A Rare Week

Hotel Lobby

We have added a lot of books to our William Safire collection recently. And there are many more to come.

Has winter broken?

Has the fever broken?

I am at a hotel. For the first time in over a year, I have traveled. Manhattan is 26 miles away, but I cannot bring myself to take that giant leap.

(Plus, I’d need to quarantine or take tests or something if I did.)

It is just after 7 on Tuesday morning, February 23. I am on a king bed with crisp white sheets. The coffee maker is on in the next room of the suite. I took a long hot bath—an indulgence I take only in hotels, for some reason.

I have no responsibilities.

I love the irresponsibility of staying in a hotel.

I almost feel human again.

But there is that lingering worry.


For the next ten days at least, the temperatures in Maryland will be in the high 40s or 50s.

Spring is less than a month away.

And things are not quite the same in the hotel world.

My room had a seal on it.

Hotel Door Seal

I guess to give me confidence as to its sterility.

Even the TV remote is sealed for my protection.

Hotel TV Remote

Does anyone watch TV anymore?

It just seems so irrelevant.

Embassy Suites used to have a pretty lavish breakfast buffet. The toque-hatted omelet maker would offer a dozen or more fillings. I could make burnt toast and put all the crisp bacon on it I could stack—another hotel only indulgence. Now, you step up to a cooler and grab a Danish wrapped in plastic, a sealed cup of yogurt, tiny plastic-wrapped French toast you can microwave (in your room)…

The hotel is virtually deserted.

Hotel Lobby

I would guess there are only twenty or so rooms being used. The site says it offers 274.

A year gone…

My last trip was in February 2020 to LA for the ABAA Rare Book Show.

A year gone…

I am conflicted just now. Maybe it’s the fog remaining from the Harahorn Norwegian Gin. I indulged in last night.

Did the last year go by fast or slow?

February 2020 feels just like a month or so ago.

But the past 12 months have been so full.

And so empty.

The terror of mid March 2020.

The next few dark months of reinvention and uncertainty.

The drawn out madness of summer and fall.

The double blow of winter’s renewed Plague intensity and the battering weather—storms and bitter cold.

Last year was the winter that wasn’t.

The last 12 months have been the year that wasn’t.

9 months of Plauge “winter.” 3 months of winter AND Plague.

Oh, the places I was going in 2020.


The things I was going to do in 2020.

Put off until…

Work and home for the past year.

Books and gardens.

Cicero Quote

The contemplative life.

If this has been some kind of divine test, I think I would have a pretty good grade.

Why am I away?

Books, of course.

Lots and lots of rare books. The stuff dreams are made of.

Even the Bookseller in my Round and Round stories would be surprised and envious.

“He” would likely get them all—probably with some divine assistance.

I likely will not. I am a bit in over my depth.

A year gone…

A cloistered monkish year in so many ways.

I wonder what the next 12 months will bring.

I’m not optimistic.

The weekend…


The sunrise has progressed north. It is now about halfway through my Window on the World. It will continue north for a few months. When it goes as far as it goes, it will return southward for a few months. It will then reenter my “Window” for a couple weeks and then disappear south for another six months.

My own celestial calendar.

So many of the recent sunrises have been obscured by clouds. Storm after storm.

The snowplow people are having a good season. We get 2 bills for each “Event.” One is for the warehouse. One for the “Farm.”

It is a LOT of money for each event.

The “Farm”…it seemed like such a good idea at the time. In retrospect, it is a very good thing we didn’t find a partner to develop it into a book bar or microbrewery or…something to do with books and beverages. COVID would have gobsmacked anything we would have been doing there.

I’m sure there will be a happy ending there some day.

It is a good investment.

I believe fate will dictate what will happen there. Who knows, perhaps Wonder Book and Brew will come to fruition.

I went into work and had my usual mental and physical exercise with cartloads of old books.

On Sunday, the young highschool kid had no projects assigned from the office. I again needed to find work for him.

I’d finished most of “my” carts on Saturday. There were fewer than usual because the snowstorms kept sorters out.


I’ve gotten a good idea of how to deal with special collections like these using the Collector’s Corner feature on our WonderBook.com bookselling platform.

We had three pallets of Safire books remaining. Perhaps 100 boxes. We had picked them up on August 1, 2018. They’ve been waiting ever since. Ripening as it was until I came up with a way to treat them properly.

