For a shrine, the Acres of Books store is rather shabby. A metal awning hangs over the front. Its interior decor has been likened to a large chicken coop. And it is stuck in the middle of a run-down block slated for eventual “recycling,” as urban planners like to say.
For years the threat of the wrecking ball has hovered around Acres, one of the most beloved used bookstores in California. There is no specific proposal to tear the store down, but the general prospect of bulldozers one day chewing their way through Acres’ hallowed spaces recently propelled the 1924 Streamline Moderne building onto the list of structures nominated for local landmark status. The nomination has set city officials at odds.
Preservationists, taking an unusual approach to the landmark ordinance, nominated Acres not so much for its architectural style as for its contents, an estimated 750,000 used books that have made the cavernous, 56-year-old shop on Long Beach Boulevard a mecca for Southern California bibliophiles.
“This is not acres of beer, it’s acres of books,” emphasized city preservation officer Ruthann Lehrer, who insists the stucco and brick building deserves a place on the city’s cultural heritage landmark list as a “unique and irreplaceable” local asset.
“Throughout the region, Acres of Books is recognized as a landmark,” said Lehrer, who also sees merit in the building’s art deco style.
“Cultural, you can’t get more cultural than all these books. I think it would be great to help this place stay around,” agreed Downey schoolteacher Julie Dennis as she prowled the literature aisles, clutching an armful of books destined for her classroom library. “I just came in to get a copy of ‘The Pearl.’ I have a new student in class and I was going to get a cheap copy and--I can’t resist.”
The city’s planning and community development directors also agree it would be nice to keep Acres in town, but not with the help of a landmark designation for what they consider a humdrum building on a block begging for redevelopment.
“If that use wasn’t in there, I don’t believe anyone would have nominated that building,” said Planning Director Robert Paternoster, who says the Acres of Books building does not pass the landmark ordinance’s architectural muster.
“We’re the ones who wrote the ordinance,” he added pointedly.
Community Development Director Susan Shick says it is “extraordinary” to propose a building as a landmark primarily because of its use. “I think it’s been done once in Los Angeles.
“My point has always been that if the goal of the community is to preserve Acres of Books, you’re not going to do it by preserving the building,” Shick said. “You’re going to do it by finding a long-term home” for the shop.
Protect the building, Shick says, and “it could be an adult bookstore in five years . . . You have something on the list for potential preservation that may not be what anyone intended.”
The city’s landmark ordinance has been in existence for a decade. But it has only been in the past couple of years, as City Hall embraced a preservation ethic, that the ordinance has come into much use. One-third of the city’s 60 cultural heritage landmarks were named last year. Lehrer, the city’s first neighborhood and preservation officer, has been on the job for only a year.
While city agencies in the past have had a hand in the destruction of many distinctive old buildings as they sought to revive Long Beach’s moribund downtown, Acres of Books is the first of the recent spate of nominations to encounter opposition within City Hall. “In general, their attitude has been very cooperative, very supportive,” said Lehrer, referring to the community development staff.
Moving businesses to new addresses is costly, difficult and rarely their salvation, she contends. “The theory of relocation as saving our cultural assets is really an illusion.”
Still, landmark status is no guarantee of a building’s longevity. Some of the city’s most cherished landmarks have been razed. The Cultural Heritage Commission can’t stop demolition of a landmark, it can only delay it for up to a year.
Indeed, Jackie Smith, who helps run the family-owned bookstore, has few illusions that a place on the landmark list will keep the wrecking crews at bay permanently.
“It’s not going to make that much difference. What it does is buy us time. Nothing is going to protect you if the city decides it wants your property,” said Smith as she sat in her “aerie,” a dusty, cluttered balcony that overlooks the shop’s yawning main room, where towering stacks of homemade bookshelves march into dim recesses filled with volumes on everything from Seventh-day Adventists to ulcers to Shakespeare.
Not that Smith condones city takeovers. “I think it’s wrong and immoral,” she declared flatly.
By its very nature, Acres of Books seems almost doomed to addresses in potential redevelopment zones. The shop demands huge amounts of cheap space, 13,000 square feet of it, to be exact. The late Bertram Smith, who founded the store in 1934, was chased from his original location on Pacific Avenue by redevelopment in 1964, when he carted his fruit crate bookshelves and their contents to their present location, the building he bought at 240 Long Beach Blvd.
“He was going to get someplace he could stay, which proved what he knew,” mused Jackie Smith, the wife of Bertram Smith’s grandson.
Smith, who would like the building to be named a landmark, said the family would be willing to move if they could find affordable space. But they would prefer to stay where they are, she said. Unless the city were to buy the building, they would not have the money to buy anything else, she said.
What’s more, Smith said, “I think it would be very difficult to find something this size or close to this size for what (the city) would pay us for this.”
She still has the letters that poured in by the thousands to protest a proposal to condemn the site for a high-rise office building in the early 1980s. The letters came from book lovers throughout California, around the nation and even South America and Europe. The fans were lucky, because the high-rise project died of its own accord.
The Smiths have so far not rallied their customers for landmark designation, but Lehrer’s office has nonetheless gotten some 20 letters and calls on the nomination from around Southern California, all but one of them in favor of landmark status.
Already approved by the Cultural Heritage Commission and the Planning Commission, the Acres of Books nomination must still be approved by the City Council. Lehrer is waiting to place the nomination before the council, hoping the City Hall opposition will fade. “I’m taking a more Zen attitude,” she said with a smile.
Back in the endless aisles of the store, customers are all for making their haunt a landmark.
“They tear everything up in this town, all the good stuff,” complained Leslie Perry, a Long Beach doll maker who was recently browsing for books on cloth dolls. “OK for progress, but where would a bookstore like this go? Certainly not a mall.”