Two Score Years Ago…

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Two score years…

In the summer of 1980, I took a leap of faith and opened a used bookstore. I had exactly zero business experience or education. I’d worked in the Book Alcove of Gaithersburg for maybe a month, maybe less, before I told the genial old owner that I planned to open my own store.

“If you want to help, that would be great. If not, I’ll do it myself.”

I began scouting locations. Frederick, Maryland seemed ideal. I was ready to leave Montgomery County. My girlfriend was in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. Frederick was halfway in between.

I recall dropping in on the existing Frederick bookstore. There was also a big flea market that had a lot of books in it. Ernie Berger’s “odds” and “ends.” I later learned Ernie maybe played honky-tonk piano in speakeasies until he nearly got killed in a shootout.

It was on South Carroll. That was a really old low warehouse building. The booths were more like animal stalls. But I learned a lot from Denny Dugan. He always had a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. There was a curtained area behind the counter he presided over. The good stuff was there.

To my pie in the sky eyes, Frederick looked like it could use a bookshop.

A brand new 4-store strip center just beyond the end of the “mile” of the Golden Mile (West Patrick St) had spots for lease.

Carl Sickles and I met with the owner—Ted Mercer—a dapper Frederick accountant. Carl’s presence gave the project credibility. If I’d done it on my own, I don’t think Ted would have risked renting me the 1800 square foot “bay.” After all, I was only 9 years old at the time!

(I’m lying. I was in my mid 20s.)

Carl took a chance on me. Ted took a chance on us.

We shook hands in the parking lot.

I agreed to mow the lawn there to help offset a bit of the rent.

We could begin moving in right away but couldn’t fully use the spot. It was an election year. Our spot was a temporary HQ for the Democratic Party. There needed to be space for a lectern and rows of folding chairs and boxes of pins and flyers and political ephemera.

It was ok. I worked around all that. After all, I was a hardcore Dem—just like my deceased parents.

The center had a High’s Dairy Store as the anchor. My space was next. A small furniture store—Dinettes Unlimited—would soon move in next to me. They sold…dinettes…mostly. The fourth spot was some kind of office. I can’t recall who or what. It seemed to be closed most of the time with its curtains drawn.

I’ve written some about the earliest days already, so I won’t go into things too deep again.

Getting a license in those days was easy. I just went to the courthouse and paid for one. There was no need for floor plans, business designs or other official documents. I just taped the license on the wall above the makeshift sale counter. I bought an Open/Closed signed and hung it from a suction cup stuck to the front door. My deceased dad’s battered green metal fishing tackle box was my cash register. Small receipts pads like restaurants used served as my transaction records. They had a carbon page. I’d write the title and the price and date. That data would be duplicated on the next page beneath the carbon.

I wonder what my state of mind was then?

There wasn’t worry or planning. I was on a mission. The first. My own enterprise.

It was kind of a dreamlike state, I think.

Just like this very minute I’m writing this is dreamlike.

But it happened. Just like this is happening.

It was constant work. In between the few customers buying or selling books, I would often be outside the back door in the rear parking area.

There was always raw #2 pine shelving. Saw horses. A Sears circular saw. Extension cord. I’d tie a canvas nail apron around my waist filled with 2 inch finishing nails. A hammer. Sheets of quarter inch thick lauan paneling. Tape measure. Anything else?

There was a bell suspended above the front door. If the saw wasn’t running, I could hear if someone had entered. I’d untie my apron and brush the sawdust off and go up to the front of the store to see what was going on.

When the books were bought or sold, I’d go out back to continue building bookcases.

I remember there was a problem with the pylon sign we had ordered. It wouldn’t come. I didn’t know anything about business, but I did know how to whine and complain. Without a sign on the storefacade and atop the metal pylon, we were invisible.

To the big corporate sign company CEO, it was just a little project. To me, it was survival. I recall being a little nasty. Maybe more than a little. But it finally was installed.

First Sign

I did it all on my own for a number of months before a regular customer became my first employee. He was a sci fi and mystery collector. He smoked a pipe. At the counter. All the time.

The customers smoked. There were ashtrays here and there throughout the store. There was a big one on the counter.

