April in Paris

Time Flies: Montmartre Cemetery

Time Flies: Montmartre Cemetery

We made our semi-annual pickup at the Arlington Virginia Library on Tuesday. Well, the first pickup. Two vans. Four guys. Including me. I touched on a previous visit to this library sale pickup in this early book story: It Was The Worst of Calls, It Was The Best of Calls.

The library has two extremely successful sales per year. We’ve been called to go down and pickup (and pay for) the leftovers since 2008—maybe before. That’s as far back as I can track it on this laptop. We have gone every year; spring and fall. The sale is held underground, in the parking garage beneath the library. The parking spaces where the sale is held are demised by portable fencing.

We used to bring the 24-foot box truck and two vans. We would fill vans underground and drive them up to the street. We would transfer the contents onto the truck and go back down for another load. We would shuttle up and down the ramp until the truck was full. One more trip down to fill each van a final time, and then our little book caravan would head out to the DC Beltway—I 495. Our route hits the Beltway at about “8 o’clock” 🕗. We head north and soon cross the Potomac. At about “10 o’clock” 🕙, we take the spur to I 270 northwest toward Frederick Maryland. About 15 miles up 270 is a weigh station. That’s one of the reasons we stopped bringing a truck. Fines for overweight trucks are quite expensive. Another reason is that it was a real pain to run shuttles up and down and handle all the boxes a second time. Another reason is that Clif doesn’t enjoy driving the big old box truck into the city. He REALLY doesn’t enjoy it.

As in: “I won’t do it, Chuck.”

I don’t enjoy driving the truck either. It is a rattling grumbling beast and may be too old for long trips any more. Nowadays we mostly just drive it across town and park it in front of our flagship Frederick store to fill with books customers sell us.

All 3 stores buy ALL books brought to us. If we buy them ALL, we won’t miss anything good. 10-6 pm. 7 days a week. 363 days a year. The CEO, in his benevolence, continues to stay closed Thanksgiving and Christmas. We probably wouldn’t do a lot of business on those days, anyway. Actually, we might lose money staying open those days. Ah, the tough decisions we “CEOs” have to make. Lol…

Our newer vans have larger capacities, and we’ve found we can usually clean the Arlington Library out in 4 loads. Each van holds about 200 average size boxes. 800 boxes of books in two trips. Maybe 50 books on average per box. 40,000 per sale? Two sales per year. 11 years at 80,000. Closing in on a million books? I dunno. That may be a bit high. Even at half that the numbers are pretty staggering. We just pack and load.

It is a bit gratifying to think we have taken books that otherwise most likely would have been pulped.

The cool folks at the library are happy to have them disappear. They are also happy when our check appears a couple weeks later.

The “Fleet” is now up to 6 vans, the “Cube” truck and the big box truck. But only two of the newer vans have low enough clearances to get into the garage. Monday was spent shuttling things around the 3 stores so each would have a fresh empty vehicle and so the two low profile Fords were at the warehouse Tuesday morning. They were gassed and loaded with empty boxes. I decided to go on this trip (mostly to avoid the hard work at the warehouse.) I’d much rather pack and lift boxes than deal with the paperwork and people problems. Also, mindless toting and lifting is a good workout, and you can get into a Zen-like state with all the repetitive movement. It is a pleasant respite to let the mind go blank—somewhere else—for a bit without the aid of wine or Martinis.

So we made our way south and east to the now familiar library building. Arlington has invested quite heavily in their library. It is a beautiful and very functional space. It is very popular. All kinds and ages of people are entering and exiting or working at stations or simply reading in chairs even on weekday mornings when we arrive.

It is a warm bright spring day. Up on the earth’s surface, it is 82 degrees. We descend into the half-light beneath the book building. The antenna on the van rattled against the sprinkler pipes. It is always a concern that the height will be off and our van roofs will bust something. But we never have. Knock on wood.

Taking the van down to the cavernous multi-level garage the air is far cooler. Everything is cement gray down there. Except the books. Their spines glow infinite combinations of colors.

Clif has the combination to the chain locking the fence so no one can poach our leftovers. He unlocks and slides a couple sections aside and we back in.

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Dozens of massive rolling wooden carts are set up in rows. We can push the carts near the van doors for ease of loading.

