One of the most powerful prose passages ever written about Long Beach is the scene in the John Fante novel Ask the Dust in which the narrator, Arturo Bandini, is shaken – and stirred – by the 1933 earthquake. Ironically, the threat of another tremor is one of the reasons that there will likely be only one copy of Ask the Dust available in Downtown Long Beach in a couple months – and it will cost $12.95, plus tax, to take that one home.
According to an online search of the Long Beach Public Library Catalog about a minute before this post was sent out, there were exactly three copies of Ask the Dust available for check out at the Main Library. Come November, however, those will likely be – literally – out of circulation. The City of Long Beach’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2009 calls for the Main Library to be closed about then, due in part to structural problems so severe that “the basic functions of the building are being compromised.” And in previously published reports, at least one city official has cited concerns that the Main Library wouldn’t exactly be the safest place to be during an earthquake. Plus, shuttering it would save the city an estimated $1.8 million in FY 2009.
No problem, right? Fante fans should be able to just take a leisurely stroll along the miles of shelves in Acres of Books and… oh, wait. The landmark literary labyrinth of Long Beach Boulevard is set to close, too, with the Redevelopment Agency having purchased the prose-and-poetry-packed property for $2.8 million. So while those shelves, cobbled together from vintage vegetable and fruit crates, admittedly made Acres of Books about the last place one would want to be during an earthquake – except for the Main Library, apparently – the tremors that level the bookstore will likely be emanating from a bulldozer. Now marked down between 25 and 50 percent, its hundreds of thousands of books are priced to move – and apparently any copies of Ask the Dust have already done so.
That leaves only one option in Downtown Long Beach for the prospective book buyer: Borders at The Pike at Rainbow Harbor. And, yes, there is indeed a copy of Ask the Dust there. (Not that the in-store search software was so sure about that: Tapping the title into a computer terminal set aside for patrons produced a three-word shoulder shrug of a status update – “likely in store.”)
Tellingly, Ask the Dust isn’t shelved in the section labeled “All Things Local,” even though Fante – who attended Long Beach City College – actually lived in the LBC at the time of the 1933 earthquake. As a matter of fact, there aren’t too many things that are especially “local” in the “All Things Local” section at Borders. That heading appears atop four bookshelves, but the fourth is actually filled with spillover volumes from the adjacent art section. An inspection of the spines on the remaining three reveals no more than a handful of books that are actually about Long Beach – almost all of them titles from the Images of America series, such as Susan Needham and Karen Quintiliani’s Cambodians in Long Beach and Gerrie Schipske’s Rosie the Riveter in Long Beach. There isn’t even a copy of Cara Mullio and Jennifer Volland’s Long Beach Architecture: The Unexpected Metropolis, essentially required reading for the type of people who read … well, the LBPOST, since it’s publication in 2004.
Even with the run on its stock well underway, Acres of Books still has a selection of books about – or set in – Long Beach. On a recent trip, prospective purchases included A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That and Speed-Walk and Other Stories by CSULB Assistant Professors Lisa Glatt and Suzanne Greenberg, respectively. The Main Library boasts not only copies of both of those standouts, but also the soon-to-be-inaccessible mother lode of local culture and history – the Long Beach Collection. Another irreplaceable asset at the Main Library, the Loraine and Earl Burns Miller Special Collections Room, features rare editions donated by the founder of Acres of Books himself, Bertrand Smith.
The close connection is understandable, because the two downtown literary institutions used to be neighbors. When Smith settled in Long Beach in 1934, he bought out the existing Wyley and Pettit bookstores and consolidated them to create Acres of Books in what had been an abandoned warehouse at 140 Pacific Ave., just across the street from the original library. When that site was paved over to create a parking lot in 1959, Smith spent a year transferring his half a million books to the store’s present location at 240 Long Beach Blvd. shelf by shelf, an endeavor the Press-Telegram playfully described at the time as the “weightiest intellectual movement in Long Beach history.” There isn’t anything particularly playful to say, however, about the current threat to Long Beach’s connection to its literary history.
It’s a history that the City of Long Beach seems to take for granted. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors – lobbied by its own iconic bookstore owner, City Light’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti – began the practice of renaming short streets or alleyways to honor authors who had lived and worked in “The City” back in 1988, transforming “Adler Alley” into “Jack Kerouac” and “Monroe Street” into “Dashiell Hammett.” Perhaps the Long Beach City Council could follow suit by, say, rededicating a side street near LBCC – or near The Pike, where his sublime bit about the 1933 earthquake is set – to John Fante or an alleyway near the redevelopment project that will be built on the site of Acres of Books to Bertram Smith once the dust settles. The costs of such an initiative to honor our literary history would be modest, especially considering that city will supposedly have an extra $1.8 million on its hands if it closes the Main Library.
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