Monday, February 6
It felt so good to wake in my own bed on Monday. I’d gotten back from Morocco on Sunday night. Once home, I had the usual hectic rush after getting home from Dulles.
Start a fire in the woodstove.
Turn on the well pump and water heater.
Bring the bags in.
Check on this and that.
Then wind down and crash. My body was telling me it was six hours later than the time on the clock read.
When I woke, the sunlight pouring in the windows was a bit orange.
I slipped out from beneath the six or so layers of bedclothes I had piled atop me and stepped to the window.
“The sun is back!”
I didn’t think it would have moved north out of the trees yet. I will have a few weeks of unobstructed dawns before the sun goes farther north, into the forest once again.
When I got to work down in the valley, there was an enormous red crane looming over the building.
It will be used to raise the slabs of concrete that will serve as walls for the new warehouses. We are awaiting approval for its use from the FAA. Though the airport is a couple of miles away, the rules state the crane can only be a certain height.
Going inside, it was heartening to be amongst the bustle of all the people working there. Mondays are very busy. All the orders from the weekend are printed, and the process of pulling and packing thousands of books begins anew.
Crossing the building, I passed cart after cart laden with books. Each cart has a sheet of paper attached to it identifying just what sort of books it bears.
I stopped abruptly when I got to a cart that bore a handwritten sheet stating “Debbie’s Signed Mertzs.”
Debbie passed away unexpectedly late last year. She had been with the company for over twenty years. We were friends too. She loved the dogs. She loved Wonder Book. She loved Elizabeth Peters’ and Barbara Michaels’ books.
Long, long ago when I discovered she was a fan, I got permission to bring her to visit Barbara Mertz at her estate not far from the old warehouse. Barbara wrote books under those pseudonyms as well as her real name.
Those afternoons are soft, slightly out-of-focus memories for me. Sitting by the fishpond below the waterfall in Barbara’s gardens, they chatted and smoked. I likely sat and looked about at the trees and flowers and birds. Sipping a martini, I would watch the koi move languidly amongst the water plants below us. Perhaps I fell into daydreams as they discussed books and writing. This visit was for Debbie, not me. She was thrilled.
Debbie’s daughter, Hayley, had emailed that she wanted us to have her Mom’s books. And here they were. At least Barbara’s books. Whoever went through Debbie’s books knew I’d want to see those. All signed. Some inscribed during a visit. I opened a few. A whiff of smoke came out of each. That will dissipate over time. I laughed at a couple of inscriptions.
They loved their cigarettes.
This August will mark ten years since Barbara passed. I miss her. Perhaps I don’t think of her every day as I did for so long. But I do quite often. The thought of her always brings me up short. I was so lucky to have been a wanted guest. Frequently. Proximity played a role in that. As did availability. If she wanted company, I would come. We would talk about everything. Everything. Often we discovered the secrets of life as the gin and sunlight and nature inspired deep and deeper thought. When I crossed the border of Lorien and reentered the real world, the magic would leave me. I was no longer the brilliant conversationalist who could keep up with genius and charisma. But the memory that I had lingered. For two or three hours, I had been special enough. They linger to this day.
It is Friday morning. Already. The week has been a blur of appointments and meetings and errands and supplies and catch-up and books. So many books.
There’s the stack of signed and inscribed Ross Thomas books. All are in perfect condition. I have read and reread his books many times over the years. His characters come alive to me. I enter their world in his pages. And I am not the only one. And The Jerusalem Bible illustrated by Dali. Bound and boxed in leather.
I have to hold on to those for… a while.
I met with Clark and Joey about the January sales figures at the three stores.
What happened?! All were up over thirty percent from January 2022. Book sales were way up. So were all the other things we offer the public. Music, movies, art, collectible stuff, stuff stuff…
I had thought they would never recover from the purges caused by the internet bookselling and other onslaughts on the printed page. In the 1990s, there had been well over a hundred used bookstores in the DC region. Now there are just a handful. We have three of those.
The Frederick store in its current incarnation since 1990. The two previous locations go back to 1980.
