Old Mortality

Old Mortality
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Wednesday, February 26

I didn’t sleep well last night. I’m not sure when I was awake or asleep. Is that Lucid Dreaming?

I felt like crap when I actually had to get up and let the dogs out. It was dark, cold, wet and foggy—all at once. I stuck a few small logs in the wood stove to get the house cozier. I have a personal rule in winter: “Never come inside empty handed.”

I didn’t feel up to making coffee. Too much work. I opened a can of Diet Pepsi. Maybe the effervescence would help my malaise. I needed some caffeine too.

I made it to work. I am functioning at my various morning tasks around the building.

But I do still…feel like crap.

Maybe it was the Bi Bim Bap at dinner with the family last night. Maybe it was the Margaritas at home watching the debates. Maybe it was the debates…LOL.

It is late morning. Ernest and I are driving to the Hagerstown store to pull coffee-table size music books (again) for an urgent (again) Interior Designer order. Mostly I just wanted to get out of the warehouse. There’s just too much “work” there. It is depressing just now for lots of reasons.

It has been one of those weeks where I’m spinning around constantly, and I can’t seem to get anything done. If I start something, I’m called away for something urgent. Or in the midst of sorting old books or exotic foreign editions, I recall an email correspondence that needs action lest something important not get delivered, so I drop what I’m doing and go find the laptop. Or the phone chimes in my pocket, and it’s not someone I can ignore out of hand. Or a scout is delivering books from an estate, and I’m called to the loading dock because he’s excited he’s found something extraordinary, and I’m supposed to go look.

Meanwhile, all the books are piling up out there in the enormous space. The wonderful things keep flowing in, and we cannot keep up.

I amended last week’s story a bit. My “Book Muse” had returned after a long hiatus. She told me I should look more closely at the signed Oliver Wendell Holmes that appeared on a cart headed for Books by the Foot. For some reason, I pulled that book off the cart and looked inside. I rarely look inside books. There are too many. It happens usually when I have a hunch. Or an inspiration. Or a nudge from a higher power. When I looked again at the Holmes, I deciphered the name of the person to whom Holmes inscribed the book. It was another Supreme Court Justice—James McReynolds. Below that McReynolds signed and re-gifted the book some 20 years later. So the book suddenly became a “Trifecta.” A Three-fer. An association copy between noted jurists as well as being signed by both.

Trifecta Signatures

Old mortality has visited three times this week. I am not happy to see him. One day he will come for me. It will be my turn.

My mother-in-law passed away. She was 104. We were somewhat estranged. I hadn’t seen her in a dozen years or so. 104 is an astounding run. But I don’t think she was really here much the last few years.

I’ll attend her graveside services this Friday. She will be with her husband, who passed in 2000.

Her passing caused me to remember when I first met her in 1974. I don’t think she liked me very much. I wasn’t good enough for her daughter, and my prospects weren’t great. But over the years she got used to me, and we got along. She was a magnificent cook. She loved her Gourmet Magazine that came every month. When I became a bookseller, she tasked me with completing her collection back to 1941. I think she had every issue from the 1960s on already.

Gourmet Magazine

As things seem to so often happen in Wonder-Land, some collections arrived. Eventually the elusive issues from the 1940s dropped in the store one day. She was very pleased with her massive run of the iconic cooking and dining periodical.

I recall she also asked me to keep an eye out for the Alice B Toklas Cookbook. That was once a pretty difficult book to find, but sure enough the book eventually appeared as well. She was very happy when I found a nice first edition. No dust jacket, however.

There were more books to be found for her over the years. Usually cookbooks.

My parents both died soon after I met her, so for many, many years there were always wonderful and splendid Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners at their home in Pennsylvania.

She did a magnificent job along with Grandpa helping to raise the two boys.

That was so long ago when I first saw her. I was a sophomore in college in 1974. That was just two years out of high school.

High School…a lifetime ago. Back then I was a Wonder Boy.

An old friend—a second-wave Wonder Boy—emailed me this week. His wife had passed away, and he needed to get her books out of the house, so his brother could move in with him. He lives down in DC. I haven’t seen him since the late 70s, I think. He shared a house with a first-wave Wonder Boy after college. We had a band. We played a lot, and we played very loud in that basement on Connecticut Avenue. We could have been musicians with a little discipline. We had some gigs where people came up and offered to manage us. But discipline was elusive.

I’m glad the Book Muse took an interest in me not long after that. I don’t think anything else would have worked. I would have been a poor employee. I would have soon interest in any other enterprise I might have embarked upon.

