It is January 4, 2019.
This morning I stopped into my accountant’s office to pick up the checks. I signed a number of forms and checks for the various taxes and fees and other government necessities that were due. I’ve been going in to that building almost every other Friday for 35 years. Before that I calculated the taxes for the few employees I had myself. That would be impossible today. The complexity has become legend.
I can’t imagine starting a business from scratch today—with no experience. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been setting up sale tax accounts in over 30 states. Insanity.
Payroll Fridays: 35 x 26 weeks per year = 910 visits.
Occasionally I’ve asked someone else to pick up the payroll. But I’m sure with my other visits for various reasons, I have crossed that threshold over a thousand times.
I love the people there. They are old friends. But each time I go, it’s like a dentist visit. It will be expensive and it will hurt.
They connected two neighboring two-story bungalows and made them one building just as I began my relationship with them all those years ago. Otherwise, the building and routine has been virtually unchanged.
They mail the forms and the government checks for me. I can’t be trusted to do that myself. My life is a paper life. There are so many papers in this place it is easy to lose things. I’ve dissociated myself from external and internal accounting. There are people there and here that are much better at it than I. The thousands of forms and checks printed each year are set before me. I sign them and give them to people who will be sure they are delivered on time.
There are always two big brown manila envelopes. One contains the paychecks. One contains our office copy of that payroll’s accounting. That envelope has “Chuck only” written on it. It is about 30 printed pages detailing all the various expenses, deductions, contributions… It is important to keep employees’ finances confidential.
Back at the warehouse, I tear open the envelope and begin signing checks. Fortunately, I no longer need to sign the direct deposit paychecks. So I only have to sign the checks for the 30 or so Luddites who don’t use direct deposit. (That includes me.) Sometimes I’ll write notes of thanks to an employee or two or four who are departing. Sometimes I’ll write a note to someone I feel I need to communicate with that I don’t see very often.
There were 116 pay checks today.
Until I recently I reviewed the checks of each warehouse person and hand delivered as many of them as possible. Now there are too many. I give the upper management folks here their checks, but the rest are now double checked for accuracy and put into envelopes by two managers. They are separated into 5 piles. 1 for each of the 3 retail stores. 1 for the warehouse. 1 for checks that need to mailed or held because the employee is away or something.
The piles sort of look like this.
But the picture above doesn’t include the three stores’ checks. They have already left the building. Every Friday a van or truck is sent to each store with fresh books, movies, CDs, LPs to be stocked as well as supplies. The empty vehicle is left there for the weekend’s buys we make from customers. The drivers return with the vehicles containing books, movies, CDs, LPs … we’ve purchased from the public in the last day or two.
So, that is a typical payroll Friday. This one has been pretty smooth so far.
EXCEPT, one of the store managers just called to tell us that the keys were left at home and the store will open late today! I HATE that. Our posted hours are a kind of contract with our customers.
So, this biweekly payroll is done. I can start this Friday’s book story.
Yesterday, Thursday, I was acting on one of my New Year’s resolutions. I was putting some of the books stacked on the floor in my office into the government surplus glass-fronted bookcases. I was doing this to kill time and delay coming up with a subject for this blog. Maybe in the back of my mind I was hoping something in this room would click and inspire me.
Sure enough in one of the piles I found a manila envelope I hadn’t seen for a long time. But I recognized it immediately. It was mailed to me in 1990.
I was a young bookseller then. There was no warehouse. There was no internet bookselling. Business was good in the brick and mortar stores. We moved our original Frederick store in 1990. We had been in about 5000 square feet of 3 storefronts cobbled together at 1507 West Patrick St—in the Vienna Plaza. The Vienna Plaza is a small strip center at the far end of Frederick’s (once) Golden Mile. It is now occupied by Estrella Grocery, Deliciosa Bakery, Pearl Nails, Check Cashing, Thrift Angel, Dominican Barbers… Moving the store was a daunting project in 1990. We did it all ourselves. I recall pushing 6 shelf metal carts up the ramps at the back of a UHaul truck—often on the dark. We had gotten a great deal on a new space that the landlord was having trouble leasing at 1306 W Patrick. I think the country was in the midst of an economic downturn at the time. One of my main mentors, Maribeth Visco, had brokered a sweetheart deal. She was one of those who for some reason believed in me early on and talked powerful people into taking chances on Wonder Book. When she had first walked me into the empty space—it was bare concrete floors, cinderblock walls and exposed corrugated metal roof—I remember vividly saying to myself:
It was 11,000 square feet. Huge!
