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AFTER THE RIOTS : A Sad Chapter : Fire Destroys Much of a Valuable Rare Book Collection

May 14, 1992|LARRY GORDON | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Amid the pawnshops and doughnut counters of his Mid-Wilshire neighborhood, art restorer John Knipe created his own private world, a cultured cocoon of antique furniture, fine paintings and rare books--probably about 8,000 books, stuffed onto pine shelves the former Oxford University history instructor built in his rented duplex.

His nine-room apartment seemed several eras and a continent away from the hectic Latino and Korean street culture beneath his windows. That is, until an unfinished apartment building next door on New Hampshire Avenue was set ablaze two weeks ago in the chaos that followed the verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating.

The flames jumped the alley, bringing the horrors of modern Los Angeles into Knipe's genteel retreat. The fire destroyed or terribly damaged about 6,000 books, treating the collected works of Milton, Shelley and Sir Thomas More no differently than the floorboards.

"I'm amazed at myself. I haven't had a good cry about this yet," said Knipe, 49, his crisp, upper-class British accent intact.

And no, he had no insurance, he explained, for his estimated $200,000 worth of lost books and antiques. In the 13 years he has lived there, he has had no trouble, not even a break-in, on a street with its share of drug-dealing.

Knipe's loss, of course, is just one small slice of the recent destruction. In the book community, arson fires destroyed about 50,000 volumes at two temporary branches of the Los Angeles Public Library, as well as about 7,000 uninsured volumes, worth about $300,000, at the Aquarian Bookshop, an African-American landmark near the Coliseum. The same fire that burned Knipe's collection also left a dozen or so families homeless in his neighborhood.

Still, Knipe's story is unusual, said Mary Morris, a volunteer docent with him at the Central Library downtown. She described his apartment as "exquisite" and "totally incongruous with the neighborhood. It was a different world in there, and he created it."

Jerry Weinstein of the Heritage Book Shop, an antiquarian store on Melrose Avenue, visited Knipe a year ago and bought some travel books from him. "It was a nice, working private collection. And it was not a decorative collection. He had read most of the books," he said.

Weinstein recalled being concerned about Knipe's location. "Most of the quality collections are on the Westside or in the Valley. There are not that many on the Eastside or South-Central," Weinstein explained. "He seemed like a man out of time and place being there."

Windows are gone in Knipe's apartment. Much of the ceiling has collapsed. Antique furniture has been reduced to blackened skeletons. Leather-bound books are fused from heat. Singed pages are scattered everywhere. The stench of smoke is inescapable, even two weeks after the inferno.

As Knipe calmly guided a visitor through the shambles, one got the sense of an unflappable professor leading a tour group through the ruins of a bombed English cathedral during World War II.

"The dictionaries were there," Knipe said, pointing to burned bookcases in his main library room. Strolling through rubble, he pointed out more damage: "The travel books were there, the cookbooks there. Gone." He paused by a shelf with remnants of 23 volumes of the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. "He didn't make it," Knipe dryly said.

Also ravaged, he said, were a 1527 collection of Latin writings by St. Basil of Caesarea, "bound in the original white goatskin"; a 1553 history of England written in Latin and bound in brown leather; a limited 1932 edition of Sir Thomas More's essays.

His collection of works by the Brontes is a mess, Shelley is in ashes, and Pope's 1802 translation of Homer seems beyond repair.

Histories and biographies lining hallways and rooms farther away from the arson site fared better. In his dining room, Knipe dusted off a lushly illustrated volume of "Country Seats of Great Britain and Ireland" that remains in good condition.

"One can run down a list of things one's sad about. But on the other hand, one saw what had survived and was grateful for that," he remarked. He is especially glad that he was able to run out of the burning apartment with three paintings he is restoring for their owners.

Son of an American diplomat and a British mother, Knipe began collecting books as a child in England. He studied history at Oxford, earned a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin and then taught at Oxford. An American citizen, he settled in Los Angeles in 1978 and began to work as an art restorer for auction houses and private clients.

One client was Dr. Frances O'Malley, widow of UCLA history professor C. D. O'Malley. Knipe became friendly with her and eventually inherited the O'Malleys' large library. Those books were added to his own growing pile, so impressive that it was used as background for a television movie scene set in the study of a learned rabbi.

To protect what remains, Knipe is sleeping in the apartment, even though it has no electricity. At night, he reads by flashlight in a mahogany four-poster bed, as a ceiling board weakened in the fire hangs above him precariously. In the morning, he goes to a friend's apartment for a shower and a pot of tea.

A Fire Department spokesman said the fire, like thousands of others in the city, has not been investigated yet. Knipe, meanwhile, is preparing to sort through his books and probably will move out salvageable volumes during the reconstruction planned by his landlords.

Despite his losses, Knipe insists he still likes the neighborhood. He wants to return to his retreat, he said, explaining, "It was very peaceful. It was my own world."

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