Il Penseroso: Chicago and Rescuing Books Old and New


“Hence vain deluding joys.” — John Milton

Wednesday evening, October 24.

The soft orange eye of the wood stove glowed through its glass door. It was the second fire lit this fall.

When I returned from the remainder book show in Chicago (CIROBE) Sunday, it was late, and I was too tired to fetch kindling and tote some wood in. The house was very cold. That night, I just crawled under the down comforter and pulled Merry and Pippin—my two Jack Russell terriers—close and cocooned til morning.

When I’d left Maryland last Thursday, it was autumn, but it was the bright azure, warming, sunny, crisp type. This week the temperatures had dropped to the 40s and 30s at night. When I got home Monday evening, the house was still chilled. High 50s. I’d not turned on the electric heat. I play a game each winter. How little can I use the electric heat? It is a kind of ode to self-sufficiency. Any time I hear the furnace come on, it is a minor defeat. The first fire of the season is a kind of landmark. The routine will now be different for many months. Thoughts of wood and flame will be ever present until April next year.

It took three matches and three crumbles of paper to get that first fire lit on Monday. Amateur hour…well, I was just out of practice.

Modern wood stoves are highly efficient, and it is easy to keep them hot with proper feeding and dampering. I can go away on a Friday morning and return Sunday evening, and the stove will still be warm some 60 hours later. I’d left the dampers open and didn’t add any wood when I left for work Wednesday morning, so the first fire had gone out. It took just one match and a few seconds to set the kindling ablaze on the second fire of the season.

Will this be the week I won’t put a book story out? It has been over 60 consecutive Fridays. I’m struggling for a subject. There are a bunch of old stories I can dredge from the slush pile, but I’m not motivated for that either.

The fire warmed the room quickly. Soon the thermometer read 64 degrees inside, 43 outside.

I treated myself to a dram of Midwinter’s Night Dram—a brand of pretty rare Rye whiskey.

Slider image
Slider image

Looking into the eye of the fire, I became melancholy. That is nothing new.

“Why?”—the existential question.

Il Penseroso

Chicago, the Friday before.

Friday morning in bed at the Palmer house, I banged out last week’s blog—Eve of Destruction—and emailed it back to Frederick to edit and put online.

“Text me when it is ready to read.”

I pulled on my brother Jim’s Orvis blue blazer. I inherited it years ago. I’ve worn it all over the world. It is a kind of touchstone. When I wear it somewhere special, it conveys a connection to family, youth, mortality. It has held up very well. I don’t know how long Jim owned it before he passed away in 2002. And it is quite comfortable and fitting for most any occasion as well. The elevator dropped me 22 stories to the lobby, and I stepped out into the bustle of a Chicago Loop morning. I love walking in cities. There’s so much to see. The bookshow was being held at the Navy Pier. I know Chicago. It would be an easy walk. It is just over there by the lake. I headed east on Monroe and soon crossed Michigan Avenue and entered Millennium Park. In this part of the city everywhere you look there’s beauty. Big beauty. There are soaring buildings scraping the sky. People of every sort are going this way and that. Green parks. Blue sky. Turquoise water.

“The Pier is up a little north,” I thought. “I can angle through these fancy apartment buildings.”

“No Outlet. No Access to the Lakefront or Navy Pier,” a sign read as I headed up a street that surely must lead to Lake Michigan. That sign must mean vehicles.

Nope. The various high-end apartment buildings form a maze. By design it must have been developed to deter people who don’t live there from crossing through. Up and down flights of stairs, around gorgeously landscaped courtyards… I could see where I wanted to go, but I was stymied at every try.

I surrendered and headed west until I was back out in the city. I turned north, and I was on the upper level of the multi-tiered street Wacker Drive. I headed east. The lake is always east in downtown Chicago. Construction blocked the road. Dead end. I backtracked again. I saw some steps over there across 6 lanes of traffic. A sign next to them read: “River Walk.” Down. Down maybe 75 steps, and I was next to the Chicago River. I headed east toward the lake. Again.

I walked past the Tiki Drinking Party Boats. “No drinks past this point so start chugging!” I saw the giant Ferris wheel on the Navy Pier up and to my left.

“I’m on the wrong side of the river!” Frustrating.

