I Meant To Do My Work Today

Floor-to-Ceiling Bookcases
I Meant To Co My Work To-day
*That’s a Fairy Tree in the background

I meant to do my work to-day —
But a brown bird sang in the apple-tree,
And a butterfly flittered across the field,
And all the leaves were calling me.

And the wind went sighing over the land,
Tossing the grasses to and fro,
And a rainbow held out its shining hand —
So what could I do but laugh and go?

Richard Le Gallienne

Young love…

I watched the movie Friends with my first “friend” when I was a teen. I don’t think I have watched it since. That was so long ago. Seems like yesterday…

I rediscovered the poem recently in a precious little anthology called Silver Pennies.

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Reading it transported me back to my school days. Books can be time machines amongst so many other magical things.

That book has been in or near my bed for months now. It is full of wonderful “children’s” poems. Some are obscure. Some familiar. What makes a poem a child’s poem? “Lake Isle at Innisfree” is in there. Over and over again, I’ve enjoyed Yeats’ poem as man and boy. I would never consider it a children’s poem. Although some children may indeed enjoy it. The little anthology is full of magic and fairies and elves…good places to escape to. A sweet treat to pick up and open in the wee dark hours.

Last week’s book story ended with 2 vans and 4 guys driving back from a house call in Chevy Chase Maryland. We were rushing up I 270. Ernest and I were carrying a very full load of books from Mary O’Hara’s home. Clif and Kevin had gotten the last books and were going to drop their mostly empty van at our Gaithersburg Wonder Book and bring back their van full of buys.

Toward the end of that story I predicted:

I will go through the 3 boxes of O’Hara books and try to think of what we will do hundreds of Flickas in German, French, Sanskrit… I’ll come up with triaging guidelines for the rest of the books from that house. I know there will be surprises.

I’m glad we went but, gee, whiz, it was hard going up and down all those narrow steps. Clif and Ernest aren’t getting any younger… I’ll need to hire some young “backs”… lol…

But, oh, what will we do with All the Pretty Horse books?

Monday. March 25. I’m driving east on I 70 toward the Baltimore Beltway. Baltimore may be the “City that Reads,” but we don’t see many good collections come out of it. Maybe some other booksellers have it all locked up. The city is just not as fun as DC. It doesn’t have all the political and military and power people as the Capital either.

Ernest is driving so I can write. I’m going to get an early start on this week’s story. No last minute panic this Friday! My sinuses are killing me. I NEVER get sick. I’m not really sure why we are going on this one. Clif and Steve are in a van behind us. It is very expensive to bring 2 vehicles and 4 top players out. This was yet another house call dialog thread that went on and on for too long. Why this daughter got me to commit, I don’t recollect. It is 200 boxes of…I’m not sure what. I’ll know in about an hour. This is the third house call I’ve been on in 5 days! I’m falling behind on a lot of my other duties because of that.

It was a long dusty weekend in the warehouse.

I picked up that sinus thing. Huge pressure behind my eyes made me cry and sneeze and feel like my brain was too big for the skull. I never get sick…

Saturday I went through many, many carts of mostly common old books. They had been backing up because of the 2 house calls last week, the Irish booksellers the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday the week before, and all kinds of distractions in between. These easier “slush pile” carts ate up most of Saturday. I babysat Giles over the weekend.

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He is a big skinny goofy mutt. Merry and Pippin enjoy the company, I think. Our big dockyard is fenced. If I close the gate, they can all romp and cannot escape. Spring struck over Saturday and Sunday. It got up into the 60s Sunday.

There were a lot of good finds Saturday.

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There are always good finds nowadays. We go through, what, 500,000? books a month. You’re bound to find some treasure just because of the law of averages. I’ve been calling it “drinking from a firehouse” for a few years now. It can be just overwhelming. But, in most instances, the collections we buy no one else around here wants at any price. Plus since we take ALL books brought to our stores or warehouse, and people appreciate having everything “gone” in one transaction. On house calls too we almost always take “everything.”

Giles spent the night with me, and on Sunday the weather was even better. He and Merry and Pippin spent the entire day playing outside.

