Into the East

Budapest Book Pillar Top Design

It is a frenzied pace here at Wonder Book. There are always crises. Often it is too many books and not enough space.

Sometimes it is people problems. Sometimes landlord or facility problems.

It is usually difficult to anticipate problems.

They just suddenly appear like an unexpected storm.

We are in pretty good shape with staff. (That can change suddenly. It did the day I went away.)

But there are bottlenecks in a number of places. Sorting is a chronic problem. (That can change. Suddenly we have more than enough eager and excited sorters. It is the most fun job in the company, I think. That’s why I spend most of my time sorting.)

Almost every book that comes in needs to go through the 5 sorting stations. Our books come in boxes, tubs, bags… Each needs to be looked at. Modern books are easy. They go in yellow plastic “mail” tubs. By modern, I mean they have barcodes or ISBN numbers. They are sorted a number of ways—size, mostly. You don’t want to mix mass markets with coffee-table books. Shelving them together would be very inefficient. There are 15 or more rules the sorters need to follow. We do this to maximize the value of each book. We also sort to avoid wasting time on valueless items—encyclopedias, modern law books, most modern magazines…

We also make sure pre-ISBN books and antiquarian books get a second look by 3 people here (including me) who have enough experience to recognize a good old book from the vast majority of old books that have no value to readers or collectors. My estimate is that one out of a hundred old books that come in general collections is worth messing with online or sent to the stores.

We estimate sorters handle 300,000 to 400,000 books a month. That is a guess because there’s no way to count them. I often advise the new sorters that the only thing they can do wrong is to sort too slow. Every book the entry-level sorters handle will get looked at a second time—either in data entry or by a senior/secondary sorter or by me.

“Get in a zone with music or an audiobook, and sort the books like you are dealing cards. Your occasional mistakes will be caught by someone else down the line.”

The books sent to me have increased in volume tremendously. I love the work. The treasure hunting. The touching, handling of old books often made by hands long dead. These books have survived thus far. What can I do to get them to survive to a new owner, a new home, an extended life?

Last weekend, I sorted at a frenzied pace.

I gotta get ahead.

I gotta get away.


Travis is driving us down to the Gaithersburg store. I’ve gained a great deal of affection for that store. It was where I took a “summer job” in 1980. The plan was to go to GW for grad school in September. The owner and his wife were empty nesters. Eleanor had started the tiny store as a retirement activity. When Carl retired from the VA, he began growing it. He’d rent a new room from the landlord, take out doors, knock down walls and put up shelves. I bought it in 2008 when Carl’s son was going to liquidate it.

“Sell it to me, Ray. I’ll keep it open and try to turn it around.”

I wasn’t able to turn it around for a long, long time. The warehouse book activities subsidized its existence. BUT it gave Wonder Book a footprint in Montgomery County. That got us a lot of great house calls. Also, people brought a lot of good books to sell at the store. Its function was to help us ACQUIRE book collections to feed internet sales. Imagine a bookshop whose function is to buy, not sell books! People down there came to appreciate our service. That little store has bought millions of books over the years. Most are books no one else would buy. Many people know what happens to most books donated to mega-charities.

Sales were dismal. Staff problems were nearly constant. Myths about me and upper management arose. “Dark Overlords” one person called us upon quitting. I didn’t want to go there. It seemed a lost cause. Not long before COVID hit, it hit rock bottom.

Then a new manager stepped up. She reluctantly agreed to take charge. She actually cared and was willing “manage” the staff. I got interested and began visiting more. I implemented changes. My ideas were actually carried out. When I came to the store, my own store, I felt welcome. If they were willing to work to improve the store, I was willing to help—to put myself “into the breech.”

When COVID hit and Montgomery County enforced some of the most serious lockdowns and guidelines anywhere, we were shuttered for 3 months or more. During that time, I worked with the landlord to actually expand the space. I removed some of the oddball shelves my mentor Carl had shoehorned into places that made navigating the place difficult.

It took me a long time to learn that some times “less is more.”

During the shutdown, we went through every book in the place. There was a lot of ancient dead stock. We expanded categories that deserved it. We reduced categories that deserved it. We moved categories that belonged near one another together.

We have a great staff there now. They care and are willing to work with ideas.

The results are a win/win/win/win. The staff is happy. Upper management doesn’t encounter chronic problems. The community has a far superior bookstore than they had just a few years ago. And the books—the books have got to be happy about the treatment they get there. So many of them are leaving for new homes.

That bookstore now SELLS books too.

We are on our way back. The sun has come out. The daylong rain that was predicted has gone away.

Tuesday Morning

70 in. 59 degrees outside. There is no need to stoke the fire for the day. November has come in like a lamb.

The valley is awash with fog.