Should I turn back again? No, I kept going, and in a little while, I saw a multi-level bridge ahead. It was a highway. Unlikely pedestrians would be welcome on that, but as I got closer, I saw the bottom level had old concrete railings along it that signified a sidewalk. Up some more steps and across the crumbling old span. Midway I looked west, up the Chicago River—more stunning architecture and color and lines.

Chicago River

Soon I was at the enormous Navy Pier. It is a long finger of land extending out into Lake Michigan.

Well, not so soon. It took me over an hour to walk a mile and a half.

“Ye had a phone in yer pocket. Don’t you believe in maps?”

Ah, my book muse.

“Where were you? I thought you were supposed to ‘guide me.'”

“I’m no tourist guide.”

“Yep. I should have used the phone to guide me. Made for an unusual, if not totally interesting, perambulation. Were you Milton’s Melancholy Muse in Il Penseroso?”

“A bit before my time at this business. She is a legend among us, however.”

“Us? How many are you?

“Trade secret, I’m afraid.”

“Women and their secrets. I suppose your eye color is still a secret as well?”

“I’m off. Don’t be ashamed to ask directions in the future. I know human males often have an issue with that, but you shouldn’t be embarrassed to look at yer phone, and let it do your thinking.”

“Your name?”


“I thought I knew…Chicago.”

“Clearly. Ta!”

The Navy Pier is an iconic Chicago landmark. Chicago’s number one tourist attraction. It is very long. Over half a mile in fact. So my perambulation was not yet finished. Heading out into the lake, I first passed the touristy stuff—Bubba Gump’s, Margaritaville, Harry Carey’s… Where is Cirobe? I continued through the maze of restaurants and shops. Up stairs and down escalators. There is a large glassed-in botanical garden and then the enormous Ferris wheel. The very commercial part of the Pier peters out about halfway in, and the spaces become predominantly meeting and entertainment venues. I walked through hallways and garages and finally saw “Cirobe” signs with arrows on them pointing the way.

My first Cirobe was around 1993. Prior to that my reminder buying was done via print catalogs and visiting sales reps. Gene Paquette of Powell’s Books Chicago had advised me to come the first couple years, but I was too shy. And big cities intimidated me back then. I entered a Cirobe contest via Gene and was informed I’d won a free hotel stay if I attended. It turned out the hotel they would put me up in was the Palmer House. It was my first stay in a classic, historic fancy hotel. When I arrived in the gorgeous lobby, my jaw dropped. It was just stunning. It felt like a palace.

Slider image
Slider image

I was hooked on wondrous hotels from then on.

Between then and Cirobe 2018, I had attended maybe a dozen times. I slowed down remainder buying after 2005 or so when the internet decimated our online remainder sales. We were also getting so much used stock that I didn’t need to fill genre gaps for the brick and mortar stores. I did attend in 2015 and knew what to expect. So when I entered the exhibit hall and it was only about half full, I was not surprised. It was quiet and there weren’t many buyers milling about. The guide listed about 40 exhibitors.

Slider image
Slider image

In the boom years—late 90s—early 2000s—there were 3? 4? times as many exhibitors. Back then it was held in the expansive banquet/ballrooms halls in the basement of the famous Chicago Hilton and Towers. (The 1968 Democratic National Convention was held there. There were protests and riots outside. “The whole world is watching!” was the mantra then.) Cirobe occupied 3 or 4 expansive event venues. The aisles were pretty narrow. Exhibitors may just have a single table with sample copies on it. Or there could be many, many tables. A few hundred attendees would congregate outside the entrances to the halls prior to opening. When the appointed time came, it was like the “running of the bulls.” Buyers would pour in and rush to booths where they thought the best stuff was. I was one of them. It was a kind of feeding frenzy. If you saw a title you wanted at a price you liked, you’d snatch it up before someone else could grab it. Many books sold out immediately. I would spend 2 or 3 full days making orders. I would order hundreds of titles spread between maybe 3 dozens vendors that stocked the kind of stuff I wanted. It was a lot of fun.

