Memories by the volume at bookstore

Times Staff Writer

In an era of Amazon.com and chain bookstores, where a good read is a click or neighborhood mall away, Melody Peck drove more than 100 miles from San Diego to downtown Long Beach to walk Friday among the dusty stacks at Acres of Books, her favorite bookstore, one last time.

After 74 years in business, the independent bookstore giant with an inventory that topped 1 million volumes is closing down to make way for a redevelopment project. The two-story brick building will be transformed into a mix of housing and art galleries as part of the city's plan to connect downtown with its East Village Arts District.

Longtime customers -- many of whom said their parents and grandparents had hunted amid the 6 1/2 miles of shelving for hard-to-find books -- streamed in off Long Beach Boulevard for one last browse through the musty, stiflingly narrow aisles and stacked crates overflowing with titles dating back centuries.

"So sorry to hear you're closing," said Ella Smith, a local who's counted on the bookstore's collection for decades. "Do you have souvenirs? Anything I can remember this place by?"

"Just books," said owner Jackie Smith from behind the counter.

Volumes upon volumes. Acres of Books has no air conditioning or computerized filing system, no Frappuccinos or speakers sounding elevator tunes. Not a place to sit. Need a book? Just ask Jackie and she can point the way. For decades the store has offered an invitingly warm atmosphere and spawned the affection of book lovers throughout Southern California and beyond.

There's Black Sabbath and Miles Davis flowing from an old stereo, hugs at the counter between loyal regulars and Smith. And watching sluggishly from a wooden plank above the shelves is the bookstore's cat, Penelope.

Acres of Books opened on Pacific Street in 1934 and moved into the current building in the 1940s, taking over from a country-western bar and dance hall. Back then, Long Beach Boulevard was a hot spot for the Navy, packed with bars, tattoo parlors and mom-and-pop shops.

Founder Bertrand Smith and his son, E.P. Smith, worked more than a year to move into the site, shuttling hundreds of thousands of books in the back of a pickup. Over time, the downtown strip, starting from the shoreline, has given way to an arts renaissance and a 21st century economy of condos and Starbucks shops.

"We knew eventually it would catch up with us," said Jackie Smith, 68. She and her husband, Phil, plan to retire and travel. They've had time to say goodbye to the store, after selling their building to the city for $2.8 million three months ago.

For Peck, who is in her 50s, Acres of Books has been part of her family history for four generations. A long morning drive from San Diego to pay her last respects seemed only natural. The high school teacher began digging for books at the store on her tippy-toes, when her parents would bring her as a child with her four siblings. When her husband was a boy, he too would visit with his grandmother.

"Being here, I feel like I'm a kid again," said Peck, handing over her credit card at the counter for her last purchase.

Meandering through the maze of books, past religion and Russia, Cindy Woods was using the bookstore's last days to show the place to her friends and family. The 57-year-old poet has attended poetry readings there for years. "I'm crushed," she said. "It feels like we're losing a piece of our legacy, a piece of Long Beach that won't exist anymore."

Smith said she and her husband searched for months for a new location but didn't find one that met their needs for a large space on a modest budget. Once they sell their inventory, which in less than two weeks has gone from 700,000 to 500,000, they will join the list of independent L.A. area bookstores that have been ousted by sluggish sales or redevelopment.

"I hate to see it go," said Smith, whose husband inherited the store from his grandfather. "If we would have been able to hold on, we would have probably been here until we turned to dirt. But that's not possible."

Greg Garcia, a used-books aficionado from Whittier, took advantage of the big discounts last week while mourning the loss of the well-known site. "My timing is a bit morbid," said the 39-year-old, who this year has, by happenstance, ended up shopping at several other independent bookstores that have had to close.

"It's depressing," Garcia said. "I would drive by and think, 'Not another one.' "

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esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

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