Historic landmark could face demolition: Long Beach CA District Weekly, 8/1/07

Acres of Books, a city historic landmark and one of the most famous used bookstores in the world, could face demolition for condos and art

By Theo Douglas

Bookstore clerk Frank Cotten was in his 80s when he departed this dimension some time around when Clinton took office, and he left behind one amazing statistic: the only place he ever worked, for more than 50 years, was Bertrand Smith’s Acres of Books.

Even Jackie Smith, granddaughter-by-marriage of the man who founded Long Beach’s most-revered bookstore in 1934, can’t top that. She married Smith’s grandson, Philip, and she always said that Acres of Books was the only place she ever wanted to work, and she runs the store now. But after college, Smith’s grandfather-in-law made her work somewhere else for five years before she could join the family business.

And so for about 1,800 days, Jackie Smith was an X-ray technician. She’s been at Acres ever since, having no doubt been greeted by Cotten when she arrived. She remembers asking him about a book she dimly recalled from childhood—and she remembers him knowing precisely what that book was.

“He said, ‘Yes, it’s Under a Lucky Star by Roy Chapman Andrews,’ and he got it for me,” Smith says. “Now, of course, it’s out of print and very hard to find. Andrews is supposedly the character they based Indiana Jones on.” And Cotten must have been the man they based the card catalog on.

“We didn’t have a reference system—it was just, ‘Ask Frank,’” Smith says. “This was the only job he ever had, other than serving in the military in World War II — and he worked here until about a month before he died.

“His back started bothering him, and he stopped coming in, and then the neighbors didn’t hear from him and they started worrying — and they found him: lying on the couch with the music on. And his book, the book he was reading, had just fallen over his face.” Smith adds a little dreamily: “I think that’s the way to go.”

Acres of Books, the store Cotten left behind, should be so lucky — or really, it shouldn’t be so lucky as to have to go anywhere. But that’s the situation, again: the city is redeveloping the entirety of what it calls the Broadway Block — the coveted square of land bordered by Long Beach Boulevard, Elm Avenue, Third Street, and Broadway — and this time, it’s serious.

The process is well past the early planning stages and into the, well, the middle planning stages. (It really does take a lot of planning.) The city has chosen a developer, Portland-based Williams & Dame Development. The Long Beach Redevelopment Agency is buying up buildings on the Broadway Block. And the businesses in them are moving out or making plans.

Terry’s Camera was next door to Acres, until owner Maurice Greeson sold out in November — again. (It was, he said, the third time the city paid him to git.) 1-Stop Furniture was on the other side of Acres until this spring, when it wasn’t. Eminent-domain proceedings are underway against Jack’s Liquor and against Rita Michener — who inherited her parents’ building at Third Street and Elm Avenue, the former home of their business, Jensen Stamps.

That leaves only Acres of Books, a Long Beach historical landmark since 1990, in the way. Again.

“How many acres is this place?” comes the inevitable question from a sharply-dressed man in his late 30s or early 40s. The clerk adding up his purchases doesn’t give it a second thought: “It’s about 750,000 books and about six-and-a-half miles of shelves.” He knows this by rote because Acres of Books has been a legend since before some of us were born — but also because he has to.

Since at least 1982, when the city began ogling this one-story brick barn and seeing an office tower in its place, the clerks, the owners, and the legions of customers who trekked across the world to visit the land of readers have all searched their souls to find that one redeeming trait which might save their love from the wrecking ball. That they’ve staved off the bulldozers for a quarter-century speaks to their grit, ingenuity, and determination—but also to the subject at hand. They’ve had a lot to work with.

The Acres of Books we have in Long Beach today — housed in a swoopy Streamline Moderne storefront that has been variously a market, an early Glenn Thomas used - car lot, and Murray and Millie’s Western Corral — is really the second Acres of Books. The first was five stories of words in Cincinnati, one of the largest used bookstores in the world — from whence came Bertrand Smith in 1933. It’s said a fight with his wife precipitated his relocation.

