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A Bookworm's Passion Collapses Around Him

July 20, 1986|Jerry Griswold | Jerry Griswold is the author of "Randall Jarrell's Children's Books," to be published next year by the University of Georgia Press.

SAN DIEGO — During last Sunday's earthquake, 87-year-old Anthony Cima was buried under the 10,000 books stacked in his one-room apartment at a downtown hotel in San Diego. He was found 12 hours later by neighbors and firefighters who spent nearly an hour digging him out. Cima was admitted to the UC San Diego Medical Center in critical condition; hospital officials say that he is improving and is now listed in fair condition.

I felt an immediate kinship with Tony Cima when I first heard his story; he had lived through a nightmare I had when, as a child, I first started collecting books in Seattle on a high, rickety bookshelf at the foot of my bed. Perhaps Cima's experience is every book-lover's nightmare.

There are no special instructions for bibliophiles in the earthquake preparedness information at the front of the phone book. So Cima's peril made me look about the house to think of books as objects, their heft and numbers. I've always been amazed to visit model homes and see how interior decorators created the "lived-in" look by placing just a few books on the shelves. In my home there are books on the coffee table, in the bathroom, linen closet, kitchen drawers and upstairs cabinet; a bookshelf stands next to a toy chest in my son's room and an opened novel lies on the bureau in my daughter's room; in the spare bedroom upstairs stand two overflowing bookshelves; in the other bedroom, there are books on a dresser, table, and two nightstands (the drawers of which are filled with travel books). An event, like the one that befell Cima, makes visible something that is otherwise invisible and taken for granted--how books surround us: novels, non-fiction, cookbooks, dictionaries, atlases, computer manuals, even phone books. One large area of my own collection holds books with advice on living with few possessions. That amuses my wife.

She would understand Tony Cima, knowing me. When we travel, I veer off to libraries and bookstores--even the outlets of bookstore chains in shopping malls can provide a kind of methadone for book lovers. On a recent trip back East, I headed first to Cambridge. It is a town that has "subsided," sunk a foot in the last 50 years, I suspect because it houses so many book collections. But it is a place where I can browse, a Shangri-La of new and used bookstores.

Cima is also an inveterate browser and collector, Chuck Valverde, the owner of Wahrenbrock's Book House, told me. Valverde knows Cima well--a neatly dressed and groomed man with a two-wheel grocery cart who always investigated the bargain table in front of the store and who made regular visits to other downtown book dealers and thrift shops. "He buys all kinds of books--fiction, non-fiction, histories, Reader's Digest condensed books, textbooks, Book-of-the-Month Club books--but he tries never to spend more than $3 on any one.

"He's sharp," Valverde continued, "I don't think he's ever bought a duplicate, and he has more than 20,000 books--in a rented storage area and in his room."

Cima's 12-by-12-foot room in the Hotel Monte Carlo is a revelation of bibliophilism: 10,000 books stacked four-deep up to the ceiling, only a pathway through them to the small center where his bed is. There is little else. But his neighbors speak of a man who is unusually generous, ever ready to make a small loan to needy friends. And they talk about a small gentleman who always sat reading near an open door because it was the only place where he had enough light--and room.

Cima told friends that he fell in love with reading when he had to leave school in the seventh grade to work in the coke yards of Pennsylvania. He eventually bought all the volumes of the Harvard Classics and read them twice because he realized they were "a gold mine of information." His buying, nearly 50 volumes a week, really accelerated after his wife died several years ago.

I wish he had met my great-aunt Helen. He would have made an ideal companion to this wonderful lady, who lived by herself in a Seattle apartment, surrounded by stacks of books. She, too, had a small path through them--and a revolver. One day she took her ancient six-shooter down to the police firing range to try it out; an officer, perhaps wary of the armed and wobbling elderly woman, offered to show her how to shoot targets. She brought a target home and put it on the wall, a warning to the intruder she always worried about, the one who would steal her books--she had little else.

After a few years, Aunt Helen had to move to a retirement home. Her glaucoma made it difficult to read unless she tilted her head and looked out of the corner of her eye. She was ready to put up with this inconvenience but she didn't like the fact that the bookmobile only came once a month. Cima would have sympathized.

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