Humble and Grand


You never know what is behind that front door (if there IS a door!)

I’m pretty sure I’ve already written: “Some of my best house calls have been in rusting mobile homes on rural hillsides. Some of the worst have been in Georgetown mansions.”

The two following calls both happened in the last week and…well, you’ll see when you read through.


An email dropped in just before Christmas:

Hi Chuck

Hope you are doing well. I left a voicemail for the warehouse yesterday and had not heard back so I called again and spoke with Grace.

My team and I are clearing out a house with multiple libraries filled with books.

It is my understanding that in cases of over 1000 items you would arrange to have them picked up. This is time sensitive and I was hoping to find out if this is something that could be arranged on such short notice. Ideally next week or the week after is when we would need them picked up.

Please let me know if this is even an option so I can move forward with a plan.

Thank you for your attention to this matter…

This time of year we don’t get as many books in due to the holidays and cold weather. So I decided to pursue this one myself.

I replied asking what town the books were in. If they are too far or in a difficult venue, I might try to get a scout to do the leg work.

“Chevy Chase, MD.”

Which is one of the wealthiest spots in the country.

Her email sounded like she was a house clearing company. We’ve worked with a number of these. Some specialize in therapeutic treatment of hoarders. Some help ill or elderly residents down size in anticipation of moving. Some clear out residences of deceased or abandoned homes. They can be dreadful. Some of the “We will empty your attics and basements” guys we have trained to bring the books to us. Usually, mostly junk. Often brought to us unceremoniously in big black lawn size trash bags.

I’ve had some real good ones as well. A guy from a company called “Caring Transitions” called me a couple years ago. There was the wealthy aerospace engineer’s estate in Potomac. We found he hoarded wine as well. I picked up a few hundred bottles of 1960s-80s wine for a song. And I’m guessing that is all they are worth. But that’s a story for another time. (I still haven’t opened one. Does that make me a hoarder?)

I asked if she could send some pictures of the shelves. She sent a dozen or so. They just looked ok. But my instincts said: “Go.”

So it is December 27, 2017. Clif is driving one of the big Ford Wonder vans down I 270. Now widened to 6 lanes—it is still not enough. We will take the Spur to the Inner Loop of the DC Beltway—495 to Connecticut Avenue. Connecticut Ave south toward DC where there’s so much money and power.

I’m in the passenger seat typing away and checking emails and posting on Instagram.

I love Connecticut Avenue. There are so many great and memorable restaurants, the Zoo and on down to DuPont Circle shopping and dining and then the museums and monuments and city center. I’ve had some great times on this road.

I’ve also had some memorable house calls in the surrounding areas…

Well, we are here. Nice fancy neighborhood!

Fingers crossed!

Big House

Well, 3 hours of hard packing and toting in a beautiful old Chevy Chase manse.

I am so tired and sore!

We are on our back up I-270 driving toward the beautiful exurb of Frederick Maryland.

The house was large. Very large. 3 big stories and a full basement. When we arrived, we backed into the long gravel drive to get as close to the front door as possible.

The doorbell was answered by my contact who turned out to be a vivacious designer. Her boss was there as well and every bit of body language she exuded was high end design. Their job is to get high end homes cleared, dressed and staged—ready for market. So, the excess and unattractive stuff must go. They would leave the stuff they felt would show well that would enhance the home’s appeal…and value. This house would bring in a lot of money. A LOT. Super high end neighborhood a block from Congressional Country Club…

She led us through the home-starting on the third floor. There were four big bedrooms but only two of them had bookcases. There was a large landing between the second and third floors. A 10 foot by 6 foot built-in bookcase filled the wall where the stairs turned.

The second floor only had small bookcases in two rooms*. But a large bookcase filled a wall in the old fashioned large circular hallway from which doorways opened like spokes on a wheel.

On the first level there was a wall of books above low built in cabinets in the large living room which extended in a sprawl in an “L” along one side and the front of the house. Off to the side was stacks of plastic tubs full of books. Each was marked “staging.”

Plastic Tubs

The den had two walls of books wrapping around a corner and then another “floating” bookcase attached to a wall opposite with heavy duty angled steel supports.


There were just a handful of cookbooks in the kitchen but the kitchen table was covered with 50-60 vintage Martini and wine glasses.

“There are more books in the basement.”

There were far more books than I had estimated from her correspondence and images. And many of them were on the upper floors. I don’t mind packing, lifting and toting, but this was going to be a lot more time than I’d budgeted. Had I known the scope of the collection I would have brought another van and more help.

We set to work. In one of the bedrooms up high on the third floor I assumed the bookseller’s position—on my knees pulling books off shelves from the bottom shelves and setting them in Banker’s boxes. As a box filled I’d set an empty atop it and pack that from higher shelves on up to 3-4 boxes high. I learned this years ago. It saves reaching up 5-6 feet and then bending down to place books in boxes on the floor. Getting boxes closer to the books saves time and labor. Then came the hard work. The stairs. LOTS of stairs. Down 8 stairs to the big landing (where the window looks out onto the large wooden porch and long unused tennis court beyond.)

Window View

Turn left and down another 8 stairs to the second floor. Turn again and down the main stair case to the first floor. Across the long entry hall through a door to the entry, then through the front door, then down one step to the front porch. Across the porch and down 7 steps to the walkway. I’d stack boxes there. Then back upstairs. Repeat. Repeat. REPEAT….

Clif was doing the same. When there were 20 or so staged on the walkway we would stack the boxes 5 high on the tongue of a two wheeled hand truck and roll them down the walkway. At the end of the walkway there were 2 MORE steps. We’d bump down those to the gravel drive and then push the cart over bumpy terrain til we’d get to the van. Lift the boxes onto the van and when things got cluttered clamber up in the van and stack them to the ceiling in there.

