Acres of Books building may return to its 1920s roots (minus Ye Olde Grist Mill)

The old, long defunct and lamented Bertrand Smith’s Acres of Books may soon be returning to its roots—but don’t get too excited, bibliophiles, because the site of the sprawling and nationally beloved store of nearly a million used books has roots that go deeper into the city’s history, even if those earlier days are not recalled as fondly.

Bertrand Smith founded the first incarnation of his famed bookstore in Cincinnati in 1927, and when he and his wife moved to Long Beach in 1934, he jumped right back into the business of selling used books, snapping up public and private libraries and amassing other volumes on his frequent trips to Europe.

In town, he bought  the Wyley Bookstore on Broadway near American Avenue (now Long Beach Boulevard) and the Fred Pettit store on the 700 block of Pine Avenue and then consolidated them and opened Acres of Books at 140 Pacific Ave.

And already Smith’s store was impressive, containing the sort of wildly eclectic (or simply comprehensive) books on virtually every subject, including 300 titles alone just on the life of Napoleon. His Western books were arranged by state and his fiction titles numbered in the tens of thousands. Like military books? Smith’s titles were thorough: You could pick up such forgotten treasures as “The History of the 57th West Middlesex Regiment.”

Smith had a particular affinity for religious books and the Pacific Avenue store featured books on virtually all of the world’s religions as well as Bibles in 22 languages. His disdain for science fiction was reflected in the fact that he kept those books in the “screwball section.”

At the end of 1959, employees moved the hundreds of thousands of volumes a few blocks east to the new shop at 240 Long Beach Blvd., where Acres of Books achieved its legendary status, with people driving hundreds of miles to visit it and where famous authors shopped for obscure and out-of-print volumes. They included Upton Sinclair and James Hilton, both brief residents of Long Beach. And, of course, its most vocal and famous advocate was Ray Bradbury, who wrote and spoke passionately in favor of keeping the store going. The store was beloved by everyone who loved books and it was a sort of emotional disaster for many when it was closed in 2008 for a redevelopment project that fell apart when all of the city’s redevelopment properties had to be sold. Until now, the building, with its Acres of Books signage, has stood vacant as a painful reminder of one of Long Beach’s most heralded establishments.

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The Acres of Books building at 240 Long Beach Blvd. has been vacant since the store closed in 2008. File photo.

The building, however, is a few decades older than its last tenant. And one of the structure’s earlier occupants was the sort of place that its current developers might be planning.

Jan van Dijs runs JR van Dijs, Inc., a Long Beach-based construction management company specializing in adaptive reuse and historical rehabilitation. His company will be involved with the Acres of Books structure after the developers of a $195 million Broadway Block plan finish their initial work on the ambitious project that will retain the former bookstore as a key element of the block’s property along Long Beach Boulevard.

Van Dijs said nothing has been finalized so far and estimates that it could be a couple of years before his company will begin work on the site.

The only thing that’s certain now is the building will keep its asymmetrical Streamline Moderne facade that was built following the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake, and van Dijs said it will be a mixed-use project.

“Will it be a market? It certainly could be,” he said. “It could be a brewery, a collection of small shops. It will include a restaurant, but we’re still so far out that we have to wait and see what trends are popular when we get control of the property.”

Long Beach’s Grand Central Market made 240 American Ave. its home during the early 1920s. It was a collection of food merchants, such as Ye Olde Grist Mill, where you could buy whole cereals and flour; Young’s Market Co., selling picnic hams and pot roasts; the Mayonnaise & Relish Stand; and Cake-O Doughnuts. Could this be the happy existence the building will return to?

Car dealers made great use of the building as a showroom both before and after the quake. Early tenants included E.W. Hillnger offering a Demot 2-cylinder horseless carriage for $650 in 1910. The Bush Bros. peddled Paige, Oldsmobile and Chevrolet models in 1916. Cowden & Marti sold Chevy roadsters in 1918 for $825 and, after the quake and the redesign of the building, Glenn E. Thomas took the Deco over the top with neon trimming while pushing the latest Dodge autos.

In the 1950s, immediately before Acres of Books brought its 6.5 miles of shelves full of nearly a million volumes to the space, it was, first, the Western Corral, a country-western dance hall with Texas swing by local and touring acts such as Billy Carter & His All Stars.

In 1959, the Western Corral went cowboy-German fusion with the brief life of Freddy’s Hofbrau Corral, featuring more country twanging with a side of German and Hungarian cuisine.

It sounds odd now, but if there’s a big demand for Hungarian cowpoke in the next few years, Freddy’s just might make a comeback on the Boulevard..

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.
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