I spent the whole day, in nasal misery, going through carts of the most difficult, distilled, problematic material. Some carts were loaded months ago; filled with odds and ends that defy quantification…or things I had put aside thinking I might do something with them myself. Foolish. I’ve so little time for on-the-fly, al fresco bookselling. So, I was in the mood to “punt” as many of these “aging” books as possible to the internet. Unless they seemed to have exceptional potential requiring research, I began putting things in yellow tubs at various fixed price points. $19.95, $29.95, $49.95, $99.95… Others I stuck individual post-its on—$125, $175, $250, $350… I use my experience, instinct and, sometimes, a mental dart board to arrive at a value. A lot of these things I really suspect won’t have matches online. If the computer or employees can’t find matches, it will just come back to me anyway. I have a sense for what will come back “Not In System.” This will save me handling the same book twice.

Plus, if I go too high, the prices can (and DO) always come down eventually. If I go too low, I know I won’t hear any complaints.

This place is an amazing combination of old and new. It uses high tech data processing and computerized vetting for millions of books. Yet every book gets handled by a human, and a human makes the initial decisions for its fate. At the other end of this business spectrum, a human (often me) takes the computer out of the equation—we tell the computer what to do with these books. It is kind of a John Henry versus the “Machine” story. Guess who is winning?

At the end of Sunday’s workday—late afternoon, as I was waiting to go out to dinner. Giles’ owner was treating me before picking him up—I decided to treat my self to “play” with the three O’Hara boxes. They were in a little stack; each with blue “Chuck” slips protruding from a book atop it.

It was a little disappointing—the beautiful old children’s books in bright crisp jackets turned out to be later printings or book club editions. They still had value as beautiful objects. Amongst those kids books—picked on a hunch (and because they were beautiful) from a spare bedroom—was a copy of National Velvet in a bright 1950s dust jacket. I was sure it was a book club. And indeed it was. However, there was a sheet of paper clipped over the half-title page. I extracted it and…


…it was a typed letter. The words were single spaced and covered the front and back of the sheet.

“Dear Mary O’Hara…”

It was signed: “Enid Bagnold.”


I only glanced at the text. I have still not had a chance to read the text closely.

Anyway here it is:

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Enid Bagnold (Lady Jones CBE—by the way) wrote National Velvet in 1935. O’Hara My Friend Flicka (Flicka means “little girl” in Swedish) in 1941. O’Hara’s son married into British aristocracy, so the two had other things in common besides being the century’s pre-eminent horse fiction writers. The stories were hugely popular—especially among girls and young women. Both became big movies.

That was just the first two boxes. I haven’t had a chance to look at the third. Maybe this weekend. The other 200 or so boxes from Chevy Chase haven’t been started yet. Whoever gets the assignment will have firm guidelines on what to be on the lookout for.

#bookrescue…it can be so cool sometimes. It can be hard dusty mind-numbing work as well.

So… House Call number three.

Looking back at old correspondence, I was sent a “cold call” email by the daughter, Cathy, in early February. Her mom had passed, and her dad was moving out of the 2 bedroom apartment in Towson Maryland.

“Would you come buy the books?”

This interaction turned personal because of the numerous email exchanges. It got to the point where I couldn’t just put it aside or forward to Nelson Freck who does a lot of the DC region calls we get via email and telephone requests.

In one exchange, I gave her my number. Pictures and video surprised me when they appear on my phone.

The books looked fine. Nice modern books mostly on monolithic floor to ceiling bookcases. Nothing unique or rare from what I could see.

Things bounced back and forth. Finally, in mid March she bluntly asked me: “Are you coming or not?”

“Yes, we will.”


So, we are driving across Maryland, and I am wondering “Why?” We don’t need the books, the work or the time-consuming field trip.

Friday morning. This story has hardly been started. I’ve not procrastinated so much as…I dunno…I’ve been busy during the week. I frequently mused:

“I meant to write my blog today.”

The last of the books I bought at the ABAA New York City Show finally arrived Monday afternoon. I’d held the other packages back, so I could open them all at once and write checks and address envelopes all in one sitting.

It was like Christmas in the spring. Boxes and bubble wrap piled up in my office. They are all so beautiful. It is wonderful to hold and own them for a time. You saw a couple of the finds in Abandon All Hope a couple weeks ago.

Here are the rest:

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The first appearance off Poe’s Raven in a bound volume of The American Review—A Whig Journal. Odd, whoever the editor was in 1845 to choose that particular poem to print in what was primarily a political periodical.

A large paper limited edition of The Crock of Gold signed by the author James Stephens. It is illustrated with tipped in color plates executed by Thomas MacKenzie. It is, among other things, an Irish fairy story. Go figure.

A nice original pen and ink drawn by Arthur Rackham of a “fairy” from the Brothers’ Grimm. A friend also had a Rackham watercolor on display, but that was 6 figures. Maybe some day…

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A first of Pickwick Papers with an autograph note signed by Charles Dickens tipped inside. Dickens writes that the autograph was done at the Westminster Hotel in New York. He only spent one (unhappy) day in the City during his famous American tour.

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A 1670 treatise on Cider Making bound with two other 17th century botanical works.

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There were a few others too…

But back to the house call.

I texted Cathy when we were 10 minutes out. She said she would meet us outside the apartment complex and guide us in.

It was a brilliant day in the mid 50s. A good day for a house call.

There she was on the sidewalk up ahead. Blond, black blouse, jeans and knee-high black suede boots. She hopped in after Ernest hopped out. She told me which alley to pull into, and Clif and Steve followed.

“My mom was an organized hoarder. She was devoted to her books, but there are so !#%&ing many of them!”

We parked by a loading door, and it was a short walk down the hallway to her parents’ place.

In the living room were bookcases of mostly vintage children books. Most were unsellable series by forgotten authors. The children who had read them were long dead. The adults who had collected them as remembrances of their youth were also now dead. Current children don’t read them. Current adults have no connections with them. The actual stories have not stood the test of time. Most will go to Books by the Foot where old kids books are still very popular—for their looks—not content.

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Some had lasted. The early (but not first) editions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s series and Pooh books and…will go to the stores.

We used to be able to sell Grace Livingston Hill quite well. No longer.

A couple dozen Elsie Dinsmore books in matching red publishers’ bindings? I pulled some off the shelves at the Frederick stores a couple weeks ago. They had languished there for 5 years according to the code next to the prices. Surrender…

There were 3 shelves of old horse stories! All the Pretty Horse stories. These horse titles by Farley and Henry et al. still sell. They’ll go to the stores.

“Most are in here. Damn it, Mom!”

I followed her into a spare bedroom that had been converted into a library. Three long walls were covered floor to ceiling bookcases.

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“Mommmmm!!!!” the daughter shouted to the heavens. Her face in a grimace aimed at the ceiling. “If you’ll get these out of here, you’ll be my best friend,” she said to me as an aside.

Ernest, Clif and Steve were rolling through the front door with stacks of boxes atop two-wheel hand trucks.

“Let’s start packing.”

We all dropped to our knees in front of various bookcases. My patellas were grateful the carpet was plush.

The books were beautiful. Modern but all in perfect condition. My eyes focused, and I saw theme after theme.

The daughter returned. “Mom was quite the anglophile. Let me show you the books in the walk-in.”


I followed her into a large bath and dressing room complex. The tub had neatly cut pine boards covering it. Bankers boxes rose past the shower head and up to the ceiling. I’ve seen worse. I’ve seen bathtubs and sinks and freezers all overflowing with loose books.

“Goddammit, Mom!!!”

I followed her into the dressing room and walk-in closet behind the spacious bath complex. More boxes and a couple glass-front barrister bookcases. One was full of Maryland and Pennsylvania genealogy titles. Obscure lists of graves, property owners, ship passengers…

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“These genealogy books are actually really good,” I told her.

“Really?! Will you take all her research? We don’t know what to do with it all. All these boxes are full of notes and pamphlets.”

“Sure…” I replied with reluctance.

There were at least 20 boxes against the wall she was pointing at.

“What will you do with them?”

“I’ll try to find a specialist who may be able to determine if they can go as an archive to an institution.”

I went back out to the living room to pack the old kids books and segregate some that shouldn’t go to Books by the Foot. The dad was seated there looking very frail with a walker before him. But his eyes were bright.

“My wife sure loved her books.”

“They are beautiful, and she kept them so well organized.”

I looked at the wall above, and there was John Hancock!

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“You’re keeping that, I assume.”

“Yes. Yes. My wife and I found that when we were first married. It’s an officer’s commission from the Republic of Massachusetts.”

“How cool.”

This room and the dining room and hallways were lined with glass cabinets. All were fun of various ceramic collections. Lladro, Doulton…

I went back to the spare bedroom.

“I wish this woman had been my grandma,” Ernest said speaking from his knees. “These books are great. I found a whole shelf of books on English submarines!”

Ernest is pretty crusty and often gruff. It is rare and grudgingly that he bestows compliments.

I knelt on the carpet and packed runs of Georgette Heyer, Jean Plaidy, Gnome books, Edward Gorey, Charles Addams, CS Harris St Cyr UK firsts in perfect jackets, a run of books on death and cemeteries and human malformation…bizarre.

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40 some books on hedgehogs!? Bizarre! Mostly kid stories…

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We were packed. Both vans were full. It was early Monday afternoon.

I knelt at the coffee table before the old man to write a check. There was a stack of 5 or 6 modern books.

“Are you keeping these?”

“Yes. I don’t know why.”

I lifted a massive set of keys off the top book and revealed its cover.

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I laughed out loud.

It felt good. I’ve been laughing a lot lately.

Suddenly it is Friday afternoon.

I’ve got to go get a picture taken for a magazine story. Why didn’t I get my hair cut? I look so scruffy.

“Been a bit busy?”

My book muse…

“Making a cameo at the end of this story? Did you steer me toward Towson?”

“What do you think? Worth the bother?”

“It was fun, but now I’m so far behind.”

“I’m glad you’re laughing a bit. I was na sure ye’d ever get out of it.”

“Fingers crossed. It is what it is. As Dr C used to say: ‘It’ll either get better or it won’t.'”

“There’ll be more laughs as the rest of this hoard is sorted, I’ll wager.”

The books go ever on and on. They reach back in time or into the future. They take me back to youth and childhood. They make my present interesting and mentally stimulating. They comfort me for the future that is unknown and closing in so fast.

Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.

JRR Tolkien

8 Comments on Article

  1. Michael Dirda commented on

    Great story–and what a nice-looking library! I envy you that edition of “The Crock of Gold,” a book I’m very fond of. I wrote a piece about it for the WaPo a year or so back. If you–or anyone else reading the blog–cares to check it out, just search for “Dirda, Stephens, Crock of Gold, Washington Post” and it should come up.
    I collect–in a loose way–Gnome Books and Georgette Heyer, so I’ll have to come out sometime to check out your new acquisitions.
    And sorry to hear about the sinus problems. Just four days ago I started a round of Prednisone to treat what may be . . . gout. Sigh. The bloodwork hasn’t come back yet, so I’m not entirely sure. Fortunately, I got to take a first massive dose the night before I had to give a talk at the University of Mary Washington, where–as it happens–I quoted the wonderful first lines of “The Crock of Gold.” Strange synchronicity.
    But I’d better stop writing. This isn’t my blog. Still, I’d love a job where I got to pick through 500,000 books a month–provided the books weren’t all by James Patterson, Danielle Steel or Stephen King or weren’t all dealing with social security reform and how to program a Kaypro computer. –md

    1. chuck replied on

      Thank you Michael.
      I’m surprised that Crock of Gold has not stood the test of time for general popularity. I do find it is beloved by “book people” such as you and other knowledgable friends.
      I will seek out the WaPo piece.
      I have a couple friends with occasional gout. Excruciating. Fortunately, my affliction was brief.
      A life of book dust has my sinuses usually impervious to assault.
      Please, write comments any time and as long as you wish!
      Thanks. Chuck

  2. David Holloway commented on

    Great story Chuck! I love reading your posts and living the book life vicariously! I really have to come see you soon!!

    1. chuck replied on

      Come visit. Geoff is planning to soon I believe.
      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Victoria Breeden commented on

    Teddy Bears and books and poetry and a dog…doesn’t get any better than that! “Biblioholism” — perfect!! Wonderful blog entry, thank you, as always.

    1. Chuck replied on

      Thank you for the kind words. It means a lot to know they are being read and enjoyed.
      Best, Chuck

  4. Ellen Anderson commented on

    If my week includes your blog and Mr. Dirda’s book review, I’m a happy woman. And I love how you thrive on books and the anticipation of finding something tasty.

    1. Chuck replied on

      I am also very heartened that Michael reads and comments from time to time.
      Your comment is wonderful!
      Thanks you for reading and commenting.
      A big goal in these stories has been to capture and share how the secondary book market works now and over the past decades I’ve been doing this.
      Best, Chuck

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