He Survived Earthquake With His Books, but Died Alone
An 87-year-old San Diego man who was critically injured when his huge book collection buried him during an earthquake last summer was found dead in his downtown residential hotel room Wednesday.
Anthony Cima, who once described his 10,000-book collection as “part of the family,” apparently had been dead for at least several days, and possibly as long as one week, when San Diego firefighters found his body on the floor of his room about noon Wednesday, according to Deputy San Diego County Coroner Dave Lodge.
There was no evidence that Cima’s injuries last summer contributed to his death, but an autopsy will be conducted today, a coroner’s spokesman said.
Firefighters had been called to the residential hotel by other occupants who became worried about Cima after not having seen him for several days. Cima’s son, 63-year-old Anthony Cima Jr. of Phoenix, said that coroner’s officials told him that his father’s body was partly decomposed when it was found.
Under normal circumstances, Cima’s death might have passed unnoticed as simply the death of another faceless old man in a downtown one-room walk-up above a combination liquor store and market.
However, because the elderly book collector achieved a kind of Warholian fame as a result of the unusual nature of his injury last summer, local television crews and newspaper reporters Wednesday swarmed over the Hotel Monte Carlo, where Cima had lived for about 10 years, to document his death.
Last July 13, Cima had been pinned to his cot for more than 11 hours when an earthquake measuring 5.3 on the Richter scale toppled the ceiling-high piles of beloved books, magazines and newspapers that occupied most of his 12-by-12-foot room.
After being hospitalized for 54 days, during which he suffered a heart attack and twice was placed on a breathing machine, Cima--against the wishes of doctors and relatives--returned to the hotel in September.
“He was the only one who didn’t think he’d be better off in the hospital,” the younger Cima said. “At least he lived his last three months exactly the way he wanted to.”
After his return to the hotel, city building officials ordered Cima to remove the books from his new room, saying that the weight of the hard-cover volumes--which, by his own count, totaled about 9,900 at the time of the earthquake--posed a safety hazard. Most of the books now are stored at Interstate Self Storage, where manager Red Kaster is supplying free storage.
According to several acquaintances, Cima was a polite, learned man who purchased and read four newspapers daily. After finishing the papers, Cima, who said he had read about 80% of his book collection, then would settle down to reading books in his room.
“The books were his friends,” said Zuhair Zaya, manager of Barney’s Market and Liquor, above which Cima’s hotel was located at the corner of 13th Street and Martin Luther King Way. “He was always polite when he came in, but I think he preferred to be alone with his books instead of being with people.”
Cima’s son, however, said that his father was as passionate about his independence as he was about his books.
“As he got older and started having trouble getting around, all his kids asked him to move in with them, but he’d have none of it,” Anthony Cima Jr. said. “I think my father would have rather lived in a broom closet alone rather than share a suite at the Waldorf Hotel with anyone. That was just his way and you weren’t going to change him.”
The son of an Italian immigrant, Cima left school in the sixth grade, worked in a coal mine near Pittsburgh and served as an aerial gunner in World War I.
Cima later owned a movie-house chain and founded his own publishing company in New York City. A regular church-goer, Cima said last summer that he was most proud of his publication of a multivolume compilation of early Christian writings titled “The Writings of the Fathers of the Church.”
After the war, Cima saved enough money to buy his first set of books--the 51-volume Harvard Classics--launching a lifelong hobby.
Last summer, Cima, a widower who who moved to San Diego from Los Angeles about 10 years ago, said that he had collected about 16,000 hard-cover books in the past decade alone, with about two-thirds of them in his room and the remainder in storage.
“The fact that he wouldn’t sell them made me think that he always had plans for those books,” the younger Cima said. “He loved books so much that I think he wanted to start some kind of a little library where he could loan his books out for free or for a nickel so that others could get the same pleasure that he did out of them.”
Cima, who also is survived by two sisters in Pennsylvania, three daughters, 17 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren, will be cremated here later this week, his son said.
Cima’s son said that he has no plans for keeping his father’s books, and is unsure what will be done with the collection. The value of the collection, which ranges from novels to old textbooks to Nancy Drew mysteries, is unknown.
“For me, they really have no intrinsic value as such,” Cima Jr. said. “What I’ll remember about him is that he did what a thousand other guys wouldn’t do--give up the security of staying in a hospital or somewhere where you’d be around people and get taken care of with three meals a day to go out on his own in his 80s. You’ve got to admire that.”