I quickly went to opening 7 days a week. After all, we paid rent every day of the month. There were Blue Laws, and I think I likely fantasized an excuse for us to be open. After all, we sold Bibles. If we were in violation of a Blue Law, no one said anything. Likely we weren’t noticed.

I hired my second employee—a tough as nails retired nurse with a heart of gold—she was a chain smoker too. She was very knowledgeable about books. Smitty.

It took some months before the store’s sales had a day when we were “over.”

Carl was a silent partner, but I would call him every day at closing with the sales figures. His stores in Montgomery County were always “over.”

One fine day when I called, I was able to tell him: “We are over!”

We had exceeded $100 in sales that day. Our total was “over” $100!

I learned how to calculate and file employee withholding. I had written their paychecks—by hand. My agreed upon draw was $150 per week.

When I wasn’t building bookcases, I would write pencil prices in the books on the front endpaper in the upper right-hand corner. Beneath that I would write a date code. That was a single letter. The letter represented a six-month period. My first six months were “G.” The second six months were “A.” The secret code was Galsworthy. G = 1. Y = 0.

(That was about the only good Galsworthy ever did me. His books were notoriously poor sellers.)

Here’s a book club copy of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead I sold in 1981. That’s my handwriting.

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What were my dreams back then? Survival, in the beginning.

When I felt I would survive as a very poor bookseller, my dreams turned to more books. Better books. More bookcases. More space. More …

(At that time, I was also a pretty “poor” bookseller as well—dealers who visited were often very happy with their finds.)

Soon the 1800 square feet was filled with as many bookcases as it could hold. I put bookcases in the back storeroom and opened that to the public.

That’s when I made a deal with Kenny Jacobson, the owner of Dinettes Unlimited. He was enormously fat and very short. But he was quite personable. His radio ads would say: “Come to Dinettes Unlimited and meet Kenny—the short fat good-looking guy. Our dinette chairs are so strong I can stand on their legs, and they won’t break!” Indeed he would often turn a wooden chair on its side and stand on its legs to impress a customer with the strength of his product.

He wanted my space, so he could sell baby furniture. Was it Baby Furniture Unlimited? He made an offer for me to move out. I moved the store a quarter mile west and now had 3400 square feet.

At the same time, I bought out Carl’s share of the business. He was quite happy with what I offered. He let me pay him over time. I called it the “Carl Loan.”

Carl told me I’d need to change the name of the store. The first choice was “Book Oasis.” I even had some pens made up with that name.

Somehow that felt inadequate.

I came up with Wonder. I’d had Wonder Books when I was a child. There was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Wonder Book. (My favorite edition is the one illustrated by Arthur Rackham.) Books certainly filled me with “wonder.” The word “wonder” was something that often came to mind when looking at the stars or the ocean…

And, once upon a time, I was a Wonder Boy.

It is dreamy thinking back to those days. So simple in retrospect. But intense constant invention at the time.

So, Monday will be 40 years in business. One foot in front of the other. One book after another.

There have been millions of books and thousands of people in the interim.

But the books have not changed. I don’t feel I have changed a bit.

The books abide. And I will abide with them.

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep—while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?


Mail…God Bless the Post Office.

They have a very difficult job.

Since COVID, we have had numerous mail problems.

We are refinancing our building, and the bank wants all kinds of info. (No blood samples yet.) They informed us in checking our records with the state that one of our entities—Merry & Pippin—is NOT in Good Standing with the State of Maryland.

(Merry & Pippin is the LLC that “owns” my warehouse. Merry and Pippin are also the names of my Jack Russell terriers.)

What does that mean?

I checked with our accountant. There is some return the state didn’t receive—Personal Property, I think.

I long, long gave up trying to keep up with the dozens of taxes and forms and payments the company must make biweekly, monthly, quarterly, annually… Payments to Maryland and, now 37 other states for sales taxes. Also, we have a few employees who live in nearby states. They all need extra forms filed. The city, county, federal government… agencies and agencies and agencies…

The accountant had a record of filing the missing return in March. Somehow the mail got lost, or the forms were misfiled. We went online (well, not ME personally, and refiled.)