Repeat. Repeat. REPEAT….

Overall the books were fine but in many ways disappointing. I’d been hoping for exotic rarities and things I’d never seen before. Then I began to discover some of the owners’ history via the books the had. He had been a lawyer. Yale undergrad and law school (his yearbooks were there.) His father and grandfather were as well. 3 generations…wait…there’s a 1979 Yale Banner—so I guess 4 generations.

There were lots of modern novels—lots and LOTS. In the den and living room there was history, current events (which almost all “history” now) and political books. Most of the political books had to do with Civil Rights and social causes. Glancing through a few I found some were autographed. Nothing great or exciting so far. We get thousands of signed books every month. Most don’t enhance the value of common books.

We packed and were leaving when the designer rushed up to us.

“There are more books!”

She led me upstairs to a second floor bedroom we hadn’t been shown before. A small bookcase. Another 8 or 10 boxes to schlep downstairs…

Then we were done. The big extended Ford van was loaded front to back. Floor to ceiling.

On the way back, I began Googling the family.

The husband, David Isbell, is deceased. He had passed away at 82 in 2011 from West Nile Virus of all things. The man began taking shape as I googled further. The Washington Post obituary states he was a Senior Partner in one of DC’s top firms. He was President of the DC Bar for 2 years in the 80s but his real passion seems to have been social causes. He was an Assistant Director of the Commission of civil Rights in the 60s and 70s and an Executive Director of the ACLU for many years. He was the longest serving professor at UVa (one the countries top law schools.) Among other things he taught courses in Civil Liberties. If you want to know there are 263 pages of oral history transcribed on the DC Oral History site.

I was told his wife, Florence, is in her 90s and had moved to assisted living. I did a quick search about her, and news stories popped up.

At the age of 19, Florence went to work for Roger Baldwin—founder of the ACLU in New York City. Then she joined the fight for the rights of Japanese Americans incarcerated in interment camps during World War II.

She continued her work with the ACLU, and nearly 20 years later:

1971. WASHINGTON, Dec. 20 — The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in the United States District Court here today to stop the Federal Government from dismissing employees solely because they are homosexuals…. Florence Isbell, Executive Director of the A.C.L.U. here, said that the suit was the first class action brought on behalf of former Government employees who had been dismissed for being homosexuals.

The New York Times, Dec. 21, 1971

Driving back I thought: “We will have to look at these books more closely. They may be almost all “common” but their owners were not. Perhaps some are “enhanced.”

At the warehouse I told the guys that would unload the van to keep the books segregated and to label the pallets so they would be sorted with closer specs that the other books the pour in here…

It turned out to be 4 and a half pallets. About 200 boxes Clif and I had packed and toted in about 2 and a half hours. Grunt work!


An hour later an email dropped in from the designer. She’d found another room with a bookcase! The picture showed more of the same. Only a small case. I told her we don’t go into rooms we’re not instructed to…

As I write this, we’ve gone through about half the collection. So far nothing to knock my socks off. But still interesting and some reminders of so much progress which has been made since the 1960s.



*As you can see now, 4 rooms on the second story had bookcases!


The other house call that week some days before the one above was in Frederick. It was a phone call recording transcribed and attached to my office doorjamb on a Post-It.

“Over a thousand books. Frederick…”

I asked Clif to call and set it up. I decided to go along. It was on a familiar street and it was a bright sunny day. I thought a short field trip would do me good.

We pulled up in front of a nice duplex.


The son answered the door and led us through the small living room and dining adjunct area into the kitchen where there were steep steps down to the basement.

At the bottom of the stairs the small basement was made smaller by three walls of bookcases interspersed with stacked packed boxes floor to nearly the ceiling.


I did a quick inspection. Nothing exciting but they were dry. So many basement book collections are compromised by dampness and what that does to books.

I made the token offer and it was accepted. The son told us to pull around back onto the lawn and we could unload out the back door.

Graciously, he was willing to help and the books were whisked up, through the little kitchen and out into the light. Some people just sit and watch us do the work. Others feel the need or desire to help us. If they ask I always quip: “If you help it’ll get us out of your hair faster!”

I noticed there were cookbooks. LOTS of cookbooks. Many of the boxes already packed had “Cook Book” written in marker on the sides. A lot of the cookbooks were “haute cuisine”—Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, Escoffier, Brillat-Savarin, MFK Fisher…


And there were a lot of exotic and niche cookbooks as well. From Provence to Puerto Rico to Smith Island—that anomaly in Chesapeake Bay.

Carrying boxes in and out from the basement steps through the kitchen to the back door—the kitchen was tiny. The floor space was maybe 6×10. Cozy and warm and friendly but hardly capable of grand gourmet cuisine performances. The boxes of cookbooks would more than fill the kitchen chest high!


I asked to use the rest room and was directed upstairs. In the living room I passed the mom seated on a recliner with a wall of books behind. She was quite lovely and, perhaps, vaguely familiar.

She smiled warmly and said: “You won’t get these for awhile.”

Back at the warehouse I asked the sorters to put some aside for me. It was a conundrum.

They found some of my old bookmarks from the 1980s. The family HAD been customers.

Christmas Bookmarks

They also found some yearbooks. Much humbler than the Chevy Chase home. But I recognized the name and face of the father. He had been a good customer. And he’d been a professor at regional schools up this way. He’d taken some of his classes to Russia. And from guides I found they’d done plenty of personal traveling as well.

And their books could transport them to the grandest Michelin kitchen in Paris just as well as the wealthy lawyers’ books.

Books are a great equalizer. Social justice on paper.

Well, those were two small stories from Christmas Week 2017. We will see what the next year brings…

(We will be offering new t-shirts in the upcoming weeks:

“I’m a book lover. I travel through time and space whenever I want.”)

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