Gaithersburg where I took a “summer job” before grad school in 1980. My mentor there, Carl Sickles, abetted my leap of faith and helped me open the Frederick store just a couple of months after I started working for him. We each put in a thousand dollars for the first and last month’s rent. When his son was shutting down his Gaithersburg bookstore in 2008, I offered to buy it. It has been a bookstore in continuous operation since 1975.
Hagerstown in its second incarnation since Wonder Book opened in that city in 1995.
The Wonder Book stores have gone through a renaissance since COVID. While they have not reached the peak sales of the 90s, they are getting closer and closer.
I smile to myself. Pride that through all the struggles, they have remained open. Gratefulness that the public has rediscovered one of the joys of human endeavor—the old bookshop where books which have traveled all over the world come, in hopes of being adopted and taken to a new home.
When I got home from watching Wuthering Heights last night, it was 65 degrees out. Unbelievable for February. Wonder Book sponsored the film at the iconic Weinberg Center for the Arts. It was a wonderful immersive experience to sit the old theater and watch the black and white shadows dance on the big screen above and before me. I had forgotten how beautiful Oberon and Olivier were. Are. For they live still in those flickering black and white images. I had forgotten how crazy Heathcliff and Cathy were. Their love was impossible in life. But in death, it is eternal. Their spirits walk out onto the moors, hand in hand, forever.
When I got back and crawled under the bedclothes, a little tot on the bedside table, words poured out. Too crazy to put here. Perhaps I will append them at the end of this.
Last week’s story was posted from a bouncing bus crossing outcroppings of the Sahara between Marrakesh and Casablanca. It was Friday. The tour would end that night.
4 p.m. on Saturday, February 4th, Casablanca
My wake up call is in 12 hours. That will allow enough time to get to the airport, go through customs and catch the 8 a.m. Air France flight to Paris. Then if the transfer works, I will be in Dulles at 4 p.m. on Sunday.
The extra day in Casablanca was good and bad.
Globus treated us all to dinner at Rick’s Cafe last night. The director, Mo, put on a recording of Dooley Wilson singing “As Time Goes By” as we took the bus over.
We were all seated on the 2nd level. The food was a set menu for us tourists. It was fine. Not memorable. I convinced some others to stay after for cocktails at the bar. I did it mostly for myself. I likely would have stayed alone, but these folks were fun. I would have walked back, but two of the folks were older. One needed a cane. I offered to get a cab. I asked the doorman, thinking he would get a full-size car. Instead, a cabbie led us to his little red Petit Cab. There was a moment’s hesitation, but they directed me to the front seat and four of them, 3 women and the guy with a cane, piled into the back. The fourth had to lie across the other 3.
“How much?” I asked too late. You should ask before you seal the deal.
Too much, but only 20 bucks for 5 people. That exhausted my Moroccan cash. The driver was so pleased he didn’t even hint at a tip.
It was late, and I crashed right away. I heard people banging around the hallway later. It was friends from the tour getting out for their 4:30 a.m. transfer. I went back to sleep and laid in for a bit of the morning. Writing. Trying.
I met the last remaining group member at breakfast. An ex-pat Aussie living in Detroit now. Her transfer was at 10. Then I met her in the lobby to confirm with Mo that my transfer was set. I asked for the number in case the car was not here at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday.
Now, what to do with a day in Casablanca when you’ve seen all the sights?
I got on my feet and went in a direction I hadn’t taken before.
I saw that the abandoned Catholic Cathedral was not far away and headed for that. It closed soon after the French left in the 1950s. There are no crosses left, and the stained glass windows have been swapped out for geometric shapes. Still, it was beautiful in the morning sun. Whitewashed walls and buttresses soaring to the heavens. Casablanca’s Sacre Coeur. Sacred Heart.
Then I walked and walked.
Eventually, my feet took me toward the ocean. I walked the seaside promenade for about a mile.
About mid afternoon and over 20,000 steps later, I decided to go to Rick’s one last time. Somehow, my feet had taken me to that neighborhood. I was really thinking coffee when I stepped out of the sun and into the 1940s. I went to the bar. It was the same bartender. He wore his uniform of fez and black vest, shirt and tie.
