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.
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.
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.
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.
So here we are heading into the end of March. It’s been a full year since I made the last grand sweep through my normal haunts in search of just a few more books to top off my shelves. Not knowing when I’d get back into the shops – or whether the shops would be able to stagger through closures and restrictions – I risked a last book buying binge when COVID-19 positivity in the region was first taking off. Since then, I’ve limited myself to what I could find online not listed at absurdly retail prices.
I’m happy to report that this week, I’ve shuffled in the paperwork for the first bit of vacation time in 2021. I’m still trying to hold back most of my leave this year for after the inevitable Operation Return to the Office, but burning off a day to reacquaint myself to scouting books in the wild fells like time well spent… and just about the only reason I could gin up enough interest to leave the house with or without the Great Plague.
I think this preliminary outing will be a bit of relatively close to home scavenging. There are (or at least there use to be) five or six spots in a 20- or 30-mile radius that regularly produced quality finds during the Before Time. That should be sufficient to scratch this very specific year-old itch for the time being. I’d like to go on a real ranging tour of some of my favorite shops, but that will probably have to wait until I have a bit more time built into the schedule. June and July will offer plenty of blank calendar space for searching out some of those more far-flung destinations.
I promise, this post isn’t doing justice to how thrilled I am at the prospect of once again pawing through shelves and containers of cast-off books. Yeah, I’ll still be bothered by the mask, but expecting people to stay at least six feet away from me is the kind of new normal I’d be perfectly fine hanging on to forever, so it’s a bit of a tradeoff there. I could have been out doing this all along, but shlepping out for books, didn’t rise to the level of essential business in my estimation. Much as I love spending time in whole buildings full of books, the possibility of being strangled to death by my own lungs was more of a price than I was willing to pay
After giving my booster the requisite two-week soak time, though, I’m willing to test my luck. Risk of minor illness is a far more tolerable gamble from my perspective.
1. Dinner time. After eight months of mostly working from home, I can report faithfully that there are many things that annoy me about days I have to go to the office. I could fill whole steamships with that particular list, but I currently find none more objectionable than the fact that on days when I’m in the actual office, dinner is not on the table promptly at 5 PM. I’m just assuming I’m finding that more onerous that usual because we’re racing towards the winter solstice and the early evening darkness shades just about everything these days.
2. Canine behavior. For two days this week, Jorah was inexplicably afraid of going outside. He’d get to the door and freeze, tail tucked and hunkered down. Given the great speed at which he would normally race out the door and cut a muddy swath through the yard, kicking up clods of earth in his wake, you can say it’s a highly unusual situation. I’ve spent most of my adult life with dogs, but I’m not sure I’ll ever firmly grasp what they’ve got going on between those furry little ears sometimes. I’m sure, whatever the reason, it made perfectly good sense to him at the time.
3. Black Friday. I’m getting a metric shit ton of ads for Black Friday sales. Is Black Friday shopping even still a thing? I mean even before the Great Plague, there weren’t many deals at a brick and mortar location that couldn’t be equaled or bested online… and in those few cases where it couldn’t, the convenience of having the item dropped directly on my front porch beat the marginal extra cost every time. Now, here in throws of a plague year, I’m amazed at the pretense that stores and malls will be filled with eager shoppers still waddling off their 7500 calorie Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe I’m misreading the room, but as far as I’m concerned 2020 is the year of “if I can’t find it online, preferably with two day delivery, I don’t want it.”
1. The hunt. Sure, there are a few other minor annoyances, but the part of the before world that I probably miss most often while living in a plague year is regularly hunting for books. I’ve filled that particular gap by rounding out a couple sets and picking up some harder to find titles through online orders, but waiting for something to arrive in the mailbox lacks the more visceral element of finding just what you were looking for “in the wild.” There’s something special in finding that clean first edition or autographed copy laying at the bottom of the bargain bin or in someone’s yard sale clearance. I’m still gad that there’s a first edition/first printing of The Last Kingdom finally headed my way, but paying full retail and shipping definitely rankles.