I instructed the young man to empty the boxes onto carts—”spine out.”

I pulled up a stool and did my thing with them.

It was hard work, but it was also fun. I inspected every single book inside and out.

I would determine if it was signed (by Safire or the author.) Was it a first edition? Did it have any inherent value, or was it just a souvenir from the great wordsmith’s collection?

There were surprises. About 20 volumes of bound carbon copies of all the man’s correspondence for decades—including the Nixon years. It was fascinating flipping through and seeing memos he had sent to Haldeman or Ehrlichman. I spent only a few moments looking at it. I needed to reduce the bulk and easily quantifiable collectibles. I’d return to these in the future. There were some manuscripts—including books he had coauthored with his father Leonard Safir. Safire changed his name from Safir early in his career. I found personal books signed by William both ways. I’ve found a few pocket notebooks with itineraries for world travels he made with Nixon. These highly detailed bits of history detail where everyone was going and when.

“Mrs. Nixon to visit a Moscow department store…”

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There are many scrapbooks as well. Mostly of his printed newspaper columns.

And lots of other…non-book “stuff.”

All the problematic material I put back onto a pallet in a short Gaylord. I will mull over what to do with these when time allows.

Safire Pallet

I rushed to finish late Sunday afternoon. I had to get the dogs to their babysitter. I planned to leave at 6 am Monday.

I wanted to get to the library’s rare book room early in order to spend as much time as possible reviewing the contents.

I wanted to leave early as there was a…TA DA!…snowstorm predicted to start late morning and continue for several hours.

I labeled four more cartloads of Safire material for data entry to start on Monday.

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I was proud of the accomplishment. It was hard work—mentally and physically.

I got home late and was too tired to make preparations for the drive.


I awoke in darkness and rushed to get things ready for an overnight trip 4 hours away.

It had been a year since I prepped for a trip.

(I had taken a short trip to visit bookselling friends at the end of August. This would be my first commercial trip.)

I wouldn’t need much. Just necessities.

I made sure I had boots and water and food in the truck in case I got buried in a snowdrift.

I’d left my laptop at work.

Of course! No trip can start smoothly.

Soon I was on the road. The traffic was generally light.

North on US 15. Past the Shrine to Sister Elizabeth Seton—the first North American Saint.

Across the Mason Dixon Line (do they still teach about that?) Past the battlefields around Gettysburg where about 160 years ago 100,000s of people fought and many died. North to Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. Crossing the Susquehanna, you can look south and see the towers of Three Mile Island.

My phone started screaming.


It is an alarm reminiscent of the nuclear attack alarms I would hear in school as a child. In Maryland, I get these for Amber and Silver alerts.

They are really disconcerting. They make me feel like I should slam on the brakes.

This one was to warn me of potential snow squalls.

Ummm… I’d think I’d notice? Maybe it is for those “thinking” of going out on the roads.

They send this alarm to every phone?

Hmmm… I’m not sure I like that. Kind of Big Brother.

You’d think a simple text would be sufficient.

Onto Interstate 81. It snowed briefly, but fortunately nothing stuck to the highway.

Then the road blends into I 78 toward New York City.

I have taken this road so many times, for so many reasons.

But it has been a few years now.

I started taking the Amtrak train from Maryland to New York City, and it got so I enjoyed the down time of letting someone else do the driving.

Soon I was at the school. The rare book room was unlocked for me, and I was shown around.

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I won’t give details because I am competing with other bidders. The bidding ends quite soon. I don’t want to jinx my efforts.

Win or lose, I will go into more detail next week.

Just now, I’m deciding on my final number. Will I be thousands too low? Or thousands too high? Or will my bid be just right?

Roughly 3700 books, the ad said.

Why am I doing this?

Because they are there. LOL…

I spent the morning engrossed in the handling of thousands of rare and unusual books. Books from the 15th to 20th centuries.

Around noon, the librarian came and told me it was snowing out.

I replied I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone and could leave whenever they wanted me to.

A little while later, I was told the institution was closing at 1.

I exited the vault-like room, went downstairs and stepped out into a different world from a few hours earlier. About 4 inches of fluffy snow had fallen and more was floating down heavily.

Off to the side, I noted the lonely stature of Mary in a little park. She was beautiful—white alabaster marble in a sea of big white snowflakes. I went over and walked up to her gingerly. There was about a foot of hard pack below the fresh fall. I wasn’t wearing boots and was concerned I might fall through.

