Sometimes you remember a small thing; a conversation; a question: trivial at the time…which evolves into something much bigger.
What if I hadn’t asked Carl Sickles for a Summer Job in June 1980?
I had finally finished my undergrad degree requirements at George Washington University in DC (to get enough classes to graduate from Connecticut College.) I ended up with enough credits to major in English and Zoology. That Spring I had also been a U.S. Census Taker for a couple months. I was the guy who went knocking on the doors of people who had not returned their Census forms on time. Some of the visits were interesting. Some were unpleasant. I had doors slammed in my face pretty often. Some saw the Census as government prying—intrusion into their private domicile. Others saw it as nobody’s business who lived in their home and what they did. Others had just not got around to filling out the form. Sometimes I’d be invited in to sit at their kitchen table and fill in the circle matching the answer to the question I’d just asked with a big thick #1 pencil the Census Bureau provided me. A few house calls told me far more than I needed to know.
“The woman who lives here with my dad sometimes, she doesn’t belong here. Do you count her?”
“He left a couple weeks ago, and I don’t know if he is coming back.”
All the calls on my list were in my housing development or neighboring ones so I didn’t get inside any very exotic homes. But there was a huge variety of ethnicities, cooking smells, other smells, furnishings, noise…a different story behind each door—well, the doors I was permitted through.
Maybe that is where I got some of the bug for making house calls. I really enjoyed the mysteries revealed behind people’s front doors. It was a kind of anthropology to experience how other people lived their lives in their own homes.
Or it could go much farther back than that. My father was a doctor, and as a sideline to make a little extra money, he would do physical exams at people’s houses for life insurance companies. They wanted to see if the applicant was a healthy risk. When I was very young, he would sometimes take me along, and it was always intriguing seeing how these people lived while my Dad listened to their heart or took their pulse and blood pressure.
During the summer of my 20th birthday Dad had died suddenly. Mom, who had been chronically ill for many years, declined after Dad’s death. She was in and out of nursing homes and died on the operating table early one Christmas morning at Walter Reed Army Medical Center a couple years after him. Thus, my college life was turned upside down the summer between my Junior and Senior years in Connecticut. Other priorities were thrust upon me. I finally finished enough classes at GW to get my degree. By then there was no reason to go to the ceremony in New London. There was no one for whom to march across the stage in cap and gown. I’d been encouraged to attend Grad School at GW in the fall by several English professors, and that was the plan.
But I needed money and something to keep me occupied. So, one afternoon I asked the genial, garrulous owner of my favorite used bookstore if he need any summer help. Carl Sickles grew up on a farm in Ohio and was a child of the Great Depression. He enlisted and became a teenage Ball Turret Gunner* on B-17s in World War 2. After his retirement from the US Veteran’s Administration, he joined his wife Eleanor at the Book Alcove in Gaithersburg Maryland. She had founded it in 1975 as a hobby when the last of her three children left for school. He joined her to give him something to do after he had finished his career in the Civil Service.
* The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
Randall Jarrell, 1914—1965
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
The way I recall it, Carl said yes on the spot. It may have been the very next day I was kneeling on the floor playing with books for the minimum wage. Google informs me the minimum wage in 1980 was $3.10 per hour.
I fell in love with the bookseller’s side of the used bookstore immediately. People were bringing in boxes of books to sell. Carl had me buying if not on my first day then certainly the second. Sink or swim. Out in the parking lot, I would lean into the trunk of a customer’s car or drop to my knees on the sidewalk to root through their boxes. I was having an immense amount of fun and making $121 a week!
(A bit of bookselling advice here—if you are going to have a little or big bookstore, have good knees and a good back and a strong resistance to book dust. So far so good.)
Maybe on that second day, I met Carl’s son Ray. I recall it vividly. I was on my knees stocking in the children’s section when I sensed a presence. I looked up and a young guy with black hair wearing black pants and a white button-down shirt was standing over me. He had his hands on his hips and his demeanor was a bit alpha male.
“You’re the new guy,” he stated in his loud baritone voice.