Brad Jonas and Marshall Smith, Cirobe’s co-founders—would host a lavish party on opening night party in the Conrad Hilton Suite. That is a 5000 square foot penthouse atop the hotel with a Grand piano and billiard table and multiple bedrooms and…helipad. It has tall windows on all sides. You can look out onto the vastness of Lake Michigan or various panoramas of the surrounding city. It now goes for $7000 a night. It was the kind of suite Sinatra would stay in.

Back home over the following weeks, Cirobe orders would pour into the store. We had no warehouse until 1999 or so. It was like Christmas. I would slice open boxes—careful not to cut into the top books. Out would pour pristine copies of great books. I would sit on a stool in an aisle and slap prices on the back of the books with a pricing gun.

Then the big box stores and the internet came along in the 90s. Slowly at first and then more like an avalanche, independent bookstores started disappearing—pushed over the brink by two giant predatory competitors. Some of that history was covered in the story I wrote about Daedalus closing last spring. There were far fewer buyers now. Bookselling became consolidated. Borders and Barnes & Noble and a couple other big chains would gobble up entire runs of remainder titles themselves—bypassing the traditional remainder houses. The mom and pop sellers on the internet often undercut even wholesale remainder prices for used but like new copies they’d acquired. I thought I had excellent instincts for buying remainders. They would sell like hotcakes in the stores, and in the early days of internet selling they did well online. But in following years when the internet became loaded with millions of books, I would often discover there were a lot of copies of used books already online cheaper than what I had just paid.


It stopped making sense for me to attend Cirobe every year.

The same market problems also affected the giant Book Expo for new (and remainder) books. It used to rotate between many cities—including Chicago at the enormous McCormick Center. Now, it too, is much smaller than it used to be. It’s been held in New York City exclusively for a number years. No more jaunts to LA, Miami, DC…

Cirobe 2018… I walked around and said hello to old friends. It was strange that there was no Daedalus booth this year. I thought there would always be a Daedalus. Though there were fewer vendors, some of them seem to have expanded their stock greatly. Though the floor was pretty quiet, the mood was uniformly positive. I was hoping to find some sellers I didn’t know already. There were a good number of international buyers present. Asia seemed especially well represented.

I ran into one rep who brokers deals from multiple houses for us. I asked him if there was anything I should look at in this new booth.

“You have 130,000 units on order from that guy.”

“I do?” I guess I should know those things.

I connected with a couple people I’d lost touch with and told them how I now look for books in bulk.

“I buy the stuff you want to get rid of.”

That always evokes questioning or confused looks. It takes some explaining…

I left after a few hours. It was drizzling, and I was still a bit tired from the “getaway day” and my extended perambulation getting to the show. Plus the hours I’d spent on the sales floor were all standup as well. I stepped out front of the busiest tourist venue in Chicago, and there were no cabs. I guess that market has changed as well. I relearned how to use my Uber app and soon a silver Honda Accord with the license plate number shown on my phone appeared. The driver took me over to the Newberry Library. I hadn’t been there for many, many years. It’s primarily a research library in a grand building. It was founded in 1887. Just being in the vicinity of so many wonderful books gave me that warm sensation of bibliophilia. There were two nice exhibit halls. It was worth the trip just to see the William Caxton incunable: The Game and Playe of Chesse 1474. It is the second book printed in English.

Museum of Contemporary Art

From there I decided to go to the Museum of Contemporary Art. This time I let the phone guide me. I was led past the Waldorf Astoria (Chicago incarnation), the Tesla dealership. (“We have an interactive wall over that can show you how the walls in your house can become a giant battery. Come let me explain it to you.”) It was a very upscale neighborhood…

I got closer to the north end of Chicago’s Miracle Mile. I spied a bar ahead. Not just any bar. Pippin’s Bar. I had to stop in. Even though it had no relation to Tolkien nor my eponymous Jack Russell, I couldn’t pass it by. It was after 4pm—which is 5 pm Eastern Time. So I wasn’t starting too early technically. I had a great 3 Floyds Lager and then continued to the Museum. It had some interesting pieces and some confusing “art” as well. I Ubered back to the Palmer and rested for an hour or so until I met friends at the legendary Millers Pub next door to the Palmer.

