Friday

The New York Times, July 6, 1997


In a Literary City of Tiny Apartments, a Struggle With the Weight of Words

''The point is, you're always going to read,'' said Peter F. Skinner, who has about 6,000 books in his tiny Greenwich Village tenement.

''As Anthony Burgess said, there's no better reason for not reading a book than owning it,'' said Mr. Skinner, who recently moved 2,250 more books to a $90-a-month storage locker he had furnished with bookcases on casters. ''It's always there to read.''

There is an airline claims manager with 4,500 cookbooks in her Murray Hill apartment, an architect with 10,000 architecture books, an obstetrician-gynecologist whose Brooklyn apartment is overrun with books about Napoleon.

There is Edward Robb Ellis, an 87-year-old writer, who shares his four-room apartment in Chelsea with what he estimates to be 10,000 books, including, he reveals proudly, five sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Ron Kolm, a writer and bookstore night manager, lost his bedroom in Long Island City, Queens, to his archive of downtown writing. For years, he and his wife have slept in the living room on a fold-out bed.

He recalled watching his reading material rise to a height of seven feet.

Then there are the serious cases.

Landlords have been known to fire off letters warning tenants to divest themselves of books or face eviction. Mr. Kolm swears he knew a man who took to spending nights on the fire escape, peering in at his books.

''I've been in places where there were books in the bathtub,'' said Henry Holman, who rummages through apartments as the buyer for Gryphon Bookshop on the Upper West Side. ''I've been in apartments where there were books in the bed. I've been in apartments where you were hard put to imagine exactly where they did sleep.''

Those cases are ''getting into the realm of, at least by my definition, a kind of pathology,'' continued Mr. Holman, who lives with thousands of books, and his wife, in a one-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights. ''You might imagine some kind of underground animal bringing in things and making a nest.''

''I can't see you to the door, really,'' explained Ann Douglas, a Columbia professor with 8,000 books in her one-bedroom apartment, maneuvering past a bookcase half-obstructing the front door. ''You know, in some sense, it could seem they were more important than you. And you know, in some sense, they are.''

When Columbia paid to move her from Princeton, she says, the moving company classified her household as a small library and billed extra. ''I kept protesting: 'Look, I have a bed! There's a stove here!' '' she said recently. ''They said, 'Lots of libraries have beds.' ''

The unwritten rule is this: There is always room for one more. And if one, then why not five? Eventually, books overflow even the most expansive shelves. Then the book-besotted learns to rationalize: That pile is not in the way; I can still reach the bathroom.

Mr. Kolm, who lost his bedroom, describes the problem as ''the inertia of motion and the inertia of rest.'' Which is to say, mountains of books do not go away. In fact, they get bigger because the collector goes on accumulating more stuff simply because it is somehow related to stuff he already has.

In his case, all he could do in the end was open the bedroom door and throw things in. The ceiling was crumbling but he could not fix it. ''I could go in and look in the distance and see the plaster was falling down and stuff,'' he said. ''I was sorry, but there wasn't anything I could do.''

Mr. Skinner said he lost control five years ago. ''An enormous tumulus'' of books swallowed up his living room floor. There was no longer room to put down bedding for a guest. Vacuuming consisted of blowing dust off the bookshelves onto the books on the floor. Finally, this spring, he hauled 2,250 books out to a nearby mini-storage building.

Now Professor Douglas is approaching capacity.

''It is getting worrisome,'' she conceded recently. But, she said, ''somehow, I have this mysterious faith. Since I was meant to have all these books, something will open up."

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