Somehow we pulled off the move with very little money as well as very little interruption to the business of selling books. We closed one day at 1507 and opened at 1306 the next. The move continued of course. It took a while to erect and fill all the new shelving we could put in.
“Are ye trying to create suspense or just mentally meandering?”
Ah, my Book Muse.
“Well, I’m just setting…”
“The stage. Aye. Yer one for stage setting to be sure. Better get it set before any audience ye might have abandons ye.”
1990…so long ago. Things seemed so modern then. I had started renting VHS (and Beta) movies in the 1980s. I did this for purely selfish reasons. The little video shops that existed then would not carry the types of movies I wanted to see. If I was “in the movie business,” I could bring in anything I chose.
“I’m almost there.”
Wonder Book (and Video) would try to be everything to everybody in books, movies, music, comics…—a kind of entertainment department store—mostly used product.
In addition to passions for movies, music and books, I loved collectible books. I was avidly building some favorite author collections like Robert Graves, Tolkien, classic English authors and fantasy and SF authors like Ray Bradbury for my personal library.
Like so many used booksellers, part of the appeal was in finding books for oneself. As I’d been told many times, there was no money in a used book career but at least you got first shot at the books.
Ray Bradbury… as a teenager he and Tolkien had been the authors who could take me places better than any of the others.
Ray Bradbury took me to Mars. The African Veldt. The terrifying dark side of carnivals and clowns. A dystopian future where “Firemen” burn books. I met a vagrant whose body was covered with tattoos. The man had been tattooed by a time-traveling woman. Each of the tattoos could come to life and tell a story. He told a fictionalized story of his life as a child in Dandelion Wine*. Many of those stories resonated with my own childhood memories—real or romanticized.
* The novel developed from the short story “Dandelion Wine” which appeared in the June 1953 issue of Gourmet magazine. The title refers to a wine made with dandelion petals and other ingredients, commonly citrus fruit. In the story, dandelion wine, as made by the protagonist’s grandfather, serves as a metaphor for packing all of the joys of summer into a single bottle.
In The Halloween Tree, he deals with a group of young boys who travel through time and eventually save a dying friend.*
* The children offer (the magician—Death) a year from the end of each of their lives in exchange for Pip’s return. He accepts the deal and gives each of them a piece of a sugar candy skull with Pip’s name on it to eat, sealing the bargain. Pip’s spirit then revives… The group is then immediately transported home. The children go to Pip’s house to see if the experience was real and are delighted to see him back from the hospital.
So Bradbury could take me to the past, the future, other worlds. The trips could be terrifyingly real or heartbreakingly evocative.
So, in the '80s and '90s, I would buy just about every videotape that I wanted to see myself—as well as bringing popular titles that might actually realize a profit.
I was also avidly seeking, buying and selling books from specialists. Usually, these booksellers would visit my store looking for books they could buy and resell for a profit. I didn’t mind. I was jealous of their specialized knowledge. But I was an avowed generalist—that is—I loved just about every kind of book.
The exact mechanics of how this all happened is shrouded in memory, but it was likely that Nelson Freck was involved and maybe one of his associates. Nelson is a bookseller who specialized in collectible SciFi, Fantasy Horror and Mystery books. Back then he was very active in that community.
(Nelson now does a great deal of book scouting for Wonder Book. He has #bookrescued 100,000s of books in the DC region that otherwise would not have gotten here. It is likely most of those would have come to bad ends had he not.)
In my efforts to acquire obscure VHS tapes, I dealt with small time movie sellers who would drive around from video store to video store and sell tapes from their trunk of the car. Their stock in trade was porn—which we did not carry—but they would also have used tapes and productions from small or obscure companies that the big distributors like Ingram and Baker and Taylor would not carry or simply overlooked. There were a few of these guys who would come by once a month or so. I would go out to the parking lot and bend in to the trunk of their car and start pulling out tapes and making a pile.
I haven’t thought about those guys for a long time. They were kind of like Yankee Peddlers. I recall one was named Sal or Mel. He was very short and hairy. He had a very strong New Jersey accent. A huge gold necklace dangled around his neck. This contrasted with the very furry chest exposed to just above his sternum because he kept the top few buttons of his brightly colored polyester shirt unbuttoned.