The library volunteers have already packed about 100 boxes. These include about 20 with my name on them. These are the older books that they would never put out into the regular sale. No one else would want them. There probably aren’t any collectible books, however. Those are vetted prior to the shows by most organizations. Bibliophiles or perhaps other dealers get the early look at those, and they are priced or handled accordingly. We will stage these older books on carts at the warehouse, and I will quickly scan and create a separate total for their value.

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We get the leftovers. And that actually works out fine—for everyone.

We pull the empty boxes from the vans and drop to our knees and begin packing. Many of the common modern hardcovers are packed separately to go directly to Books By the Foot. This saves handling them twice. The computer would reject most of them, and they would be kicked back there, anyway. Two hours later the vans are full from floor to ceiling. We continue to pack a lot of the leftovers so loading on the return visit will be a bit easier.

Then we are driving up the ramp and into the light. 400 boxes of books head from Virginia to Maryland.

Wednesday I sent the two vans down again. Since a great many of the books were packed, I thought a crew of three would be sufficient. So off they went. I stayed behind. It was a “getaway day.” I was leaving for Paris that evening.

I’m writing this 36,970 feet above Scotland—the Orkney Isles, I think. Will I ever get down there? It is on the “list” for sure. I booked this trip last October. Why? I’ve been wanting to get back to Paris for some years. No one would go with me. I finally decided I’d better start doing things on my own.

April in Paris. The City of Light. The City of Love?

None of that silly business. I plan to walk. And walk. And walk. It has been so many years. The last time was with young children.

So, I will try to enjoy it. I’ve been advised I “must” enjoy it.

Oh, and there will be books involved. Salon International du Livre Rare & de l’Autographe will be held at the Grand Palais Friday-Sunday. Unfortunately, the visit to that won’t make this week’s book story. Most likely. Maybe next time.

Back to Wednesday…getaway day. Gotta catch up on everything.

I’ll be away April 15. The accountant has things for me to sign by then. A couple very painful things. The biweekly paychecks are due Friday. I’ll be away. I picked them up as I signed the income tax checks and other forms. At the warehouse we processed them early so everyone would get their money on Friday. I caught up on last month’s bank statements. All Maryland businesses are under assault from numerous directions: the minimum wage increasing to $15, rising mandatory health care costs… Plus, dozens of states want us to collect and remit their sales tax on books shipped there. This is incredibly complex. For example, one zip code in Colorado has 4 different sales tax rates since we must collect taxes for the various municipalities in addition to the state taxes.

And it’s not just that’s there’s more dollars and cents going out in all directions; there’s just so much more internal data that goes with it. It takes key people away from what they should be doing; and what they love doing—getting books to and from people. As governments add new layers of bureaucracy, we must internally add layers to comply.

So, top management met around the cluttered conference table (much of it cluttered with my debris—things I need to do something with.) It was mind numbing. I hate the business part of being in business. It is a struggle to keep my eyes from glazing over. We strategize on how to save more money, how to make more money, how to do things faster better cheaper—yet again…I’ve been doing this for decades—reacting to the markets and increasing interventions by those “who must be obeyed.”

I feel we’re being nibbled to death by bureaucracy.

I run some errands. Make deposits.

A friend wants to show me a downtown building that just came up for sale. For a bookstore? Great location but kind of decrepit.

Then it’s time to go to the airport. I’ve run down too many airport hallways chasing a closing gate. I like to get there very early.

Passport? Check. Euros? Check. Hotel address? Check. Laptop and phone chargers? Check. … Check, Check, Check.

I think I’m ready to go. It’s only an hour to BWI Airport. I check my ticket.

“Oh, it’s Dulles.”

Good thing I checked.

Friday morning in Paris.

In my wisdom, I’d opted for Icelandair to save a few dollars. This savings means a layover in Iceland. So, instead of one long overnight flight (on which I could sleep—with assistance—i.e. wine), there are two medium length flights.

We arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport about 1 pm. There was a long wait for luggage. A couple hundred groggy people standing around watching an empty belt go round and round.

I had grand ideas of saving money taking a train or other mass transit in to the city, but I was in no mood for that learning curve. I got in the long line at the taxi stand.

My driver’s English was about as good as my French, but we finally came to an understanding when I showed him the hotel’s address. About $70 later, we were pulling up in front of the hotel in Clichy.

