I don’t miss it…

It’s the first of February. That means I haven’t set foot in a Walmart in a little over two years now. So much for the idea that you can’t get by in rural America without the overawing presence of that particular big box establishment. In the age of online retail, the idea that any one business is indispensable is illusory, at best. 

I made my last trip to Walmart on the last Saturday in January 2020 – just as reports of a strange new virus circulating through the United States were beginning to heat up. It was a “stocking up“ trip. If I remember correctly, I ended up topping off the larder to the tune of about $300 of non-perishables and shelf stable products, laid in just in case things got weird.

I’ll never be a doomsday prepper. Once supplies of certain medications are depleted, my days are most likely numbered, so that relieves me of needing to plan for anything more than about six months of surviving in any post-apocalyptic hellscape.

I know there are plenty of people out here on the internet who are more than happy to tell you that you need a to have a basement filled with years’ worth of dry beans and rice and thousands of gallons of potable water. For 99.99% of any scenario most of us are likely to face, that’s probably multiple levels of planning past the point of overkill. 

Being ready to ride out something less than the complete collapse of civilization, though, just makes good sense. I mean why set yourself up to be caught out by a freak weather event, a temporary supply chain disruption, or the general uncertainty that seems to be the hallmark of life in and around the Great Plague era?

As for Walmart, I don’t miss it even a little.

Culling the stack…

Before I fell ill with whatever crud wore me down after Christmas, one of the major items I managed to knock off my to do list was culling the to-be-read shelves. You can count on one hand the number of times I’ve willingly let things fall out of the collection. Buy enough books over enough years, though, and things have a way of accumulating. Despite your best efforts, some of those things turn out to be real dogs. 

I’ve never been shy about buying a nicer volume to replace something I already have on the shelf, so some of them were duplicates I was happy to move elsewhere. Occasionally I’ll look at something occupying shelf space and realize no matter how much time I have, I’m never going to read it. I hate to admit it, but when you start approaching 2000 volumes in your average home, space starts to become something of a premium. That’s all a way of saying that even for me there are good reasons to sometimes get rid of books.

I filled the back seat of the truck with my culls and cast offs. I’d waited until the volume justified taking a minor road trip. The local shop might have offered a few dollars for the lot – hardly worth going there versus just donating the bunch to Goodwill. I don’t blame the local shop owner. He knows his business and that he’s the only game in town when it comes to buying used books. Judging from the unopened boxes sitting in his aisles and stacked in every foot of space the fire marshal will let him get away with, getting inventory is never a problem.

The trade off with taking my batch on the road is that I’m sure to spend far more filling the gas tank than I’ll recoup from selling everything I’m hauling with me. There was nothing special or rare in the mix and the return on most used books is pennies on the dollar. It’s just part of the obsession that you accept when you’re into it deeply enough.

Knowing I wouldn’t even recoup my travel cost was worth it though, to hand them off to a proper bookman at one of the great east coast used book shops. They’ll get most of these good reading copies placed into the hands of someone who will appreciate them. Better that than dropping them somewhere where they’ll inevitably end up turned to pulp in the hands of a paper recycler.At my level of collecting, it’s not about turning a profit. With the exception of a few high points, all I’ll manage to do is make sure most of the books here are able to survive another generation or two into the future. If I’m lucky, one or two of them might survive to have a bicentennial and find their way into the hands of someone who loves them like I have. That’s not bad compensation for the time, effort, and expense. 

Pondering on an Egg McMuffin…

Most mornings when I’m due in the office, I stop by McDonalds for an egg sandwich. I know, I know. Health implications aside, I’ve made a decision that I’d rather read a chapter or two before schlepping down Route 40 than spend that limited time making breakfast.

This morning I found the drive through inexplicably vacant. Pulling in to order, I wasn’t greeted with “May I help you,” but rather “Just so you know we can only do exact cash right now.” I’m assuming it meant I’d need exact change because their electronic payment systems (credit card, Apple Pay, etc.) were down. Networked payment systems go down, I totally get that, but as a matter of principle I wasn’t going to just round up the cost to the nearest dollar or worse, since the only paper money I had in my wallet was a $20 bill. Their prices are near piratical levels already and I can’t remember the last time they didn’t have a “We have no change” sign in the window.

