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Jersey City News

PAGE TURNER: Owner vows to reopen bagels-and-books biz

By MICHAELANGELO CONTE JOURNAL STAFF WRITER

Bagels and books will be back on the menu at Central Avenue Bagels as soon as the damage from Tuesday's fire can be repaired by owner Wajih "Sammy" Masoud, who has given away hundreds of thousands of books at the business.

"A bagel can feed one person, but a good book can help so many people," said Masoud, who bought the store in 2000 and not long afterward began gathering books wherever he could and giving them away. "They can bring out the best things that ever come out of humans."

Masoud grew up about 15 miles outside Amman, Jordan, and as a poor child he hungered for books and read whatever he could get his hands on. He dreamed of becoming a poet, and at the age of 13 one of his poems was published by a major Jordanian newspaper. He studied film at the University of Baghdad's Academy of Fine Arts and moved to the United States with his wife 20 years ago.

Masoud hoped to continue his education, but it didn't work out. After owning two pizzerias, he bought the bagel store and began the free book program. His bagel shop and book exchange was the subject of a feature article in The New York Times.

There are two bookcases filled with books just inside the store's soot-stained front windows and in a back room 17 boxes of books wait to replace those taken by readers. On sunny days he sometimes stocks bins outside his store with books that run the gamut from pulp fiction to philosophy.

When he came to the United States, he was shocked to see that "people throw away books. You can't throw books away." He refused to let books go to waste, gathered them where he could, and asked others to give him books they didn't want.

At 5:18 p.m. Tuesday, a coffee maker in the store apparently ignited some nearby paper cups and the fire raced through the store, causing heavy damage before the flames were doused a half-hour later, officials said.

Yesterday, Masoud and insurance adjusters sifted through the shop as he recovered from the shock of the fire and began the process of getting the store back open. He said he doesn't expect to get much from the insurance company, but he will reopen in the next few weeks, even if he has to borrow a bit.

He calls his store "The warmest place on Central Avenue."