A photo of three smiling young men in barrister wigs, seemingly preparing for a theatrical production. A piano student’s report card with a scrawled note suggesting the pupil play “the soft chords at the beginning just a little bit longer.” Letters sent in 1962 from a lovesick college student planning a reunion with his girlfriend.
The items sit in boxes of “ephemera” for sale at Wonder Book in Gaithersburg. The material—much of which probably was never intended to be seen publicly—was found in books that were donated or sold to the used-book store. “We find money, we find locks of hair, we find pressed roses, love notes…all kinds of weird stuff,” Wonder Book owner Chuck Roberts, 66, says. “A lot of it is junky trash stuff, just clippings from newspapers and cartoons that people cut out. But other things either have value or just are evocative and cool.”
Wonder Book also has stores in Frederick and Hagerstown, but the Gaithersburg shop, which opened in 2008, is the only one with a section dedicated to items found in books. “I decided, why not try to create an ephemera section?” says Vanessa Dai, who recently left her job as the store’s manager and now oversees the shop as a consultant. The first collection was placed on an empty shelf in the crafts section in early 2020, just before the pandemic caused the store to close temporarily.
The ephemera boxes—filled with personal notes, vintage photos, postcards and greeting cards, among other pieces—are restocked about every two weeks with items collected at Wonder Book’s Frederick warehouse, which contains about 4 million books. Staff members check each book that arrives for loose items stuck between pages, occasionally finding more valuable things, such as the recent discovery of what appears to be a handwritten manuscript by renowned writer T.S. Eliot, according to Roberts. The items then get shipped from the warehouse to the Gaithersburg store, where the selection ranges from recent bestsellers to cookbooks. Passionate about preserving these mementos, Dai has taken the boxes of ephemera home to sort through them.
“It hurts to have to throw someone else’s memories away like that,” she says. “Whatever ends up going into that shelf, the little nook, is what I want to share, what I think people would love to get their hands on.”
The store places the more valuable items it recovers from the used books, such as prints from worn volumes or other salvageable material, like sheet music, in plastic sheaths that are tacked to the walls, Roberts says. The ephemera, though, are “oddball things that people stick in a book, thinking they’ll come back and find it. And then they forget about it and it’s stuck in the book for 100 years,” he says.
Wonder Book leads several book-rescue initiatives that involve reselling, donating and recycling copies. The items hung on the walls, which Roberts calls “bag-and-hangs,” and placed on the ephemera shelf are part of those rescue missions. “We take in things nobody else wants,” he says. “We’ve done it all along, but not to the extent that we’re doing it now.”
Roberts says the store decides carefully which items it will sell. “There’s certainly things that we won’t mess with, like recent kids pictures or stuff like that, and those we end up just tossing away if we can’t find the owner,” he says. “Some things are just too personal to put out there.”
Old maps, travel brochures and handwritten recipes have been among the section’s best sellers, Dai says. Items are priced from $2 to $7. Because they are difficult to quantify, Roberts says, the store doesn’t sell them online with its other products. Rather, the preservation of ephemera is a labor of love. The people in the photographs tucked into a book were “alive and real at one time and now [are] gone,” he says. “These pictures might be the only thing that’s left of them.”
Collectors or crafters looking for scrapbook materials frequent the ephemera shelf, but the collection mostly catches the attention of serendipitous browsers. “You may be going in looking for To Kill a Mockingbird or something,” Roberts says, “but then you walk by and something will catch your eye and you say, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’ ”