One year later, Smith opened the first Long Beach Acres of Books, at 140 Pacific Avenue, buying out three other local booksellers — Frederick C. Petet’s, Leon A. Wylie’s, and the Long Beach Book Exchange — in the process. And there he stayed, down the street from the old City Hall until 1960, when the city needed his store for a parking lot.

Smith responded by buying the building at 240 Long Beach Boulevard for $70,000. He spent the next two years packing the books in old fruit crates, then driving those crates to the new store. He paid for two stores every month until he was done moving. Many books for sale at Acres today are still shelved in those fruit crates — a fact which has given generations of city inspectors food for thought — and if she ever has to re-install the books in a place with real bookstore shelves, Jackie Smith plans to sell the crates individually. Like so much else here, some of these packing-house labels are now highly collectible. But for her, that’s a worst-case scenario.

“They told us we had to move in 1986 and we even prepared for it, and it never happened. That was when they built that first fiasco,” Smith says, meaning Long Beach Plaza. “My father-in-law was in charge then. But the economy went down, and I think that was why they didn’t build it. I hope the economy doesn’t go down, but I hope we get to stay. It’s my dream [to run a book store]. It always has been.”

The city has a dream, too — has always had one, since its land started sinking and the fortunes of the Nu-Pike Amusement Park went sour — but that dream changes with the times.

In 1982, the earliest date city archives mention erasing Acres of Books from Long Beach Boulevard, the city’s dream was to let the Urban Pacific Development Corporation build a $90 million, “double” 15-story office complex on that block “with 92 townhomes.”

Pacific Development never broke ground there, but its vision survived long enough to be recorded in 1990 in a revised script for a Simmons Cable access program about “previous, as well as current threats to the Cultural Heritage of Long Beach.” The city keeps a copy of that script in its archives. The program aired in the spring of 1990, and that winter Acres of Books became a historical landmark, against the objections of the Press-Telegram and then-Redevelopment Agency Director Susan Shick.

“To say that [Acres of Books] provides some indispensable service is dubious,” the Press-Telegram opined in a July 1990 editorial. “True, it is a repository, but it is a repository of value and dreck alike. The store is the city’s largest literary attic.”

The newspaper and the Redevelopment Agency were somewhat in agreement there.

“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 told the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 14, 1990 — having worried in December 1989 to the Downtown Gazette that “[Acres of Books] could fold or change hands, possibly becoming a ‘dirty bookstore,’ but would still be protected by the same landmark status. . . .”

The notion that after 29 years — or now, after 47 years — a historic business is not somehow linked to its historic building is one that we’ll revisit later. But in 1982 — perhaps even in 1990 — office towers were a new and exciting alternative.

“Years ago, the idea was to create a Third Street Promenade,” says the city’s Redevelopment Bureau Manager Craig Beck. (The Third Street Promenade was spearheaded by none other than Long Beach’s current Planning Director Suzanne Frick, then of Santa Monica.) “We really focused on how you transition the downtown, and in the ’80s it was office towers,” Beck says. “But that was daytime business, and in the long run we found that wasn’t keeping the downtown restaurants going.”

Today, the engine for keeping downtown restaurants going is mixed-use: a blend of residential, retail, and miscellaneous that sounds like a slightly more sophisticated variation on what Urban Pacific had planned 25 years ago — except for those office towers. This time, the city plans to turn the Broadway Block into a condominium complex not unlike the ones it has on Ocean Boulevard, or below Ocean Boulevard — one which could ultimately contain as many as 450 housing units.

Tellingly, it is also known in some circles as the Art Exchange. The idea is that along with such niceties as underground parking and ground-floor retail, there’d be art — the exciting X-factor in this development. It could be art galleries, live-work studios, or a shiny new satellite home for the Cal State Long Beach University Art Museum. As with many other aspects of the development — like the eventual style of its architecture — it’s too early to say for sure what kind of art it will have.

The city’s model for the Art Exchange, however, is none other than Santa Ana, where the redeveloped downtown is home to Grand Central Art Center, a satellite of Cal State Fullerton with real, live artists’ studios and a nationally-regarded museum famed for showcasing (gulp!) low-brow art.

