Bulbs in the Dark

Bell's Shakespeare

Bulbs before dawn. Bulbs in the night.

What was I THINKING?!

I guess I was thinking of spring 2023.

And what I would like to see then.

The days are so short. It is December, after all.


“Someone” ordered over 3000 flower bulbs. They came not that long ago. They need to be put in the ground. The sooner the better for them. They need some time to get established before the big hard freezes set in. Also, if the ground becomes frozen, there’s no way to plant them.

So, I’ve been getting up and going out in the dark before dawn to plant by the light of the security spotlights on the outside of the house.

Planting Bulbs in the Dark

By the time I leave work—4:30 or so—it is already getting dim. It is dark by the time I’m home, the dogs are entertained and I’m changed into yard clothes.

This is some kind of record for me. A record for crazy.

But spring will be wonderful.

I just hope I get them all in.

Item Description Units Bulbs
—– ————– —– —–
3209 ERANTHIS HYEMALIS 10×100 (1000)
3250 E. REVOLUTUM WHITE BEAUTY 10×10 (100)
6095 CO “J”/EARLY-TO-LATE NARCISSI 1×200 (200)
6107 COLL “K”/FRAGRANT LATE NARC 1×200 (200)
6191 CO “U”/LATE SPRING PERENNIALS 1×300 (300)
8034 NARCISSUS BABY MOON 5×100 (500)
8058 NARCISSUS CAPISCO 1×50 (50)
8297 NARCISSUS LIEKE 1×100 (100)
8538 NARCISSUS TETE A TETE 1×100 (100)
8592 NARCISSUS XIT 2×50 (100)

(They are really inexpensive per bulb when order in quantity. So, I was saving money doing this. If I say it enough, perhaps I can justify it.)

And I’ve gone away. I’m posting this from Madrid.

Yep. That’s crazy too. What was I thinking when I booked this trip last spring?

I was thinking of places in Spain I’ve never been to before. I was in Madrid a few years ago. This time, I’ll take the southern loop.

What I wasn’t thinking was that I would be putting one trip on top of another.

My feet hurt. I’m exhausted. It was only a 6-hour flight, which meant I got very little sleep. The hotel was very accommodating and let me check-in during the morning. Shower and shave and out the door. 20,000 steps later, I’m back in the room resting and trying to knock out this story. I’m glad it is six hours earlier in Maryland.

I stopped at a little grocery near the hotel for some snacks. A little tin of duck foie gras pate, olive oil chips, hard dark “toasted” bread and some Christmas candy—Almendras Rellenas. “Vive Tu Navidad.” It is a kind of cracker filled with almond cream. Wow! Oh, and a six-pack of Estrella Galicia. (I REALLY want to go to Galicia. Always have.)

It added up to 12 euros. The euro is currently worth about nickel more than 1 dollar.

Maybe I will take a little nap. Spain is playing Japan in a couple of hours. It is the final day for their group. If Spain wins, they are through to the World Cup “Knockout” stage. If they don’t win and the results are not favorable from the other teams (Germany, Costa Rica and Japan), Spain might get sent home.

Madrid should be exciting tonight, regardless.

Last Friday seems so long ago.

The weekend was more stressful than usual.

The “Bulb Problem,” plus, I really had to get caught up to get away.

I actually finished all the carts with my name on them on Sunday morning. (Except the three carts of foreign Ray Bradbury editions. Those I pushed to the back of the warehouse to get them out of the way… and out of sight. I’m still thinking of how best to “try” to sell them. Foreign language books are not easy to sell. AND there are another 5 or 6 carts I punted to the back of the warehouse before the Oxford Rare Book Congress in September. Those are really messy, dusty, problematic material laden with very, very problematic things.)

Some day, I will realize that I’ll never get to everything that has backed up here.


Come Sunday afternoon, I could catch up on the bank statements and other statements, so the accountant would be happy. So I sat at the conference room table and did paperwork with the World Cup games streaming in the background. I even got into some of the piles on the desk in my “actual office.” Something personal happened about six years and that part of me froze. There wasn’t anything important there. Just trash and some artifacts to be “archived.” Maybe I will move back into the office in the near future. It would make some other people here happy.