It was a beautiful magical scene.

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“When I find myself in times of trouble…

I’ve often thought of converting.

T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Oscar Wilde and many other writers have.

I don’t know why. It is a calling from the wilderness, I suppose. Will I ever act on it? I dunno.

I was glad I’d taken the precaution of driving the big 4-wheel drive pickup truck. There’s still about 700 pounds of stone and wood in the bed to give it ballast. The roads were covered, and I went down some steep hills.

The phone led me to the hotel. There were few vehicles in the vast parking lot. The woman at check-in made the process very comfortable and easy behind the plexiglass wall that separated us.

It was still early afternoon, and the snow was ending. The temperature was rising.

What to do?

Cultural and outdoor excursions were out of the question. If they weren’t closed due to Plague, they were closed for the snow.

I went shopping. It is something I rarely do anymore. I’m trying to use things up at home.

Home Goods, Marshall’s for exotic stuff at bargain prices. Then I searched for liquor stores. The bar at the hotel is closed (COVID), and I didn’t think to bring any with me. My iPhone led me to a very tiny disappointing and greatly overpriced shop in a strip center. They had 3 gins on offer. I left. The next offering from my phone was a Bargain Wholesale…place. It was some miles away, but I didn’t have anything else to do.

It was wonderful. I wandered the aisles just looking at the amazing selection. I finally opted on 4 gins. 2 I hadn’t seen before. 2 I hadn’t had for a long, long time.

One was pink. One was blue. Two were clear.

New Gins

I could have gotten a LOT of other things, but like I said, I am trying to drink down my inventory.

I lucked into a restaurant and bar practically across the street. It was the old train station. It was a lovely space. It was practically empty. I took a high top pushed up against the bar and had some great mushroom pizza and cocktails. Oddly, Uruguayan soccer was on the TV. Out one side of the building, trains would roar by. Out the other, I could see traffic and the old worn buildings of the NJ town.

I went back early the next morning and immersed myself in rare (and not so rare) books.

12,000 of them!

It was overwhelming. I am a generalist bookseller—an omnivore. But then this collection includes books in almost all genres and eras.

I can’t wait to tell you more about it—especially if I am the highest bidder.

I’ll whine about it next week if I lose.

Around noon, I was toast. Too much beauty and truth and eternity all bound in cloth, leather, vellum and paper.

It was time to drive home.

The trip back was far different. It was warm and bright.

The sun hurt my eyes.

The radio devoted itself to Tiger Woods’ car accident—non-stop. It was all speculation. I’d tune in and out.

I got back pretty late at night. I’d picked up the dogs and had dinner at Rube’s—an Emmitsburg crab house that I hadn’t been to in years. No crabs. LOTS of Tiger coverage.

The fried oysters were good and so was the beer. I wondered why I had stopped going. COVID, certainly. And I guess I haven’t been driving north much either—not like I used to.

When I got home, the woodstove was still hot! I had banked it up when I left at 6 am Monday. It was 10 pm Tuesday. Not a record by any means. When I added wood and was in bed, it started puffing a little smoke. The alarms went off. I was in no mood to mess with it. I wasn’t sure what I’d done wrong. I opened the dampers so the smoke would flow freely up the chimney.

The next morning, I took out the catalytic converter. It was a little clogged. I shook it out and blew anything remaining in the honeycomb onto the snow.

Catalytic converters…I had grand plans for my return after 2 WHOLE days away.

Chuck, they stole another catalytic converter off the van in Hagerstown.

Apparently this is a thing. I blame COVID. Some lowlife crawls under vehicles and uses a metal saw to cut off the thing. You’d think the sparks and noise would be a tell. The last time this happened, it cost us about $2000. I hear the scrap value for a CC is maybe a couple hundred.

Last time, the vehicle was drivable—just VERY loud. This time it was disabled.

So, I had to find a tow truck. Contact the insurance company (last time we didn’t file a claim.) Make sure we had a police report. We also had to get another van up there. To get the driver back, a second van would follow. We had some Subject Orders for Books by the Foot, so I decided to go up.

We had two orders for African American books. One was for a TV show:

I have a limited series starring [Confidential] wanting 12′ of books.

The books should be by highly regarded black authors or on black history.

Mix bindings and condition. Wants to stay away from super shiny or bright red.

Books would need to be published mid 90s or earlier.

