Brain trust

It’s a rainy Saturday morning, and customers idly browse the stacks at Cheever Books, one of San Antonio’s last remaining independent bookstores. Occupying a well-kept, whitewashed storefront on Broadway near the Witte Museum, Cheever Books is the hometown bookstore’s Platonic ideal. Its stacks reach the high, old-fashioned ceilings, and have been organized for maximum visual old-school appeal, as opposed to the merch-heavy endcaps of the big-chain box stores. There’s a long, low couch in the front parlor and a comfy, green, leather chair next to the shelves of immaculate newer leatherbounds.

A carefully hand-lettered sign affixed to one of the shelves warns that “Unattended children will be given a puppy and an espresso,” and hints darkly to would-be book thieves of some unspecified humiliation. The windows are tall and narrow, and the back room, crammed with poetry, novels, and anthologies, is cozy and appealing. If some intrepid filmmaker were searching out a location on which to shoot a meet-cute between two bookish characters wearing horn-rimmed glasses and toting volumes of the OED, this’d be it.

Cheever Books is nearly 25 years old, now in its second location, and is the brainchild of book lover Cece Cheever. She bears no relation to the late author John Cheever — hers is a San Antonio family, and her father founded Broadway Bank, though Cece says her involvement with the business is pretty much limited to “really just one or two meetings a year.”

Cheever grew up a voracious reader. She attended St. Peter’s Catholic School, then Alamo Heights High School, then went to college up in Vermont. She returned to Texas after, to Wichita Falls and then College Station, where for five years she managed the Half Price Books there. Eventually, she came back to her native San Antonio, though, and opened her own place.

Cece and her friend and colleague of more than 20 years, John Peace, run Cheever Books. They present an interesting counterpoint to each other in almost every way; Cece is elegantly dressed in understated dark layers whereas Peace is in jeans; Peace’s rumpled gray-blond hair contrasts with Cece’s classic, glossy brown bob. Peace’s conversation is both fluid and slightly removed, his high-cheekboned face remarkable for its amused calmness, its half-smile. Cheever is both less voluble than John Peace, and more animated. She suffered an aneurysm and a series of strokes in past years, and she puts her body and her speech center through ongoing rehabilitation — “It’s speech therapy twice a week, things like that,” she says with a smile and a resigned shrug, suggesting, well, you do what you have to do.

She’s disarmingly direct. Fixing me with a level gaze from her startling, sea-green eyes, she prefaces our conversation by explaining that her speech isn’t compromised on a cognitive level; her thoughts are still very much in order, but the challenge lies in the mechanics of getting them across. The cumulative impression of Cheever is a glittering intellect that emerges through a communicative collage of carefully recalled words, precise gestures, eloquent changes in her erect posture, her quick, sardonic grin, or a deftly raised eyebrow. Cece Cheever is a multimedia experience. As she chats with me, she keeps on her knee a slip of paper upon which she methodically sketches in red pen, occasionally illustrating a number of years, or spelling the surname of her longtime companion, Tim McHugh. When I ask her about her favorite writers, she names Colette, Sarte, de Beauvoir, and Larry McMurtry, then momentarily falters at a name. Undaunted, she gets up from her seat. “Come on,” she says, and leads me to the fiction section in back, where she points to the spine of a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. “There he is.”

There’s a lot she gets across above, around, beyond, as well as through her actual words. Peace occasionally runs verbal interference for Cece, filling me in on the bookstore’s history and mission. Before Cece’s now ex-husband gave John Peace at job at Cheever Books, he “worked in construction, did a lot of things.” A native San Antonian, Peace is vastly knowledgeable about the rare-books business, and has a real knack for recognizing valuable finds. Cece allows that he’s good at evaluating the physical worth of books as objects, whereas before becoming a rare-book dealer, she always read for content. “I love literature, and art. That’s what I’ve always read, as an avid reader. John’s an avid reader, too, but he reads science fiction, and history.”