I pulled away without my Egg McMuffin secure in the thought that there’s a Burger King not quite on my route, but close enough to not make a difference in the morning’s timing. Burger King, however, was closed this morning during what should have been about the peak of their breakfast rush. Lights off, drive through barricaded, and not a car to be seen in the parking lot. Looks like I wasn’t going to be getting a bacon, egg, and cheese Croissanwich, either.

After two strikes, the clock had run out on me, which meant heading directly to the office sans breakfast. It’s hardly the worst thing in the world, but it feels like part of the wider trend where everyone seems to be throwing up their hands, giving a shrug, and muttering “Eh, COVID.”

A year ago, I was pretty tolerant of stutter stepping and odd moments that went with figuring out how to live in a plague year. Here we are nearly two years in, though, and I’m not in any way convinced we’ve collectively learned anything. I mean how is there still a change shortage? How have nationally branded businesses not figured out how to, you know, do business… or at least keep the doors open during business hours?

The more gentle-minded among you will be tempted to tell me that everyone is “trying their best during this difficult time” or some other platitude. Based on my observation, I’m not in any way convinced that’s true… and even if it was, it just seems to me that after eighteen months of practice, everyone’s best should be a little better than it is currently.

Of scouts and resellers…

I go to a respectable number of book sales each year. It’s not an every weekend thing, but six or seven times a year, one catches my attention sufficiently to make venturing off the homestead for it potentially worthwhile. The ones I like to dig into are usually put on “friends of the library” or other organizations who specifically take in book donations – they’re specialists rather than “used stuff” generalists. If I happen to be passing by an estate sale or yard sale, I might stop out of curiosity. I don’t generally seek those out even when someone advertises “lots of books.” It seems my definition of “lots” is wildly different than the average person’s. Nine times out of ten, what’s on offer is a box or two of kids’ books or beat to hell paperbacks.

There used to be a breed of person who frequented these sales called a book scout. They knew their business. They knew their points, editions, conditions, and values and could evaluate a book on sight. The best of them seemed to have a sixth sense about whether there was real value in a book – whether even the newest ultra-modern was a $2 reading copy or a $200 first edition.

Time seems to be replacing proper book scouts by roving bands of resellers. They ply their trade online, making their money in arbitrage – buying for $2 and selling for $3. Their business seems to be one of volume over quality. They’re hell with a barcode scanner and figuring out the spread on Amazon. They collectively seem to know price, but not value. 

These resellers are in there like vacuums sucking up all oxygen in the room – sitting on the floors, sprawled out, making obstacles (if not spectacles) of themselves, trying to scan every barcode in sight. It feels tawdry somehow. There’s not a bit of old-fashioned book scouting about any of it. They surely passed over the $200 book I walked out with for $10 last weekend because it simply didn’t have a barcode to scan. It must be more cost effective to sell 200 books on a $1 margin, but there’s no soul in it.  

I don’t think these guys are evil. They wouldn’t be doing what they do if there wasn’t a market for the $3 book. Increasingly, though, I wonder if my days at the sales are numbered. At some point the sheer aggravation of dealing with them won’t be weighed out by the utter joy of making a real score. There’s a big part of me that would rather just pay a dealer something close to retail than continue to trip over 101 resellers.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. The cost of comfort. The cost of propane this winter is going to be stupid. By contrast, my electric bill in the winter is usually minimal. By my way of thinking, I could reasonably knock a degree or two off the thermostat if I just put a space heater in the office where I spend my telework days. It’s a fine idea. The office is a nice steady 68 degrees, which by my standards is perfectly comfortable. The problem now, predictably, is that every time I walk out of that particular room – to get a fresh cup of coffee or to make lunch – the rest of the house feels like wandering around a damned icebox. It’s downright unpleasant. I’m not at all sure this new cost saving scheme of mine will survive the arrival of actual winter. I suspect my desire for comfort and convenience will trump my aversion to paying overinflated fuel bills. The next major project here might just be scoping out what it will take to replace my current, elderly air conditioning unit with a heat pump to drive the operating cost of keeping the whole place warm down to something more reasonable.

2. Missing historical context. For some reason the algorithm keeps feeding me all sorts of articles in which people – usually the under 30 set – are opining about all of us now living in the era of a great reset. Most of their puff pieces seem to be based on the idea that some combination of the Great Plague, hundreds of thousands of jobs available, rising inflation, the collapse of the modern financial order under the weight of “late state capitalism,” and a litany of other leftist fever dream issues are the birth pangs of some kind of brave new world. Their earnestness is kind of adorable… but I can’t help but think they’re missing every shred of historical context when they decry their lives in “the worst timeline.”

