Boston Symphony

Boston Rooftops

There’s no music in this story. It was a symphony of books.

It’s four in the morning
The end of November
I’m writing you now
To make me feel better
Frederick is cold
But I like where I’m living
A coyote’s music wails
Out on the mountain
You know that I’m living
In a little house on the mountain
I’m living for writing now
Yes, I’m keeping some kind of record

(With apologies to Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”)

That’s all true. It is November 30th. 28 degrees outside. I was awakened at 4 by a coyote’s howling somewhere in the woods outside my bedroom window. The dogs in bed next to me stirred at the sound, growled sleepily and rolled over when it stopped. I pushed on the light. I rose and opened the damper on the wood stove 20 feet away. The glass doors soon glowed a soft orange. The pot of water atop it started hissing softly.

Now with the laptop propped on a pillow, I am tapping away at this book story. Friday is deadline day. I will be unhappy if I don’t get this finished and to the editor in time. It is the holidays, and she is leaving early today.

It is rare to hear a coyote up here. They are not uncommon just very secretive. I’ve only seen one in the 9 years I’ve had this place.


We have had our busiest week ever. The combination of Black Friday, Cyber Monday and a glitch with a major website had us deluged with thousands of orders. The “glitch” was that our inventory of 2.5 million items had mistakenly been put on sale for 30% off of 30% off on that site Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. The sale had been scheduled just 30% off. The books listed there are “shipped free”, so our least expensive books needed a minimum price or we would lose money. By the time the glitch was caught on Black Friday and we found someone to fix the problem, we had sold thousands of books below cost.

Well, we will make up our losses in volume.

Volunteers came in over the weekend to pack orders. All week most everyone was pulled from other duties and assigned to pull or pack orders. Even upper management  was out pulling and packing.

It was pretty exciting even for this jaded longtime bookseller. When I went in early Wednesday morning, I counted 91 rolling metal 3 foot 6 shelf carts with books on them lined up to ship. They weren’t all full, but it was still an impressive sight.

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So, the week since Thanksgiving has been a blur of problem solving, thinking outside the box and spending a lot of money on overtime.

If you read the November 16, 2018 book story, you will have seen that this was how the Preface concluded:

It is 6:30 am Friday November 16. Dawn is brightening to the east.

If this story gets launched today, you will know I made it down the mountain. Right now I need to go out and check on conditions and then pack for the trip I’ll be taking to Boston…maybe.

Well, I did make it down the mountain. I hurriedly packed my bag. I plowed my drive one more time to knock some big chunks and widen the path and test the icy patches. In order to get all the way down, I needed to drive my old, 2010 Ford F 150 with 4WD and big nubby tires. The truck bed was full of dead tomato vines and sunflower stalks and other garden freeze casualties I had yanked out of the warehouse gardens the week before. The ride down was white knuckled. It’s over a mile to the county road, and for most of that it is a pretty steep decline. If you leave the lane, you’ve only got tree trunks to stop you. Down in the valley, the temperature had gone up a bit, and the road crews had done a good job. The public roads were pretty clear.

There was some work I HAD to do at the warehouse plus Merry & Pippin would be spending the weekend roaming the three-acre building alone—well, not exactly, a few “babysitters” would come in and visit them for the two days I’d be away. IF I made my plane. The warehouse parking lots had only been partially cleared. I rushed in and did the tasks that had to be done. My flight was at 11 AM. I try to get to BWI over an hour before my flights. You never know when traffic, TSA or other random acts will slow you past the dreaded deadline. I felt a little awkward pulling up to the airport in my beat up old pickup nearly overflowing with dead vegetation. I chose the “Hourly” garage so I could run into the terminal and not wait on a shuttle bus. As it was, I made it to the end of the line for the Southwest flight. I got a window seat in the very last row. To say I was a bit frazzled would be an understatement. I assessed myself. Had I forgotten anything?

Ummm…where’s my coat?

Ummm…out in the truck.

I can tough it out. It’s supposed to be in the 40s. I was wearing my brother’s old Orvis blue blazer. I’d be inside or in taxis most of the time.

