It was an anonymous post-it on my door. It was just one of a couple dozen or so that get taped up there every week. Almost all are for people that want us to come buy their books.
I rarely return any of the calls personally. There’s just too much to do here. And if I do call, it is always a case of reinventing the wheel—explaining what we do to the person on the other end of the conversion. That’s tedious. And I’m pretty shy about talking to people. And I really don’t like disappointing people—as so often happens. Most messages get forwarded to scouts who make the contact and either go and buy or just offer to pickup or tell the seller the books are just not worth the labor and transport of picking them up.
But this one caught my eye back at the end of January for several reasons:
In a leap of faith, I had bought a small farm in Gettysburg in 1980. Just months after I opened the bookstore in Frederick. I didn’t have any money. I had a house in Rockville I’d inherited when my parents died. Some banker took a chance, and the money was lent. How…I still have no idea.
Those early years were tough financially but rewarding in so many ways. I was doing the “back to the earth” thing. Gardening, recycling books, raising a steer and barn cats… I was “green” before green, in that meaning, was a word.
So, when I have a promising excuse to go to up US 15 and cross the Mason Dixon Line, I try to do it.
One of the earliest books stories records such a trip: The End of Life, the Civil War, History, and the Book…
Why it took me 3 months to get there for this one, I don’t know. When I called the doctor, he sounded old and tired. It was clear he wanted his books to have a happy ending. I think one delay was for his health. Then winter can make scheduling problematic as well.
He called a few times. I called a few times. When I called at the end of April, he told me he was having major surgery in mid May, and it would be good to do this before then.
That was the spur to get me to make it happen.
I love the drive north on 15. Spring is especially nice. The highway parallels the Catoctin mountain ridge to the west. That is the easternmost range of the Appalachians in these parts. Going north you pass the secret entrances to Camp David—the Presidential Retreat. All you can see from the road are trees and low mountains, but all the locals know it’s there. Further north you pass the Grotto of Lourdes and the enormous statue of Mary in gold holding her hands out toward the east.
Soon I was crossing into Pennsylvania across the Mason Dixon Line. My old home is just a quarter mile off the highway, but there was no time to stop.
The phone led me further and further north. The exit off 15 for the doctor’s house was Rt 30—the Lincoln Highway. Then north more and more into farmland. Soon the phone gave me her last instructions: “Turn left, and the destination is on your left.”
His street was a 60-year-old development of long low houses each on an acre or two, some were stone. All were clearly upper middleclass homes.
I parked and walked to the front door. I was dwarfed by high blooming azaleas in numerous colors and even taller rhododendrons that will be a riot of lavender in a couple weeks.
The front door opened onto a tiny enclosed porch. An 8-foot stack of firewood rose to one side—wedged between the front and back wall. A half dozen spiders looked down at me from the webs near the ceiling.
The exciting thing about most house calls is the mystery. What will be behind the front door? Treasures? Tragedy? Disappointment? Or tedious books in a tedious household? No matter what, there’s always a slice of someone’s life behind each door. You get to see candidly how people live their private lives.
I pushed the old white button doorbell. I heard a soft chime inside. I stood and waited. I looked up at the spiders above. Black and fat. They didn’t worry me. They won’t drop down and bundle me up like Bilbo and the Dwarves in The Hobbit. They were just something to look at while I waited and waited. I looked at my phone. The time was right. I was sure the day was right. After waiting a while, I gave the white painted old wooden front door a few firm raps with my knuckles. And then I waited and contemplated the arachnids several feet above my head again once more.
Finally the doorknob rattled, and the door opened slowly inward.
A disheveled tall elderly man stood before me. But his eyes were that brilliant blue that doctors and jet pilots seem to have so often.
“I am so sorry. I sat down to read a while ago, and then I must have dozed off. I am so glad you knocked. Just let me gather my wits for a bit.”
I stepped inside and looked around while he ran his fingers through his tousled hair and rubbed his sleepy eyes.
It was a large living room. Lots of family photos hung on the walls or stood in frames propped on sideboards. I looked around and was surprised by 5 or 6 huge gorgeous carved sailing ships in oak framed glass cases here and there atop carved tables around the room.
You just never know what is behind the door.
“That’s the Sussex. I carved it based on the model at the Naval Academy.”
It was beautiful. Meticulously carved by hand.
“You did this?” I was incredulous. It was huge and beautiful and flawless. How can anyone do such things? How can everything be to scale? The paint, the gilt…
He was now awake and became gregarious. He led me around the expansive living room.
“I made this table as well.”
It had carved lions and a gilded medallion of a Viking face. The Viking’s beard flowed right and left and morphed into exotic stylized fish.
One piece of furniture after another were made by his hands. All sported ornate carvings on them.
“These books can all go,” he said pointing to a couple of bookshelves stretching floor to ceiling along the far wall.