3. An expired card. The card that I use to pay for basically everything online expired a couple of weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been on the receiving end of a near constant barrage of “card expired” emails when various companies have tried to push through their charges. Updating this information isn’t particularly hard and in most cases it’s not even all that time consuming, but it’s a bleeding nuisance. It really feels like one of those elements of online retail / bill paying that should have a much more elegant solution… and no, the answer shouldn’t be to just hand over my bank accounting and routing information and trust 20 or 30 businesses to keep it secure forever. 

The authentic experience…

It was pitch black when I left the house Saturday morning for my weekly supply run. These early morning trips for groceries started as a way of avoiding potential plague carriers swarming the supermarket later in the day on Saturday, but have long since become part of the normal rhythm of life. The draw of continuing to avoid as many people as possible is just too strong to ignore. 

My love of avoiding people in a retail setting, however, isn’t really the point. What struck me as the truck rolled down the driveway was an unexpectedly strong memory from childhood. If you didn’t grow up in a specific time and place, it’s not something that’s likely to mean anything to you… but for some of us, it’s a memory that’s almost formative. It’s certainly one of the earliest memories I have that isn’t in some way hazy. 

You see, a long time ago, southwest of Connellsville, Pennsylvania there use to be a shopping mecca called Pechin’s. I remember it from the early 80s. It was a time long before anyone in our part of Appalachia thought of big box retail – easily a decade or more before I saw the inside of my first Walmart. Pechin’s was, in a word, unique. They were a one stop, dirt cheap purveyor for groceries, meats, shoes, books, sporting goods, home improvement wares, baked goods, and an insanely cheap cafeteria lunch. Surely more that hasn’t stuck with me, but let me tell you, five- or six-year-old Jeff was obviously impressed with the place.

I remember distinctly the whole place having a pronounced rickety, held together with bailing twine and duct tape feel. I can’t imagine it would ever pass modern health and safety standards, but it was good enough for those of us from the back half of the last century. 

Why did this long-forgotten memory come flooding back on a Saturday morning in October? I’m guessing because all of those trips in the 80s involved piling into the car well before sunup, for the hour plus drive across Garrett County and into southwestern Pennsylvania. The early bird gets the worm and all that. 

The internet tells me that the original Pechin complex is long gone – done in by the death of the founder and driving force and later fully erased by fire – but that the name lives on in smaller, and surely less colorful stores. Somehow, I doubt today’s shoppers are getting the authentic Pechin’s experience.

I’m glad I did.

Another winter of discontent…

Remembering the fiasco of getting anything shipped between Thanksgiving and Washington’s Birthday last year, I’ve been in a bit of a race to pick up some books. It’s not that I’m in any danger of running out of things to read, but since I have a habit of picking up a series and then racing through it to the end, there are a few titles it’s going to be better to have on hand for when delivery services go absolutely sideways again this year.

Watching the supply chain struggle to not even keep up over the last year, it really feels inevitable that loading it down with the standard end of the year holiday surge will see the whole delicate machine grind to a near halt, if only temporarily. Products will still be flowing, of course, but there’s no guarantee that was moving through the network will be what you ordered. I fully expect basic delivery of goods to be almost unusable for a good part of the late fall and winter. Sure, I suppose your stuff will arrive eventually, but “timely service” isn’t going to be something to expect.

By this time next month, I’m planning to drastically curtail my use of online shopping and delivery. The sheer aggravation of waiting for weeks or months on things that should arrive in a day or two just isn’t worth it. I’ll draw down the stocks I’ve put up for the winter, or shop regional retail if it’s absolutely unavoidable. Now if I could just find the last book or two I’m looking for (at something less than fully-loaded collector prices), I feel like I could be all set to ride out another winter of discontent.

I’m not under any delusion that the supply chain will be completely untangled in 2022, but by the time the last Christmas card arrives in February or March, maybe last mile delivery will at least be usable for household basics again. I’m certainly preparing myself to see as much or more disruption than we did in in the closing weeks of 2000 and the first months of 2021. It’s one of those cases where I really hope I’ll be proven wrong and over reactionary… but I don’t think I am or will be.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Cicadas. I’m adding “cicada free zone” to my list of requirements for the day I start really assessing potential locations for retirement living. Here in my bit of woods they’re now loud enough to clearly be heard inside the house… with the television on and washing machine running. I’ve heard it said that people who live near Niagara Falls don’t even notice the roaring water. Maybe it’s true of cicadas too… but they won’t be around long enough to get used to… and in the meantime they may drive me perfectly mad.

