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Central Avenue Bagels - Sammy

By: Jonathan Miller for The New York Times

Update: Central Avenue Bagels officially closed in May 2014

"A Place Where You Can Greet the Day with a Bagel and a Best Seller" (Click Here for Original New York Times Article)

JERSEY CITY, April 27 — Far from the glistening towers on the Hudson and the million-dollar homes, and wedged into a scruffy corner of the city, sits Central Avenue Bagels. It is on a strip where the 99¢ Gallery backs up to the Everything 79¢ shop, which is down the street from a used furniture store where tired men sit all day on faded couches.

What sets the store apart from its neighbors, and from its competitors, is that during the morning rush, a customer can grab a coffee and a bagel and select among the works of Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Marshall McLuhan and Michael Crichton. The books are free and do not have to be returned.

“I don’t know if they use them for decoration, they use them as a stool, they sell them,” the owner, Wajih Masoud, said. “I don’t want to know. I just want to give them away.”

And for good reason. Mr. Masoud, 48, who once studied drama and filmmaking in Baghdad, now faces a self-inflicted problem: He has accumulated more than 100,000 books and must figure out what to do with them all.

There are books crammed on two shelves near the entrance, books in plastic tubs outside, books in portable wooden crates and books — the rest of the hundred thousand or so — in a storage space downtown.

Jersey City has few bookstores for its 240,000 residents. The one chain store is a minuscule B. Dalton in the Newport Centre mall. On Central Avenue, the only place that sells books is a small news and card shop.

On a recent morning, a woman strode by Central Avenue Bagels, shot a look at the dozens of books on the street and exclaimed with a Caribbean lilt: “You don’t need to go to the library. The library’s here.”

The collection began about five years ago, when Mr. Masoud, a compact man with a shaved head and piercing eyes, rescued a box of books that had been left out with the garbage.

Mr. Masoud — everyone here calls him “Sammy” — says he cannot bear to see books thrown out, and soon enough, what started as a modest shelf of castoff paperbacks crammed next to the Hostess cupcakes blossomed into a place where the Salvation Army meets H & H.

Then, this month, Mr. Masoud learned from a man who often donates volumes to the store that a book buyer had acquired a huge cache at auction, but had decided they weren’t worth much — they were mostly cheap paperbacks that carried names like Baldacci, Ludlum, Steel and King. The dealer was going to destroy them all before Mr. Masoud agreed to take them. Several times a week now, he drives to a warehouse downtown and fills up his Toyota with boxes of books.

The selection at Central Avenue Bagels reflects Mr. Masoud’s clientele. A customer carted in a set of Arabic language books. (Mr. Masoud kept a dictionary for himself). Someone dumped off a set of Korean-language magazines. There was a box of Filipino pop music on tape.

On a recent weekday morning, Lori Perez, a nursing student, had ordered her usual egg-white sandwich on wheat bagel and was plowing through the tubs and shelves of books. She wound up with nine in all, many of them romances with names like “Mr. Hyde’s Assets” (featuring a bare, muscled male torso on the cover), but also a weight-loss book by Phil McGraw — a k a “Dr. Phil” of daytime talk show fame — and a memoir by Dr. C. Everett Koop, the former surgeon general.

Ms. Perez acknowledged that it had become easy to gorge on books at the bagel shop — she has taken dozens. “He’s always so glad to give them away,” said Ms. Perez, 30.

There’s an intellectual bent to Mr. Masoud’s collection, too. Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and John McPhee have been represented. Mark Helprin’s early novel “Refiner’s Fire” languished on the shelf for several months. A few years ago, someone donated multiple copies of a short story collection by T. C. Boyle and Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit.”

Mr. Masoud grew up poor in Zarqa, Jordan, about 15 miles outside of Amman, where he said he had limited access to a library. Any book he got his hand on he devoured. “I used to cry for a book,” is how he puts it.

He spent days listening to the British Broadcasting Corporation and reading Arabic and English translations of Sartre. His dream was to become a poet, and he went off to the University of Baghdad’s Academy of Fine Arts, where he studied film.

After graduating in 1984, Mr. Masoud tried to make a go of it in the film world of the Middle East, but wound up coming to America with his wife. He started a pizzeria in Boston, then came to New Jersey, where he opened another one in Ridgefield Park. (He is no longer involved in its operation.) He bought the bagel shop here about seven years ago.

His dream is to gather enough money to build libraries in the Middle East.

There are those who take advantage of Mr. Masoud’s generosity. On Tuesday, he left the books outside when he closed up — just as he does with his bags of day-old bagels — only to find the next day that someone had made off with everything: the books and the plastic tubs and wooden cases that held them. “He left only the sign,” Mr. Masoud said the next day — the one marked “Free.”

“Probably, today,” he said, “we will put them inside.”