Cheever books sells a bit of everything — new, used, out-of-print, from vintage novels (friend and customer Annie Coiner pops in during our interview searching for Irving Stone’s The Greek Treasure) to more arcane objects. Cheever recently sold a rare multi-volume set of the diaries of de la Peña, Colonel under Santa Ana at the Alamo, for many, many thousands of dollars. And there’s a sale pending just now of a work so rare, I can’t speak its name. As John goes looking for a JPEG of one of the rare book’s images, Cece indicates my tape recorder, looks warningly at John, and at me.

“Should I not mention the sale?” I ask.

“Better not,” she answers, polite, yet firm.

The rare-books business is surprisingly competitive, full of espionage and trade secrets. Cheever Books has found itself in imbroglios involving dealer shut-outs and leaked information before. She doesn’t want to compromise her sources.

“The interesting thing is she still recognizes all the books. She still knows valuable books, things like that. She still knows those things,” Peace says. This is remarkable because otherwise, as a result of her brain injury, Cece, in her words, “can’t read anymore.” Or she can read, she clarifies, but can’t manage long passages or read for very long periods of time. “Oh, the irony,” she laughs. However, the State of Texas provides her with audiobooks for free.

Her dual faith, the Catholicism of her childhood and the Buddhism she has studied and embraced since first coming to it — through books, naturally — more than 20 years ago, have helped Cheever keep her sense of perspective. John has his own spiritual system, she chuckles. Turns out he’s a card-carrying minister of the Universal Life Church, which is, he says, his form of satire “on the whole notion of honorifics.” In addition to his satiric ministry, John’s at the center of a twice-weekly “brain trust” of three or four guys who meet to discuss politics. John’s more or less a libertarian.

“I’m an anarchist!” says a nearby customer and friend of John’s, who prefers not to be named. Cece listens to their political gabfests, but doesn’t join in much. “I’m a Democrat,” she intones dryly.

Cheever should write a book, she muses. A memoir, maybe, whose chapter titles could read, “Vermont, Wichita Falls, College Station … ” and, she adds with a wry grin, “Teepee.” Yes, she has lived in a teepee. That was years ago, though. Now she and Tim live in ’09. She never had kids, preferring freedom, books, aunthood.

The neurological firestorm she’s experienced has taught her a great deal, she says. And she feels grateful, optimistic, determined. Even during the initial stages of her rehabilitation, she “never, ever considered giving up” Cheever Books. “It’s great. Just great. I love it,” she enthuses. She loves searching out and selling treasures, loves the book trade’s conspiracies and gossip, loves the curious browsers staying for hours on a lazy Saturday, loves the physical heft and limitless history of each book. She’s that rare commodity in this age of chain retail and a bookseller who’s also a person-sized library. •

Cece’s Book Look

Looking for something meaty to read for the back-to-school season? Here are some lesser-known works by some of Cece Cheever’s favorite authors.

Larry McMurtry - Books: A Memoir
(Simon & Shuster, 2008)
This engaging work of non-fiction details the Texas novelist’s lifelong love affair with books. In addition to writing such novels as Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show, McMurtry is also a veteran bookseller, and he opened an enormous store of used and rare books, called Booked Up, in Archer City.

Jean Paul Sartre - No Exit and Three Other Plays: Dirty Hands, The Flies, The Respectful Prostitute (Vintage, 1989)
Three short plays exploring such themes as the pitfalls of communism, a re-telling of classic Greek drama, and the interplay of sexuality and American racial tension are a great introduction to this existentialist master, and, though dark in tone, are more fun to read than his essays.

Colette - The Collected Stories of Colette (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984)
Cece Cheever’s favorite writer is a sophisticated tale-teller of 19th-century Paris. Though most famous for the musical adaptation of her short story “Gigi,” her prose is not to be missed, even in translation. She writes about sex and wisdom, with shimmering undercurrents of humor — she’s skillful and witty, a pure pleasure to read.

Gabriel García Márquez - News of a Kidnapping (Knopf, 1997)
A nonfiction tale that illustrates the widespread practice of kidnapping by the Colombia’s Medellín drug cartel throughout the turbulent 1980s. Through the stories of several victims, Márquez combines elements of journalism, political commentary, and personal narrative into a page-turning exploration of violence and corruption. Given the recent release of Ingrid Betancourt, this fascinating book remains acutely timely.

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