2. One specific bookseller. I ordered three books from a reasonably well rated online bookseller on the west coast back on May 20th. On May 21st, they created a shipping label. After that there have been no further updates. As far as I can tell, there has been no movement on this order and the retailer has not responded to my inquiries about the status of my shipment. This morning I handed the situation over to the platform the retailer uses to facilitate sales and await their response on what resolution I can expect. I’m often willing to overlook misfires on random dollar paperbacks or reading copies, but with real folding money tied up in these particular books, I’m afraid I’m going to have to get belligerent.

3. Wait and see. I don’t have a brain that’s particularly well wired for patience. It’s a skill I’ve managed to teach myself, but not one that I’ll probably ever be entirely comfortable with exercising. I’m perfectly willing to sit through long periods of inactivity when there’s nothing that needs doing. That shouldn’t be mistaken for laziness, though, because when the bell rings and something needs done, I’ll come charging from my corner like the last angry man in America. I don’t like things that need doing when they linger about. There are times, though, where there are things that need doing and I lack the knowledge, skills, ability, or access to do anything about them. The ones where I’m nothing but a deeply interested observer are absolutely the worst of the things.

A rare bit of truth in advertising…

Today was my first planned “day off” in 2021. It was, in part, intended as a day to catch a deep breath before diving in to what are historically my most ridiculous two or three weeks of my year. It was also an opportunity to celebrate having all my shots and getting back to doing one of the few things I like doing that doesn’t involve staying home with the critters.

I didn’t plan a lot of these “one off” days during the plague year. A long weekend when things aren’t open or when going anywhere there might be people is ill advised felt a bit superfluous. Better to hold the days while I wait and see.

Today wasn’t actually the day I planned. I was going to troll through a couple of local used book shops, maybe do some antiquing, and call it a triumphant return to normalcy. A week or two ago, though, a friend inadvertently reminded me of a shop about an hour away that I’ve long had my eye on, but had never visited. What better way to note my newly acquired immunity than heading out to a new place?

The Baldwin Book Barn promises 300,000 volumes across four stories of a former dairy barn. A family run bookseller since 1938, I could hardly expect to find the dollar bin wonders I turn up from less specialized places. Still, the Baldwin’s place didn’t disappoint in any way. It was exactly as advertised in all respects. 

I walked away with half a dozen books – a few hole fillers, a few that drew my interest in the moment, and one rather nice 100+ year old history of colonial Maryland. A few others were a treat to hold and page through, but would have outstripped my merger book budget by about 1000%.

I got to spend the morning awash in a sea of books and as a bonus had a pleasant drive through southeastern Pennsylvania horse country. I’d be hard pressed to think up a better way to spend a Friday… even if it will take me weeks to recover from being in the same room with as many as ten people simultaneously.

What Annoys Jeff This Week?

1. Shady book shops. I’m not generally the kind of guy who walks around expecting something for nothing, but when I spy a deal, I like to snap it up… Which is what leads to the frustration of online booksellers who don’t realize they’ve underpriced a particular volume by about 2/3s of its actual retail price until someone comes along and tries to buy it. At least they were nice enough to immediately repost it for sale at a much higher price. That’ll be a hard pass from me. I’ll buy it from a competitor and even pay a bit more for the privilege since they’re not doing shady shit.

2. For reasons surpassing my limited efforts at understanding, my Twitter feed this week has been filled with posts saying something like “Stop doing x thing that makes y people feel uncomfortable.” Ok, I guess, except that in this little passion project of theirs we find that “X” is an absolutely normal, everyday activity and “Y” is some random bunch of wackjobs with perpetually hurt feelings. I assure you, if you’re planning to go through life expecting everyone to make you “comfortable,” you’re in for a great deal of both butt hurt and disappointment. But hey, good luck with that.

3. Friends. Friends are good things to have, I suppose. The simple fact of being a friend doesn’t, however, make you immune from criticism. At least it hasn’t in my experience. Some of my closest friends are the first to tell me when I’m heading off the rails. It’s not always a fun experience, but getting a third-party perspective has often served to be awfully instructive to me. If you’re looking for someone who will be nice just to be nice or who wants to go along to get along, I might not be the one for you… and that’s OK, too.