buy a copy in advance, and they would get it signed for you. Soon it became like modern baseball cards. “Investors” starting getting in to it. Too many books got signed. Now most modern signed mysteries are $5 books.

The house had belonged to a single woman with a single passion—old first edition mysteries. Her home was arranged alphabetically. The books whose authors’ names began with “A” began to be shelved in the upper left-hand corner of the first room. The bookcases covered all four walls. The bottom right-hand corner of that room had perhaps “D” authors. The collection continued out into the hallway and then into the next room. Were there five rooms? More?

It was a huge comprehensive collection of vintage first edition mysteries, most in dust jacket. A lifelong collection. She would have been contemporary with books printed in the 30s and on, I would guess. Earlier mysteries would have been affordable back then. Christie, Marsh, Chandler, Hammett, Sayers… All the Elizabeth Daly‘s. I coveted those.

Another reason I recall the visit was that my 3-year-old elder son accompanied me. My younger boy wasn’t born yet.

It was memorable for another reason. The story went that the woman had a handicapped sister who lived with her. The sister kept herself occupied by painting lead figures. There were several hundred.

Lead Soldiers

I bid on the books and the “soldiers.” I bid as much as I could afford on the books.

I won the army but lost the books.

I suppose it is time to set aside the things of childhood. Tonight (maybe) I will line the first flat with an old t-shirt. I will set each figure on it as if it was a mass grave. When the first layer is full, I will get another old t-shirt. I don’t think I will have the patience to dust each person. I will shake out the tartan and see if it has faded over time.

Dusty Lead Soldiers

Will I store them or sell them?

I think I mentioned I met with the contractor who is building the warehouses. We discussed putting an addition on the Wonder Book warehouse. He sent this schematic.

Wonder Book Addition

20,000 square feet. 30-foot ceilings. 600,000 cubic feet for more books.

A wise investment?

We will see when the construction estimate drops in.

I can’t slow down.

I can’t get sick.

I can’t grow old.

There’s too much work to do.

Too many books to rescue.

6 Comments on Article

  1. David Holloway commented on

    Sorry to hear about your health problems. I agree that hospitals are not good places to visit. I’m wishing you a fast and full recovery.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks David!

  2. Lara commented on

    Hi Chuck
    Thank you for writing these. My son and I have loved reading these since pre-COVID. We both love books and have been a frequent visitors to the Frederick store. But he also love to play sax. He was very interested in the sheet music. Any chance you might have any sax music in those? Also we hope you have won the war with the groundhogs!! We look forward to those updates too. Keep up the stories. We love to hear about your work!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Dear Lara (and son),
      So cool to hear from you!
      I don’t know much about who reads these but he may be the youngest!
      Searching for Saxophone as a keyword yields a LOT of results. Mostly sheet music and CDs.
      Here’s one that is $5.30 including shipping. (I think you save an extra $1 if you have it sent to the store for pickup)

      Prices are all over the place so look through all 10 pages when you have time.

      At the stores sheet music requires a little more “treasure hunting” (digging) – as it is difficult to organize and impossible to keep organized!

      That you both so much for reading!


  3. Gregory commented on

    Congratulations on winning the battle against the groundhogs, Chuck. But not to throw cold water on you… such victories against nature are only temporary. Nonetheless, we should enjoy them while we can.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      I hope the demons have headed to unpaved lots.
      Plenty of moth balls in reserve however.
      That seemed to do the trick.
      Fingers crossed.
      Thanks for writing!

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