He’s GoneGrateful Dead
Cat on a tin roof, dogs in a pile
Nothin’ left to do but smile, smile, smile
Now he’s gone, now he’s gone, Lord he’s gone, he’s gone
Like a steam locomotive, rollin’ down the track
He’s gone, he’s gone and nothin’s gonna bring him back, he’s gone
Goin’ where the wind don’t blow so strange
Maybe off on some high cold mountain chain
“Book Baron”—John Adams
Often we’d hug in greeting. We always hugged upon parting. Because there were many, many beers in between the two, and sentimentality was aglow within us when it was time to go.
He had other nicknames for me. “Vijay,” “Daly,” “Wonder Man” …
He had nicknames for everyone.
His nickname at work was “el Jefe”, I think—at least for those below him.
If the weather was good, we would golf. If not, we’d go directly to beers after finishing the book work.
For we had many things in common.
Beer—not crap beer. Never!
Our ages are very close.
Baseball—Orioles for him. Dodgers for me.
New York state as our childhood home.
Seafaring and other historical novels. Patrick O’Brian, CS Forester, George MacDonald Fraser…
Grateful Dead music.
How many people do you know and get along with for almost your entire adult life?
I would call him “Mr. President” because he was “John Adams.” But also because he was an incredible history buff. He read so many histories. He had no prejudice in his reading. He would try to get me to read some obscure history book soon to be published.
“You gotta read this,” he’d say. “It’s the best one ever written on …”
I’d tell him I would. But I’d tell him I would.
One of my favorite authors long ago was Douglas Adams. I thought The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was wonderful. Early on, John would tell me stories of driving Douglas Adams around to various book signings at bookstores in his territory. That Adams passed away in 2001. He was 49. Far too young.
“Douglas—he was incredibly tall. And smart. And funny… Nicest guy you ever met.”
[No, John. That was you, my friend—only not so tall.]
For years when there were lots of bookstores, he escorted a Who’s Who of authors and celebrities around on book signing tours.
Random House knew the authors would enjoy his company.
“This is going to be big,” he’d say about upcoming releases.
Books like Jurassic Park, All the Pretty Horses, The DaVinci Code, Ken Burns’ The Civil War, Jazz, Baseball…the list could go on and on.
“There’s this dead Swedish mystery author we’ve got coming out. No one’s ever heard of him. Journalist. He wrote three books no one ever looked at. Here’s the first one. It’s going to be BIG!”
…The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo…
And yes, people like Oprah, Martha Stewart, Michelle Obama, George W Bush, the Barefoot Contessa…when they wrote their bios or cookbooks…
He was never wrong that I recall.
His bio says he joined Crown Books/Outlet in 1986 after starting with Little Brown in 1979. My recollection is it was earlier than that. I’m pretty sure I was still Book Alcove of Frederick (not Wonder Book yet) because my first meeting with John was in the little back room of Book Alcove Gaithersburg. We’d sit at a table with Carl, John and Ray Sickles and order remainders for each of our 4 stores.
(That Gaithersburg Book Alcove has been Wonder Book for about 12 years now.)
Perhaps I was Wonder Book and just joining my friend and mentor so John could do all four stores at once.
Oh my God, it was a barrel of monkeys. The Sickles boys, John and Ray, were loud. Extremely loud! Booming voices that made my head hurt in the confined space. They couldn’t control themselves from cracking bad or terrible jokes.
John Adams suffered greatly writing four orders at once for our small impoverished stores.
“I’ll take 2 of those,” Carl.
“4,” John Sickles.
John Sickles had an incredible booming laugh: “HOHOHO!!!” It would just burst out of him at odd times.
Ray would toss in some weird joke like covering one eye with his hand and rising his middle finger and pantomiming a parrot: “What’s this? Moshe Dayan says f*** you!”
…you had to be there.
Carl, one of the sweetest calmest gentlest men ever, would feign moaning in exasperation: “Those boys…”
Poor John assuredly left those meetings with four very small orders and a throbbing headache.
When I got big enough, he started calling on me in Frederick. We’d meet in my office in the back of the Frederick bookstore. He would have the glossy Outlet catalog and a big briefcase bulging with sample dust jackets. We’d look at everything because I would buy almost everything. That was not just a strategy; it was a pathology. I lacked self-control where books were concerned even then.