I’d decided to stay out there because it was a new Hilton, and therefore there were minimal points involved to stay for “free.”

Although it is pretty far north of the city center, it isn’t far from Monmartre.

I checked in, freshened up, shaved and changed shirts. With my big fat DK Eyewitness Guide in hand, I started walking south. The hotel is just outside the Ring Road (Boulevard Peripherique.) So I walked under that and made my way to the Monmartre Cemetery. I’d been to Pere la Chaise Cemetery many years ago, and that was quite stunning. A veritable City of the Dead. The brief entry about Monmartre Cemetery in the guide looked promising. Also, it was the northernmost site in Montmartre. It was a couple miles and a veritable warren of turns and tiny streets before I got to the high stonewalls surrounding the graveyard. I usually rely on serendipity to get me places—with a general goal in mind. I hadn’t studied the map closely. Maps, actually. The guide cuts the graveyard in half on map pages 1 & 2 and 5 & 6. There’s only one entrance. (Actually, there are two, but one is only open on All Saints Day.) So, I had to circumnavigate most of the 27 acres the wall demises. The entrance is down a number of steps from the main roads. You enter through a gate and past guardhouses. There you find a sign with a large map of the site. Fortunately, there are many laminated maps hung by string below it. Fortunately, some are in English.

Then the fun began. The map had over 100 circled numbers on it. On it reverse the numbers matched famous permanent residents’ locations. Nearest was Zola. Although his bones had been removed to the Pantheon, his original tomb (and that of his family) was still there. From there the hunt for dead authors and artists continued. I visited the last residences of Alexander Dumas-fils, Stendahl, Berlioz, Degas, Heine, Truffaut, “la Dame aux Camellias,” Nijinsky…and many more. It is a stunning little city. Many tombs are tiny “houses.” “Street” after street…

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I hung my guide up on the hook and exited and walked up the many steps to the Rue Caulaincourt—a street that was figure prominently in the rest of the day.

I was pretty dazed from the trip and the lack of sleep, but I’ve found it is best to push on hard the first day. If I don’t, I won’t get acclimated to the change in time. Also if I nap, my first day will be lost. I walked and walked. French words and phrases began to reappear in my consciousness on every block. I knew I must head up the steep hill—the Butte—at some point. I chose the Rue du Mont Cenis. It is one of the most beautiful ways up the slope. It is also one of the steepest. My heavy guidebook bumped against my hip. Fortunately, it fits, barely, in my brother Jim’s Orvis blue blazer’s pocket. Steps, steps, steps and more steps. When I finally got to the summit, I turned and looked back. It was a view like San Francisco on steroids.

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Ahhh…it was worth it.

I was now at the summit of Monmartre. Monmartre where Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Suzanne Valadon, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, Camille Pissarro, and Vincent van Gogh and many, many other artists and authors have lived and worked.

I wandered amongst the tourists and bistros and shops. Then into the Place du Tertre where a hundred or more artists display their work or wander about offering to create your portrait.

I then made my way to the cathedral. The Basilica du Sacré Couer. It is crowded with tourists at the summit but the space is pretty vast. I made my way past the military guards in camouflage with real assault rifles cradled across their chests. Then up the steps and into the cathedral. “This is a Scared Place—Silence Please.” Ethereal music filled the air. Women’s voices being piped in from somewhere. No, as I became acclimated, I saw a dozen nuns—many of them quite young up near the altar. They were dressed in white habits with black trim. They were singing prayers. It was near 6 pm. Was it Vespers?

I walked about the perimeter of the enormous ethereal space. It is amazing humans can build with enough inspiration and initiative. Every step the music flowed about and through me. When I got back to the entrance, I was in a transformational state. I entered the pews and joined in the French prayers which I barely understood. I said my own prayers and spoke to my deceased parents and brothers. I haven’t been to church for years. As a child, I battled my poor parents relentlessly. They finally surrendered (to that, piano lessons and many other things I wish I’d continued.) I’m not overtly devout. But I do believe. It felt good to reconnect with my Maker in a formal way. A very, very rare thing.

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Before I exited, I lit a candle to my departed family and friends. I’d forgotten to transfer my dollars to the Euros I’d brought in an envelope. I pushed a 20 into the coin slot.