So I was pretty pleased with my accomplishment on Monday. Then some of the stuff Larry brought over the weekend got carted up for my attention.

Larry Carts

There was a lot of beautiful leather. This set of Bell’s Shakespeare, for example.

Bell's Shakespeare

Then I found this slim book on St. Helena from 1815 with and hand-colored frontispiece of Napoleon. (He died in 1821.)

A Geographical and Historical Account of the Island of St. Helena

I reached out to Larry.

“Where did you get these?”

“A priest’s estate. I’ve been bringing stuff from there the last couple weeks.”

Then I got a whiff of them. Cigarettes.

A couple of carts came to me from a sorter.


I reached back to Larry.

“Was he a smoker?”

“Well, yes…”

I reached out to Clif.

“We need to find all those pallets and take them to the back to air out. Maybe 6 months. Maybe more. Oh, and help me push these carts of leather and collectibles back there too. They smell too bad to sell.”

I put sheets of paper on them with the month and year so we can keep an eye on the aging process.

Great stuff. It just needs to be quarantined.

Things started falling behind… then falling apart.

The Black Friday and Cyber Monday orders flooded in.

Black Friday/Cyber Monday Orders

Not quite as glorious as the 2021 “COVID Recovery”, but exciting nonetheless.

The warehouse was a hive of activity, and I needed to frequently review a large number of expensive of problematic orders before they could ship.

Somehow, I made a little time for my semi-annual haircut on the way to the Fredrick store. I’ve been going to the same place for 40 years. I’m on my third generation of barbers. The number on my phone is listed as “Hair Mandi.”

Tuesday, I had an appointment with a reporter from a national publication. We spent about five hours talking about books and touring the warehouse and the Frederick store. It was fascinating, but I can’t talk about it. If it does result in a published story, I’ll let you know.

Larry brought a pallet of bric-à-brac from the same estate. Smoky. But there’s some cool stuff. This bust of Christ weighs about 25 pounds.

Christ Bust

Ecce homo…*

* “Behold the Man”—Pontius Pilate.

I kept falling behind, no matter how much effort I put into things.

Then there are the bulbs…

Finally, I just had to go. I can’t miss the flight.

I wonder if I do so much at work as a way to keep myself relevant?

Self-analysis. Why bother?

I drove to Philadelphia for the flight. It is just over two hours if the traffic around Baltimore isn’t bad. I do this because it makes more sense to get a direct flight out of there rather than the risks and stress involved flying from Baltimore (one hour away) and having to make a connection somewhere from there.

The flight took off at 8. I’d had a very full day’s work plus the drive and TSA… It landed at 8 a.m. I guess I had about 4 hours of sleep. The cab got me to the hotel, and I was on the streets just after 10.

My first stop was the Sofia Reina. I wanted to see Guernica, and it is right across the street.

You’re not allowed to take pictures in the room where Guernica is hung.


So, I took one from the room next to it. It is a massive wonderful collection. Most of the galleries have a mixture of painting, photographs, printed material (magazines and books), videos (think Bunuel) and objects d’art.

The concept of the entire museum struck me as “different.” It wasn’t til I passed a faux newsstand that I got an idea of what was going on. They’d “rehung” the entire museum, finishing in 2021. I thought it was great. I wondered how many of the old periodicals I viewed under glass may have passed through Wonder Book over the years—their contents unknown—and been… not respected.

Sofia Reina Galleries

There’s so much to know. I’ve handled millions of books—in my own hands. Still, there are surprises every day.

I want to know everything.

Do everything.

Go everywhere.

And the clock is ticking. It has been all my life. Even when I was 25 and thought it was time to do something with my life and try to create a little bookshop.

Anyway, the Sofia Reina did a magnificent job in creating rooms full of multimedia concepts. There were no color TVs with an art expert preaching the 21st century version of what we were looking at. And there were no “guilt trips.” I saw nothing to indicate that I was unable to look at things without my 21st century western prejudices clouding the picture (as it were.)

The museum had lots of posters and other artwork created during the Civil War. I was reminded how Spain was grappling with its own Fascists and Communists while the rest of Europe smoldered and then burst into flames.