Foggy Valley

There will be no sunrise.

The driveway is carpeted with leaves, though the forest trees still have more than half their colored leaves attached.

Fall Driveway

No dogs. They are being taken care of in Pennsylvania.

It is quiet, silent in the house. The only morning chores will be to shower, get caffeinated, dress and go.

I awoke in the middle of the night as so often happens. Over the weekend, I had found a letterpress pamphlet in a hoard brought to us by a bookseller a month ago. I had brought it to bed. I turned on the light and reached for it.

Mr. Rhodenbarr, Bookseller, advises a young customer on seeking a vocation.

It was published by Oak Knoll in Delaware. Owner Bob Fleck writes in his introduction how much he loves bibliomyisteries. Fellow bookseller Peter Stern had sent him a copy of Lawrence Block’s The Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling. Peter had it inscribed to Fleck at a Halloween party in the Mysterious Bookshop 43 years ago. Odd to pick this item up on Halloween 2022. I knew Fleck slightly. I know Peter. I collected Block as a young bookseller. Especially his Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries. Bernie was a bookseller. And a burglar. Rare books being stolen or found or… were usually the plots in these books. Bernie is an excellent bookseller and an even better thief. The pamphlet consists of the first chapter of “Kipling” where Rhodenbarr confronts a shoplifter in his shop. I won’t give away the rest of the story.

It was printed in an edition of 250 during 1980 by Oak Knoll. Maybe they still have some copies.

It was comforting to wake up to this old friend. In the 1980s, it was the beginning of my bookselling and book-collecting career. Spending $25 on a Block first edition—unsigned—was an expense. I still have them somewhere. Perhaps they are downstairs in the boxes from Pennsylvania that I really must get shelved.

Maybe tonight.

But tonight, I’ll be packing for Budapest. And Vienna. Prague, Dresden and Berlin.

It will get sunny and up to 72 degrees today. I really should blow the leaves off the driveway and the deck. Though many more will fall while I’m away, the brown leaves may stain the deck if it rains and they start to decompose.

Ernest is driving us to Hagerstown. I figure I should check in before I go away. The ongoing reorganization project should be getting to its last stages. FINALLY. It was difficult to conceptualize the categories’ relocations, expansions and reductions. Maybe, just maybe, we have it figured out.


We had a fight with the landlord there last week. We were accused of very late payments each month for many, many months. Their bookkeeper assessed a large late fee.

SURPRISE! (She sent the threatening email that we would be in default on a Saturday morning. Really?!)

Why didn’t they tell us they have a problem with us long ago?

I asked that question. I challenged them that a check likely got lost in the mail or at their end.

“We always pay our bills on time. The four rent checks go out the same day each month. No landlord has ever complained before.”

We were told they just received the October rent and would deposit it immediately. They gave us the check number.

Our bookkeeper countered, “That check is the November rent. Early.”

They were actually pretty nasty.

Our bookkeeper sent a list of checks, dates, numbers… I was proud of her organization. They countered that a check on that list was missing at their end for June 2020.

June 2020?

The office manager who does the statements sent them an image of that check showing they had deposited it that month. We weren’t chronically late. We were chronically early.

Was there an apology from their bookkeeper—the finer? Nope.

An “I’m sorry” from the guy I deal with when there are problems—vagrants, panhandlers, vandalism… The “accuser”? Nope.

I held up two middle fingers to my laptop screen.


We’ve had good ones. We’ve had bad ones.

I read a headline this morning that 40% of tenants are not paying rent at all. How does that work? Are things that bad?

I’m glad we own our warehouse. Being my own landlord, I can be VERY understanding and compassionate.

What a P.I.A.! And a waste of time and stress.

Hagerstown. Such a strange place. Let’s see what we find.

The store there was good. Still so many empty shelves and categories to move.

We culled a ton. Well, maybe half a ton. Old dates. Bad books. Who sent this stuff?

Ummmm… guilty as charged.

My friend Alan James Robinson sent a couple packages. He’s been having post-COVID health problems for quite a while. I’ve tried to help with commissions and other “work.”

(I just want to get away. But I’m uncomfortable going. Uncertainty. Tough times. A lifetime of business worries. Always hovering in the back of my mind, “What could go wrong?”)

I challenged him to make an image of Moby Dick amongst other whales. Whales and sea turtles are a specialty of Alan’s. I asked him to make a masterpiece on black scratchboard with Moby in “scratched” out in white—kind of an homage to Rockwell Kent.

This is the preliminary drawing:

AJR Whales

He wrote this is the largest he has ever done.

“Do you want me to proceed with the scratchboard?”


Thanks so much for all your help and encouragement through all these decades… yes… decades of support, fostering my creativity and friendship. I hope you have a wonderful trip to Europe, when will you return?