“The usual?” he asked.
I lingered over the cocktail. He was generous with the sparkling water. I spent about an hour scribbling words on a piece of yellow paper from a legal pad. Then an American guy on my right started making phone calls. He was trying to find places to rent a surfboard.
“I want to do the Draculas and Boilers,” he said. (I just looked it up. It IS a Moroccan “thing.”)
When a Frenchman sat on my right and pulled out a cigarette, I figured it was time to head out.
“I might come back for dinner,” I said to the bartender.
On the way out, at the tiny reception area, I saw they have a t-shirt for sale.
And a martini glass from Rick’s.
I hadn’t really bought anything I can’t eat or drink.
A scarf at the rug shop. A couple packs of herbs at 100,000 Epices.
I do have a pretty good martini glass collection. You just have to be extra careful if you use one.
The phone helped me back through the turns in the maze of a medina. This time, I noticed how many vendors had parakeets and lovebirds in wire cages. They flitted and chirped as I went by.
There was a lot of graffiti along the way.
When I heard a scooter coming, I pressed over as close to the wall as I could get. They would careen through the narrow alley, heedless of human obstacles.
The mile or so of micro-commerce was an onslaught to all the senses. And to the mind. Truly another world.
Finally, the phone dumped me out on to the Boulevard d’Anfa. The hotel was about 3/4 of a mile up the street.
Back in the room on the 12th floor, I discarded the walking clothes and fell into the cool sheets. I made a pact with myself not to waste this free day. What you are reading is part of that promise.
It was nearly 5 o’clock.
Back home, winter had hit hard. There were apparently some outages in Frederick. I turned off the well pump and water heater before I left. I opened some downstairs taps to drain the pipes. Just in case…
I had passed an Irish pub not too far away during the day. It was named The Irish Pub. That might be my destination for dinner.
I had a few hours before I would try to get some sleep before my big day.
I’d be glad to get home.
I missed my house and the woodstove. I missed my books. I missed my dogs. I missed my country and the people I know.
Sunday, Mohammed V International Airport, Casablanca, Morocco
Strange night. I went to the Irish Pub hoping for “pub grub.” The rope blocking the entrance came down immediately. I was greeted like a VIP. They are selective about who they let in. I found a seat near the bar. The place was full of stuffed game animals, street signs from Ireland, cases of pins and all manner of old stuff hanging from the walls and ceilings. The staff was all Moroccan. All of them had some English. The menu was disappointing. Burgers and pizza. The beer menu had a few Moroccan choices on tap and Heineken. No Guinness? But there were a lot of TVs with various soccer games on. Televisions were attached to walls everywhere you looked. The commentary was all in excited and loud Arabic. A dish of some kind of salad was set before me.
I didn’t look too closely. I recalled Mo’s caution about only eating cooked food. Another gift was set before me. This time, it was a couple of little sausages and a few chicken wings. They were good.
I ordered chips (fries) and a Casablanca draft beer. I settled back on my stool and enjoyed the soccer. On some screens it was English soccer—in Arabic. After one game ended and another began, I ordered another beer. Bottled Dark Casablanca. Then I ordered a pizza. The price was 70 ($7.) It had tuna on it. Everyone around began lighting up cigarettes. The pizza was way too big. Still, I worked away at it until it was time to get back to the hotel.
My transfer was scheduled to pick me up at 4:30 a.m. I wanted some sleep so went to bed early. Although I was on the 12th floor, the Saturday night traffic noise was horrible. I put tissue in my ears. I put a pillow over my head. I slept a bit, and then my phone rang. A spam call from the states. It was a pretty miserable night. Add to that, my stomach began roiling. My phone alarm was set for 3:45. It didn’t matter, though. Noise. Stress. Stomach. All contributed to frequent wakings and a time check on the phone next to me.
I got packed and went down to the lobby at 4:15. The night manager was nice, but had very little English.
I waited patiently til 4:28. 29. 30.
Mo had given me a sheet with the contact number of the transfer company. The manager called for me. No one answered at 4:35 a.m.
I was unsure how much time I really needed to get to the plane, but the minutes were clicking by.