2. Bloody wankers. My personal politics have always tended towards the conservative and/or libertarian. There are currently, though, whole swaths of people in that general demographic that I no longer know how to talk to. We may agree on issues of taxation, personal liberty, defense policy, and a host of other issues – but if you start any conversation or social media post proceeding from the proposition that science is in some way “out to get us,” I don’t know that we have anything further to say to one another. Science isn’t a fixed body of knowledge inherited from the ancients, unchanged and eternal. It’s an ongoing process of testing, probing, and adjusting to new facts as they develop. If, as we sit now in July, your argument against science is “that’s not what they said in March,” please just stop talking now before everyone near and dear to you realizes you’re a bloody wanker.
3. Waiting. There’s a skill to being able to wait patiently. It’s not a gift I’ve ever had, but I recognize that it is one. One of the hardest aspects of largely being able to set my own agenda over these last four months is clearly that I respond even more poorly than usual what all that’s left to do is sit around waiting for something to happen, particularly when the results are completely dependent on the actions of others.
I spent the day Thursday scouring the dark recesses of used book shops. I didn’t find any treasures, but made off with a fair few reading copies of things that looked interesting. I spent the night Thursday reading books and dispensing ear scratches between three critters.
It’s becoming increasingly obvious to me that my natural calling in life was to be a used book shop owner. Then, of course, I remember that particular line of effort would mean daily interaction with customers, who I would in no way be able to treat as “always right.” Putting me anywhere near the general public could only result in disaster for everyone involved.
So this week I learned the thing I’m probably most suited to do by inclination is something I’m utterly unsuited to do by temperament.
1. Suppression of civil liberties. See a lot of news articles that include a one liner that “There is concern that the response to COVID-19 impinges on civil liberties,” but I rarely see the next sentence. I almost never see the sentence after that. Where’s the follow-on discussion to that statement? Government absolutely must respond to this as a public health crisis, but responding doesn’t mean that citizens forgo all other rights and freedoms under the Constitution. If it does, I have no idea why we’re bothering to keep anyone alive anyway.
2. Platitudes. I’ve seen a veritable cornucopia of blog posts and status updates positing in a variety of ways “in these troubled times we should just all be kind.” Bugger that. It’s in troubled times that we collectively and individually need to knuckle down, handle our business (whether it’s personal or professional), and do the hard work of living. In the face of troubles is the very last time we should find ourselves curled into the fetal position having a never-ending cry. If ever in our life there was a time to embrace the stiff upper lip of our forbearers, this would be it.
3. Unresponsive retailers. I’m doing my level best to keep small bookshops afloat during the Great Plague. I’m channeling a fair amount of money through online shops around the country and across the water because I value these businesses and want as many of them as possible to come out on the other side of this thing. Now having said that, my great love of small booksellers doesn’t mean I’m going to overlook all the old forms. I still need them to respond to email when an order doesn’t seem to have budged in almost three weeks. Even a simple “Hey, we’re closed up momentarily while the plague passes” would be sufficient. Failing that, I have to start getting the people who run the sales platform involved in a customer dispute cause us all a bunch of grief that could have easily been avoided.
In tense and uncertain times there’s a tendency for all of us to look towards our own personal bubble of responsibility. That’s not a bad thing. Taking care of kith and kin first feels like it could be our oldest instinct.
There’s no point in denying that some people are going to die as a direct result of this virus. Not acknowledging that would be foolish and wrong. For most of us – the vast majority – coronavirus could well end up being not much more than a monumental inconvenience – a way point in life we’ll use to measure other moments against. Twenty years from now we’ll ask whether something happened before or after COVID-19 the same way we do now with September 11th.
That’s all a prelude to saying sooner or later we’ll all get back to living “normal” lives, with the rhythm of nights out, family gatherings, and well stocked supermarket shelves restored. If you accept that there will be a return to normalcy, you owe it to your future self to spend some time thinking about what you want that future world to look like.
In that spirit, I went online last night and placed a few orders for books that have been lingering on my “to read” list. It was nothing crazy – Just four orders each costing less than $15. Each one of those sales went to small, independent book shops. It’s a niche market to be sure, but one I have a vested interest in preserving through the current economic uncertainty. For these small businesses, every dollar coming in will matter as they fight to make good on their rent or finding a way to keep paying their staff. Keeping these businesses alive is important.
Those who have the ability to do so have an obligation to make sure the smalls, locals, and independents are still alive and kicking when we return to normalcy. You’ll regret it if we don’t.