Acres of Books Year Founded:

1934

Core Business:

Buying and selling used books

Revenue in 1998:

$67,000

Revenue in 2000:

$276,000

Employees in 1998:

6

Employees in 2000:

4

Goal:

To stay in business

Driving Force:

To keep the public reading

Acres of books relies on a love of browsing and reading to keep it competitive with internet rivals

Acres of Books in Long Beach defies the odds of retailing. Walk into the one-story 1911 brick building and you will see row upon row of dusty tomes stacked on faded wooden bookshelves so old that many are from the store's first location established in 1934. Look closer and you'll notice that some of the bookshelves are old apple and orange crates.

Acres of Books is L.A. County's largest used bookstore and likely its most disorganized all of which lends a certain charm to the place that every year manages to pass fire inspection by Long Beach firefighters.

The last few years have been the most challenging because of competition from online book sellers and the big chains. "The store was on a real steep downhill slide for a while. The Internet really zapped us," said Jackie Smith, co-owner of the store that carries everything from vegetarian cookbooks to financial textbooks. "But finally it is coming back. I don't know what it is, but people are coming back."

For years, the store has been a favorite haunt of science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. Actor Lou Ferrigno used to stop by frequently, as well as character actor and dialogue coach Robert Easton.

But most of the customers are folks like Cynthia Reyes, who is an artist by day and works at the docks driving a truck at night. "It's very quaint. It's very comfortable here," said Reyes, who first came to the store several years ago in search of half-priced art history books.

Not really an acre

Forget the name. The store only fills a third of an acre. But placing the 700,000 used books end to end would cover 30 acres. There's also the other 300,000 books in storage.

Rows are arranged by subject matter, 500 categories in all. Nothing is organized by computer. When it's time to do inventory, the owners estimate the worth of their stock by weight. "So far the IRS hasn't said anything," Jackie Smith noted.

For the uninitiated, finding a book can be a challenge. Or a form of entertainment.

"I look for hidden treasures," said Maurice Greeson, owner of Terry's Camera Exchange next door. "I look for what I'm interested in at the time. It might be Modern (Library) first editions. I collect scientific and technical books, and sometimes I'll find some good ones."

Bertrand Smith founded the store in 1934. The grandfather of Jackie's husband, Phil, Smith had a bookstore in Cincinnati but left to come West in the late 1920s. As the story goes, he got into a fight with his wife, walked out the door, and took the train as far as it would go. He wound up in San Diego where he opened a bookstore at the train station.

In 1934, he moved to Long Beach to open Acres of Books in a large building on Pacific Avenue.

"Bertrand lived and breathed books," Jackie Smith said of her grandfather-in-law. When she and her husband Phil, who now sells heavy equipment, announced their engagement at the family home, Bertrand wished them well, grabbed a plate of food and returned to the store.

Converted old bar

Then in the 1960s, when Long Beach decided to build its City Hall near his bookstore, Smith relocated to a location on Long Beach Boulevard that had been an old country western bar.

He bought the building for $75,000 and spent a year moving in. Smith transported his stock one truckload at a time, breaking down each bookshelf and its contents and then reassembling the shelves in the new store. Shortly after the move was completed in 1964, Bertrand died at the age of 96, working up until four days of his death. His son Eugene took over, and when he died, Jackie and her husband took over.

Very little has changed over the years. It remains a hodgepodge of books that seem to go on forever.

People who want to sell their books get about 12 to 13 percent of the book's value. The Smiths turn around and sell the book for half its original value.

The storeowners also buy stock from stores going out of business, and they have scouts with their own private sources. "But it is getting harder and harder to get good stuff," Jackie Smith said. "Anyone with anything wants to put it on eBay."

But eBay doesn't offer half the fun and challenge of discovering a gem of a used book among the rows of dusty shelves. It also doesn't have Penny the cat who will follow you around until you pet her.

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