The plane took off. I’m still dazzled looking out airplane windows. I knew I should be on the port side of the plane to get any views. Sure enough the flight went right over NYC. Brooklyn to be exact—where I’d attended my last book show. The views of the City were stunning.

The plane glided low over Boston Harbor, and soon I was shuttling to the subway station. I was in a money saving mood, and to get downtown via taxi or Uber involves not only a pretty long and often traffic filled trip. Also, the passenger needs to pay the toll for the Ted Williams tunnel if memory serves. Plus I’d become pretty expert using the Tube so much in London a couple weeks before. I stepped to the machine and tried to figure it out.

I’d need to buy a Charlie Card? I just want a roundtrip ticket downtown. I of course knew why they are called Charlie Cards. When I was 7 or 8 I’d “borrowed” my brothers’ Kingston Trio record albums and memorized:

Well, let me tell you of the story of a man named Charlie
On a tragic and fateful day
He put ten cents in his pocket, kissed his wife and family
Went to ride on the MTA
Well, did he ever return?
No he never returned and his fate is still unlearned (what a pity)
He may ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston
He’s the man who never returned

The ballad is a humorous protest about the rise of subway fares in the 1960s. When Charlie gets to his destination:

The conductor tells him “One more nickel”
Charlie couldn’t get off of that train

In those days, you didn’t pay until you were exiting, I guess.

The kind Transit worker who walked me through the Charlie ticket machinations must have seen my confused look and pegged me for a tourist.

Soon I was on a train rumbling under the Harbor. The hotel instructions told me I should get out the State station on the Blue Line.

I exited the station and looked up the old brick wall and saw the large figures of a lion and a unicorn perched atop it. The royal heraldic of the British monarchy in America’s colonial days still looks out over Boston city in 2018. It was bizarre. That subway station is directly under the 18th century Old Statehouse!


The hotel instructions had also told me:

“Turn right when you exit the station. The hotel is right across the street.”

Well, I thought I had, but I didn’t see the hotel. I figured my phone could get me there. Nope. The iPhone map app gets confused from to time. I was instructed to walk “500 yards down…and the hotel is on your right.” Nope. I tried again and again. The phone had me walking in circles. I was very wrong about a sport coat being enough for the streets of Boston. It was VERY cold. I went back to the Old Statehouse to restart. There was one of those tourist maps in a metal frame rising from the sidewalk. I studied that for a moment and found that the Ames Hotel was indeed right across the street from the Statehouse—on the OTHER side of the building.

I’m old fashioned. I like maps.

Stupid iPhone.

But likely it was operator error and not the equipment’s fault.

The hotel let me check in early, and I was given a room. I looked out the window, and there was a unicorn far below me.


I got right back in the elevator and fell 100 feet back down to the lobby.

“Is there a clothing outlet store nearby?”

I didn’t want to spend a lot of money for a new coat for a two-day trip.

The concierge turned and pointed out the front window.

“Two blocks up that street. You can’t miss them.”

I bought a Victorinox coat and a pair of gloves at 80% off and then killed a couple hours touring the sights of downtown Boston.

The ABAA’s Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair opened at 5. I took an Uber from the hotel and arrived about 15 minutes early. It was held in the Hynes Convention Center. Escalators raised me up from street level, and I was met with a heartening sight. A very long, long line was curling through the lobby waiting for the doors to open.

Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair Line

That may seem a little counterintuitive, but some collectors just don’t want to take a chance on missing THE book. Also, some may have an appointment to inspect a particular book a bookseller may have listed online with their Boston Fair Catalog prior to the show. Plus the opening of any book fair has a special vibe to it.

I wandered around the lobby and waited for the line to dwindle down.

There is a breathtaking moment for me whenever I enter a hall where an ABAA signature book show is being held. In some ways, it is like stepping into the “light.” In some ways, like stepping onto a stage. The halls are always so well lit and airy. Plus you are immediately face to face with the first few booths of astonishing books near the entrance. Then there are the 130 or so other high quality, vetted booksellers’ booths to amble through.

