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Around the Foothills

She has learned that the highest joy of literature is in sharing.

September 06, 1990|DOUG SMITH

There is a back yard behind a small, maroon-trimmed house in the lowlands of Los Feliz where 300 boxes of books are stacked on a plastic sheet that protects them from the moisture of the earth.

The owner of the house, Alyce Miller, cares not that this arrangement will soon kill whatever is left of her lawn.

"It already has," she said without remorse. "You have to have priorities in life."

When she moved into the house on Melbourne Avenue last September, Miller brought with her a personal collection of 20,000 books. She has already stashed them on bookshelves constructed down the middle of her garage. The books on the lawn are newcomers, all having arrived since the rainy season.

People drop them off in her driveway a few at a time or by the box.

Eight books even came by messenger from a lawyer.

"They all feel great about doing it," Miller said.

The books on the lawn are sorted and priced, from 25 cents to $25.

This Saturday and Sunday, Miller and friends will rent 30 tables and spread the books out on her front yard and driveway by category. There will be classics, science fiction, romance, cook books and children's books, plus a smattering of special topics such as World War II.

It will be the second book sale of the Friends of the Los Feliz Library since Miller formed the group.

Shortly after abandoning her longtime roots in the San Gabriel Valley--to be nearer to her four grown sons--Miller walked into the library.

"I said, 'Do you have a Friends group?' and they said, 'No.' I said, 'OK, let's do it.' "

The first sale, in May, netted $1,300, about four times the take of the usual library sale. Part of Miller's success can be attributed to her clientele--a mixture of wealthy and literate homeowners in the Los Feliz hills and the avant-garde community of artists and writers on the flatland. She can't help bragging that she failed to sell a single Harlequin or Western.

More to the point, though, is Miller's credo--that books belong in the hands of those who want to read them.

She reads eight books a week herself and sleeps but two hours a day because, she says, sleeping "is such a waste of time."

She has learned that the highest joy of literature is in sharing, she says.

Some of her favorite acquisitions are the coverless or water-spotted books. They go in a large box marked "free" where the homeless browse.

"I've had them come to my door and say how much it meant to them, clutching their books," she said. "And I'll see them . . . sitting there reading a book on chemistry. Who knows, that guy might have been a chemist. How are we to know?"

Even more precious are donations from people who loved their books so much they had to pass them on.

"They'll say, 'Oh, this book was so wonderful! I just want somebody else to feel what I'm feeling.' "

And that brings us to the 28 boxes of books stacked in Miller's living room when I visited her last week. They were bequeathed to the Friends by Clark Hughes, an architect who lived nearby on Dracena Drive until his death two Tuesdays ago. The Reno book dealer Hughes named as executor and the Truckee woman he left his estate to flew into town immediately to deliver the books by car, accomplishing Hughes' first wish.

"This was his thing," Miller said, thrusting her loose floral shift against the boxes and spreading stout arms around them in a rapturous hug. "The love of his life was his books."

By agreement with the estate, Miller will select a few to be imprinted with Hughes' name as part of the library's collection.

Like a scattering of the ashes, the rest will be sold this weekend. Miller's preliminary assessment of the books' value is $12,000.

"I haven't had books quite like this before," she said, growing eager for a luscious day of sorting and pricing.

She popped open a box and pulled out "20,000 Years of World Painting: a Comprehensive Historical Survey from Cave Painting to Modern Art."

"This would be so thrilling to somebody to have in their house," she said. "It's hard to go out and buy a book for $100."

She's hovering at $25 or $30 for it. And, for someone who really wants it, she may come down.

"I want to make money for the library, I have to keep reminding myself," she said. "But we want to put books in people's hands. We want to make it so people can buy them."

Miller believes that a book exerts a moral force on its owner.

She cites the two men at her last sale who kept reaching for the same books, scowling at one another.

Later, one told her that they had ended a tiff of 20 years that day.

"He said 'we saw we were picking out the same books and remembered how much we missed talking to each other.' These are the kind of things that make life worthwhile."

This weekend, with Hughes' collection on her tables, Miller's joy will be curtailed only by the new worry his books raise--the dealers who will show up early Saturday looking for steals.

"They'll give me my price," she said, derisively. "But then they'll go out and put it out of peoples' hands. That aggravates me."

If it comes to that, stand clear!

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