“These are from Canada,” Mel or Sal or one of them told me. “You can’t get them anywhere but me.”
He was pointing at 4 volumes of The Ray Bradbury Theatre new in shrink-wrap.
“I got these because they’re from books and look like the kind of cra… umm, stuff you like.”
Of course I bought them. I likely took them home that night and watched them before bringing them, back and prepping them for rental in the next few days.
So somehow Nelson or one of his cohorts noticed these and wanted to watch them too.
Somehow word got from them to Ray Bradbury’s bibliographer. Back then many collectors were “completists.” Completists would seek out any work by an author in any medium. Magazine appearances, radio or TV interviews … Ray and his bibliographer were completists. AND they had never heard that his TV series had been put on video. I suppose the Canadian company that produced the tapes went out of business. Maybe their mostly unsold tapes got destroyed. For whatever reason, for all any of the Bradbury experts knew I had the only copies of The Ray Bradbury Theatre extant.
I was contacted by Ray’s agent as well as his bibliographer. Would I be willing to sell them? Ray wanted to see them and have them for his own collection.
Of course I said yes. I was honored to have something a hero of mine wanted. I shipped them off to Manhattan or California. I sent them either gratis or at a very low price. Probably a low price. I couldn’t afford to give stuff away back then.
“The envelope? Have ye lost it?”
If I recall correctly, I included a fan letter to Ray. The tapes were sent to his agent. I was too shy to ask Ray directly, but I included a note to his agent telling him I collected first editions of Ray’s and it would be cool if I could get a dozen or so slips of paper with Ray’s signature which I could tip into those books.
Some weeks later a big manila envelope arrived. The return address read Muncie, Indiana. The stamps affixed were commemoratives of the movies Stagecoach, Beau Geste, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. I probably figured it was someone’s want list or catalog of books for sale.
But when I opened it and dumped the contents onto to my desk, a dozen little sheets of dandelion yellow paper spilled out. They fluttered onto my desk like flower petals. Each had my name and a crazy drawing and Ray Bradbury’s autograph scrawled on it in red marker.
“Ray Bradbury actually touched these and created these for me,” I thought.
There was also a signed photo and a typed signed note telling me that my fan letter was “touching.”
I was … awestruck. Those kind of things don’t happen in the provinces—like Frederick, Maryland.
(I wonder if I made a copy of that letter. If I recall, I said things like how much of my soul was touched by his words. That when I thought of autumn or carnivals or Mars … or the stars, life, youth, death … that very often there was much Bradbury in those thoughts. I’m sure I mentioned how lyrical and poetic his prose was as well. Bradbury the storyteller is a “bard.” His tales are just not prose. They are songs.*)
* When later asked about the lyrical power of his prose, Bradbury replied, “From reading so much poetry every day of my life. My favorite writers have been those who’ve said things well.” He is quoted, “If you’re reluctant to weep, you won’t live a full and complete life.”
So when I rediscovered the envelope yesterday and tipped out the contents upon the overstuffed green chair in my office, I was transported—to 1990, to my youth, to today…and tomorrow…and how many years more? 20, 30…
Maybe the future will bring a Bradbury-an like Fountain of Youth nostrum. That would certainly be a “Medicine for Melancholy.”
I addressed my muse: “There you are. Did I take too long to get to the envelope?”
“I am…fine. Just…just I’ve something in my eyes is all.”
A few years later, I was walking down the concourse to the BEA*, the huge bookselling convention was in LA that year. I’m pretty sure it was right after the riots and just before the OJ Simpson events. I sensed a presence walking a few yards behind to the side of me. I turned, and it was a little man with thick glasses and a goofy pile of white hair atop his head.
I’m so shy. I’m the type that would never impose. But he was alone, and we were going in the same direction. So I introduced myself and thanked him for his work. I told him about the tapes, and we chatted for a couple hundred yards until we got to the sprawling convention floor.
I can’t recommend any “one” of his books. I love them all—the early ones especially.
I can recommend you read Green Shadows, White Whale, his fictionalized account of writing the screenplay of Moby Dick while drinking, carousing and being bullied by John Huston during the filming in Ireland in the 1950s.
The film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 by Francois Truffaut is wonderful.
If memory serves, even the least of his short stories is transporting—so maybe that’s a good place to start. Any of his early short story collections can, if you’re like many Bradbury fans, take you many wondrous places.