I asked the porter to call a taxi.
“A big one.” I knew the Petit Taxis only take cash. I’d spent my last Dirhams last night.
He called and then scribbled “15” on a sheet of paper. European ones can look like our sevens.
The cab arrived just after 5. The porter asked about credit cards. I did as well. The driver seemed non-committal. But we were quickly on our way.
I asked how much.
30 bucks. A bargain. It had taken about an hour to get in from the airport.
I kept checking my phone as to how long it would take to get to the airport. About halfway there, he turned into a gas station.
For some reason, he didn’t like it and pulled out and then into the next one next door. He motioned me out, and after some gesticulations, it occurred to me that I was buying the gas. That way I could pay him in fuel $. He indicated I should give my Master Card to the attendant.
The attendant shook his head no.
“Master Card,” I said, pointing at the logo.
He shook his head and said something. The driver slid open my door.
“I can pay in dollars. Cash.” His eyes lit up, and the rest of the trip was comfortable for both of us. We pulled up to the terminal. On the sidewalk, he said, “350.” I replied, “$40.”
I held out 2—$20s. He smiled and shook my hand gratefully.
Check-in went well, but the ticket agent asked, “May I see your driver’s license?”
I wasn’t sure I understood her. But, yep, Air France in Morocco wanted my Maryland driver’s license.
I’m finally on board the plane. Babies are crying in front and behind me. But then, we are in the air. We pass over the city. The Hassan II Mosque dominates the place, though there is construction everywhere. Then we leave Africa and are out over the Atlantic. It is a clear day so far. I can see the dull gray blue plain of the ocean far below.
Morocco was an interesting whirlwind trip. My body managed to keep up with all the rigors. The only real complaint was a stiff sore lower back. I think it came from all the sitting and bouncing on the bus for so many hours. Feels ok now. We will see how 10 hours on planes affects it.
I glossed over so much in last week’s story. The Globus tour packed so much into one week. But that’s what I signed on for. I didn’t want to spend any more time at any of the places we stopped. But I’m glad we passed through them. I saw and experienced a lot.
Casablanca. It is just over a century old mostly. In the 19th century, it was just a village. When the French moved in, they were the ones who developed it into the city. That is the reason there is so little to see. No old castles or fortifications. No museums. A great deal of early to mid-20th century architecture. When they moved out in 1956, it seems things slowed for a few decades. Now it is booming.
The people generally were very kind and friendly. Polite, they seemed to really like Americans and American culture. Safe? Mo assured us it was. “Just be streetwise in the cities.” No one will accost you or rob you. Indeed, I wasn’t hassled anywhere. There were a few panhandlers and beggars, but they didn’t press their cause for more than a few seconds.
Takeoff was about 30 minutes late. I think we are over Spain somewhere. If I’m right, my time to get off the plane and to my next gate is now about one and a half hours. I will hustle. I really want to be home this afternoon.
Crossing the snow-covered Pyrenees at 10 a.m. A narrow band, and now we are over France. More snow-capped mountains. Maybe these are the Pyrenees.
Just prior to this range, we flew above a few strange escarpments. One was shaped like an arrowhead. Now we are over solid cloud cover.
I wonder where in France that was.
Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport
I’m aboard an enormous airplane. Near the very back—47 L. Tim got me a window seat. The rows for the common folk are 10 seats across. 3—4—3. A 777-300. But all the sultans and caliphs and viziers and generals and kings and wealthy merchants… they could never imagine the ability to fly, to fly across oceans to lands many never knew existed.
It is a good time to be alive.
I’m so glad I made it. I just want to be home. Soon…
It felt so good to get home last night.
It was a marathon trip. And the tour was a whirlwind. But that was fine. I wouldn’t have wanted to spend any more time in any of the locales we visited. But then we didn’t spend too much time anywhere either. Balanced.
I was so pleased when I got into the warehouse this morning. There’s an enormous crane at the building site. Soon it will be lifting the walls—sheets of poured concrete—up like dominos.
We are waiting for FAA approval. They want to be sure the crane won’t interfere with air travel?
When I got in, the place looked good. I was excited that Jessica had a couple of big orders for Books by the Foot.