Chicago. Windy City. City of Big Shoulders. My paternal grandmother was born there (Hinsdale—a suburb.) Her father was a younger brother, so he set off to Texas to seek his fortune. Boppa, Grandma, rode across the Great Plains as a baby in the 1880s in a covered wagon. They settled in San Marcos Texas where my great grandfather built his own house which is a landmark today. My dad told stories about Hinsdale. Somewhere I have a 19th century folio of Hinsdale landmarks which includes a full page engraving of the Talmadge estate.

Chicago. My eldest brother, Joseph T Roberts III, moved there with his young family after his stint as a Marine helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He was a Naval Academy graduate and would have been a career pilot but for the disillusionment with the military after his 13 months in Nam. It surprised the family when he left the Corps and became a sales executive in the steel industry. He had me come out to visit for a couple weeks that summer. I was only about 12, so I don’t remember much about it. He did drive me downtown, and I remember telling me: “This is that. That is this…”

Chicago. That first trip to Cirobe where I was treated like a big shot by the Palmer House staff. The subsequent trips to Cirobe and Book Expo when my business grew with each visit. I evolved from a shy small time bookseller who had to plead for attention from some of the big guys to a bookseller who would be sought after. “Are you coming this year?” Much of that growth can be traced back to Gene Paquette—now a partner with Brad in Powell’s Chicago. He was another kind of mentor. He would cut me deals and if money was tight let my credit terms extend…to the breaking point. He’d introduce me to other large remainder houses. Those introductions established me as a buyer worth paying attention to.

Chicago. Then I discovered the Drake Hotel. There I have had so many seminal experiences. Life changing with family and friends. One year Barbara Mertz (a.k.a. bestselling author Elizabeth Peters)—my best friend for many years until her passing in 2013—was in town for Book Expo. The sprawling McCormick Convention Center was filled with book publishers from all over the world. The rows went on and on. I was at the Drake with my young family attending the show as well. Barbara told me she was autographing her latest book on Saturday. She asked my young son to lead her grandchild through the enormous sprawling book show. Of course, they had to end up at the William Morrow Publishers enormous booth. The kids were ushered to the front of the “block” long autographing line where Barbara signed a copy of the new Amelia Peabody for each of them.

(A couple years later she shocked me by handing me a copy of her newest book at her house. She always gave me proof copies to read before they were published. What shocked me was that this Amelia book was dedicated to “Chuck…” Tears welled up. I was so honored.)

That night we met at the Drake. Barbara brought two Egyptologist friends from the Oriental Institute. That was my first time meeting Ray Johnson and Jay Heidel. True archeologists. For many years they’ve spent half their years running the University of Chicago digs in Luxor. A few years ago they purchased Barbara’s Lorien court estate. They now spend half the year in Frederick as well. They are lovingly restoring her home and gardens. We’ve become good friends, and if the fates allow, I’ll get to Luxor this winter.

Barbara and I had a couple (or more) signature Drake Martinis. They come with a specially designed decanter or sidecar—as there is far too much gin for a stemmed glass to hold. We finished the evening in a quiet room in the penthouse looking north over the city. The cars far below flowed in a solid line along Lakeshore Drive. The line heading north was red—all taillights. Those heading south were bright white headlights.

Subsequent trips were filled with magic as well. So wondrous. The last visit was three years ago. I sat with a friend at the Cape Cod Room bar where Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio carved their initial into the wood.

Cape Cod Room Bar

It is a famous love story—an eternal one for him. She left him after only nine months of marriage in 1955. History repeats itself… They reunited shortly before her death in 1962. The legend continued for decades as he had a half dozen roses placed at her grave 3 times a week. A bittersweet love story that ended far too soon. You can read more about it here.

So why am I so pensive? Why melancholy?

Chicago. The stage where so much of my success was played out. Is this my last visit? Was the zenith in 2015? My lifelong goal has been to never stop. My dad and brothers had exceptional careers in their fields but then peaked early. What were their thoughts in the second half or longer?

Coulda, shoulda, woulda…

For me…

Excelsior! At least that’s the goal.

Unless that was it. Three years ago.

What happened three years ago? Excelsior was happening. Then it wasn’t.

Chicago. Saturday. I did my all too frequent, excessive, obsessive, compulsive, maniacal, whirlwind touring. I wanted to squeeze as much in that free day as possible.