“We see this truly as an opportunity,” says Long Beach Redevelopment Agency Director Patrick West, the former city manager of Paramount credited with turning that city around. “Acres could end up staying, not changing at all. It will depend on the community input.”

This is somewhat true: despite hosting a town hall meeting on the subject last year, picking a developer for the Broadway Block, and beginning to buy up surrounding properties, the city has not yet determined Acres of Books’s future.

But that’s not merely some largesse on its part; it’s also because the city’s offer on the bookstore was rebuffed in November. That forced city lawyers into negotiations with Acres’s lawyer, Joe Dzida (of eminent-domain heavy-hitters Sullivan, Workman & Dee in Los Angeles). Dzida declined to discuss the case with The District.

Meanwhile, the Redevelopment Agency has entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement with Williams & Dame Development, perhaps best-known for its work in Portland’s Pearl District, where an abandoned 34-acre railroad yard was turned into a mixed-used neighborhood of more than 5,000 residential units. The company is currently working on South Park, a series of three condominium/retail towers in downtown Los Angeles it hypes online with a nighttime Starbucks scene ripped straight from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. The gritty city: it’s a project not unlike what we might see in Long Beach.

“Our current design calls for some public plaza space, with some building space that’s designed for . . . a finer arts concept,” says Jim Atkins, a principal with the development company. “Frankly, I think the thing that will help make downtown Long Beach better is more residents. That will be a benefit for retail. That was the case in LA.”

But Atkins says the sprawling, 13,000-square-foot Acres of Books would cramp Williams & Dame’s drawing hand and make it difficult to design things like underground parking.

“We’ve talked about the challenge of saving the entire building, and we’ve talked about the possibility of saving the attractive art-deco facade,” Atkins says. “If we save the facade of the building—particularly if we’re able to relocate that facade—it gives us the opportunity to use that facade in the project in a different way.”

But how is that possible? As a historic landmark, doesn’t all of Acres of Books have undeniable historic value — from its rear double-doors to the lines striped on the asphalt flooring of its fiction room (when it was still a Glenn Thomas car lot) to the stagecoach painting from when it was a dance hall?

Yes and no, says the city’s Historic Preservation Officer, Jan Ostashay. “From an architectural perspective, it does [have value], but it’s only the facade,” she says.
Like other California cities, Long Beach uses state historic preservation guidelines to determine what’s historic — and in situations such as this, officials make a list of the most historic elements of a historic landmark.

“In prioritizing what elements are most historical, you make a list starting with the most historical,” Ostashay says. “So if there was an adaptive reuse, you would start with the facade. First you have to do the prioritizing, and then you figure out what to do with the building. Most of the time, the interior’s not part of the plan.”

This is one of those times. Or, at least, it could be. Remember, the bookstore hasn’t been sold; the developer hasn’t said positively that the building has to go, and the city hasn’t rendered a final decision on the property.

Here’s how it works: each Long Beach historic landmark has certain unique design elements that make it historic. And when a building is declared a historic landmark, the city writes an ordinance protecting it — so those design elements will (everyone hopes) never be altered.

The catch is that sometimes, as with Acres of Books, the people who write the ordinance don’t like the same things you do — and so they may not mention those double-doors at the back, or the stagecoach painting, or even the wall sign painted on the outside of the north wall. They mention what they like and what they consider historic. So the city’s Acres of Books ordinance only categorizes the building’s facade as historic. If the city succeeds in buying the building, Ostashay says protecting it wouldn’t just be her responsibility.

“Ultimately, the Cultural Heritage Commission is going to make the decision,” Ostashay says, referring to the body of local citizens that meets monthly to debate life’s enduring questions, such as whether vinyl windows are appropriate in Craftsman-era homes near historic districts. (The answer is: sometimes.)

Layne Johnson, the chair of the Cultural Heritage Commission and who lives in the city’s historic 1932 Minnie Butler house, says, “It’s going to be interesting. There’s basically the ordinance itself, and the Cultural Heritage Commission’s purview is really limited to what that ordinance deals with.”

Long Beach Historical Society Director Julie Bartolotto also sits on the Commission. She says the Redevelopment Agency will have to come to the Commission for a permit if it wants to demolish Acres of Books.

“It’s really hard to guess,” she says, “but I would think that people are not going to be likely to grant a demolition permit.” In which case, Bartolotto adds, the RDA can go over their heads to the city council.

The council would uphold the Cultural Heritage Commission’s decision, wouldn’t it? After all, Second District Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal has a certain appreciation for Long Beach history; she was in the crowd on re-opening day when the nation’s oldest tattoo parlor, Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo, became Outer Limits. Doesn’t she?

“You know, and you may want to fact-check me on that, I don’t believe the building is a historic landmark. I believe it is just the business,” Lowenthal says. Informed that the Acres of Books is a historic landmark, she says: “I think there’s an opportunity for the city to progress without it being at the expense of the business of Acres of Books. The core value is the business itself. I’m okay with the concept that the business itself is separate from the building.”

That’s exactly what Redevelopment Agency Director Susan Shick said 17 years ago in 1990 — less than a year before the city named Acres of Books the building a historic landmark. (The ordinance shows that the city already recognized the value of the bookseller’s business to Long Beach — in 1990, 31 years after Bertrand Smith donated 250 rare first editions to the Long Beach Public Library, along with a $20,000 grant to buy more.)

“What I don’t want to see is a facade-ectomy,” Lowenthal continues. “I’ve seen it in planning journals. It’s [a term] that we use where you have a historic building and [only] the facade is saved.”

Informed that the facade is really the only part of Acres of Books specifically mentioned in the ordinance protecting it, Lowenthal does an about-face: “Well, if that’s the case, then I don’t mind that.”

Should this surprise us? After all, historic preservation is a new business — and in Long Beach, tearing down interesting buildings is an old business. Here, even Mother Nature is in the redevelopment business, and in the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake she gave half the houses in the city extreme home makeovers. Long Beach Polytechnic High School got one, too — and so did Acres of Books, whose storied Streamline Moderne facade was added to make up for quake damage.

“The city has been doing that for 30 years all over Long Beach. We represented the people who owned the Pike, the Long Beach Amusement Company,” says Charlie Cummings, a partner in Sullivan, Workman & Dee, which represents Jensen Stamps heir Rita Michener in her eminent-domain tussle with the city. “See, that’s the very nature of redevelopment: if you do a big project, you’re going to displace some smaller businesses that could be very successful—and all things being equal could continue to be very successful.

“They’ve done some good things down in Long Beach, but it’s always a question of discretion,” Cummings continues. “But judges don’t have discretion; it’s the [redevelopment] agencies and the council members who have the discretion. It depends on how they view their role, whether it’s just bringing in more dollars or maintaining some of the older and good things the cities have.”

Acres of Books isn’t out of business yet. Like the Pantry, the famous historic 24-hour restaurant in Los Angeles, it may never close. The sagging real-estate market could stop the clock on this development as it has on so many others in Southern California.

But if the city does succeed in buying out her family’s bookstore, Jackie Smith wants relocation costs — somewhere around $250,000 — and a new address as part of the deal. She may get them, or she may get a deal to move somewhere else and then move back to the Broadway Block when it’s completed some time in the next five or 10 years. That’s another possibility. (It’s also a lot of moving.)

But it’s hard to imagine how a new address and some money will adequately compensate anyone for the loss of a one-of-a-kind dusty barn of place, where for 47 years ordinary people like you and me — and some famous writers like science-fiction author Ray Bradbury — worshipped the printed word.

“Better get there while you can,” Bradbury wrote, warning of Acres’s impending demise. That was in 1982. But don’t fool yourself: a move wouldn’t be any easier on Acres of Books today.

“It won’t be this any more,” Smith says. “It’ll just be a bookstore with this name. It won’t smell the same.”

Long Beach CA District Weekly: http://thedistrictweekly.com