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COAST, CENTRAL, AND NORTHWEST CITIES : SEAL BEACH

His Love of the Written Word Has Remained an Open Book

October 12, 1999|LOUISE ROUG

He opens the shop doors most weekdays contrary to market logic, defying chain stores and malls, and in defense of reading.

Nathan Cohen owns the Bookstore on Main Street, one of the few remaining independent booksellers in Orange County, and the only bookstore in the city.

But not for long.

Barnes & Noble plans to open a store in a proposed development less than a mile away. A group of residents has protested the project, but the 77-year-old bookseller isn't worried. His store has made its imprint on the city for almost two decades. "I'm not in competition with Barnes & Noble," he said. "Most of my books are out of print. It's the small independent stores that sell new books, who don't stand a chance."

Cohen began reading and collecting books while he was working as a merchant seaman. Coming ashore in Seal Beach 18 years ago, he decided to combine his retirement with his love of books.

"The sea, it's the best place to read," Cohen said. "There's no place to go, and you have all this time."

Most of Cohen's 35,000 volumes are secondhand paperbacks, priced under $2. But there are exceptions.

His first edition of "Chamber Music" by James Joyce could fetch as much as $7,500.

Another prized possession is "The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid," written by Pat Garrett in 1882, shortly after he shot him. Cohen found it in a thrift shop in Las Vegas, N.M., and paid $20 for the book estimated to be worth $4,000.

Cohen's oddest vintage is a sober one, He paid 25 cents for the 1939 first edition of the Alcoholics Anonymous handbook. "It's worth $8,000. It's money in the bank," Cohen said.

'When you find a rare item, it's a thrill. Like . . . hunting for precious metals or antiques."

The gems, however, are not for sale.

"The books are almost sensuous," he said. "The thrill of having them in my possession. It's a little bit sick, but I am a collector."

Cohen no longer has time to look for rare books. Instead, he employs three book "scouts," freelancers who fill the few holes in Cohen's otherwise overburdened shelves.

Mary Treadway, 64, said she had been browsing the dusty racks almost weekly for a decade. "The place is intrigue and history," she said. "It's fun to shop here. He's got everything."

Between the shelves where Nabokov has, appropriately, found the company of A.M. Homes and John Updike has found the company of John Updike, Cohen smiles.

'My life is an open book."

*

Louise Roug can be reached at (714) 966-5977.

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