I always have a mental list of the first booksellers I want to visit at any show. A few seem to “have my number.” They always have an irresistible book or five to put in my hands when they see me. Their faces brighten, and their smiles broaden when they see me approaching their booth. It is nice to be appreciated.

But first on the list this time was Black Swan Books—my friends Nick and Ellen Cooke from Richmond. They’d agreed to display the prototype of the “If There Were No Books…” portfolio I had collaborated on with artist Alan James Robinson at the fair. Alan had put the box of 24 images together and brought them down to Frederick the previous week. I’d reached out to Black Swan because I know they love Alan’s work and specialize in fine press books among other rare and beautiful books. On Wednesday, two days before the show’s opening night, Nick emailed asking if the book was still coming, or was I going to bring it to Boston. I checked, and we had shipped it the week before. It should have been there. Thus began several hours of emails and phone calls with FedEx. It was in Richmond, but for whatever reasons it hadn’t been delivered for four days. Nick and Ellen wanted to be on the road by noon. The internet manager and I reached out to our several FedEx reps. We do a lot of business with FedEx. Whatever she said got them to get a FedEx manager in Richmond to find the package among the hundreds of thousands they must have there and hand deliver it to the Cookes.

I got to their booth, and there it was.

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We chatted while I perused their other books. I naturally put a couple on hold for me to buy later. I then moved on to the “usual suspects” who shall remain nameless because…I don’t want to share my favorite booksellers names!

Anyway, I made four stops and made four purchases. And only one of those stops was a purchase of a single book. In the first hour I’d…gone a little crazy. The show went on until 9 pm. I just wandered from booth to booth and aisle to aisle.

How to describe an ABAA book show? Well, one way is to liken it to going to a museum where you can buy and touch everything. Almost everything. Ask permission first! There’s no book displayed there that isn’t special or beautiful in some way. These booksellers know what they are doing. It is very expensive to rent a booth, get to a show, set up and be a gracious book expert for three days. Many of these folks have been doing book shows for many, many years. They know what people want and what value to put on it.

AND not all the books are expensive. Even rare books can be affordable. Many booksellers have “Discovery” sections in their booths where high quality books are on display that are affordable—”entry level” collectibles. (I confess I’ve bought some Discovery books myself—and I’ve seen other pros do it as well. But it is ok. There are plenty of books to go around.)

It had been a pretty long and intense day, but I couldn’t stop shopping (and occasionally buying) until the fair closed at 9. One memorable find was this copperplate engraving of Poe. I found it at a London bookseller’s booth. I have a rule—if I see something I think I’ll never have the chance to see again—at any price (well, almost), I’ll go for it. It is cool to think that this plate was used to print Poe’s image hundreds or thousands of time—likely during the 1870s in France. Unfortunately, he wasn’t set up to take credit cards, and I didn’t have a check with me (oops.) So, upon returning to Frederick, I went through the exercise of wiring the money. It was a bit of hoops and ladders for my bank, but eventually the money got to his bank. It shouldn’t be that hard! We used to wire in money from international sales pretty often. Maybe it has gotten more regulated.

Poe Engraving

I violated one of my other rules: “The only book you regret is the one you DIDN’T buy.” So often when you pass on something initially and you return for it later—it is long gone.

Machen Books

The Machen books were not only exquisitely beautiful—the set was also signed! But I decided not to buy them.

I don’t get to see most of these folks very often. Wonder Book is a bit “provincial”, and I don’t get out much except on special occasions. Sooooo…I convinced two couples to grab a snack and a drink after the show. The Hynes is part of the sprawling Prudential Center. There are dozens of high-end stores and many great restaurants all under one roof. The “Pru”, a 50+ story skyscraper, is also on site. There’s a restaurant on the 52nd floor called the Top of the Hub. I’d visited there 3 years earlier and had a very memorable evening. So, I offered to treat my friends if they’d accompany me. Well, many drinks and some great dishes later I managed to summon an Uber which took me back to the hotel at some ungodly hour.