All the best, Alan

He also included my collaborator copy of the “If There Were No Books Portfolio.”

AJR Portfolio

This concept came to me in a dream. I dreamt that if there were no books, there would be no… unicorns. I pitched the concept to Alan, and though it took a lot longer than anticipated, these are the results:

Twelve of those images are only available in the portfolio.

I also commissioned him to start a second group of portfolio images. COVID interrupted that as well, but this is the current status he says:

James Joyce/DublinersPen Ink complete, Watercolors done
Shakespeare/Hamlet& Falstaff.Pen Ink complete, Watercolors done
Franz Kafka/Metamorphosis.Pen Ink complete, Watercolor done
Milton/Paradise Lost.Pen Ink complete, Watercolor done
Poe/Pit & the PendulumPen Ink complete, Watercolor done
Barbara Mertz/Amelia PeabodyPen Ink complete, Watercolor done
Samuel Johnson/ Dictionary.Pen Ink started, Watercolors done
Borges/Labyrinth started.Pen Ink started, Watercolors done
Robert Graves/ I, Claudius.Pen Ink started, Watercolors done
Beowulf/Grendel.Pen Ink completed, no Watercolors
King Arthur/Sword & the Stone/ CamelotResearched, not started
Grahame/ Wind in the Willows.Researched, not started

Given light and time, these will become limited edition letterpress prints, t-shirts and eventually an individually watercolored portfolio.

We’ve been struggling for space recently. So many collections are coming in. I’ve wandered the warehouse looking for things we can sacrifice.

We pulled 22 pallets of remainders off a trailer.

“The Clowns”!

Some years ago, a very large office space designing firm was ordering vast numbers of art books from us for their installations. We sought out art books everywhere we could think of just to keep up with their needs.

Then they had corporate problems. We are stuck with a lot of art books now. A lot of them are remainders and are stored in trailers attached to unused docks. We periodically empty these and restock shelves with them. I noticed a couple pallets of Diane Keaton’s Clown Paintings.

Clown Paintings

“How many pallets of these do we have?”


Who bought that many? Guilty as charged.

Must have seemed a good idea at the time. And likely we only paid pennies apiece for them. We will never sell that many. I approved recycling two pallets.

“Send out the clowns.”

Tuesday night, I brought in the rest of the potted plants. Some of them weigh 50-60 pounds. A few are awkward or even dangerous. Cacti that have succeeded to 5 feet in height. A couple have vicious prickers that easily detach in your skin. If you get one in an unreachable spot, you have to ask for slightly embarrassing help.

Wednesday morning was a packing frenzy. I put the house in order for my absence. Made sure the cameras were on. And then went to work.

You can get a lot done when there are deadlines.

I went to the banks. The Frederick store. I processed a lot of carts. Made some exciting finds.

I left for the airport at 3. I double-checked to make sure I was going to the correct airport.

I wonder what things will look like when I return?

The leaves will all be on the ground, I’m sure. Except those trees that don’t shed them til much later. Beech. Oak.

How far along will the building project be? Soon the slabs will be poured.

Construction Progress

Then we will go vertical.

Strange economic times currently.

Is it the economy? Inflation? Malaise?

I always used to joke things did better when I was away. For one thing, I wasn’t around to spend money.

Maybe things will be better when I return.


5:30 a.m., Budapest

Oddly, Hungary is only 5 hours later than Maryland. I checked the time zone map, and it doesn’t really reflect geography well. The time zones on either side of western Europe are very small. Anyway, I feel very far from home.

I left Dulles at 7 p.m. on Wednesday and was in Vienna at about 8 a.m. Thursday. A quick flight to Budapest had me out on the sidewalks before noon.

My hotel, a Crowne Plaza, is very inexpensive. They gave me a tourist map, and I headed straight for the Danube. I have a thing about walking over rivers. I don’t know why that seems important to me, but it does. I guess it becomes a part of me—a memory—an accomplishment. I’ve crossed the Danube a number of times in Germany and Austria, but that was long ago. The view from the bridge gave me a perspective as to how vast the city is.

Danube Bridge View

I would have my work cut out for me to cover this place. And it is beautiful.

I headed along the river. My first objective was the Parliament building. It is an enormous and stunning ornate building.

Budapest Parliament

From there, I headed across some parks. There was a statue and shrine to Holocaust victims. There are photos, shoes and other artifacts left in front of the statue.

Holocaust Memorial

There is another shoe shrine which I will visit today.

The Holocaust hit Hungary hard.

In addition, between November 1944 and February 1945, the Nyilas shot 10,000—15,000 Jews on the banks of the Danube.
Holocaust Shoe Memorial

Tears welled up when I came upon this scene.