Francisco Franco developed his own cult of personality and ran the country for nearly 40 years. Remember the first season of Saturday Night Live (when it was actually funny) and Chevy Chase giving the newscast leading off that “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead!”?

The museum is a joy of Picasso and Dali and Miro and Man Ray and…

From there, I headed out past the huge Atocha train station. I rounded the circle. I had to see a woman. She’d been on my mind for over 3 years.

But the route took me past the Cuesta de Moyano—the short pedestrian street that is a book street. One side of it is lined with bookstalls. There is nothing else but trees. Just books.

The history of this permanent book fair, which is open every day of the week, dates back to 1925, when a string of 15m2 wooden huts were set up along this road. In them, sat sellers with no electricity or heating, offering books for just 15 cents. Renowned Spanish writer Ramón Gómez de la Serna nicknamed it the “Feria del boquerón” since you could purchase a book for the same price as a boquerón, or anchovy.


For me, it is a joy to behold. And it is a tourist site in itself. An attraction running along a wall bordering the Botanical Gardens (which are next door to the Prado.) It is a kind of shrine to the printed word in the very heart cultural (and touristy) Madrid.

Cuesta de Moyano

4 or 5 of the stalls are run by pathologic booksellers. Hoarders who are constrained only by the confines of their wooden booths. The front of the booth may make some sense with books displayed face out, but behind that facade, books are stacked haphazardly floor to ceiling—not even spine out. I tried to take a picture of the worst one, but the grizzled bookseller growled at me. I think he wanted me to pay for the privilege.

Cuesta de Moyano

From there, I walked the long Calle Alfonso XII. Autumn has not completely fallen here. One side of the boulevard is lined with big sycamores leaning away from the buildings and over the street. On the other side is the enormous Retiro Park, where the palace is located far out of sight. It was a beautiful walk. I thought I could be sitting on a stool in Frederick surveying a cartload of books instead. This was almost as good. Something came flying at me in my peripheral visions. I ducked quickly. It was just a big sycamore leaf that dive-bombed at me as if it was a bird.

My goal was the Museo Arqueologico. I remembered it offering a fascinating timeline of the Iberian Peninsula from prehistory to Proto History and into the Punic and Roman and other cultural influences that passed through this land.

But my main goal had been to visit the Lady of Elche. Something had kept her in my mind these last years. Her image was impressed on my mind.

And there she was.

Lady of Elche

Enigmatic. Otherworldly. A faced adorned unlike any I’ve seen in museums or outdoor sites anywhere.


I spent a couple hours wandering through the eras before heading out into the cool sun. Madrid is as cold as Frederick right now.

On the other side of the huge building is the national library. The Biblioteca Nacional.

Biblioteca Nacional

It is not a hugely popular tourist destination. No gaggles of schoolchildren pass through being lectured while seated cross-legged on the floor. But if you love books, there are exhibitions. The guards and docents eyed me warily, I thought. Wondering why I was there, perhaps. I was pretty much alone in my self-guided tour.

One large gallery was full of ancient books on display under glass. This has been the only site in Europe I can recall where the captions are not duplicated in English. (That is not a prejudice or an expectation—just a fact.) So I had to parse out what I could when things interested me.

One room was full of floating letters.

It was mesmerizing to sit alone in the dark and see the basic “atomic” components that I have spent my life with glow on the wall with a black background.

Perhaps that is what the first stage of death will be like. Chaotic. And then the letters will gather and things begin to make sense.

Most of the exhibitions are on the ground floors. I felt I was being dissuaded outside from climbing the stairs, but there seemed to be a sign for an exhibition up there. I girded my loins and headed up. The woman behind the desk opposite the metal detector seemed confused at my presence. She spoke quickly in Spanish. Something about this being for library business.

I replied, “No hable Español. Exhibicione?”

“Ah, my English is terrible, but you may go in and see. But you can only go from here to here.”

It is a beautiful space. Much of the displays were the library’s own publications. Beautiful facsimiles of illuminated manuscripts and other rare books. A guard cautioned me.

“You must not go past here and here.”

Indeed, there were “Stop” signs to keep me out of the working areas.