I am proud to say we are now in Good Standing. I think…

I spent a couple hours in early summer trying to set up Auto Pay for my government health insurance. We filled out forms on paper and online. I took a certified letter down to the Post Office, stood in line and handed, in person, to a uniformed Post Office person across the counter. I got a notice a few days ago my insurance was in default. My certified letter may have gotten to the government, but I never got a return receipt. So, I spent another hour yesterday getting my premiums paid up. I’ll try to register for Auto Pay again next week.

Right before COVID struck, I was called by a PNC bank manager. A woman was trying to cash a check there for a couple thousand dollars, and the banker felt it didn’t look right. She texted me an image. Indeed, the payee info had been altered. We checked the number on the check, and it was for our electric company. It had been put in the mailbox outside our building the day before, along with 20 other checks. We assumed they had all been stolen and had to spend hours stopping payment and reissuing checks. The stop payment fees were $900.

Now we take all our important mail downtown to the post office.

The person who tried to pass the forged check is under investigation and will be prosecuted when COVID lets up some more.

COVID has certainly caused a lot of problems. It has also excused a lot of bad behavior—at least temporarily. We had 4 more attempts at forged checks from that event. Two got cashed. Two were caught by the bank. That person is going to be brought to trial sometime when police can start prosecuting that sort of stuff.

This week I got my mail-in ballot request at home. The State of Maryland will let me get a mail-in ballot if I wish. The two people I bought my house from in 2009 also got the same letters. They moved to Tennessee in 2010. I got junk for them for a couple years after that. Since then—nothing.

Mail-In Ballot Letters

But, just to be SAFE, the state feels these folks should get their chance to vote though they haven’t been Maryland residents for a decade.

Early voting started in Virginia today. You can go vote in person there from now until November—who knows—maybe even after.

Somehow, we no longer have “Election Day.” We have Election Season. I won’t be voting by mail. Too risky. I enjoy going to the polling place and casting my vote on the First Tuesday in November. If the day comes when I can’t get to a polling place, I’ll take my chances and request an absentee ballot. Until then, I’ll do my civic duty and vote on election day. Once.

Later today, I’ll go to the Post Office. I do every Friday now. Having our mail stolen was extremely time consuming and expensive.

Still, I love and respect the Post Office. I just have to be more careful now. There are bad people out there who are willing to do terrible things.

Tomorrow morning I will awake to a temperature outside of about 40 degrees.

Gone are the peepers—tiny tree frogs—screaming in the forest night during spring and early summers. The warm summer night “call and response” droning cadences of millions of cicadas is mostly silenced now. Some nights it can be so deafening. I’ll put tissue in my ears.

Now there’s the low drone of crickets out in the dark. And the katydids “song.” As it gets colder, that will lessen.

When will I light the first fire in the Vermont Castings Defiant woodstove?

That is an annual marker that measures time, puts things in context.

The first hard freeze will be in about a month. That will kill the tomato and pepper and sunflower plants.

There’s no stopping time.

Larry dropped off this large bust of Anubis this week. Among other duties, Anubis was responsible for changelessness—in embalming and the afterlife.


His work can seemingly stop time.

The books I touch every day stop time. They are changeless (with only a modicum of protection.)

That Norman Mailer that you saw above. It has not changed a whit since I wrote “250/A” in it in 1981.

I have not changed. I feel the same wants and needs. The longing. There’s still surprise in discovering exciting new books every day.

A friend sent me this big package. Actually, two of them.

Big Packages
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This Roberts had that Roberts many years ago.

I let that one go.

I won’t let this one go.

Until I have to—if ever…

Madonna in Woods

I finally got the concrete Madonna up into the woods about my home. She may or may not have saved my life a few weeks ago when I stepped on a rattlesnake. She was only a few paces away. Apparently this particular Madonna has power over serpents.

There’s no downside to belief.

Sometimes it helps—knowing there are things far greater out there.

Another week is ending.

Another season has ended.

Yesterday, I was quickly reviewing some of the books Annika had researched.

I barely glanced at this French book on “gout.”

Physiologie du Gout


The book leapt back into my hand.

“That’s Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste.”

It is perhaps the first and most important book on gastronomy.

He wrote: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.”

(He didn’t write: “Two cannibals were eating a clown. One asked the other: ‘Does this taste funny to you?'”)

Of course, Brillat-Savarin brings to mind my old “lover” MFK Fisher. She translated the book into English. She is also the greatest modern writer on gastronomy.