There were orders for Classic Lit hardcovers, Farm Books. Polo. Travel. Dogs…

Kind of fun.

It is a physical workout. It is therapeutic for the store, as most of what I would pull would be duplicates or books that had not sold for too long. We take big plastic tubs and just drop the books in.

We get a LOT of tubs from customers who bring their books to us in them. When we get too many, we set the extras outside the gate and post pictures on Craig’s list.

Free Tubs!

Free Tubs

Hoarders descend on them and take them away. Maybe they store books in them.

In the Literature section, I pulled authors from Austen to Zola. At “H” I pulled some O Henry. We had a lot of duplicates. When I got to “O”, there were another 15-20 O Henry’s there. I laughed. These issues happen all the time. Book stocking is not a perfect science.

Which was right?

Neither! They should be under “P.” O Henry’s real name was William Sydney Porter.

I got a comment on a recent story last night. I was “showing my ignorance [in a number of ways I won’t get into]… Oliver Sacks belongs in Biography…” my correspondent instructed me. Only problem is Sacks was a neurologist and wrote mostly on things to do with the brain and mind. I don’t recall any biographies he wrote, except perhaps an autobiography.

Plus, we don’t have a biography section!

“Where’s your biography section?”

We’ve gotten this question for decades. I’ve instructed staff to reply:

“Who are you looking for?”

And we proceed from there—kind of like “20 questions.”

Why don’t we have a biography section?

As a much younger bookseller, I discovered our Bio just didn’t sell well.

Some customers are looking for one individual, but most are looking for a historical period or genre.

If we put all our biographies in one section, it would be an enormous sprawling and essentially random mess.

Gloria Steinem bios would be next to George Steinbrenner. Steinem works would be in Women’s Studies.

Albert Einstein books would be near Sergei Eisenstein. Albert’s own books would be in Physics (I think.)

So…to stay in business—not easy for a bookstore—check the “phone book” for the handful remaining (LOL)—I decided to stock Bios by genre. It is not perfect, but it works.

Books by and about Shakespeare… If we put his sonnets in poetry, his home (Stratford on Avon) in England, the Globe in drama, his Bios in Bio, his mind in psychology…you get the idea.

If everything by and about Shakespeare goes in one place (Literature in this instance), it is much easier for the customers to stock and the booksellers to shelve.

So, if you come to one of our store, you should find books about Cleopatra would all be in Ancient Egypt. (Except the Liz Taylor movie—I think.)

The “Mission” is to find homes for as many books as possible. If we can achieve some kind of uniformity, it helps the experts and novices and the books get to the same place.

It may not be Dewey Decimal or up to academic bookstore standards and practices, but it works.

If you want a bookstore in your town:

Support it.

Tell others.

We are an endangered species.

It is very hard mentally and physically and financially.

Thursday, we Zoomed with our insurance brokers. It is annual review time.

They showed us screen after screen of things they were making sure we were in compliance with.

They looked like this.

Insurance Compliance

I counted 8 before I surrendered.

My eyes glazed over.

How could anyone start nowadays on a shoestring and a leap of faith as I did 40.5 years ago?

Afterwards, I took a mental vacation and drove down to the Gaithersburg store to pull more African American books.

The store looks great! All three stores look great!

I’m proud of them and the people that make it all work.

It is Friday.

The vans (except the one that was ripped off) are all on their way to support the stores.

Time to get this thing to my editor, so I won’t stress about failure—to break the streak.

I had a bad night for some reason.

I had a horrible dream of a jet in a blue sky. Pieces began falling off it. Then part of a wing. Part of the other. Then the remaining wings broke away. It fell nose-first into a river I was driving along. The water swallowed the entire thing.

I couldn’t get back to sleep.

The snow still covers the mountain despite several days in the 50s.

Melting Snow

Will winter return? Will the winter of the Plague end this year?

Soon enough I will be planting and cutting wood and transplanting.

I bought 6 packets of sunflower seeds.

Sunflowers remind me of someone.

I find it hard to let go of something that was good but has failed.

Letting the tenuous ties linger too long, thinking the frayed canvas might possibly, beyond reason, be rewoven is foolish.

I am a fool.

Last night, it was so nice I sat on the driveway and tossed balls to the dogs.

I cracked peanuts and tossed the shells on to the ground.

Dog & Peanut

That was good.

Then I was very sad.

Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

1984, George Orwell

George Orwell

During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.