160 linear feet of Well Read Classics (that means kind of worn literature books.) 160 feet… If your ceilings are 8-feet high, think 20 stacks floor to ceiling.
50 linear feet of Mid Century Cooking. Mid Century means not too new and not too old.
Travis is driving, and he asked me about Morocco. Was there any sign of the writers that went there for inspiration and drugs and other stuff? No. No sign that Morocco remembers them at all. Nor did I see any sign of the Hippie invasion in the 60s and 70s, though the Hippie Trail still leads some to Morocco’s outlying areas. There were more than a handful of scruffy characters, couples mostly, in the airport and in the city. 21st century hippies seeking… whatever they missed.
The “Hippie Trail,” as many know it today, was an overland route popular from the mid 1950s to the late 1970s, usually starting in London, that headed through Istanbul and toward Nepal, culminating in Kathmandu. Hippie culture in the United States was heavily based in nomadism and Eastern spirituality—those heading to the Hippie Trail wanted to connect to their adopted “roots.” It eventually became a rite of passage for young people involved in the counterculture of the time.
As a side trip (popularized in the ’50s by Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, and in the ’60s thanks to musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens), Morocco had a hippie trail all its own, centering in Marrakech and either heading north to Tangier or southwest to Sidi Ifni along the coast. Travelers of Morocco’s trail were soul-searching, and looking for enlightenment and a connection to ancient cultures through the Moroccan lifestyle. They often visited the souk, or marketplaces, in Marrakech; explored the hash-heavy city of Chefchaouen, where everything is painted shades of blue and white; and jammed with Jimi Hendrix in Essaouira and Diabat, where there’s still a café in his honor today and counterculture remains a strong presence. Hippies hiked and camped through Paradise Valley, an area in the Atlas Mountains known for its beauty and supposed restorative and healing qualities, then went to enjoy city life in Agadir, which is still a bustling port area. In Tangier, they followed the footsteps of beat writers, like Burroughs and Kerouac, and sometimes slept in doorways of the Medina, a common feature of Moroccan cities—it’s the oldest part of town, often surrounded by high walls.
I vividly recall the scenes in the original Brideshead Revisited of Anthony Andrews playing Sebastian becoming even more dissolute there.
Sebastian descends into alcoholism, drifting away from the family over a two-year period. He flees to Morocco, where his drinking ruins his health. He eventually finds some solace as an under-porter and object of charity at a Catholic monastery in Tunisia. Sebastian’s drifting leads to Charles’s own estrangement from the Flytes.
Did he still have his teddy bear in Morocco? I will have to watch it again.
It will be fun to do some culling and get the workout that provides. Both the Literature and Cooking sections need duplicates and old stale stock removed to make way for fresh tomes. The charm of Books by the Foot is that these perfectly good but unwanted books will go… somewhere… and be shelved again; they will remain books for one more incarnation… at least one more. Books are great travelers. Every day I see inscriptions or bookseller tickets which tell of where they began their journey or where they passed through with later owners.
So warm. Cozy. Wrapped beneath many layers. I slept so long and hard. Wondrous dreams which I promised to remember. I should have written them down. They are all gone now. Where do dreams go? So real and tangible in sleep. So elusive in consciousness. What time is it? It seems pretty light outside. 7:24? Unbelievable. I haven’t opened my eyes that late since… a long time. Sleep has been a boon companion since I returned from Africa. Why? How can we remain friends?
I have worked outdoors after dark for two nights. Tuesday, I was carrying cut logs out of the woods and down to the drive. I would roll them over the four-foot ridge that drops from the forest to the drive’s side. I also dragged out branches to clean up the forest floor. I will pile them on the big pile. I have made two now. They serve the purpose of giving birds and other small creatures shelter. The forest floor around here is pretty barren. The thick canopy is part of the reason. But the overpopulation of deer is the bigger cause. They eat just about everything they can reach. It got so dark that I began stumbling on unseen stones and roots. Foolish risk. Last night, I began cutting up the long logs I took from the Wonder Book building site last summer. It is still too green to burn—except the wood that came from already dead trees. Once cut, I took some in the barn and stacked it—for next winter’s warmth. I also dropped a dead maple. It was about 18 inches in diameter. Its smaller limbs had fallen already. When the saw got through enough of it and it started leaning, I slipped behind a big tree. The widowmakers can fall in random directions from the top. The tree’s integrity is gone. It fell with a loud “WHOOMP!” on the forest floor. I cut it into stove lengths. That wood I will be able to burn this season. That will save the effort of bringing out already stacked wood from the barn.