Tonight, I will search out a fine meal.

Likely alone.

I will drink and be merry.

Perhaps when I get home, I will take MFK to bed with me.

16 Comments on Article

  1. Geoffrey Hughes commented on

    Congrats on your milestone. Better than a kidney stone, despite the taxes & regs.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      I have had a kidney stone!
      Like a dagger in the gut.
      Taxes, regs … part of the game; playing field.
      I feel sorry for anyone starting out. At this point we have numerous people inside and out filling and filing…
      Thanks fro writing Geoff.
      Maybe Birchmere when we feel safe enough

  2. Gary Fowler commented on

    Thank you, Chuck. Always a great pleasure. I’m a lifelong bibliophile, retired 5 years ago from ministry and other work. Now finally able to “play with my books”: finding, reading, selling, giving away… Please stay healthy and safe!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you for reading and commenting Gary!
      Have fun with your books in hand and those to come.

  3. Ken Schultz commented on


    Congratulations on 40 years of saving books. When we moved to Frederick in May of 1981, your little store was one of the places we enjoyed. I am writing this from my study surrounded with books from Wonder.
    Also, we just watched the documentary “Booksellers”. Excellent! If possible, see the DVD version as the bonus feature interviews are great.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      That is a lot of history!
      Thank you for reading and writing and collecting books for so long!
      I will watch that soon!

  4. Michelle morales commented on

    Wonderful read. 😷

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thank you so much for reading it and commenting!

  5. Tawn commented on

    I like the Anubis homage to your friend Barbara. What will you do with all those bound issues of Time? The David Roberts Holy Land is a beautiful gift!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      Thanks Tawn!
      Holy Land was no gift!
      I appreciate your writing!

      1. Nancy replied on

        Has it been 40 years? Seems impossible, as that move north on the Golden Mile is still fresh in my mind. I remember we had a time limit to empty the first store. Someone kept yelling, “just dump them and bring in the next box!”
        In spite of that, I felt like a kid in a candy store. I still do whenever I visit. Very proud of you and your well deserved success.

        1. Charles Roberts replied on

          So many good memories!
          That first move is so vague in my mind for some reason.
          I’m looking for Scott – but doubt I’ll find a full Waverly in un-tiny print.
          Can I get you individual titles?
          Thanks for being there – then and now!

  6. Denise Horner commented on

    Congratulations on 40 years and best wishes for 40 more! It just wouldn’t be Christmas without a Wonder gift card in my stocking or Mother’s Day or my birthday either.

    Wonder has been my secret place to dream. about the future. Halloween costumes, birthday parties and Christmas decorations were inspired by Meredith Brokaw and the Pennywhistle series. Family trips to Disney or NYC or Virginia Beach started in the travel section and our retirement planning began with Suze Orman and Ric Edelman in financial.

    The cookbook aisle provided inspiration for thousands of packed lunches and family dinners. I met MFK Fisher at Wonder and then spent a summer with her. Mollie Katzen and the Moosewood Collective are always at Wonder too. Last fall we made the pilgrimage to Ithaca to dine at Moosewood.

    My life has been richer because of Wonder. Thank you for living your dream.

    P.S. I miss the free old book smell. The mask blocks it.

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      What a beautiful tribute Denise!
      I need to go to Moosewood!
      I fell in love w MFK there as well.
      There’s a blog I wrote about her. You can search if youre interested.
      I’ve been very lucky.
      Words like yours remind me of that!
      Thank you so much!

  7. Norv commented on

    40 TIMES AROUND THE SUN AS OF TODAY! YAY! Thanks for being there when I first moved to Frederick and, other than folks I worked with, I knew no one in town but felt welcomed amidst rows and rows and rows of books. Still regretting not buying Star Trek Anthology for $40 (or was it just $20?). Cash was too tight. Recalling that it was a book of synopses covering each episode of the original series. I close my eyes and still see the spine on your shelf. And I seem to be tasting French toast from the Candy Cane Restaurant down the street…. Happy Anniversary, and Many More!

    1. Charles Roberts replied on

      The Barbara Fritchie had great breakfasts…and soups…and pies!
      Thank you for being there for us all this time!
      Thank you for reading it and writing.
      PS It is a book lover’s mantra : “The only book you regret is the one you didnt buy.”

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