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By now, huge portions of San Diego’s literate and book-buying public know that Chuck Valverde, owner of Wahrenbrock’s Book House on Broadway, downtown, died on Saturday, August 23, from respiratory illness and complications at the age of 73. As many as would rightly claim him as a friend as well as those who wish they could, I will claim him as not only friend but very much a father figure. Chuck expressed flattery and amusement when he read my brief tribute to him on the occasion of his 65th birthday when I noted he would have been about the same age as my dad. In fact, he was some years younger than my father. He then inquired about my mother, whom he had never met. Had you known Chuck, you would see the inimitable and gentlemanly humor there.

Shortly after 9/11, when I found myself without a convenient place to write, Chuck offered me a desk on the third floor of the bookstore. Surrounded by rare and antiquarian volumes, the cream of Wahrenbrock’s stock, I wrote my weekly “T.G.I.F.” column in its early days as well as other things, including a novel based on Tristan and Isolde, which Chuck encouraged me to take on simply by saying he didn’t think anyone had done it as a straight novel other than Rosemary Sutcliffe and her short book for young adults. Chuck would know, and if he hinted that it might be worthwhile, well then the idea was sheer genius. Unfortunately the unfinished novel was something less. Writing that autumn, in that space surrounded by the most wonderful volumes, was a manifestation of a childhood dream I had of heaven. Exactly that and Chuck furnished it free of charge.

I had met him through Jan Tonnesen though I may have spoken to Chuck first, as far back as 1976 at the store’s previous location. Tonnesen and I became fast friends and performed music together for nearly 20 years. It is Jan and Chuck Jr. as well as Gerhardt Boehm, Tim Kennedy, and (recently onboard) Donald Baird who will have to fill such unfillable shoes.

“We’re still all kind of numb,” Tonnesen told me the Saturday after Chuck died. “We’re on autopilot.” He paused here, thought: “Chuck lit a fire under me to love the whole commerce of books — the buying, the selling, the love of books, and the ability to put the right book in the right hands.”

* * *

Excerpt from “Book Kings,” written by Judith Moore for the Reader, October 19, 1989:

“I ask Chuck Valverde, Sr., if he has a memorable book buy story, and he tells me this: ‘I went out in the backcountry — to Spring Valley — and went into a garage where the books were stored. I heard a kind of rustling. The hair just stood up on the back of my neck. And I looked around, and there was a mountain lion, caged up in a kind of flimsy pen.’ I asked what happened then. ‘I left.’”

* * *

Rather than Frank “Bring ’Em Back Alive” Buck, Chuck might be seen as a kind of Cary Grant/Woody Allen backing slowly away from what might well have been a treasure trove of literature. Had it been copies of Valley of the Dolls, it would have made no difference. “In fact,” Tonnesen once told me, “those are rather valuable.”

Moore began her article nearly 20 years ago this way: “When you ask how Wahrenbrock’s Book House got its start, the story most often told is this. It was summer 1935. Vernon Wahrenbrock had just graduated from Pomona College. Jobs were scarce. Using books that belonged to family and friends, Wahrenbrock amassed a small stock and opened a store at the northeast corner of Ninth Avenue and Broadway, downtown. He had so few books that to fill shelves he would stand one book up, lay two books down, stand one up, lay two down, and so on, around the shop….

“Fifty-four years later, [now 63 years, as of 2008] Wahrenbrock’s Book House (now at 726 Broadway) is San Diego’s oldest book shop. Vernon Wahrenbrock, in his mid-70s, semi-retired and living in Escondido, sold the store in 1965. In that same year, Chuck Valverde became the store’s manager and is now its owner.

“At the front counter, a heavy-bellied fellow around whose sunburned arms tattooed blue spider webs wreathe, needs, ‘books on the subject of Scientology.’ No sooner has Chuck Jr. dispatched the fellow down a side aisle than a woman walks in, asks where mysteries are kept. She’s directed upstairs, to the second floor. She gasps. ‘You mean there’s more?’

“A rangy 19-year-old, taller than his father and darker complexioned, with black curls loose on his neck, Chuck Jr. can remember being in the book shop from the time he learned to walk. But he still finds intimidating the sheer numbers of books here, some quarter of a million volumes.

“‘People who’ve never been in here before,’ he tells me [Moore], ‘will stand at the counter and look around and say something like, ‘I’m overwhelmed!’ And then you say to them, ‘Have you seen the second floor? The third?’

“Books rise up on either side along the marble stairs that lead to the second floor. Twelve volumes of The Writings of George Washington. Eleven volumes of John Fiske’s Historical Writings. Two more steps up, there is James Truslow Adam’s March of Democracy in seven volumes. The Great Events by Famous Historians in 20 volumes. Another step up is Documents of German Foreign Policy, 1918-1945, in six, fat, dusty volumes. At the top of the stairs is a Thackery set, bound in green cloth, spines stamped with gold flowers.

“The second floor window looks out over Broadway. Under the window there are three shelves packed with books by and about Winston Churchill. From the cover of The Gathering Storm, his dear old bulldog face looks up. Nearby, a brown bookcase holds up four shelves about the Kennedys — from PT-109 to the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of John F. Kennedy.”

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Comments

Kathy Proofer Sept. 4, 2008 @ 2:18 p.m.

What a beautiful tribute, John...brought me to tears all over again, where I've been frequently ever since hearing about Chuck's death. Those of us in the San Diego bookselling community, and all bibliophiles who knew him, and all who became readers because of what they encountered upon entering the magical emporium that is Wahrenbrocks, mourn the passing of one of the last, truly great "bookmen,'' but even more, the loss of the wonderful man whom you describe so movingly. Chuck started me on my Edward Gorey collection over 25 years ago, and shared many wonderful stories about him with me as we added to my library over the years. Thanks for sharing your memories and writing such a beautiful homage. Kathlyn H. Stewart (Gargoyle Books)

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dgwillsbooks Sept. 5, 2008 @ 11:12 a.m.

Dear John, Thank you so much for this very beautiful tribute to our beloved Chuck Valverde, the godfather and dean of San Diego booksellers. We put a copy of your article in our front window. Dennis D.G.Wills Books La Jolla

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tlarson Sept. 5, 2008 @ 5:16 p.m.

John,

Fine piece about a fine man. My best memory of Chuck is about four years ago when I went to Wahrenbrock's for a Reader story. Judith had asked me to write about Sacco and Vanzetti, the anniversary of their death coming up. What was San Diego's reaction during the trial some 80 years ago?

I needed background, so I went to Chuck, who was gone for two minutes and re-emerged with three volumes, case history, biography, re-evaluation. I bought them and got the 15% off: "working writers' discount."

Chuck treasured our fair and unfair city. How much he cared about you also and admired your writing, he once told me. How did the word bookish ever imply pedantic or dull? Chuck was just the opposite. Books and authors excited him, and his place linking them to a community of readers is his legacy.

Thomas Larson

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a2zresource Sept. 9, 2008 @ 9:22 a.m.

The experience of wandering through the bookstore is part of the reason I became a shelver at the County Law Library for awhile, decades later...

Chuck once found a Calculus III text I needed at USD, retailing for about $75 on campus in the early 90s. He let it go for $7.50 and threw in the study guide for good measure. Later, his was the one place I knew I would find a copy of Tom Apostol's Calculus...

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