I Ubered down to the University of Chicago. I got to the Oriental Institute before it opened so I wandered around the Rockefeller Chapel (a mini cathedral.) I went through the Frank Lloyd Wright Robie House a block away. When it opened, I wandered through the Oriental Institute and had Barbara dreams and wished I had a better grasp of Egyptian and Ancient History. Then I walked through Hyde Park. I stopped in the Powell’s rare bookshop. Then onto the Museum of Science and Technology. It was full of astounding technical whistles and bells, and I wished I was as good at physics and chemistry and biology and… as my dad had been. A brilliant scientist, he had an MD and PhD at very young ages and then…got scared… had a family and backed away from dreams? I don’t know. He passed away before I had the chance to ask questions like that.

Then I Ubered back up north to Downtown. I was dropped off at the Art Institute of Chicago. I wandered through galleries and galleries, past hundreds of paintings and sculptures…

I thought: “I will never do that. Nor that…”

Then for some reason I went back to Cirobe. Back to the books. It was very quiet near closing at 6 on a Saturday. I thought about sitting down and ordering books by title like the good old days. No. It wouldn’t be any fun anymore. Then I thought it was a good idea to have a craft beer at the touristy Harry Carey’s Bar on the Pier. I ordered 3 Floyds NE IPA. That was cold and gold but sitting at the raucous bar with numerous televisions showing football, I felt empty.

One and out.

I knew where I had to go.

I had an Uber take me to the Drake. Scene of such wondrous triumphs. Not triumphs…miracles.

The Cape Cod Room is closed now. It shuttered after many decades in 2017. So I took the lonely end seat at the Coq d’Or bar. I was privy to the waiters’ and bartenders’ interactions. I listened to the gossip and lingo and professionalism. The “young” bartender had only been there 18 years. I sipped my crystal clear Drake Gin Gibson.

Time stood still.

Then I was young again. Monroe and DiMaggio were seated a few stools away. At the far end of the room—beyond the crowd—I saw Princess Diana and her entourage passed through from a private table in the back room out into the dark city. I saw my old friend Barbara down at the far end of the bar. She had a Martini glass in front of her. I wanted to rise and go to her. But there was an impenetrable crowd between us. She raised her glass to me and I to her. I told the old bartender, the one who was so deaf that I had to repeat every statement: “Give the lady down there a Martini on me. No Vermouth. Just gin.”


“Nope. No vegetation.”


“No olive. No nothin’.”

Oh, Melancholy Muse, why have you brought me here? It hurts so bad. It hurt so good. I felt so bruised. I was bruised. Often.

She did not answer, but I sensed her hovering just behind me.

I had a second Drake Gin Gibson with its death trap “sidecar.”

I’ve conquered my little fiefdom, such as it is. I’m a little prince. A small bit player or less in the show that is the Drake Hotel. To be able to walk onto its stage a dozen times or so has meant far more to me than I to it…

I had the legendary Bookbinder’s Mock Turtle soup. They bought the recipe from the now closed iconic Philadelphia Bookbinder’s Restaurant. They changed the name, so there’s not even “Mock Turtle” in it now. But the little shot of sherry you dump in it is still served. Then I binged on a lobster roll.

I was done. A third Drake Martini would put me down under a table somewhere there. Maybe with good company.

Time to go back to the Palmer.

I rose and approached DiMaggio. I thought he might punch me in the nose or something. But I leaned in and whispered: “It doesn’t get any better than this. Send her roses til you die.”

He nodded slowly but did not look up. He spoke softly: “She’s leaving me. For bad company. The way she’s going, she’ll be dead in a few years.” His head slumped, and he stared down at his Whiskey and Soda. Marilyn was looking at herself in the mirror behind the bar. She ignored me.

I told him: “You had nine months. Treasure that.”

“You had nine months. Treasure that,” my muse spoke softly, gently to me. For a change.

“Was that the pinnacle?”

“I can’t see the future. But there will be adventures tomorrow and the day after.”

“Will there ever be another…?”

“I can’t see into the future. I’ll be around. Always. In thy most need by your side.”