When I awoke Saturday and looked out any window, there was still a unicorn out there. I dropped down 100 feet or so and had a great “free” breakfast. I rarely eat breakfast (or lunch), but free is free. I splurged on another rarity—a bacon sandwich on burnt toast. This was a dish my Mom would serve up for me on weekends when I was tiny. She was an Alabama girl and cooked and ate some very strange things. I never make bacon and don’t eat meat very often. This was GOOD if self-indulgent.

I had an appointment for an interview for the ABAA website at 10 (“sharp”) that morning. I wasn’t eager to do it. Camera shy. But I always strive to be punctual. It is good business. I summoned a car with my phone, and in a couple minutes the Uber driver was taking me to the Pru. Unfortunately, there was a marathon (not THE Boston marathon) going on, and the poor driver got stuck at the Boston Common while police motorcycles guarded the last runners. Eventually I got there. Eventually I got past a zealous security guard when an exhibiting bookseller passed by and agreed to escort me in. (That informal contact was to cost me dearly.) The interview was not too painful.

Then, as so often happens, serendipity and a willingness to just walk and look paid off handsomely. There was still a lot of time before the show opened at noon. I headed south. There were many, many people of all ages all over Boston wearing Harvard or Yale garb. The big football match was going to take place in a couple hours at Fenway—the stadium that has hosted Red Sox baseball since 1912. I decided to head down that way. On the way to Fenway is The Fens. It is an urban wild park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. A fen is a kind of swamp, I think. Anyway it was a beautiful walk.

Something beckoned me to walk to the nearby MFA—Boston’s wonderful art gallery—The Museum of Fine Arts. As I approached, I spied a huge banner hanging down its facade. The banner announced a special Winnie the Pooh Exhibition!

The Museum of Fine Arts

What luck.

The museum was just opening, so I figured I could just stroll in. Nope. “Sold out.” The next ticketed entry is 3 pm. Initially, I demurred. I bought a ticket for general admission only.

“What are you thinking?” an inner voice spoke to me. I suppose it was my Book Muse. If so, she was being very subtle with her advice this time.

I went back to the ticket counter and asked to have the Pooh exhibit added on. Then I entered the museum and wandered through the galleries a while before returning for the Book Fair’s opening.

"If there were no books..." Watercolor

Alan Robinson had agreed to come down from his home near the New Hampshire border. I met him in the lobby and escorted him to the Black Swan booth. There were a few of his works in their glass case. He signed them for the Cookes. Then we walked around the aisles a bit. I introduced him to some friends, and then he ran into a bookseller who used to stock his work. They hadn’t seen each other for many years and needed to catch up. I stepped away and continued browsing. With over 130 booths each displaying a few hundred books or more there was always something new to see. And in every bookseller’s collection there is something to learn.

Peter Rabbit

Some books are a bit out of my range, but it is good to know that a first appearance of Peter Rabbit has value. Six figure value.

Then it was time to return to the MFA for my scheduled admission to the Pooh exhibit. It was a wonderful immersion. The walls in room after room were lined with photos and Ernest Shepherd drawings and books and manuscripts and toys and… Each room was designed as a scene from one of the books.

Pooh Stairs

A faux flight of stairs descended from the ceiling. The words “Bump, bump, bump” were painted on its side.

Pooh Stream

A little bridge crossed a cartoon stream illuminated on the floor. The stream “flowed” and periodically cartoon sticks landed in it and flowed under you as you stand on the bridge. Pooh Sticks, of course.

At the end, I circled back and walked through the exhibit again. It was wonderful seeing how the words and art evolved; how the collaboration between Milne and Shepherd synergized.

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After I’d had all the art and artifacts I could absorb in the rest of the museum, I returned to the show.

So much walking…

My son, Joey, was in town. He arrived in the afternoon. We went through the fair; I introduced him to some friends and pointed out some books I thought might interest him. His girlfriend is a student at Tufts, and when she arrived, we toured the fair a bit more seeing what interest her. It turned out she was intrigued by, among other things, antique maps and the autographed Harry Potters. The British firsts look far different than the American editions.