There is real horror in this world.

And real monsters.

Hungary has had a tumultuous history. It is at a kind of the crossroads of Europe. The Iron Curtain was slowly withdrawn in the late 1980s. The revolution in 1956 was crushed by Russian tanks…

I almost had a feeling the country is waiting for the next conquest or dictator.

I walked. I went inside the soaring space of St Stephen’s Basilica.

I walked.

The city is full of interesting old building pre WW2 buildings.

I headed back in mid afternoon. My room would be ready. I was anxious to shave and clean up. I climbed into the tiny bathtub and soaked for a bit.

“Ahhhh…” It was good to get out of the clothes I’d worn for over thirty hours.

The day was cool and gray. My driver from the airport had said it rarely snows here. He also said the Ukraine western border is only a few hours’ drive. In some ways, I felt like I was in an alien land.

I have never been this far east before.

I can’t understand a word of the language, nor can I parse out a word on any sign. Fortunately, many speak English to some extent. The currency is the forint. I brought Euros. There are about 420 forints in 1 dollar currently. I had a lavish meal last night. It cost 25,000 forints—about $60. Everything here seems to be a bargain. Good beers are about $2.50 a pint.

I had walked about 23,000 steps in 6 hours. It was early for dinner, but I was exhausted and hungry. I wanted Hungarian food but also wanted a place with a menu in English as well as Hungarian.

Hungarian Menu

Foie gras terrine.

Foie Gras Terrine

Chicken paprikas with porcini spatzle.

Chicken Paprikas with Porcini Spatzle

Kaiserschmarrn (a kind of baked cherry dessert served in a little skillet.)


I finished that with a glass of Tokaj—Hungarian sweet dessert wine.

It was a wonderful end to a marathon day.

I’m sending this off at 4:20 a.m. Maryland time.

I’ve been in Central Europe for almost exactly 24 hours…

12 Comments on Article

  1. John Carrigy commented on

    Enjoy the trip, Chuck! Can I recommend Knihkupectví a antikvariát Spálená in Prague – probably the best of the traditional used bookstores in the city with a variety of film posters and ephemera. There is a huge book culture in the Czech Republic and the beer is very good too! Hope all goes well with your trip.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Looking forward to it!
      I had a great Pilsner Urquell at a pub yesterday.
      I had a felt Guinness at san Irish Friday – which I will not name.
      Passed a David Byrne pub and wished I had gone there instead.
      Thanks for writing!

  2. Gary Fowler commented on

    Enjoyed, as always. Thanks for doing this. I found the opening explanation of your sorting process especially interesting. Safe travels, whether local or global!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you Gary!
      One of the main goals of these stories is to record the nuts and bolts of bookselling in the past 40+ years.
      I appreciate your taking the time to write!

  3. Sandy Pfarr commented on

    Thank you for such an interesting read! I like to think one of the books i recently sold to your store was an “exciting find” 🙂 Also find myself absorbed in the descriptions of your travel, looking forward to future entries. I have learned a few things, thank you again.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      That is so kind and heartening to read!
      Thank you Sandy!
      I really appreciate your taking the time to write!

  4. Livia commented on

    Hello Chuck,

    Have a great trip! You are visiting some of my favorite cities! Isn’t that memorial Shoes on the Danube moving?

    Take care and have a fantastic time!


    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      It is an amazing city. Glad I had some extra time here. We are only spending one Globus day here!
      There’s a couple from the South Italy trip as wells Scotland in the last year on this trip!

      1. Livia replied on

        Enjoy the rest of your itinerary. I was back in Vienna this past August and I didn’t join any of the included sights on the itinerary and went on my own instead. I visited all of the sights I missed on my first trip there.
        It’s cool that you know some of traveling companions….
        I will be spending Thanksgiving week in Southern Italy….


        1. Charles Roberts replied on

          Vienna is wonderful
          This Globus trip seems to have a lot of on your own time.

          Southern Italy was great.

          I got there a day early and it was an east short train to Pompeii.
          Stayed a day late and went to Capri.
          Rep helped w both of those.

  5. Gregory commented on

    Have a great trip, Chuck. For your entertainment, you might want to check out one of the mysteries by Sjowall & Wahloo (add umlauts freely), “The Man Who Went Up in Smoke.” It’s about the investigation into a Swedish reporter who went missing in Budapest, back in the day. It has a lot of local color in it. I am going through that series in order and am enjoying it.

    (Of course, I hope that some of the events in this police procedural don’t actually happen to you on your trip….)

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Gregory
      The Cold War and Soviet Occupation are still strong memories here.
      I will need to watch the Third Man and others again when I return.
      Thanks for reading and writing.

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