“And you must not touch the glass doors.”

They are beautiful.

The images don’t do them justice.

It was late afternoon, and I was running out of gas. I started heading back. I remembered the Naval Museum was on the way. One of the large maps in the library had been credited as a reproducción from the Naval Museum. I’m no longer that interested in military history, but I thought I should see the original of that early map of the world.

It was a wonderful exhibition. Of course, the naval history of Spain is an important part of world history. From Columbus to Magellan to the Armada to Trafalgar and onward.

The building with a former palace, I think, with soaring stone spaces. There are hundreds of wooden ship models in glass cases, but there is a timeline of history to perambulate through as well. A lot of things were put in context—in a seafaring way. One large exhibit focused on Spain’s involvement in the success of the Thirteen Colonies’ struggle for independence. Spain distracted England militarily as well as financially. Still, it was strange to see images of Franklin and Washington and Jefferson there.

It was a vast and rich display, and not just for seafaring or military geeks.

One large hand-drawn map showed the first representation of the western hemisphere—” a large green blob on the far perimeter with no shapes yet drawn…”

Then I went back to the hotel for a couple hours’ rest and a snack.

The World Cup game was to start at 8. I thought there would be countless places to watch it and crowds and…

I peeked into restaurants and tabernas as I passed them. Most didn’t seem to have TVs. Finally I walked past a tapas place that looked nice. It was on the circle surrounding the Fountain of the Cibele, which was illuminated in Spain’s national colors.

Cibele Fountain

I screwed up my courage and entered. I was greeted warmly first in Spanish and after “no abla…” the maitre’d switched to English. I was shown to a table for two with a “Reservato” sign upon it. I had a perfect view of the big screen TV. I requested a Negroni up, very dry. With a little explanation, the waiter quickly understood I wanted it shaken and served with no ice in a stemmed martini glass.


I sat and immersed myself in a Spanish World Cup game in Madrid, Spain. What a fortunate coincidence. Only about half the people there seem to be watching, which surprised me. I decided I should order enough to justify the table I was taking up.

For appetizers, I had anchovy toast with sheep butter and smoked and marinated sardines with tomato tartare (think bruschetta) on a different kind of toasted bread.

For the second half of the game, I had a sangria and a weird tapa: “‘Broken eggs’ with foie and Iberian cured ham shoulder.” It was served atop a bed of french fries. Everything was wonderful.

Spain ended up losing 2-1 to Japan. It almost looked as though they weren’t trying to win. Via the arcane point and tie breaking rules, they did end up advancing behind Japan.

The waiter followed me to the door and thanked me profusely using the Madrid pronunciation, “Mookas grathias. Ah-dee-os.”

Maybe because I left a 5 euro cash tip. I wended my way through the tabernas-infested alleys of the Old Town and back to the hotel.

Sleep was difficult because, although I was exhausted, 1 a.m. still felt like 7 p.m. to my internal clock.

I feel so lucky to be here. A little guilty to be spending so much time away from the books.

And the bulbs.

But it was a great day to be alive and mobile and have enough sense to make a success of it.

As I struggled to settle myself and my stomach full of very rich contents, I mumbled my oft-repeated mantra, “Thank you, Lord.”

4 Comments on Article

  1. Michael Dirda commented on

    Gee, Chuck, just when I think of coming up for a visit in Frederick, you’re off again, this time to Spain. You’re a modern-day Phileas Fogg, with out the 80 day bet. It’s impressive–and exhausting–just reading about all your travel and sight-seeing. I don’t know how you do it. It takes me a couple of weeks to recover from a weekend trip to Charlottesville. Vaya con dios!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Michael.
      Maybe I feel like I’m being chased by someone or something?
      When I get back I’ll be in town for a while.
      I hope you get up to visit then.
      I’m lucky to have the strong backup so I can get away.

  2. Charlie Downs commented on

    Sounds like another great trip Chuck. Haven’t been to Spain since our honeymoon in 1976. My favorite thing was the tapas. Fortunately Isabella’s in Frederick is able to fill in.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      The food is incredible!
      Thank you so much for reading and writing.
      Isabella’s is a wonderful spot.

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