Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Art Center To Fill Acres of Books Site

A rendering of the proposed Art Exchange project.
(Photo credit: Rodolfo_M)

When Acres of Books, the legendary used and rare book shop that for seventy-four years provided Southern California book lovers and literati with a place to get joyously lost in and, ultimately, became a designated cultural landmark, closed in 2008 the grief was profound.

Acres of Books in Long Beach, CA, at the time of its closing in 2008.

Now, the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency Board has approved the final environmental impact report allowing Art Exchange, an art-driven facility where visitors can watch local artists create, buy art and attend classes, to be built.

Acres of Books in its heyday.
Though not a wide shop, it was deeeeep.

If a book shop has to close, I can’t think of a better way to fill the space that Acres of Books sat upon than by opening a local art center.

A partial view of the front section of Acres of Books.

And what a space it was. With an inventory of one million - yes, one million - volumes Acres of Books, established by respected rare book man Bertram Smith in 1934, was a vast Elysium of everything between two covers. Art Exchange will incorporate the front 5,000 square feet of the original, Art Deco facade of Acres of Books. That front section was reasonably easy to find your way around. When I began in the trade as a scout twenty-five years ago, I would stop into Acres of Books twice a month and stay the entire day. Why? It was the back 5,000 square feet that often yielded the best finds. Not a book shop with standard amenities - like bright lighting and air-conditioning - the back room, more of a humongous warehouse than annex, was filled with books in only the most basic order. You never knew what you’d find, and if you had to spend four hours going through only a small part of the thousands of dusty books with a flashlight to find a gem, so be it. It was worth it.

Bert Smith established Acres of Books
in Cincinnati, OH before moving to California.

It was worth my fingertips getting so dried-out from handling the books and dust that they would crust, split, and bleed. It got to the point where I began to wear surgical gloves while going through the books.

The rear annex of Acres of Books.
The photographer has used a strobe to light this shot.

Reality check: The florescent lights above were not
sufficient to illuminate anything must less a book's spine.

All treasures were buried in darkness.
Note the length of this aisle: Plenty of distance for
a small plane to take off and land.

At the time, I was specializing in erotica, sexology and curiosa and would always ask Jackie, Bert's granddaughter-in-law, if she had anything more than what was on the shelves. After a few months of visits and inquiries that she gracefully answered, I finally won her trust. The next time I showed up, she took me into one of the back rooms to a small, padlocked shed within. She unlocked it, opened the door, and switched on the single overhead bulb.

“The scat room,” she said. And she left me alone.

Inside were wall-to-wall, floor to ceiling shelves of rare, vintage smut and classic sex studies. Best part? The books were priced as they were originally before the shed door was sealed to the public. Four books I knew were worth $150-$200 each. Price? Fifteen dollars apiece. I suspect Acres of Books paid no more than a couple of dollars each for them, if that much. I walked out with six boxes of books, sold two books right away and covered my investment. I felt like a bandit. I suspect the Smiths were quite satisfied with their return. Oh yeah, the hours spent there were worth it.

Ray Bradbury adored Acres of Books. At the time of its
closing he said, "I love this place. I love the smell of it.
When it used to rain...I'd come to Long Beach, I'd
come here to the Acres of Books and I'd go in the back."

It was that experience that reinforced the notion that it might be possible to earn a living selling used and rare books.

The new Art Exchange will stand on hallowed ground. If they called the project Acres of Art, I don’t think anyone would object. Acres of Books put Long Beach, California on the map of international book attractions. With 10,500 square feet of space, perhaps Art Exchange, part of a larger arts development, will become a similar mecca.

Photo of Ray Bradbury courtesy L.A. Observed, which has a fine memorial to Acres of Books featuring Bradbury.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email