I introduced myself and stood. He was several inches shorter than I. Thus began a kind of friendship and lifelong competition of sorts. He was running the second Book Alcove store in Loehmann’s Plaza in “North Bethesda” (actually Rockville—but calling it Bethesda makes it seem more fashionable.)
I suppose he was just asserting his place in the pecking order—just below his dad and mom but above me.
In a matter of days, I was a “Manager” with a key, opening and closing, covering the store by myself quite often.
The confidence in me that Carl showed I rewarded with diligence and loyalty. It was easy because I loved the work.
Within a few weeks, I decided this was probably what I wanted to do forever. There may have been a bit of divine guidance to all this as well. If not, I have just been very lucky.
“Luck, hard work and a bit o’ guidance when it’s called for.”
Ah, my Book Muse. Yes, I’m very lucky you’ve been around as well.
“Good to hear rather than the usual grumbling.”
What color are your eyes by the way?
So at some point early in that “Summer Job,” I approached Carl and told him I was going to open a used bookstore. If he wanted to help and make it another Book Alcove, that would be fine. If not, I would do it on my own.
With a twinkle in his eye, he said he would partner with me.
I chose Frederick Maryland for a number of reasons. I liked the geography. It was still pretty rural but close enough to Washington and the Maryland suburbs to the East. To the South, North and West were mountains, rivers, wilderness, Gettysburg, Harpers Ferry, Antietam…beautiful things all very close by. And it is still quite beautiful despite the massive growth it has experienced in the last few decades.
Ray and I drove up one day to scout the area. We found a phone book and looked for “Books—Used and Rare” in the Yellow Pages. There was only one listing. “Berger’s Book Mart.” We drove there and scouted the place. It was tiny and dark; tucked near the Old Courthouse Square. The proprietor was in his 70s and quite nice. The stock was general antiquarian. He didn’t stock any recent used books.
Over the next few years, I got to know Ernie Berger a bit. He had played Honky-Tonk piano in a speakeasy during Prohibition. He stopped when one night the piano he was playing in the bar got several bullet holes in it during a gun battle. During World War Two, he was some kind of intelligence officer I think. Perhaps a spy. He was kind of vague on the subject.
Carl and I then went up and searched for “For Lease” signs. I wanted to be in a modern high-visibility location rather than tucked away in an old townhouse or ancient storefront downtown. I wanted to be easy to find. Easy to get to from the nearby major highways—I-70, I-270, US-15. Frederick is crossroads from Baltimore and Washington to all points west. It is also along a major north-south route from Florida to Canada.
We drove around. Back then the best commercial strip in town was West Patrick St (Rt 40 West.) It was called The Golden Mile. The Golden Mile begins at the US-15 interchange and proceeds west for about…a mile. Both sides of West Patrick were lined with vibrant shopping centers and restaurant pad sites and all manner of commercial enterprises. Local Mom and Pops and national chains vied for customers’ attention and dollars. The Mile was anchored on its west end by The Fredericktowne Mall.
EVERYONE went to the Mall back then. On a weekend evening, the place would be packed with groups of kids checking each other out, couples, older folks…everyone…wandering the circuit and dropping in and out the various shops, restaurants and large “anchor” department stores: Penny’s, Montgomery Ward, The Bon Ton. There was a theater complex in there as well.
The Mile and the Mall were BOOMING!
(Sadly, the great Mall was abandoned about a decade ago. It sits empty now—a moldering shell.)
Although the Golden Mile’s west end stopped at the Mall beyond that there was still some commercial development for about another 3/4 mile. Then West Patrick/ Rt 40 runs into South Mountain which blocks any further building.
Carl and I drove past the Mall and only a few hundred yards west was a brand new little strip center. It had 4 little storefronts. Each had a “For Lease” sign in the window and a name and phone number beneath it. We found a pay phone (no cell phones then.) Ted Mercer answered and said he could come out in 20 minutes.
While we waited, I peered into the windows imagining what the layout would look like.
Ted arrived and he and Carl did most of the talking. Had I been on my own I’m quite sure Ted would have looked askance at the kind of scruffy, rather longhaired, overexcited, barely needing to shave youngster I was at that time.