We decided he would drive up the hundred or so boxes soon. The images he sent looked like there were some very nice books. She had great taste—very similar to mine (LOL.) He told me she had been a fan of the Gaithersburg Wonder Book store. He said she loved the work we do. That was heartening. I am sorry for his loss. It will be strange to see him after all this time. Almost a lifetime ago.

I will pay him as much as possible. I’m sure his costs will be more than offset. The books look pretty good.

But he said his main concern was that her books would be treated with respect.

We do that.

Then I got an email from another high school friend. If she and her small clique of girlfriends had been as silly as young “Wonder Boys” had been, they might have called themselves the “Wonder Girls.” But they didn’t. Our two groups did gravitate toward each other. It was a magical time for all of us those couple years. We were all stuck together in that wasteland that was 1970s Montgomery County, Maryland. We all loved art and music and nature. And that seemed different from the rest of the 1200-kid population in our school. We felt “different” than the others.

I haven’t seen her for a decade, I think. She used to come visit every year or so at the old warehouse. She had some major complex surgeries in the early 2000s.

Now she needs another complex operation in a couple weeks. It is a big one. She has a treasure she has had for many years. It is a first edition of The Velveteen Rabbit and a vintage sawdust stuffed bunny that came along with it.

She was worried that if…things didn’t go well…the book might not get saved. She wrote that she is too frail right now to get out. That is a very tough book to evaluate. I had a gut feeling that if everything was ok with it—the “points” and all—it might be worth $4000-5000 retail. From the images I saw, it had been rebacked. I’m a pretty good generalist, but this is the kind of thing for a specialist to assess accurately. I sensed time was of the essence for her. If she wanted or needed the book sold, I quickly needed all the data I could get for the most accurate appraisal such a remote evaluation would entail. I reached out to specialist colleagues from the ABAA for expert opinions from the images she’d sent me. Several people responded with their thoughts.

The Velveteen Rabbit

I told her my opinion and what a few specialists offered as opinions from the pictures as well.

The bottom line is until it is seen in-person by an expert, it is still up in the air. Even then, unless you have a dust jacketed first to compare it side-by-side, it is hard to discern if the plates are lithographed. If the illustrations printed from stone, it’s not a first edition. Tricky—even for an expert. I made an offer on the presumption that the antique dealer who sold it to her in 1979 knew what he or she was doing. I did this just in case she wanted it out of her hands right away. I told her if I found it was worth more, I would pay accordingly at a later date. I didn’t tell her that if I overpaid, I would just take my losses. She is a friend. It was the least I could do. And it was the most I could do.

Mostly, I wanted her to have peace of mind and be comfortable with whatever she decides. I think that is what she wanted as well. In times like she is heading toward, you don’t want worries or distractions.

She decided to hand on to it until she was…ready. I think she will plant the seeds for the book’s handling in the future in her kids’ minds as well.

The Velveteen Rabbit with Rabbit

1979…a year before I became a bookseller. It will be 40 years come September 21, 2020.

And not many years before: high school and my first friends.

She was one of a rare species. There were 6 original Wonder Boys. Were there 6 girls in her circle? I click off the names on my fingers. Am I forgetting anyone?

She was so beautiful in high school. She was so beautiful when I last saw her ten years ago. I am sure she is so beautiful today.

We were all beautiful. Idealistic. Anxious to leave but making out the best we could with the support of each other.

I wrote back:

“Let me know how the procedure goes, and I can come by when you’re feeling up to company. And don’t worry about the book. You can decide about it when you’re all recovered.”

I bumped around the warehouse when I returned from the Hagerstown store. Dejected, detached, depressed. I passed a cart of old leather books. Blue slips of paper reading “CHUCK” hung from either side of the cart. Most were clearly “junk”—broken sets, detached boards, battered spines… but this little one caught my eye.

Miniature Leather Book

I see a lot of old leather miniature hymnals and other religious titles with clasps. But these clasps…they were different from the 19th century clasped books I most often see.

I picked it up. I gave it a gentle squeeze, and the clasps fell away. Gently I opened it.

My eyes widened with shock and surprise.


An illuminated manuscript!

Illuminated Borders

I quickly leafed through it. I only found a few painted pages—and those were just floral borders with a couple birds painted in.

“AHEM! Just a few floral borders?!”

Illuminated Borders

My Book Muse!

You’re back again! So soon! No! I’m not complaining! They are stunning! And I haven’t gone through page by page yet. There may be more. Thank you. Thank you. What a treasure.