Sigh…disappointment. Modern, common and not in great shape… I could tell at a glance.
He led me to another room. A kind of cozy library. Same thing. Time Life books, American Heritage books… It was a very bright room. Many of the spines had sun damage.
He led me back out and across the living room. On a sideboard surrounded by propped up family photos, a gorgeous marble bust looked up at me. She was beautiful. I am so in love!
When the time is right, I will inquire if that is for sale I told myself.
He led me upstairs. On the landing another bookcase. More of the same. Sigh. Picking these up would cost more than they are worth. We stepped down into a large studio. More ships. More furniture made by his hands. I saw an old black and white photo. It was a doctor in a surgical gown and mask.
“Is that you?”
“Yes. Long ago. All the books in here go except my old medical books. I don’t know why, but I just don’t want to let them go.”
No problem. We couldn’t use them, anyway, I thought.
Carved airplanes hung from the ceiling. In one dark corner of the room, there were a couple bookcases of 19th century books. Mostly cloth. I dropped to my knees, and my eyes probed the darkness. I pulled out one, two, three books with “potential”…nothing great. There were a bunch of very old medical books that were for sale. Nothing…just nice old books. Most only viable for Books by the Foot.
He led me to the other side of the room. A long wall of books lined it. More “nothing”…
Then I saw a dozen or so books wrapped in old style paper textbook protectors. Each spine read “Pennsylvania.”
“Did you go to Penn?”
Yes he did. He was there some years before my second oldest brother Tony. We chatted about that.
He described more of the ship models all in glass cases. All made by his hand.
“The Naval Academy let me visit their models and take measurements and photos.”
“My oldest brother went to the Naval Academy. Class of ’62. He started a couple years late because, much to my dad’s dismay, he went and joint the Marines out of high school.”
My poor brother Joe passed away about a year ago after a long and tragic illness. It was a dreadful way to go.
I wandered about the studio looking. There was so much cool stuff here—except the books. For anything remotely interesting in the current market, there were a dozen that were too common or had condition issues…
I peaked at the books he wasn’t selling, just out of curiosity. There was a familiar spine!
Pathologic Physiology by Sodeman.
I slipped it off the shelf and opened it on his drafting table.
“My dad wrote the chapters on cardiology!”
I opened the book to those pages.
We chatted about medicine and doctoring. My dad had attended Tulane with Michael Debakey. Debakey was supposed to give this doctor his oral exams for his Boards.
“He missed his plane, thank goodness. He was notorious for flunking med students.”
He led me back across the home’s second story to a very long room lined with bookcases.
Nothing…or at least nothing much.
Thousands of books and nothing exciting—except my dad’s book—which I already have a few copies of.
Why couldn’t the books match his artistry? Why couldn’t he have books as beautiful as his ships and furniture?
We chatted awhile. He was lonely, I imagine.
“I’m afraid I don’t have good news about the books,” I began. “There’s nice history and other nonfiction; it is just that so much of it we get many, many copies in the secondary market. There’s just no market for the duplication. Even then they need to be in perfect condition to have a chance.”
I estimate two vanloads. Four guys. About a 7 hour round trip to pack and bring back. Back at the warehouse our labor would continue. There they’d be unpacked and each book sorted. Just getting them to the warehouse would cost about $1400.
I was tempted to tell him we couldn’t (actually wouldn’t) take them.
But my heart took over. I made a crazy offer of 400 bucks.
He understood completely.
“A lot of these came from your shop many years ago. We would take the kids down and spend the day going through your shelves…”
So long ago…Dad, Joe, Tony, Jimmie, the early days of the book business, living in the old pre Civil War stone farmhouse. I heated with wood even then. By necessity. I couldn’t afford the $300 it took to fill the oil tank buried beneath the cement floor of the garage. My mind was programmed so that if it got especially cold and the furnace kicked on late at night, I would awaken and stumble downstairs and stoke the wood stove.
Happy times…tough times…times long gone.
Back downstairs, I asked, gently, about the bust.
“…if it is not something you want to keep in the family…”
“I’ll think about it.”
“I’ll call back and set up a time that works for you.”
“I’m having major surgery in a week. So before or after that.”
“Is it ok if I go back upstairs and take a picture of my dad’s book?”
“A picture? Take the book. You should have it.”
I stepped out into the spring with the book under my arm. I walked past the very old blooming azaleas. I drove out and headed south on 15. It was dusk.
As I drove past Emmitsburg, I looked up at Mary holding out her hands to all who pass by. It was as if she was offering:
“Come to me in your need.”
I thought, “Is this all there is? Parents and two of three brothers gone. Two boys with long futures ahead. And me? Books are my future.
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
My cup overflows.
Indeed, I am never thirsty. The books, they comfort me.”
Let It BeThe Beatles
When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be
Let it be, let it be
Let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom, let it be