George Orwell

18 Comments on Article

  1. Nancy McCollough commented on

    What I wouldn’t have given, to go through that mysterious collection with you! To have soaked up your comments and absorbed some of that vast knowlege. Maybe someday…

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      So nice to hear from you Nancy.
      If I get the books you can come help pack…LOL.
      Thank you for writing!

  2. Camille D commented on

    What a roller coaster of endurance, exhaustion and emotion. Hope the pandemic ends soon and the good days return. Wonder Book is the best!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Dear Camille,
      I need to put more of the calm and serenity involved in the work I do.
      But, of course, one always remembers the trials!.
      Thank you so much for reading the story – AND taking the time to comment.
      Sincerely, Chuck

  3. Rick Banning commented on

    Chuck, the last year has been sad for a lot of us, myself included. I see it has affected you too, though I bet writing about it helps. You will have had plenty of company in keeping a diary and who knows, getting it published. Yet another book, or dozen. I just keep drawing stuff in a pile of sketchbooks. It helps, somewhat. I look forward to the tales of Rare and Curious seen in your trip up north! Rick

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Rick.
      I need to write some about the serenity and contemplation that the pandemic has forced on us as well.
      I haven’t forgotten the engravings.
      The right thing will appear.
      If you have a chance please email some images to remind me of what you use in your sketchbooks.

  4. Rick Banning commented on

    Chuck, since you ended with George Orwell, that reminded me I have 181 photos on Pinterest related to 1984, almost all different covers for that book. And if I pursued it, I bet I would find more. If you’re interested, tell me how to email it to you. Rick

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      That sounds really cool.
      Send it to me and with your permission I’ll put it in a future story.

  5. Bill Campbell commented on

    Hello Chuck,
    I have been reading your blog for a few years.
    I find what you say informative and a pleasure to read.
    Heaven knows how you cope with three shops, dozens of staff , and an internet listed stock, which seems overwhelming.
    But you do.
    And you write evocatively of the beauties of your surrounding land- weather, plants, animals , people, restaurants- the things that matter.
    I am a Bookseller from Fremantle, Western Australia. My wife and were introduced to you at the California Rare book Fair -Pasadena , I think three years ago.
    You most kindly took us, and others out to dinner. We hope to reciprocate.
    We are of course aware of the difficulties that have beset your country over this last year.
    We wish you well.
    Bill Campbell Hidemi Okumua

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Hi Bill and Hidemi,
      It is so exciting to know the other side of the world is seeing the stories.
      So much of the time Wonder Book runs itself. I hope I convey this as well as the trials and tribulations that occur.
      I just made made my bid on the rare book room…OUCH! I hope I get it. But it will be a kind of relief if I dont!
      I hope we meet again – here there or somewhere in between.
      Your kind words are very heartening.
      Thank you so much.
      Write again if you get the urge.

  6. Fran Durako commented on

    Chuck – what a great blob entry this is. Your ability to write about your life in meaningful, random, sad, and happy ways is inspiring and satisfying. Thank you!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      That is so kind Fran.
      I really appreciate it.
      Knowing that someone likes them is heartening.

  7. Thomas Wixon commented on

    I can’t remember who said it but:
    If you are thinking of converting, you already have.
    Talk to a friend that is Catholic or a Priest you consider a friend.
    It is the whole original form of Truth.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Tommy
      I really appreciate it.

  8. Linda Tiller commented on

    I loved it! The Tale of Four Gins and Mother Mary in the snow. I snagged that photo of Mary, it is so peaceful and beautiful. I will be on pins and needles waiting to hear about the bid.
    Glad you got out and about and had a little adventure.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      It was so beautiful walking out into that surprising beauty after being cloistered in a vault like room all morning!
      Thank you so much for writing!

  9. Linea Kirchner commented on

    Booklovers and collector couple here in MN. You have all probably heard these but I thought a few book/ pandemic jokes would lighten the mood.
    My personal favorite is “It’s not hoarding, if it’s books!” And related is “We’re not hoarders we were just preparing for the Pandemic.”
    I personally have loved the last year, social distancing is my forte, inward focus on my relationship with God and long times of great prayer.
    My husband says it’s as if the Lord said to mankind: “I want you to all go to your rooms and think about what you’ve been doing.” Joy and Peace in Jesus.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Linda!
      There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the last year.
      I really appreciate your taking the time to read the story and to write!
      Please comment any time!

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