“Ah, weel. Be careful wi’ it.”

I will. I will. What do you think? Early 1400s?

“Yer on yer own wi’ that.”

This book must be 600 years old! All the places it must have traveled to, and it ended up here!

“Aye. And yer eye picked it out from thousands of others.”

Maybe I had some help?

“Nay. Not this one.”

On closer inspection, it appears to be two miniature Books of Hours manuscripts bound together. The second book is a very different calligraphic style. I haven’t found any painted or drawn images in the second “book” yet. But it is loaded with extremely ornate capitals or initials.

These almost look Celtic to me.

Illuminated Capitals

Imagine some monk scratching these out by hand in France or Holland in the Dark Ages. For I think the first book is French. The second Dutch.

And this battered book was on that cart as well. An 18th century Polish manuscript, I think. (That’s certainly NOT my area of expertise.) I’ve found three colored images in it so far.

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These books should thrill me.

I’m overwhelmed.

I am sad too.

All the treasures in the world piled up means nothing when you think of Old Mortality approaching on the horizon… I hope he is still quite distant.

“Yer horizon is far, far away if I’m any judge.”

And when it comes—facing that time alone…

“I will go with thee,
and be thy guide,
In thy most need
to go by thy side.”

If I am Everyman, you must be Knowledge.

“Aye, ye might say that.”

Suddenly, I shivered physically. Chilled to my core.

“Someone stepped on yer grave. ‘Tis nothin’ tho’. It is just a meadow now at the foot of a mountain.”

I am tearing up. I want to go somewhere dark and lie and cry.

“Let’s go find some books. There are thousands out there—and ’tis them cryin’ to be found. We’ve work to do! The mission! The quest…”



Everyman Endpapers

I went home early. Giles—the family’s dog—is visiting me to give them a break for the funeral and estate work to come up there. He whines and howls all day when he is alone. My home is so remote it doesn’t bother anyone.

If a dog howls in the woods and there is no one around, does he make any sound?

I needed to empty the firewood I cut last weekend from the new pickup truck. I’m clearing some trees on the 7-acre vacant lot I own adjacent to the warehouse. There’s some rumbling in my mind about developing it. I could add on to the warehouse and we could put in…more books. The scrubby “weed” trees will be knocked down by bulldozer eventually. I can just as well harvest them for heat and to save energy. It is good exercise and mental relaxation as well.

I need the truck empty because I’m having the bed sprayed with a heavy-duty protective lining. That way the wood and stone and soil and plants I haul won’t scratch the surface. Night was falling. It was cold wet foggy gray and dark. I put Ralph Vaughan Williams on my phone to listen to while I worked. I backed the truck in the Barn, switched on the lights and began carrying the cold dead wet limbs from the truck bed.

The music tugged at my heart, my soul. It tugged at my essence.

When I could reach no more of the wood from the ground, I clambered up into the truck bed and tossed the tree “arms and legs” across the gravel floor, and they crashed near the bins.

Wood Pile

When the truck was empty, I drove out and parked on a slope. I raked the debris—twigs, bark, sawdust—from the bed. I left it there hoping the thunderstorms coming that night would wash the truck clean. The work was therapeutic.

I laughed when I recalled I’d discovered the Western Front had reopened last weekend. I’ve been battling groundhogs since I first moved into the warehouse in 2013. The giant rodents had dug colonies on various sides of the building. I’ve silenced most of the dens. Indeed, I was sure I had plugged this massive warren once and for all last summer. After trying various materials, I discovered empty wine and liquor bottles worked best to fill the tubular mines. They slip down easy, and the “whistle pigs” seem unable to dig them out like they do rock and soil and defective books. I wrote a story poem about this some years ago. Burying Barbara’s Bottles.* The Western Front warren had taken 70—maybe more—bottles already. None have resurfaced. Last weekend I slipped 8 more down. From echoes I heard down below, I don’t believe the bottom is won yet. I’ll keep dropping bottles down that pest-made cavern until it is filled…unless it is bottomless.

I went inside—bringing dry firewood in with me. I opened the dampers, and soon the fire was roaring. The pot of water atop it rattled and boiled. It adds moisture to the air. The three dogs circled uneasily between and around my legs. They wanted attention. And snacks.

I started my typical bachelor dinner. My freezers have lots of frozen slices pieces of pizza. Leftovers from lunches or dinners. Wrapped in foil and kept for years sometimes. It is one of the easiest meals I can make—avoiding something processed out of a box or can. A few triangular pieces of foil go into the oven. I pour some tomato sauce from a jar into a bowl. I season that with ground pepper and hot sauce. The bowl goes into the microwave. In 20 minutes or so the pizza is hot again. I dip the pizza in the sauce while watching TV.