We came to a lease deal verbally and shook hands. Ted would bring the paperwork next time we visited.
Carl and I then went to the Barbara Fritchie Restaurant—a long time landmark and classic old style diner with a giant metal red and white swirled candy cane coming out of the ground at its front to attract those passing by. (Sadly, it closed only recently. But it lasted 107 years according to The Frederick News Post.)
We sat ourselves on brightly colored poofy vinyl benches in a booth. A formica table rimmed with chrome was a shiny plane between us.
He had a pad of paper, and there we sketched out the beginning of the Book Alcove of Frederick’s business plan. He figured if we each put in $1000 that would cover the deposit and first month’s rent, a load of #2 pine plank wood and a few other necessities to get the place open.
The first books came from his shop. “Take any dupes you want!” and near daily trips to the Clifton Book Company—a sprawling farm near Shepherdstown West Virginia. The owner had passed away. He had owned the Maryland Book Exchange in College Park where the 50,000+ University of Maryland students all needed to buy or sell books. Over his life, he had filled the numerous farm buildings—barns, sheds, quonset huts, dwellings with books. FILLED all these sundry buildings. A couple days a week, I would drive there very, very early in the morning with my old once white Ford F-150 pickup truck with a cap above the bed to keep the books dry. The manufacturer had attached his name and slogan to the aluminum cap. The slogan was “Don’t Go Topless” with a female silhouette next to it.
She is back. Do I digress?
“Yer title, unless it is tentative, is Saving Book Alcove. Sounds like the Book Alcoves are doing just fine. What needs to be saved?”
I’m just setting…
“…the stage…the background. So I’ve heard before. Quite the habit you have in these stories. Ye must like to see yer two fingers type.”
Ok. Ok. I’ll speed it up.
“Hey, I use more than two fingers sometimes.”
Crickets chirped. She must have flitted off to Tir Nan Nog or somewhere.
Well, the store opened on September 21, 1980. It slowly grew. My “draw” was $150 a week.
In 1983, I made a deal with the neighboring store who wanted to expand into my space. I moved the little old bookstore to a new location about a quarter mile west on The Golden Mile—ummm—”Extended.” We increased the square footage from 1800 to 3500.
It was about this time Carl helped his other son, John, open a Book Alcove in Reston Virginia. So, for a brief period there were four little Alcoves in the DC region.
Also, it was about this time that video rental stores began to flourish. I loved movies. After all those years of having to wait until an art cinema house or PBS channel 26 would air my kind of films I could put any movie I could find into the VHS tape player and watch it at my leisure. It was a miracle. People were no longer at the mercy of the 4 or 5 broadcast TV channels in their homes. But the local video stores would only carry the most popular titles. Foreign and off-beat movies like Ingmar Bergman were NOT popular…in Frederick at least. So I decided to carry videos in my bookstore—mostly so I could order what “I” wanted to see.
Carl wasn’t interested in anything but inexpensive used books. My store was rapidly expanding its scope. The other Alcoves were just bumping along. He agreed to let me buy him out. In late 1983, Book Alcove of Frederick became Wonder Book & Video.
(Briefly, I had decided to name it The Book Oasis. That just didn’t feel right for my hopes and dreams. Something or someone inspired me to name it Wonder. Perhaps in part because, once upon a time, I had been a Wonder Boy: https://www.wonderbk.com/family-friends/wonder-boys/)
I’m pretty sure I offered Carl $14,000 for his share. He was very happy with that and I felt it was fair. He gave me 36 months to pay off the debt.
Carl and I remained very close. We often traveled together. We continued to do the Annual Florida Antiquarian Book Fair each spring. It was originally in Tampa and then moved to St Pete where it flourishes to this day. Some call it Spring Break for Old Booksellers…ummm…Sellers of Old Books…although many are kind of old, old booksellers.