It was likely about then he suggested grabbing a beer after we’d finish.
We became friends.
In many ways, he became a mentor. He was a pro—clearly on the rise professionally. I was an upstart. He believed in me. He got me credit to buy lots and lots of good books.
When he showed his confidence in me, it helped me become a little more confident in myself.
I think the bestseller for me early on was The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook—a perennially available Outlet reprint. Go figure. People loved it. Asian cuisine was exotic then. Then maybe The Civil War Day by Day. They’d reprint other classic Civil War books and histories as well. The remainder prices made them attractive to customers and very profitable to me. Truth be told, I’d often mark up the “Suggested Retail Price” a couple dollars… It was just “Suggested”! And they were still a lot cheaper than new copies of books like that.
Did I mention he was incredibly handsome? The female employees’ gazes would follow him in and out of the bookstore. I felt like a lunk sitting next to him at a bar. He’d flash that smile, and the building itself “sigh.”
Did I mention he had a magnetic personality? We’d go someplace, and I’d put up walls around myself. He’d soon know the bartender, the people sitting next to us…
Yes. John was one of those that made me what I am; that made Wonder Book what it is today.
We started playing golf in the early 90s. I hadn’t played since I was a kid but picked it up as a stress reliever. It was what I called a “four hour vacation.” I could get away from everything—work and family and…stuff. Afterward, we’d have beers at the country club. The most exotic beer then would be Canadian—like Molson or Labatts. Maybe someplace would have Guinness in a bottle, which tasted nothing like the Guinness I’d had in England. Then perhaps the Waynesboro Country club experimented and stocked some local microbrewery’s Red Feather Ale. Maybe 1992?
“What’s a microbrewery?”
It was an epiphany. The first craft beer we ever tasted.
“I didn’t know beer could taste like that!”
We never looked back on mass produced beers.
Not long after, the first brewpub in Frederick would open. I’d often have one of my toddler sons with me. I enjoyed being with them on days off or light workdays. I called them Daddy Days. We’d go with John to Barley and Hops after ordering. My son, Joey, was especially fond of the Buffalo Wings there. He’d sit upon a barstool and would soon be wearing the wing sauce all over his face. Joey was a favorite of John’s. He’d give me kids books for him. Joey started playing soccer at an early and got very good at it. We’d sit in the backyard after golf in Waynesboro and watch Joey play Basketball Soccer.
(Joey would shoot baskets using his feet.)
Joey’s nickname was “Big Joe.” Later when Joey was a little older and was a regional star, John changed that to “Jorobito”–kind of a mélange of famous Brazilian players’ names.
“You gotta coach, Daly.” For a while, he nicknamed me after golfer John Daly. No idea why. I was never blond. “It’s a blast! And that way your kid doesn’t get a crappy coach.”
He had coached his kids’ various sports.
Thus began one of the most satisfying periods of my life. Coach Roberts’ career. I loved those years. I got good at it as well. Team building.
We found out we were both Grateful Dead fans. I only attended one concert. That was enough. John had gone to lots of them. I’d find him Grateful Dead concert CDs. We’d talk about our favorite songs and Dead eras.
He got to know people in the warehouse. He especially liked Clif—who was born near John’s hometown of Skaneateles, New York. They’d chat. And chat. And chat…about the Dead, Civil War history, central New York… Until I’d break it up. It was costing me money! Plus, I wanted John for myself. Or we had a tee time. Or it was the end of the day, and I wanted out of Wonder.
We no longer did formal business. He outgrew Wonder Book and was selling full price, newly published books to large chains and big important independents. Wonder Book changed when we went online in 1997 and things became a whirlwind, a whirlwind of old and odd books.
But we’d get together every few weeks or month or quarter. I had introduced him to my other best friend, Dr. Cap Cline, in the early 90s. We three played golf often. There was a period when the goal was to play at least once each month in Maryland or Pennsylvania—including the winter months.
There was that memorable round on New Year’s Day when the temperature was in single digits. The water hazards were frozen over. If a ball landed on the pond, it would bounce and bounce and bounce—with weird, bizarre, hollow, echoing sound and a descending tonal Doppler Effect.
We would all three go far and wide playing golf.
