MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

We lost a great man and friend in our community May 16 when Lee Schwartz died at the far too early age of 71.

Certainly Lee always possessed and lived with a wise old soul even in his younger years, but it hardly seems fair that a man who had so much still to offer and give would be with us just over 70 years. Lee was far from finished caring and contributing to the well-being and stimulation of our curiosities and interests. There are still far too many things he felt we should see, to read, explore and to understand.

Lee and his wife Gayle Griffith are owners of The Book Center on Centre Street, of course, the true heart in many of our eyes of downtown Cumberland, and you saw Lee just about every day you found yourself downtown, whether you were in the store, merely walking down the street or if you happened to be out some place and he was conducting one of his cigar tastings.

For if there was anything Lee loved as much as the written word, downtown and animals, it was the taste of a quality cigar.

I don’t believe a day has gone by since Lee’s passing that I haven’t thought of him, which is what I imagine brought me to sit down and write about him.

My mother always took my brother Kevin and me into the Rex News Agency (which everybody just called the Bookstore, even though it was mainly a so-called newsstand then) when it was located on Centre Street a block up from the Strand Theater. My mother loved to read and harvested that love for my brother and me.

Lee’s father, Mr. Martin Schwartz would often keep a sharp eye on my brother and me while I was combing the baseball magazines and my brother Lord knows what books or magazines, although likely something that had something to do with cars. But since my mother, who was an English teacher, always bought us something to read (and made sure we read it) Mr. Schwartz put up with us, tolerated us and even, I think, began to like us as we grew older and would come in by ourselves or with our friends, because he knew we loved to read.

As the years passed and what had become the Book Center relocated twice downtown, as well as adding one in Searstown for several years, and Lee and Gayle took over the shop, my brother and I followed them everywhere to continue to buy our books, our magazines and our newspapers. And Lee, as his father before him, went from being a “Hello, may I help you find something?” acquaintance as soon as we entered the shop to being a friend and a sounding board to any and all of our interests, helping us along every step of the way, including on the Sunday prior to his passing when I picked up the Sunday Washington Post, New York Times and Baltimore Sun, which our family has been doing for some 50 years.

Whenever I picked up the Sunday papers, or just stopped by to browse, Lee asked about my brother and, I suspect, whenever it was Kevin who stopped in, Lee would ask about me if he hadn’t seen me in a time. We’re regulars, you see, as is nearly everybody who lives in the Cumberland area, for going into the Book Center has become an extension of entering our own home.

We are made to feel so comfortable there. There’s no place like home and there is no better at-home feel than community, and Lee and Gayle have made it that way in their shop at the center of the downtown.

Lee made time for everybody; he insisted on it. You didn’t go into his shop for the sole purpose of completing a business transaction (though, Lee was very happy when you did), you go into the Book Center to be at peace and to evolve.

Lee made it that way.

My friend Bill Feeney, too, has been going to the Book Center since he was a kid and has continued to stop in as a grown man, a husband and father. He began to take his two daughters there when they were little girls and Lee, of course, went right to work with them, helping them select their books of choice and encouraging them to come back to read more and more.

Bill said Lee gave his girls quizzes on the books they had just read (which they dutifully completed) and urged them to continue to read for the rest of their lives, which, of course, they have.

We need more of this in our world. We need more books – every kind of book. We need more newspapers. We need more written word. We need more thoughts and imagination. We need more “What if?” We need more fact.

We need more Lee Schwartzes.

We already miss the first one so very much.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT