Almost exactly two years ago, I posted the story of when the Russian hordes poured over the ramparts at Wonder Book.
Here’s link to it:
You should read THAT first. Otherwise this story may not make a lot of sense.
This week’s book story tells of the fates of 150,000 Russian books we rescued from being scooped and tipped in to a roll off dumpster by one of the more bizarre characters I’ve dealt with. I think it is pretty funny. And it’s true. At least as true as memory permits. You’ll also see a character who appeared in many of the early book stories—the Book Muse.
I wonder where she’s been lately.
I’m guessing she will insinuate herself in this story—the belated final chapters of the Russian hordes.
Here are links to stories about Victor Kamkin Books—at one time the largest Russian bookseller in this hemisphere:
- Victor Kamkin Bookstore on Wikipedia
- Victor Kamkin Bookstore The Washington Post article
- Victor Kamkin Bookstore Gazette article
- Victor Kamkin Bookstore languagehat’s blog article
By way of background, here’s a paragraph from Wikipedia about Kamkin. This last paragraph is NOT true! Don’t believe everything you read online. I was there.
[Victor Kamkin Bookstore] Termination
In 2002 flagging sales, increased competition, and escalating costs foreshadowed a forced end to the operation. With some two million unsold volumes remaining in inventory, the store became the object of widespread media coverage, and thousands of customers flooded the store. Some 60,000 volumes were additionally saved from incineration through the prompt action of Congressional Representative Connie Morella and Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. The reprieve proved to be short-lived, however, and although some more marketable titles made their way to the inventories of other retailers of Russian-language books, hundreds of thousands of volumes were ultimately destroyed at the time of the store’s forced liquidation in 2006.
If you’ve read the 2017 Wonder Book Blog, you will see that Wikipedia is not infallible. Wonder Book acquired at least several hundred thousand Russian books (and books in English and other languages)—snatching them from the iron jaws of an aggressive commercial site clearer’s Bobcat front-end loader. His name was Buddy. He seemed to enjoy, very much, using his tractor to scoop books from the floor of the defunct Kamkin book warehouse in Gaithersburg, Maryland. He would drive the vehicle out into the parking lot and dump them into a huge metal roll off dumpster. At night, elderly Russian women would appear and pick through the books. Buddy told me they were dressed in black and wore shawls and wept for the books all night long. It was, in that way, very much like a Greek tragedy. The women were the Chorus. Who was the hero? Who was the villain? What was the deus ex machina?
I’ll let you decide.
Russkie Knigi—The Rest of the Story
I’m writing this from the perspective of December 2019.
Hindsight is golden.
I’d come to the realization that my brilliant acquisition of 10,000s of “new” Russian books from the Victor Kamkin book enterprise certainly wasn’t a slam-dunk. I was unable to flip the lot as I’d thought I could. Now, these many years later, I’m guessing all the big Russian book dealers in the USA were already aware of the Kamkin hoard and its contents, scope and circumstances.
To them these books were “sheeet.”
I had “punted” almost all of them into 3 rental trailers that only cost $80 a month to rent ($85 when you include tax.) Of course, out of sight they were also out of mind. They languished in those trailers for 7 years.
We were warned in 2009 our warehouse was scheduled for demolition in 2014. I began looking for a new warehouse in 2012. In the spring of 2013, the US Postal Service put an abandoned distribution facility on the market. It was huge. 130,000 square feet on 14 acres. It was in Frederick, Maryland. It was built for shipping and receiving. It had 21 loading docks, 160 parking spaces. It was less than 20 years old. It was perfect for our use.
It was 7 million dollars.
Chris Kline, who has helped me with leases and property since the beginning told me it was a good deal.
“Make an offer. You never know.”
I am debt averse. EXTREMELY so. We ran numbers with the accountant and lawyers and bankers. How much could I afford? What size loan would a bank be willing to offer me?
Kicking and screaming. Terrifying. Nail biting. Sleeplessnessing. For weeks, the deal hovered before me on my desk. It hovered before me in my nightmares.
“You can do this. When it is all done, you’ll be paying less than you are paying in rent now—for nearly twice the space,” Chris advised.
I knew this on one level. On the other level, it was millions of dollars of debt I’d be shackled with.
We made the offer. It was substantially lower than their asking price. Substantially…
I worried, fretted, sweated, strained…
They refused my offer. They made a counter much higher.
With relief, I refused their counter. I told Chris my offer was the maximum I could do.
We continued searching for something to rent or buy.
I was not ready to retire in my late 50s, to dismantle and liquidate Wonder Book.
About 5 months later, Chris called.
“The post office’s broker called. They want the property off their books by the end of this fiscal year. They will accept your offer if you settle before September 30th.”
“Ummmm… I don’t know, Chris. That amount of money terrifies me. I just don’t think I…”
“I’m coming over. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
He entered my office. He’s tall. 6′ 2″ in his youth. He used to be very thin and model handsome. When I first met him, he could have stepped out of a Lord & Taylor men’s fashion spread. He is still handsome. Maybe a little less than 6′ 2″ nearly 40 years since we first met, and he was a young real estate broker, and I was an even younger novice bookseller.
I rose and faced him to shake his hand.
He put a finger to my chest and said: “You’ve GOT to do this. This is a great deal.”
He was telling me to pull the trigger. It was for my own good.
I signed the paper.
The US Government accepted.
We settled in September 2013.
Whenever you move. you look for things that aren’t worth moving.
I had 8 or so trailers out in the parking lot that I was renting. The three with the 7-year-old Russian acquisitions was certainly on the chopping block.
I took a stepladder out into the vast parking and unlocked the trailers and climbed in. The Russian trailers were a dreadful mess. Loose books were sprawled and splayed all over the floors. I quickly affirmed my decision. I wasn’t moving these trailers to our new 130,000 square foot warehouse on the southeast side of Frederick.
I clambered out and walked across the lot to our old warehouse. It was then I had what may be termed a “Mathematic Epiphany.” I’d rented these trailers for about 7 years. 7 times 12 is 84. 84 MONTHS. Each trailer was about $85 per month to rent. 84 times 85 equals $7140.00. 3 trailers… I’d spent over TWENTY ONE THOUSAND dollars storing the “sheeet” in my parking lot.
I KNOW I’d cautioned many collectors and potential booksellers: “Be careful renting storage units. Each month’s rent adds that much to the cost of the books you are storing.”
Why didn’t anyone caution ME?!
Wait! There’s faulty logic there.
“Ah, me. Jes when I think ye have a bit of improvement you get all vague on me again.”
* “She Who Must Be Obeyed.” My own Ayesha. My Book Muse with whom I’ve been fortunate to have been paired since…I dunno…If you haven’t read any of the previous book stories here’s the skinny. I hear voices. Well, just one voice. One with a lovely Irish (Or is it Welsh? Maybe she changes it to tease me?) accent. This voice, though often chiding, has, over the decades helped me immensely. Often, I don’t even know I’m being “helped” until all is made clear—in the end. I’ve almost always found her “advice” to be sound—eventually. Even if I didn’t understand what she was getting on about in the beginning.”—From Trees Into Books, Books Into Trees
“You’re back! I thought you’d abandoned me.”
“I’ve been around. Ye jes were not paying attention. And ye have not required, what is the term these days?—In-ter-vent-shun.”
“You’ve been around?”
“If you look at some of your recent stories, perhaps you will see me here and there.”
“Are you…were you? …?”
“I’m trying to recall those heady days when we moved the warehouse.”
“That was indeed an epic tale of biblio relocation. When will you write that story?”
“It is so BIG. Perhaps you can help get me started.”
“Perhaps. But just now I am to try a bit of Russian intervention with you.”
“You certainly did back then.”
“Kicking and screaming… Where should I begin? I so hated the liquidation of all the Russkie Knigi.”
“All? ALL? You did pretty weell, all things considered, on placing many of them. Close your eyes, and go back to when you first put them, most of them, in the trailers.”
“The trailers were your idea.”
“Aye. Perhaps. But I shoor did na think ye’d keep them all those years.”
“21,000 dollars in rent on dead storage.”
“‘Dead.’ Not so dead. Remember Vlad?”
“Oh yeah! Vlad the ‘Impicker.’ I’d forgotten him.”
“There ye go. Start there. I’m off.”
“Tir Nan Nog?”
“Perhaps a trifle chilly there jes now. Ta!”
I’ve dealt with so many characters over the decades. How could I have forgotten him?
I had three trailers of Russian books out in my parking lot. I was trying to market them in any way I could think of.
The Russian sections in our bookstores greatly expanded. We stocked attractive sets of Checkhov, Gogol, Pushkin…
They sold very poorly. But I did start to get inquiries because of them.
Many were inquires asking: “Do you want more Russian books?”
These came from individuals and Russian churches and…
That’s how I met Vlad. He contacted me and said he had been buying Russian books at all 3 stores. He sold them online. Mostly to readers in Russia.
We set a time, and he came to the warehouse. I carried the aluminum stepladder out to the first trailer. We both clambered aboard.
He was short, balding, probably in his 50s but looked older. His fingertips were stained brown with nicotine. He wore a tattered saggy sweater vest. Baggy woolen trousers. His plain black shoes looked like nothing you would buy in America.
He poked around the last pallets on the tail of the truck.
“Sheeet.” He continued: “But perhaps I can put a dent in this mess.”
“How many do you think you can take? If you take 1000 at a time, I’ll let you have them for a buck a piece.”
“Sheeet!” He continued: “I cannot see vat is behind these here on the tail of the trailer.”
“I climb across the tops of the pallets all the time in the warehouse. It’s kinda cool. Like swimming atop a sea of books.”
“Sheet. I vill do vat I can. Bring me boxes, and I will take what I can.”
I brought out a few dozen banker boxes and set some on the tail of each Russkie Trailerski.
Some hours later, Vlad appeared behind me as I was sitting at my desk.
“I haf some books.”
We went out, and there were several boxes filled on the ground behind each trailer. The level of the deck of the trailer is just about neck high. I peered into the dark and saw… a mess.
Books, torn boxes, crumpled wrapping paper, twine, trash, debris… littered the deck and the tops of the visible pallets of books.
“What happened?” I asked pointing at the mess.
“It vas the only way I could get to the books below the top layers. You should have someone come and pull out the trash. I set some books aside along the walls that you might be able to sell in your shops. How much do you want for these?”
He indicated the boxes on the ground. There were 11 or 12 boxes. I estimated 25-30 books per box. Maybe he’d picked 300 books from 150,000. Not an auspicious start.
“Well, there are about 300 books here. How about 300…”
He was silent.
We shook hands. He pulled out a bulging worn brown leather wallet. It was stuffed with slips of paper, business cards and… cash. Wads of cash.
He counted out 100 dollars in 5’s and 10’s.
“I need to charge you sales tax unless you have a Maryland resale number.”
He put an additional 5 into my hand.
“Will you want more?”
“I vill be in touch.”
So began irregular visits from Vlad. He never took a lot of books. He made an atrocious mess. But he did pull out books he felt we could sell in the stores. His mining of the trailers also uncovered veins of books in English and other Roman alphabet languages.
Still, the hundreds of books he took each visit, and the hundreds we pulled on his recommendation to sell in the shops or online barely put a dent in the trailers.
We tried putting Russian titles on our internet stock. It was an absolute failure.
Nowadays, I can simply aim my iPhone at a Russian book and using my Google Translate App the words will appear in English. Back then it was tough slogging.
There were a lot of very attractive sets. We probably had 50 complete sets of Checkhov that looked like this:
They didn’t sell online.
“Why not try them as Books by the Foot? They’re very pretty.”
Our regular clients politely declined. I’m pretty sure, in hindsight, they were choking on laughter.
“Put Russian books in 5th Avenue store windows for Christmas? Is he kidding?!”
I sent more Russkie Knigi to the three stores—much to the managers’ distress. The Russians were taking over a great deal of real estate in the shops.
I made the executive decision to reduce all Russian books in the stores to $1 each.
We sold a few thousand to a guy who repurposes books. He didn’t care what was inside (as long as wasn’t offensive.) All he cared about were the dimensions and the price. He wanted books VERY cheap.
Here’s an example of a before and after of the kind of thing these folks do.
Then someone complained that the books were in a funny language, and they told us—”No More Books that aren’t in English.”
In 2011, we began negotiations with a broker for what is still our largest transaction in Books by the Foot. It took a long time, but a deal was finally struck.
We contracted to wrap about 40,000 hardback books wrapped in linen. An additional spec was that the end user wanted the books’ spines stained with tea.
That is a story in itself which perhaps I can record sometime. We were sworn to secrecy because the broker didn’t want the retailer (a large international chain store) to know who the manufacturer (us) was.
The “middle man” distrusted the business people on either side of his company.
Each to the retailer’s 150 plus stores required a certain number of these books. The books roughly fell into 7 or 8 general sizes. We had to source thousands of books in those sizes.
It was a rough learning curve on how to efficiently wrap the books in duck cloth.
The “tea staining”? I brainstormed that. At first I thought of using a paintbrush.
That wasn’t very effective.
Then I thought of using a paint roller.
Nope. It took a lot of time, and the results weren’t great.
I do a lot of gardening. Somehow the idea came to me to try a garden sprayer.
When full production proceeded and we were wrapping hundreds of books a day, I began “brewing” gallons of tea. I would buy boxes of cheap teabags. I’d turn the hot water on in the mop sink until it was as hot as it could get. I’d throw handfuls of teabags into buckets and fill the buckets with hot water. I’d let it steep overnight or for a few days. I would pour the brown water into the garden sprayer and hose down the books’ spines shelved tight on metal book carts.
We moved some Russkie Knigi that way.
I got requests for more of the giant Antarctic portfolio atlases. The stores had hip high stacks of them in their Russian aisles.
Turns out an art teacher had told her students these were a perfect size and very cheap for them to repurpose as art portfolios for their creative endeavors on paper.
Back to 2013 and the “Move.”
The three Russian trailers were a mess. Vlad’s burrowing and our own searches turned them into a sloppy mess of books, wrapping paper, boxes, twine… stuff.
We set up empty Gaylords on the tail of each truck, and I instructed folks to fill them with the remaining books and paper.
“If you find anything in English or that very attractive in binding or in content, set it aside.”
Someone found a little stash of these:
This was a copy of the weirdly bound medieval bestiary book that had convinced me to take on this Russian expedition.
I’ve saved a small stack of these… somewhere. Right now this worn example is all I can put my hands on.
It reminds me of so much.
Books take you places. This book takes me back to Kamkin, Buddy and Whiskey, the Vietnamese “Texas Diner” and an important period in the growth of “Wonder.”
In the intervening years, we still find errant Russkie Knigi here and there in the new warehouse and stores.
I’ve discovered many of the Mir Publishing science books sell pretty well for 50 or so dollars. They’re in English and usually pretty small and they still appear on shelves in the stores’ backwater science and tech sections.
Was it a total disaster—like Napoleon or Hitler invading Russia in the winter?
We probably broke even considering the “free” metal shelving and the books we actually sold which were offset by the labor and the $21,000 lost rents.
Would I do it again?
…Well, maybe. I know a lot more about marketing books now than 12 years ago. Maybe we could…
“Aye. Ye’re a fool. A fool fer books.”
“It was your idea. Were you teasing or vexing me?”
“Perhaps. Or perhaps it was part of yer learning curve. And you saved a lot of the Kamkin books from Buddy.”
“Yes. There’s that.”
“And look at these pictures you found not so long ago.”
My gaze was magically steered toward a wall where some images from the “archive” hung.
“Who was that?” I chuckled.
“A fool. A fool for love. Book love and…”