It was getting late. About 5 o’clock. They were hungry. We went to The Top of the Hub. I had dinner plans with booksellers after the show closed at 7, so I just had a Gin Gibson (Up. Very dry.) We were able to watch the sun set out in western Massachusetts from over 500 feet up. Then the city lights began blinking on, and we were treated to the 360 degree panoramas of Boston at night. They had plans and left. I still had an hour to kill, so after the elevator dropped me 500 feet, I went back to the fair.

Boston Lights

Maybe it was the martini. Maybe serendipity. Maybe I was led by some supernatural force like my muse. But in the last hour, I found three of my favorite books of all time and my economic defenses were down.

The first was a leather-bound volume with a blank spine. When I slipped it from the display case (after asking permission), I saw that it was a beautifully bound first edition of In Flanders Field. When I’d been in London a few weeks earlier, the 100th anniversary of the Armistice of 11 November 1918 was approaching. “The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”

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The book was just stunning. It had bound by hand likely in the 1920s by a woman named Flora Hall. She “signed” it on the rear inside cover in gilt letters. She was clearly very skilled. The book spoke to me, and I had to have it.

The next find was in the booth of a colleague who specializes in poetry. A recent book story recounted how my first mentor, Carl Sickles, had been a teenage Ball Turret Gunner in World War Two. Randall Jarrell’s poem has always resonated with me. His first wife was a professor when I was at Connecticut College. Oddly, she had grown up in the same little (at that time) town my father was born in—San Marcos Texas. I studied poetry for three years at Conn with William Meredith. He was Poet Laureate at the Library of Congress from 1978-1980. He encouraged my writing, and I still write verse often. My final year he was on Sabbatical, and I studied with Brendan Galvin. Galvin’s 2005 Habitat was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Poetry is in my blood.

“Do you have anything unusual by Randall Jarrell?” I asked.

My colleague sat me down and handed me a half dozen volumes that Jarrell had inscribed to relatives. Those were cool.

“And then I have this.”

The Seven League Crutches

That was very cool, but I see so many “book” books in my work that it takes a lot to hook me onto a modern first edition.

When I opened the book and looked inside, tingles rose up my spine and up through the nape of my neck.

The Seven League Crutches Poem


I wandered a bit more and saw the colleague who had gotten me past security that morning. I went over to thank him. He had a low glass case at the front of his booth. There were three books displayed prominently atop it. One was a sad battered looking thing, and I wondered why it was showcased thusly.

“What’s that?”

He lifted it from its easel and broke it open.

Illuminated Manuscript

Tingles. Massive exquisitely painful tingles. The pain got much worse when he told me the price.

I have a number of nice illuminated manuscript “leaves”*. A full book has been on my bucket list for a long time…

*Leaf = a single sheet within a codex book (read more)

Well, you only live once. The old Jeep can last another…

The serendipitous favor that bookseller had done cost me dearly. If I hadn’t gone to thank him, I would not have noticed that book.

My final stop was at the friend’s who had the Machen. Oddly, it was still there.

“Must be here for a reason.”

The show closed. I met my friends, and we went to a fabulous restaurant that was decorated with lots of leather and dark stained wood paneling and old paintings of horses and landscapes and such. I had two more Gibsons and some wonderful food. I guess it is a law in Massachusetts that the menu must list the calories for each dish. I was very disheartened that the Wedge Salad had something like 1400 calories. Depressing. Here I thought I’d been eating healthy by having salads so often. We had a grand discussion about the state of the world and the book world in particular. At some point, we had to give up. I had a very early flight the next morning. They still had a full day of work Sunday at the book show.

I Ubered back to the hotel and rose 100 feet or so to my room. The next morning, I got up at 6 and dropped down to the ground for breakfast. Yep. Crispy bacon on burnt toast. Soon after I was rolling across the street and descending under the Old Statehouse. My Charlie Card got me back under the Bay. I hadn’t checked in with the airline. I’d tried the day before, but I was minutes outside the 24-hour rule. (Southwest will only let you check in within 24 hours of your flight time). So, I was boarding in the last group. It was ok though for the very last row had an empty seat on the starboard side. The last person to board was a very tall and large woman. She took the seat next to me. Her flesh flowed into my space above below the armrest. I scrunched over.

“Thank God it’s a short flight.”

In a few hours, I was back in my warehouse in Frederick Maryland. Merry and Pippin were joyous at the sight of me. It is nice to be appreciated.

The Illuminted Manuscript was overnighted to me. I opened it on Tuesday. In Flanders Field arrived Wednesday, and I opened it. Then Thanksgiving happened. Then Black Friday. Then Cyber Monday. I haven’t had a chance to open the other packages this week. Just too busy. But I plan to when I come in Saturday. It will be like Christmas a few weeks early.

Chuck's Packages

And there’s still more coming.

There are three ABAA Book Fairs every year. The other two are California in February and New York (Upper East Side) in March. Go to any you can. You will be biblio-astounded.

8 Comments on Article

  1. Great report of the Boston show! Thanks for sharing, and so beautifully.

  2. Chuck Roberts commented on

    Thank you, Jett!
    That’s high praise indeed.
    And thank you for the wonderful book.
    I will treasure it.

  3. Hi Chuck,

    I’ve read your blog with interest and appreciation since the beginning. You are doing something no one else in the business is doing and I hope you keep slogging forward.

    I’m surprised you didn’t even mention Marvin Getman’s shadow show on Saturday morning just a few blocks from the Hynes. For many it is the highlight of the weekend. You don’t have to be an ABAA bookseller to have great books! Next year, I recommend a visit.

    Thanks. Rich West/Periodyssey

    1. Chuck Roberts replied on

      Hi Richard
      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I do these pretty much in a vacuum and it heartening to hear feedback.
      I didn’t get to the shadow show. I’ll aim for one or more in NYC.
      I did write a rave of the Brooklyn show a couple months ago.
      You probably have all you need but we have 100,000s of periodicals. They are tough to list and sell the way we market things.

      I started these stories as an effort to record what we booksellers do (and did) while memory lasts.
      Look for one on periodicals in the future. Best

  4. Diane Creedon commented on

    Mr Roberts,
    As a teenager in the late 1970’s, I would frequently skip school my senior year to get lost in the Boston Pulblic Library which “The Top of The Hub” is close to.
    That’s where I wanted to be all the time. Thank you for bringing back those memories

    1. Chuck Roberts replied on

      Thank you Diane!
      Some years ago we picked up 50,000(?) books from the BPL Annex in Bunker Hill. That may be a story some time.
      Thanks for commenting !

  5. Michael Dirda commented on

    I was away last weekend, so didn’t read the Boston Fair blog until now. Speaking of tingles,I felt them when I saw the photo of the set of Arthur Machen, doubtless the Caerleon edition, beautifully bound. I own the set in a cobbled together assortment of ex-library copies, mainly because Machen is one of my favorte writes–I’m even a member of the Friends of Arthur Machen. I wonder how much the seller was asking for the books. . . .
    As for Jarrell: His criticism helped formed me as a reviewer, though I don’t dare try to be as witty as he was. “Oscar Williams’ poems sound as if they had been written on a typewriter by a typewriter.” Years ago, I wrote a long piece about Jarrell pegged to “Kiping, Auden & Co” and through it got into correspondence with his widow Mary. She later sent me a couple of photographs of Randall, a little bust of Liszt he cherished, and a silver tray he’d won in a tennis tournament (I keep it on my bedroom chest of drawers for change and such). So I envy you having “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” scribbled on a flyleaf of Seven League Crutches.

    1. Chuck Roberts replied on

      Thanks Michael! I did get the Machen. I’ll show you next time youre up. Machen Friends sounds like fun 🙂

      Yes…books can transport us.
      Thank you for reading and commenting!

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