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Acres of Books could be in its final chapter

Owners of the Long Beach store agree to sell the property.

April 07, 2008|Ari B. Bloomekatz | Times Staff Writer

John Strange, who has been browsing downtown Long Beach's Acres of Books for about two decades, said the best way to shop the store's 1 million new and used books is to pretend you're a big-game hunter.

"Take a helmet and a sandwich and you can go hunting all afternoon," said Strange, 58. "You can either get overwhelmed and intimidated or you could just jump in."

But the days of literary expeditions at the store's 12,000-square-foot building on Long Beach Boulevard are apparently numbered. The owners agreed last week to sell their property to the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency and said they were unsure whether they would relocate.

"It's been a family business since 1934," said 68-year-old Jacqueline Smith, who owns the store with her husband, Phil. "It's been my life and my dream, but it's reality," she said.

Employees at the store have been selling off remaining inventory for months. Generally, they keep about 1 million books in stock, but that number is now closer to 700,000, and many employees do not expect the store to reopen.

"I don't feel like it's going to happen," said store manager Raun Yankovich, who on Sunday called the store's scheduled close "a tragedy."

"It's more than a bookstore," Yankovich said. "It's a place where the written word has a magical quality to it."

Acres of Books is more a barn stuffed with books than a traditional bookstore. There is no air conditioning, and 6 1/2 miles of shelves hold volumes upon volumes.

It is the latest in a string of popular independent bookstores in Southern California to close in recent years. The Book Baron in Anaheim closed last year after 27 years, and Dutton's bookstore in Brentwood held its final farewell party last month after 24 years.

"I think it's very sad," Smith said about what may be the latest independent bookstore to shut its doors. "But it's part of the ongoing culture and the changes with what people do in their free time . . . but also the rents, the redevelopment, the profit margins, it all just contributes."

Long Beach Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal said the store was bought by the Redevelopment Agency as part of the plans for a larger mixed-use development designed to connect downtown with the East Village Arts District.

In a news release handed out by the store's staff, Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Craig Beck wrote: "I appreciate all that the Smiths have done for the community throughout the 75 years they've been in business. . . . The property is part of our Broadway Block development, which will celebrate the arts and further our revitalization efforts in downtown Long Beach."

Former Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill said she was sad the bookstore had to go and was upset it might not relocate.

"It's been there for years, and writers and readers and people have been so loyal. It's been part of their lives, and I'm really sorry it's leaving," O'Neill said. "The whole area is changing, and I know that it needed to change for the development and future of this city."

Under the agreement, the store is allowed to stay at its current site for up to a year, but Smith said it was unlikely it would be there that long and that she would soon be announcing clearance sales.

The store first opened on Pacific Street and then moved to its current spot at 240 Long Beach Blvd. in the early 1960s.

In an essay posted on the store's website, novelist Ray Bradbury writes: "It is a labyrinth, a tomb, a catacomb, a maze. . . . In its dusty roundabout winding corridors, turn here and you collide with Shaw, turn there and you knock elbows with Gibbon, go farther on and you wind up in the company of a wild bunch of Victorian children, nameless until now, surrounding you elephant-high on all sides, calling their titles and daring you to remember."

In a phone interview over the weekend, Bradbury recalled fond memories of the bookstore and said he remembered spending rainy days with friends in one of the many corners, getting lost in the books.

After hearing that the store may close permanently, Bradbury exclaimed: "Oh, no!"

"It's so . . . big and it's full of history," he said. "It's full of the smell of dust and time and literature."

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ari.bloomekatz@latimes.com

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