“Doc, can you give me a shot or something? My shoulder is killing me,” he’d joke.
“My professional advice is don’t swing so hard.”
There was that unfortunate hot dry summer day when we went to the German restaurant in Hagerstown—the Schmankerl Stube. We played 36 hot dry holes west of there. I bonded with…a white porcelain fixture in a very small room for a very extended period while others banged on the door to get in. We had been “poisoned” by Doppel Bock served by the liter in glass “boots.”
At least, that was my opinion. Poisoned beer.
After 2010, Cap and I began taking golf trips even farther afield.
“Come with us to Ireland. It is so cheap. Sell me some books. That will cover it.”
“Nah, I can’t, Vijay. There’s a wedding…or grandchild…or the kid is moving to…or…”
But when he would visit, he would say: “Let’s go get some cold ones. I can’t stay long though. There’ll be hell to pay if I’m not back by…”
We’d stay out. John would have 2 for every one I’d get.
I would finally have to surrender and leave far later than his deadline.
He’d regale me about his trips to Costco headquarters or San Diego or Seattle or… selling to national accounts.
And then he’d tell me about the bars he liked to go to.
“I always go to Torrey Pines and have a cold one at the club house. There’s a new brew out there called Ballast Point. Best IPA I ever had.”
I don’t know if he ever ate. With me, he’d have a wing or oyster or two. Never a meal.
My politics started changing in the late 80s. My business formalized, and I discovered the secrets of payroll, taxation and regulation and just how much people were required to pay having no idea they were being soaked. And the numerous invisible taxes employers are required to pay others that the workers have no idea exist. Then I had kids and grew up to reality (to my mind.) I started listening to NPR less and other radio shows more when I drove. I stopped blindly believing what the media was telling me to think.
Politics was like the Orioles to John. A religion. We stopped debating. It would spoil the beer and the golf and the book talk… Neither one of us would change the other.
In recent years, I lost most interest in golf. Excepting the fabulous trips Cap and I would take to bucket list courses in faraway places once a year. I’d play occasionally, but John started playing more with my son Joey, all grown up now, and I’d meet up after for beers. They had plans to meet. This very day. Friday. Book story day. Maybe I’d join them after for beers at Rattlewood or Chaledon.
It got so I had to work with books. I needed to work with books. I HAD to. It was a need, an addiction. I became a more than fulltime biblio-evangelist. And there were always so many books waiting for me.
Golf was more like work.
Work was more fun than golf.
And this Friday, my knee was still screwed up.
“I know, Vijay. I gotta take a cart now. My hips are killing me.”
Those were some of the last words we exchanged only a few days ago.
Wednesday afternoon, I was headed over to Cap’s house. He was laid up with a back injury and couldn’t play his weekly rounds of golf.
An old friend Geoff Hughes—a retired new bookseller texted.
“I’m sorry about John Adams…I know you will have many fond memories.”
“You’ve got the wrong John Adams. It’s a pretty common name…”
He texted a link.
I crashed into a wall. A “hypothetical” wall.
Robotically I found my way and limped into Cap’s gorgeous house of books and beautiful things. I told him the unbelievable news.
My knee is still screwed up. I couldn’t have played today, John. Sorry…
If I’d known…I would have crawled the course. Just to spend one more day with John.
Did I mention he was a terrible golfer? He would swing SO HARD! He would hurt himself.
We had a lifelong contest. His idea. We played for beers on the 19th hole. He only beat me once. It was very informal. Unless he was leading or close in the last 5 holes or so. Then I would focus and somehow get ahead.
That time he won…it wasn’t that long ago. From his countenance I could tell he was thrilled, but he didn’t celebrate or gloat. He likely bought the first pitcher and I the second.
“I finally got you, Vijay.”
I’m not a very good golfer. When I would eke out a narrow win:
“Next time, Vijay.”
It was stupid to be so competitive. But it was his idea.
I’d get good or lucky for a few holes.
He’d get on a roll and play brilliantly for a while. He was also often lucky—balls caroming off trees or boulders or cart paths and ending up next to the hole.
“Circus shot, Mr. President.”
Then he’d blow up and send balls into the woods or creek or ponds or tick-infested high grass.
We’d get a pitcher on the deck at Clustered Spires afterwards. Or two. Or three…
We’d talk about life, the universe, family, books and everything.
Was he larger than life? No.
He was life itself. A magnet. A human beacon.
A person everyone wanted to be around. He wanted to be around everybody.
“Next time, Vijay. I’ll get you next time.”
You got me every time, John. I just didn’t tell you. Often enough.
I could never be John Adams. I didn’t have the talent or charisma.
I know there’s a heaven. There has to be.
John is telling the archangels crowding around him: “You gotta read this. It’s the best book on the War of 1812 ever… Let’s get another pitcher of the New England Hazy IPA.”
They don’t care. They won’t read it. They just want to be around him.
Well, a few of them will read it.
There won’t be another trip to an O’s game or the Ravens. He had a secret place to park on Federal Hill. It was free or almost free. A 2-mile walk—we’d stop at the Cross Street Market or Reilly’s for oysters and beer on the way.
Reilly’s has t-shirts with a quote: It was a brave man that first ate an oyster—Jonathan Swift.
I wrote last week: We all live on borrowed time.
That notion was triggered by me treading on a rattlesnake.
Why the serpent did not strike? I don’t know. It wasn’t my time, I guess.
Every day from now on is a gift.
Every memory of John is a gift. We never fought. We’d grouse or grumble on rare occasion. But he’d defuse things with that flashing smile and slap on the back, and we’d part as buddies.
Maybe this means the Orioles will win the pennant for the first time in nearly 40 years.
For every spring, John would prophesize: “This year, Book Baron. They got a couple new pitchers—young guys…”
Wednesday night, I dragged myself home after couple martinis at Cap’s. I looked around for something to watch, and there was Master and Commander, as if someone had set it out for me on purpose. A magnificent movie.
I watched and wept and remembered.
“You gotta read Patrick O’Brian. They are all great…”
“Yes, Mr. President…”
I’m weeping now.
You were right about so many things.
Life, family, books, the universe, the next great book, the best old ones…everything…except the O’s…and politics. (LOL, who cares? They’re all terrible.)
There’s a hole in my life now. He was always there, always upbeat and positive. The man I measured myself by is gone.
Always my best friend along with Cap, though we were often far away. How many people get two equally “best” friends?
From that little back room and small handwritten orders, I’ve gone on to sell millions of old books. John went on to distribute hundreds of MILLIONS of new books. I’ve done a little to preserve old and sometimes forgotten books. He forged new trails, influencing writers, publishers, booksellers and readers.
God speed, Mr. President. The shelves are endless where you are. I’ll see you when I get there and we will get some cold ones.
Obituary Note: John Adamshttps://shelf-awareness.com/issue.html?issue=3796#m49422
John Adams, longtime salesperson and national accounts manager at Penguin Random House, died on Monday of an apparent heart attack at age 64.
In a letter to staff, Jaci Updike, president of U.S. sales at PRH, wrote in part that Adams “had just ended a call yesterday with his sales team, where he was his usual self, cracking jokes and full of energy. To then receive the news that his heart had stopped was a shock to us all.”
Adams began his publishing career in 1979 as a sales rep for Little, Brown, based in Washington, D.C. In 1986, he joined Crown/Outlet as a sales rep covering the South. In 1995, he was promoted to national accounts manager, and “thrived in that role for the entirety of his career with us,” Updike wrote.
“There is so much that was impressive about John: he was a brilliant and dedicated reader, especially of our history books, even when there was no chance his accounts would carry them. At sales conference, when a publisher presented an 800+ page book on an obscure historical subject, it was not unusual to see John lean into the microphone with brilliant words of appreciation and support, positioning the book for the rest of us. Sometimes it seemed that he read every book that Knopf’s Ash Green and Random House’s Bob Loomis signed up.
“And no one was more amazing to be around when the meetings were over. At company meals and events, John was always the heart of the fun, sharing his special magic with anyone who wandered over, no matter what accounts they sold or what their title was. He was a fearless optimist who believed anything was possible; that the account would see the opportunity that the books would sell, that the Baltimore Ravens would win. He was a terrible golfer who left every bad game entirely sure his next game would be spectacular.
“And like the best team players, John helped pick you up when you stumbled, and convinced you that you would absolutely nail it the next time you tried.
“Because, most of all, John was a mentor. He personally mentored many of the younger colleagues he worked with, and he also was a mentor in the broader sense: year after year, book by book, in meeting after meeting, he demonstrated that it is possible to do hard work in difficult circumstances with a joy and authenticity that inspires others. Whether the world was going through tough times, or the company was having an off year, or a publisher was hoping to make a seemingly impossible Costco bestseller out of niche midlist, John never failed to bring his signature optimism, energy, and warmth to every conversation. With a single well-chosen word, or loving nickname, he could turn around the mood of a room faster and better than anyone I have ever known.”
John is survived by his wife of 42 years, Holly, three children, and five grandchildren. News of funeral arrangements has yet to be announced.
We are well into the second 1/3 of the COVID-19 summer. I’ve been writing about how extremely hot and dry the first month of summer had been. There were a record number of days in the 90s—in a row. There had been almost no rain from summer’s start, from June 21st until last Friday, July 31st. Then things changed. The past week has been very wet. Temperatures have been in the low to mid 80s. The warehouse gardens are coming to life. Tomatoes, beans, peppers, sunflowers…
This has also meant that I haven’t had to water the new garden beds up on the mountain. It’s a relief not to have to drag the hoses and filled watering cans around.
Also, I don’t need to risk another rattlesnake encounter. On average, I’ve only seen about one per year and until last week had no “Close Encounters.”
Coincidentally, last week’s story mentioned the beautiful mossy concrete Madonna I’d picked up on the hoarder house call. Shy is lying on the front porch until I get some help to roll her on a cart to some spot in the woods to watch over me and my home and Merry & Pippin.
She weight about 125 pounds. (I hope it’s ok to write that!)
A learned bookseller colleague wrote after reading that story:
That particular Madonna is known as Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, referring to apparitions to a nun, Catherine Labouré (google her) in the mid 19th century and ever popular since. Be careful, though—one of Mary’s feet is on a snake. Catherine’s body is in a glass casket in a French church. There are pictures. I think she was one of what we used to call the Van de Kamp nuns. Rain was the worst enemy to the starch in their headdresses. And getting on buses and trams. Sideways only.
I hadn’t noticed. I went and checked. Indeed she has her foot upon a serpent.
Where she is resting is only a few paces from where I stepped upon that big rattlesnake. Why it didn’t bite me and change my life, I don’t know.
But now the seed is planted that perhaps She interceded on my behalf.
Over the weekend, my knee was still hurting. I limped from cart to cart, carrying along a stool to sit upon. It was tedious. There were no real exciting finds. Just lots of good and bad books to get to where they belong here.
I did some of the ongoing mystery hoard.
But I was tired and sore and a bit burned out.
Ridgley had made a pallet of sealed LPs over many months. Those were things I needed to evaluate. Vinyl records in their original shrink-wrap are quite unusual. There are usually no comps to look for online.
For these I’d need to use my many years of vast experience as a record collector and then seller, my well-trained gut instincts, and a…dart board… to come up with prices.
It was pretty fun.
Maybe 25 bankers boxes on a pallet. Each with 75 or so “new” very old LPs.
I pulled up a stool and began sorting them into plastic tubs according to what I felt their online prices should be.
Here’s the before image:
Here’s the after:
There was a lot of gospel/inspirational and military band and crap pop. But then there was Prince, Dylan, The Sex Pistols, John Lennon, The Beatles, Alex Haley reading Roots, 1970 Langston Hughes, Spirit, Suzi Quatro, Led Zeppelin…
Kind of cool…and profitable.
It likely took Ridgley a year to segregate that many unopened LPs. I just hadn’t been paying attention.
Clif was off on a well-deserved vacation. We only had Steve as trained warehouse help.
I was the Warehouse Manager Du Jour (for the next 5 Jours.)
You do what you gotta do. It goes with the territory.
I hinted last week about a beautiful collection I’d bid on. The seller was happy with my price. I offered a LOT. I reached out to see if I could come and start by taking the best books that I could see. I told her I would pay in full and plan to finish the pickups in the next few weeks.
I wanted to segregate the better stuff, so when a crew of four or more went down, it wouldn’t all get mixed together.