I think it was in 1997 that he had a bad stroke. Eleanor continued to run the Gaithersburg Book Alcove. Ray had moved from Loehmann’s Plaza to Rockville Pike. John had closed Reston some years earlier and actually came and worked for me for a while. (“Ho, Ho, Ho!” He had a Booming laugh that would capture the attention everyone in the store.) Carl would often sit by the front door in Gaithersburg and greet customers as they entered. He couldn’t build bookcases any longer.
At some point, running the Gaithersburg store and caring for Carl was too much for Eleanor. Ray closed the second store and took over Gaithersburg.
Carl passed away in 2005 after some tough years of suffering in a nursing home. I cried unabashedly at his funeral. He had been like a father to me (my own passing away in 1975) as well as a mentor and role model. The Ball Turret Gunner was buried at Arlington National Cemetary. He was 80 years old.
We had gone to online bookselling in 1997. I was extremely busy with two young boys, coaching soccer, 3 brick and mortar bookstores and a series of warehouses for internet book sales. I didn’t keep in touch much with Ray or Eleanor. Ray and I were never close. There was a bit of competitiveness and perhaps a bit of jealousy. Plus we really didn’t have much in common socially beside books—and we both had plenty of them.
He did bring me loads of books to buy when he closed the Rockville Pike store. I agreed to go down and buy the bookcases that were left there as well. It was fortuitous timing. The warehouse was eating up every kind of bookcase I could find.
WonderBook.com and all the other sites we sold books on were booming! We began going through thousands and thousands of books every month. I became desperate for books. We began advertising in the Washington Post: “WE BUY ALL…” Because we were in Frederick and Hagerstown I think people thought they were too far away for us to come get their books.
I was begging for books from anyone I could think of to keep satisfying the internet “beast.”
I would stop in occasionally to say hi and buy culls Ray set aside for me. The shop is on Shady Grove Road just off I-270 so you have to pass by it anytime you go toward the Beltway and the wondrous book collections that are inside that ring road. I would usually find Ray in the “Buying Room” seated at a table doing a crossword puzzle. He usually had two young employees standing around the counter chatting with one another.
He would complain how poor business was. One reason was seated in front of me, but the main reason by far was that Book Alcove had never gone online. Almost all the other bookstores in DC region who had not gone online or retreated to their garages and basements to do rare book shows and catalogs were dead or dying.
Of the 79 shops and booksellers by appointment listed in here only 12 remain by my informal count. Not very many new “old” booksellers have emerged in the interim to take their places.
In 2008 a mutual friend reached out to me and said “Ray is closing the shop. He is selling off the stock.”
He hadn’t called me. I suppose he had his reasons. I went down and met with him. I found him seated at the table in the buying room working a crossword puzzle.
“Hey. How are you doin’?”
“Well!” He often began statements with that exclamation with an upward inflection. “I’m going to close up. I’m just losing too much money.”
“You’re going to have a closing sale?”
“Yeah. I have been. It hasn’t been going well.”
“If you put up more signs, it might help.”
“I’ll look around and see if there’s anything I can use.”
I wandered around the labyrinthine nooks and crannies Carl had created decades before. He had built most of the bookcases. He taught me how to build my own in 1980. Other bookcases he repurposed from house calls or other booksellers he bought out. The shop had grown organically. Eleanor had started it in one room as the Book Mark of Gaithersburg. When Carl came on board, he negotiated with the landlord to take over another room in the partially below ground location of the lower level in the back of the Shady Grove Center. Then another room, then another…Some of the rooms weren’t much larger than a walk-in closet. The result is a quite broken up rabbit warren of book rooms. Most of these don’t lend themselves to “rows” so much of Book Alcove was “alcoves.”
How many different kinds of bookcases do you see in those images?
As I wandered through them, I recalled the fun Carl had with each new expansion. I also recalled the fun I had visiting and chatting and learning and buying from him. I’d only worked for him as an employee for a couple months and that had been 28 years before. But he had been a lifelong friend. Just like family.
I had been looking for a bookstore location closer to the Beltway for years. But everything had either been too expensive or the timing wasn’t right or…
I went back to the storeroom. Ray was bent over the puzzle.
“Why don’t you sell me the store? I can try to keep it open.”
He rotated his head up toward me. I couldn’t tell if he was pleased or unhappy at the prospect.
