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Friends Offer Final Words for Bookseller

Nathan Cohen, 78, was an 'angel' of printed material. His June 5 death leaves a gap in Seal Beach literary life.

June 18, 2000|MATTHEW EBNET | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His bookshop was like a magical land of stories and dreams and books and myths, piled taller than the tallest men. But those who knew him say it was Nathan Cohen, the store's owner, who somehow was the sum total of all those tales.

And that mostly is why people say they stepped into his Seal Beach Bookstore on Main Street. They were there less to peruse the stacks than to be near the man they call the "angel of the books."

Crying softly and telling stories to commemorate what he was to Seal Beach, nearly 200 people gathered at Eisenhower Park to remember the book keeper, who died June 5, one day into his 78th year, of a heart attack.

The mourners took turns at a podium, trying to capture the essence of a man who, residents say, was a gentle spirit of a city. Nobody felt his or her stories--of witty banter, of silent moments with a man they considered wise--could do it. But the mourners commemorated Cohen's death anyway with flowers and pictures and poems and a shrine at his shop, hoping to do him justice.

Cohen's family doesn't plan to keep the store open.

"His bookstore was my church," said Laurie Buenafe, who once moved to Seal Beach for more than two years, just to be close to Cohen.

Buenafe, who now lives in Westminster, said even though Cohen tended a shop full of printed words, there are none to describe him now that he is dead. "People felt like he watched over them from his store. He was an angel to me."

Mike Grant, who lives in Westminster, had come to Cohen's shop for 18 years, mostly just to sit around all the books and listen to Cohen talk about them, suggesting a good read, withholding the bad ones.

Grant said, "I had heart surgery because of a blood clot, and the other week we made a deal that I would die first. I couldn't go on living without his shop. Then he died. It was probably the only deal he ever broke."

Many said they have similar feelings, that their lives, and Seal Beach, will not be the same without Cohen. Cohen's store held 35,000 secondhand books and was a landmark on Main Street for 18 years. He said he had thousands more stored in nine garages.

Residents and visitors said they went to his shop looking for something, sometimes a book, sometimes a quiet place to rest their feet and listen to soft jazz with Cohen; but they said they often left with something much more.

Sam Vargas, a friend, said it is difficult to put a finger on it, but perhaps it simply was the reassurance that there are, indeed, wise and gentle people among us.

"He wasn't about selling books," said Vargas, who lives in Riverside but often made the journey to Cohen's store. "If you said you wanted a book, he'd say, 'Are you sure about that? It's expensive. Maybe you want to think about it. I'll put it here in this special pile so you can think about it.' "

On Saturday, one of the last speakers at Cohen's memorial service stepped onto the stage. He introduced himself as Stan the Radar Man (he is an attorney who fights radar speeding tickets) and told a story to some jazz playing in the background.

"We didn't talk much," Stan Alari said, and people in the crowd began to cry. "We didn't have to. I never got any advice. But I got a piece of him that quieted me.

"Yeah, Nathan. I can see him sitting there in that store. . . . One day, I said, 'Nathan, how you doing?' and he said, 'Not so good.' "

It was one of the saddest things he had ever heard.

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