Also, if I paid for them, the deal would be sealed. I’ve had a few memorable collections yanked out from under me over the decades.
I also wanted to play with the beauties.
I didn’t describe it last week, but it is a pristine sci fi fantasy collection that had been built over many years. The husband passed away a few years ago.
When I went to inspect, I’d only had a few out-of-focus pictures I’d been sent by another type of dealer who found it and asked if I might want it. It was too big and had too many books for him. He sent me the contact, and I scheduled the visit.
I pulled into the handsome subdivision when the phone told me to. Then:
“You have arrived at your destination.”
Only I hadn’t. The house numbers on the big almost mansions weren’t apparent. I hopped out of the van and a masked man emerged from a house and eyed me suspiciously.
“I’m looking for [1234 xyz] Street,” I told him.
“That’s not here.”
He seemed a little vague and disoriented. Maybe he’d been cooped up for months, as so many down this way have.
I wandered into a nearby cul-de-sac. There it was.
I pushed the doorbell and masked up.
An attractive blond woman pulled the door open. At least as attractive as I could ascertain, seeing she was masked.
I showed her my card and set it on a table so she wouldn’t have to touch it.
I was led down into the basement.
Basements are often bad news for books. But this was well finished and felt climate controlled—dry.
Wall after wall after wall after wall after wall after wall after wall…to save me counting there were 12 walls…I think.
They were just all so beautiful. They glowed in their bright Brodart protectors. The collector had also bagged many. At the base of the bag he would attach labels: Signed, First Edition, Signed First Edition.
My breath quickened. Not a good thing with the mask. My glasses fogged. My mind fogged a bit as well.
I wandered along wall to wall to wall.
It would be impossible to count them.
Ten thousand? Plus the room full of mass markets (many labeled First Edition or Signed First Edition.)
If there was a downside, they are mostly hypermodern. But hypermodern can mean George R R Martin, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury…
I tried not to get too excited lest I faint or begin rambling and lose this woman’s confidence.
“There’s another room.”
She pushed open a door to a room stacked with big boxes.
“These are mostly sci fi journals and other kinds of publications.”
I wandered along, passing the walls of the future past.
I wanted these. My instincts told me a lot of them are $5 books online—even signed.
But…everyone—after the Golden and Silver age authors—was here.
I started thinking out loud. I noticed I was puffing a bit.
I told her about myself and the company and how we could handle this kind of volume and the good creative things we do with books.
I made what I thought was a preemptive offer. I told her it “might” go up once I got into the collection—as so much was double-layered or otherwise buried.
“Let me know your thoughts when you’ve considered it. And if you have any questions.”
I limped up the basement stairs behind her and was greatly relieved when I stepped outside and could unmask.
“Well, I hope I didn’t blow it.”
Over the next few days, we exchanged emails. We came to terms.
That is how I got back downstairs this Tuesday. I brought Caryn who has a great eye for collectible books. We brought about 60 bankers boxes.
“Pick out the best ones and try to keep all the authors in the same box.”
“But they are all great.”
I went right for the Bradbury. Maybe 5 feet of them. Many signed. All modern stuff, though. No Dark Carnival or Dandelion Wine.
I came across one of my old friend Sterling Lanier‘s books. Signed.
In a couple hours, we were packed. The steps hurt my knee like crazy, so Caryn did many of those. I carried a lot of the boxes from kitchen through the garage to van. I had to make sure Arwen—a 15-year-old cat didn’t escape. I had a cat named Arwen once—rather it was Joey’s cat.
Tropical storm Isaias (which I never learned how to pronounce) had passed over, and it had become a brilliant afternoon.
The floor of the van was mostly covered.
I wrote out a check for the full amount, hoping no disaster would befall the remaining bulk of the collection.
So begins a bright spot. The first collection to get me excited in quite a while.
It will be a ton of work getting through them, but it is a collection I’m proud to represent.
I’ll write more on it as time flies.
I can’t be happy or…anything…right now because of how this story began.
Tonight I will go somewhere and have a great beer and toast my friend, John Adams.
I hope I won’t cry in public. That would be unseemly.
I would occasionally joke with him.
“You should discover me, get me published. Some people actually like these book stories.”
“Vijay, that’s not what I do. It’ll happen or it won’t. Let’s have another cold one.”