“Well!” he said. “Chuck, it’s been losing money for years. I owe the landlord and some other people.”
“How much do you need?”
He quoted a figure. It was far higher than if I’d just bought the remaining books and shelves. On the other hand, although the location was terrible, it had been a bookstore in continuous operation since 1975. 33 years at the time and it was close to the Beltway and I-270.
I owed his dad a lot…everything in some ways. He took a chance on me a long, long time before.
“I’ll think about it,” I told him as I walked out of the room. On the way out, I passed the two kids standing at the counter chatting about their dates or a movie or something.
That night I lay awake thinking. No one is opening bookstores in 2008, but it is only 25 minutes to drive there from Frederick. Except in rush hours—when it can be a couple hours. It is a small shop. 4000 square feet I think. It is so broken up it is hard to tell. It is a terrible location. Tucked down and behind a strip center with a 7-11, beer and wine store, Asian market and a couple other “draws” up front along Shady Grove Road. If you don’t know it is there, you would never find it. It is losing money and has for a long time.
But it was Carl and Eleanor’s store.
I could always liquidate it myself if things don’t pan out.
It was also a magic bookshop in many ways. It grew organically over the eons. You could get lost in it. Literally. I’d always imagined the books moving themselves around after closing chatting among themselves in the dark, talking about their hopes that they’d find a new home soon. Dreading the horrors if they’d get culled.
I went down the next day and met with the landlord. He had been a pal of Carl’s and missed him as well. I told him my plans, hopes and concerns. He said he’d like it to remain a bookstore as well. He gave me a pretty good deal and told me if things didn’t work out, he’d let me out without too much notice.
I crossed the parking and found Ray seated at…well, you know where. I told him I’d pay the money over 6 months.
“I guess you’ll be my boss now,” he said.
“Nah…I don’t think that would work out for either of us. I’d be glad to pay you to scout buys for me. You still have the van don’t you?”
“It hasn’t started for months.”
Ray moved on to other things. He had been a very good Bookman. Technology left him behind.
Well, on rare occasions “Bookstore’s End” stories have happy endings. It is 2018 and Book Alcove is still alive as Wonder Book Gaithersburg. It is virtually unchanged. We did eventually replace the rotary dial phone (really!) One of the subsequent managers convinced me to let her tear up the ancient puke green thick shag wall to wall carpet. I was reluctant as I thought it added a certain “je ne sais quoi” to the place. But eventually it was sliced up along the bookcase edges and now the floor is bare concrete—mostly.
We don’t sell a lot of books there. It sort of breaks even money wise—sometimes. But we do buy a lot of books there. A LOT. We may be the last bookseller around who will make an offer on ALL the books brought to us. We swap vans down there 4-5 times a week. Each van can hold 5000-6000 books. Because we are close to the Beltway people consider us more local. Now we get a lot more really great house calls down that way too. A LOT.
So, the little organic, meandering, magical bookshop still stands. It is about 43 years old now. Not too far from the mid-century mark. Fingers crossed. Inside the front door it runs very much like it did in the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s under Carl and Eleanor. Outside it is a kind beacon calling to all those in the region who have book collections they want to find a new home for. Millions of books have made their way to that very old little bookstore. Almost all never go inside. We take them to our Frederick warehouse where we try to be very creative placing books for pennies, for dollars, for free. We do it as a business but also as a passion so as many of the books brought to us as possible can have happy endings.
In other words, it has become a kind of nexus through which pass millions of books that could never fit in that tiny shop. The books funnel through the parking lot up to our 3 acre Frederick warehouse. There they are sorted, and the best decision possible made for their dispersal around the country and the globe.
Over the years we have bought the remains from many—too many—bookstores that have failed or the owners have decided to close for whatever reason.
I was glad we were able to save this one.
Come visit it sometime. It is open every day 10-7. Go inside and squint your eyes a little and imagine it is 1980. Look at the floor near the bookcases, and you will see vestiges of the green shag carpet. Go in deeper and count how many rooms there are. Then count how many “alcoves” Carl Sickles built.