It was Lorna Doone tonight. I’ve never read it. Maybe now I don’t need to?

Then bed. With three dogs sprawled about, there wasn’t much room for movement.

I awoke about two. My gut was uncomfortable. A Stephen Foster song my father would sing was playing in my mind…in my dozing dreams.

“why do I weep when my heart should feel no pain?
why do I sigh that my friends come not again?”

I wanted to curl up and returned to that land. Dreamland. I needed rest, I knew. I would need some medicine to get there. I was wound tight and physically uncomfortable. I arose and went to the washroom and found a pill. Then I padded off to put some more firewood in the stove. The side porch where the iron rings stand and hold the wood was wet from rain. In the dark forest beyond the porch light’s reach stood legions of shiny wet tree trunks in blacks and browns. I pushed the door closed and locked it. I never lock the door up here. It is so remote no one ever comes by. But this unhappy night I turned the button and engaged the bolt lest Old Mortality come scratching to get in this night.

“where are the hearts once so happy and so free
the children so dear that I held upon my knee.”

I went back to my room, rolled the warm inert beasts to the far side of the bed and crawled amongst the bed clothes.

“I’m grieving for forms now departed long ago
Gone from the earth to a better place I know.”

I bid sleep return. I recited my mantra, and soon I was somewhere else.

Thursday, February 27.
6:46 am Frederick, Maryland. My bedroom. 67 degrees inside. 30 outside.


Too soon the sun will move north from the gap between my trees. It is my window to the world framed on either side by forest. Soon the sun will rise in the woods further and further north until the summer solstice. Then it will return south and come again into view for a week or so around the fall equinox. That is how I measure the year’s quarters here.

A few minutes ago, the wind was roaring outside. The trees were swaying violently. The branches clattered like thousands of wooden swordfights high above. The wood stove roared with its added wood and dampers opened. The teakettle whistle screamed.

It was time to rise and capture a dawn. The phone is quite useful. It tells you the very minute the sun will rise outside your window. I could be ready to shoot the picture sitting on the edge of the bed at the right time.


Late Thursday morning

On the road to the Frederick store with Ernest. There is no real mission. Just inspection and maybe some therapeutic culling.


When I return to the warehouse, I will be clearing carts, writing checks, writing this story to its conclusion.

The same. Day in. Day out. For all these years.

The same but different. Not a day goes by I don’t see a book I’ve never seen before.

That’s not a bad gig, is it?

“No, we’re quite lucky. Ye have my company for instance!”

I like that.

“And yer journey does nay end here. Look—you know this:”

I…I just need to be reminded sometimes. Thank you.


Oddly, I came across this box of funeral prompts for ministers last weekend. This was before my mother-in-law passed. There were a couple hundred slips filed in the 1930s box set.

This quote was the first thing I lifted out:

Funeral Prompts

Near the end of A Tale of Two Cities, Carton remembers a Christian prayer: “I am the resurrection and the life, [saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.]” As he goes to the guillotine to sacrifice himself, Carton has a vision of his own resurrection, both in heaven and on earth through Lucie and Charles ‘s child, named Sydney Carton, whose life fulfills the original Carton’s lost…


Dickens’s novel is filled with hope and the possibility for one’s redemption even at the final moments.

That is something to cling to in the cold black night if you’re worried Old Mortality might be lurking outside.

Lillian Jean (Alkire) Hoff
Grandma and Grandpa Hoff many years ago.
First Cargo
And the first cargo in my newly coated truck bed.

* Burying Barbara’s Bottles

We were two connoisseurs—
old and not quite as old.
I’d often bring her tribute—
gin from adventures afar.
Or gin discovered newly stocked
in shops, many shops,
I’d search ’round the region.
Waters from Spain, Iceland, Scotland
or domestic—Michigan, Vermont, Colorado.
Captured, infused in sculpted glass.
For gin was an intimate currency between us.
With ceremony we’d inspect the package
and read the label about magic within.
Botanicals, formulas, secrets.
“Well, we should try it.”
“Yes. How ’bout a little something.”
“This might be the most memorable ever.”
With a twist the cork would slip out
and so release the djinn in the bottle.
The spirit would inspire epiphanic conversation.
Secrets of the universe would unfold
(and be irretrievable the next morning.)
The empty shells she saved—
icons to the memory of good times.
Beautiful, though now impotent, objects.
Totems to a time, a place and friendship

She is gone—
a couple years on.
I inherited the odd collection—
empty vessels full of memories
meaningful to only two
and an odd possession to the survivor.
They’re just old liquor bottles
rational thought posits.
A dust collecting eyesore
lifeless now and meaningless
to any others seeing the glass.
Relegated to the basement
they’d meant something to two.
To the one remaining
they’re cold transparent specters.
Sad, lonely things.
once full of words and dreams
Now holding ghosts of summer afternoons
under the old River Birch; next to the waterfall
Or winter days in the solarium
watching snow accumulate on the glass above us

What to do?
I’ll keep a few…

There’s a vast field where I work
It’s plagued by whistle pigs.
Ugly dangerous holes in the grass
and on a little hill pockmarked by burrows.
I’ve fought them before.
Filled the holes with rubble and scrap.
I eye their tunnels—
warrens nasty dark.
“Those shapes are just right
I’ll fill those voids with empties.
I’ll know just where the memories are
until and, maybe after, I’m put underground.””
Down go Bombay,
Van Gogh and Old Tom Hayman.
Down goes Greenalls.
Down Tanqueray and the Old Raj.
I seal the tombs with rubble.
I pack it tight
No grave robbing rodent
will unseal these passages.

I look about this field.
There are more burrows.
I have more bottles…

10 Comments on Article

  1. Nelson commented on

    The nice thing about me is that no day goes by without seeing many things I have never seen in the way of books..

    1. Chuck replied on

      That is what keeps all the hard work fun Nelson
      Thank you for reading and sending a comment

  2. linda tiller commented on

    I look forward to this every weekend.It is such a pleasure to read. Thank you for taking the time to get it out there, in your busy life of book adventures!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      That makes the hard work worthwhile!
      Thank you so much Linda

  3. Tom Hicks commented on


    I opened your latest on a foggy morning here on Monterey Bay that mocks the notion that California is always sunny and warm. Mornings like this make me miss the old Franklin stove we had in Maryland. I always enjoy the lines you pen and share in your blog. Perhaps it was the gray morning and the news that we’ve recorded our first death in the US from the coronavirus, combined with your mediations on mortality, that prompts the following lines.


    Old Mortality came sat by my fire
    Boots resting on the fender
    Pulling my cloak tight ‘round my shoulder
    You’ve come a long way, I said
    And yet a ways to go, he countered
    Shifting in his seat toward me
    My heart quickened when I saw
    A list perched in his pocket
    Lines ran through China wrote there twice
    And China written anew
    I thumbed the latch on The Book of Hours
    Lying opened in my lap
    My old hounds scratched hard at the door
    The third one howled as if he knew
    No one hears you this far out
    No one else hears the howl
    When old mortality props his boots
    On the fender by your fire.

    (C)Tom Hicks, 2020

    Old Mortality in the form of the coronavirus (which, like the Spanish flu of 1918 and the Black Plague, originated in China) comes again to remind us of our temporal nature here.

    Thanks for your blog. I look forward to next week.

    1. Chuck replied on

      That is beautiful Tom.
      Thank you for writing and sharing that.
      I’ll continue to do my best to keep O M outside.

      Oddly, my mother’s parents both died in the Spanish flu – long long before I was born.

      My doctor once told me when I had a poisonous spider bite for which there was no treatment :
      “It will either get better or it won’t.”

      I’ll work hard to get another story out next week.
      Thank you for the encouragement and the inspiration

      1. Tom Hicks replied on

        Very nice of you to say, Chuck, but all I did was rearrange the images from your blog.

        Your connection to the Spanish flu is interesting. Not many books have been written about it. When we lived in Wilmington, NC, we lived across the street from a church cemetery where there had been a mass grave during that epidemic because they were so overwhelmed. It was a grim and stark statement.

        Here’s to keeping OM at bay. Thanks again for the blog.

        1. Chuck replied on

          Thank you! It was revised substantially yesterday. Already working on this week’s.

  4. Elizabeth Morgan commented on

    I so very much enjoy your reflections! They resonate with an honesty, poignancy, sensitivity and resolute candor – so rare in a generally vapid society. The details you collect and arrange create a depth to your writing that is both enjoyable and thought provoking. I am not surprised your Muse keeps company with you.
    Sympatico. Kindred spirits . Thank you so very much for sharing a fascinating spirit!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you so much Elizabeth!
      Your comment makes me want to keep writing and try to do a better job.

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