A short “cut.” lol…
And of course I watched Casablanca on Monday night.
8 a.m. on Friday morning. Time to send this through the ether down to the warehouse a few miles away. I will shower and shave. Settle the dogs and follow this story down the mountain and across the valley where new stories will begin today.
(Below was written after returning home from watching Wuthering Heights. It is kind of spacey—stream-of-consciousness stuff infused with a tot of gin. So feel free to stop here.)
The moon hangs gravid in the winter night.
Some nights change one’s course. This night has.
So warm. Sixty-two in February. Such a brutal month most years. I wonder at the kindness. There are often two sides to gifts or blessings.
We watched Wuthering Heights at the old theater tonight. Oberon and Olivier. Crazy people. It was reaffirming. You were crazy. Perhaps when death approaches, you too will rediscover what was. What should have been. I won’t be around then.
I was dreaming of the past
And my heart was beating fast
I began to lose control
I began to lose control
I didn’t mean to hurt you
I’m sorry that I made you cry
The song came on as I drove home, and all the pain rose like a cold moon over the moors. That had been our song. I never hurt you.
Was there ever anyone crazier than Cathy? Yes. Heathcliff.
And, yes, look in the mirror.
The world is a wondrous place.
In pain and hurt and suffering, there is redemption. The cold moon looks down, and you know it is the same as has ever been.
So lucky to have climbed to the top of the moors. The castle crag. We owned it, you and I. Princess and prince. And you left. For… what?
And I stay on the mountain. Working. Building. Creating. Looking to the east in hopes you will wake up, rediscover, remember, return.
I cast my gaze over the valley in vain.
No. There is hope where there is life. And memory.
So much death and finality in the last few years. Plague years.
A friend died last fall. Her daughter brought her books to me. I had seen these books before. I had been in their presence on solemn occasions a score years or more ago.
Debbie was a fan of Barbara’s. Barbara loved the love that a true devotee could bring. So I brought them together. So long ago. It seems like last season.
They are both gone now. But I remain. For now. Those afternoons. Sunshine. A waterfall. A goldfish pond. Cigarettes for them. A common denominator. Gin for me and Barbara. A common denominator. Her books. Written by one. Owned by the other. A common denominator.
When Debbie died last fall, Barbara’s books were a shrine in her home. A tangible memory of afternoons in the sun two decades ago. Cigarettes shared. Conversation. Friendship. Adoration.
Now the books are mine again. Aromatic of the tobacco they dwelt in. Autographed warmly by the author who enjoyed the sun and smoke and words by the waterfall. Which poured into the pond. Which we sat next to while the bright sun passed overhead.
Dead. Dead. I remain and look upon the books. Icons. Tangible time travelers to the sunny afternoon so very long ago. It seems like yesterday.
To touch the books is to touch my avatar, my Barbara, dead a decade now. And Debbie, a friend and constant presence in daily work life for two decades. Dead a couple of months now.
When I go, those afternoons will be gone forever.
No. These words I write preserve those sunny days. They live as long as someone reads these words.
Those were beautiful afternoons. In the presence of a queen-muse who shared her aura for a fortunate few.
I was feeling insecure
You might not love me anymore
I was shivering inside
I was shivering inside
Oh, it is a wonderful life. Relish and bask in the joy. Long for that joy lost but attainable in memory still green these years later.
Watching Wuthering Heights, I was shivering inside. I was shivering inside. The tears dripped over the precipice of my eyelids. Oh, they hurt so good.
When the end comes, will we walk arm in arm into the unending snowy moors, barefoot and lightly clad? Will you remember?
It does not matter. It will be my vision. It will be my death. It will be my memories.