Back out into spring early evening. A half-dozen gargoyles were silhouetted above me.

I was exhausted. Time to head back. I studied the conflicting (to my eye) map once again. There were a couple things I wanted to see, but the guide was not clear. Fate, or something, guided my steps, and I did indeed come to the last vineyard in Paris and Lapin Agile during the steep descent down narrowed cobbled streets.

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Then I was back on Rue Caulaincourt. Foolish. I had no Euros. In my rush, I’d left them in my hotel room. I only had a vague recollection of the street address of the hotel. Would I be able to convey that to a taxi driver? I’d walked here. I would walk back. I’d had nothing to eat or drink in many hours. I passed many beautiful cafes, bistro, brasserie… I was exhausted—toast. I stepped into one that had an American Express sticker on the door. I was in no mood to experiment with my French. Also, I needed to be sure I could pay. It was quite nice. I was able to order Escargot, a glass of Sancerre and water in French. The bartender/waiter responded:

“Certainly, Monsieur.”

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One glass was enough. I needed all my faculties to get back. I stepped out on the sidewalk. A woman followed me out and called to me. She had been sitting a few tables away in a corner and had been on a laptop the whole time. I had the impression she was the owner.

She spoke to me in French—rapidly. She seemed quite agitated.

“Je en comprende pas,” I replied.

She tried again.

Had I forgotten something in her restaurant? Done something wrong?

I was flustered.

After a few more exchanges, she spoke English.

“Are you Tom Scarlet?”


I think she said Tom—anyway, was I “somebody” Scarlet.

“Non. Je suis un touriste Americain.”

“Ahhh…” She turned and reentered the bistro looking quite disappointed.

Who am I?

I made my way back to the hotel after a few wrong turns and misunderstood street names. Ummm, Rue du Clichy is NOT the same as Boulevard Clichy I discovered.

At the Hilton I sat at the bar. The bartender’s English was very good. A glass of Pouilly Fume. A glass of Pessac.

Then I ordered a Martini. The bartender seems to understand. Then I remembered my past experiences with Continental “Martinis.”

“Just gin. In a stemmed glass, sil vous plais.”


He retrieved a stemmed Martini glass.

“You want ice?”

“Ummm…no. Do you have a shaker?”

“Oui. Oui. ‘Geen’ and how much Martini?”

“Just gin. Shaken and strained. Citadelle, sil vous plais.”


I made my way up to my room and fell into bed. In Maryland time, it was only about 5 pm.

Lethe’s potions soon had me in dreamland.

It is time to send this off to Frederick where my editor will make sense of out it all.

I’ll be able to look at it many hours from now. Perhaps 8 o’clock tonight. I can check for typos and malaprops. It will only be late afternoon “Over There.”

I put my dollars in the safe and my Euros in my wallet. I will write out the hotel exact address to carry with me the rest of the trip. If worse comes to worse, I can pin it to my lapel this evening like Paddington Bear.

“If found please return me to…”

2 Comments on Article

  1. Michael Dirda commented on

    Hope the rest of your trip to Paris is fun, Chuck. Marian and I were there for a week in early March and had a great time. You might enjoy the Marche aux Livres at the Parc Georges Brassens if you’re still there this weekend. Also, the big Libraire de l’Avenue at the Porte de Clignancourt. It’s open every day, but on weekends it’s also the part of a huge flea market. A dicey area, though.
    Like you, we spent most of our time walking around, popping into museums–at the Musee des Arts et Metier, we saw the actual Foucault’s pendulum that plays a key part in Eco’s novel–and talking with old and new friends. Marian has been all over the world and she still finds Paris the most magical of all cities. Which it is.

    1. Chuck replied on

      Yes. So many books here.
      I came to visit the Salon International du Livre Rare à Paris at the Grand Palais.
      It was an astounding venue. It will likely be in next week’s book story.
      As will a magical find in a tiny “Livre” across from Luxembourg Gardens.
      I entered just as the old woman was closing.
      I stepped a glazed wall of books and the first thing I saw was a very thin old duodecimo.
      The title was just legible. It turned out to be perfect for the friend who had requested “a book from Paree.”
      It was almost as if i was led to it.
      A perfect match in perfect condition.
      Perhaps there is a story there…

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