Sinatra brushed by me and took my empty stool at the lonely end of the bar. He was smaller than I thought. He was skinny, and his suit was slightly baggy. I heard him say to the old bartender, the one who had been there far longer than 18 years and was half deaf, the one who has maybe been there forever: “Harry. Whiskey. Rocks.”

The old bartender understood perfectly.

There was a gap toward the back of the crowded bar, and I was able to exit. A liveried doorman pulled the heavy brass and glass door open. “Have a good evening, sir. Please come back soon.”

“I hope I can. Interesting crowd tonight.”

“It’s often that way, sir. If you use the right door.”

I stepped out onto the city sidewalk. The wind was coming up. The sun had long died down. The leaves were whirling fast round the streets of Chicago town.

It is 2018. I pressed my forefinger to my phone a few times and soon a red Kia with the right license plate numbers and letters was pulling up to the curb. The driver already knew where I was going. His phone had told him.

At the Palmer House, I made my way through the crowded lobby. Many were dressed elegantly. Everyone seemed happy to be there. The elevator lifted me 22 stories in a matter of seconds. I found my room. I fell into the luxurious embrace of the premium white sheets covering the vast plane of the king size bed.

My departure was anticlimactic. I had to rise at 4 to be safe to catch a 7 am flight. I was back in the book warehouse in Maryland by 10:30. I’d only missed Friday and Saturday, but there was plenty of new work set out for me. In my absence, someone had discovered a little stack of books autographed by Herbert Hoover and Warren Burger’s own copy of his Supreme Court nomination Senate Judiciary Committee booklet. There were many other things on carts for me to review. Things I’d never seen before.

Slider image
Slider image
Slider image

Another Sunday in Wonderland. The bank had given me football tickets. That afternoon, I hitched a ride with another client and his wife to Baltimore. We parked on Federal Hill and walked the mile or so to the Ravens’ stadium. We passed many pubs and bars along the way. The sidewalks were full of mostly young people in purple clothing. My buddy John Adams had texted he was in the Bier Garten. I had a ticket for him so in we went. There he was holding a big clear glass mug of German beer by its handle. He was in intimate conversation with a small group of strangers. He makes friends wherever he goes.

“Mr President!” My nickname for him. John Adams. Get it?

“Vijay!” one his many nicknames for me. Almost always a golfer.

We continued our walk to the stadium. On the way, he told me Michelle Obama’s new book was going to be a blockbuster.

Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. Large groups of old unwanted cloth and leather bound books were delivered. These were staged on carts for me to review and tally. Twenty-five boxes from Chicago arrived Monday. Not new remainders. Those will be coming later. More boxes dropped in as well. Bookseller colleagues from around the country seem to appreciate liquidating the unsaleable old dead forgotten stock for decent money. On Tuesday late in the afternoon, Lorne Bair and his assistant Helene Ingolay backed a UHaul to Dock 2. Clif pulled off 3 tall pallets of brand new white bankers boxes.

Slider image
Slider image

Lorne had just bought a large collection in southern Pennsylvania. This was the old “junk” he was glad to flip immediately.

“Two pallets of old cloth. One leather.”

They’d never been to the warehouse before, so I gave them the “Tour.”

On Wednesday, Owen Kubik texted: “I’m at Dock 1.” We unloaded about 75 boxes of old cloth and leather he’d brought from Ohio.

Kubik Pallets

Our thinned shelves are filling. The cycle continues.


Rescue from what?


For how long?

I don’t like to think about that.

“Don’t be pensive. Melancholy.”

“People rescue many things that don’t last forever. Cats, dogs… Books can last forever. Once they leave here, they are on their own, but you’ve at least given them another shot.”

It was a tiring week. But I feel like I filled my time in good ways.

Chicago. Will I ever go back?

Chicago. Will I ever reach those heights again? Can I ever go any higher than 2015?

Friday, October 26.

I got up around 4 and pushed this story out. I sent this story to my editor about noon. I had to head out for a house call in northern Virginia. It was an estate liquidator I’ve dealt with before. He told me: Turn right on the gravel drive just past the mailbox. Go back on the gravel drive about a quarter mile. The drive was repaired last week so you shouldn’t get stuck. Call if you get lost. 13,000 books. 7,000 LPs.”

Slider image
Slider image
Slider image

There are no comments to display.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *