I watched the Central Library burn both times. The music-room fire of September 3, 1986, was far smaller than the earlier catastrophe of April 29, but the image of red and gold flames fluttering out of a window right across the street from my office on that lovely Indian summer evening was, I guiltily acknowledge, a very beautiful one. Nowadays the downtown library is much grander than it was before the fires (who doesn’t eat lunch at the Pinot in the garden, every chance he can get?), but it has lost little of its original charm. It may not have the cathedral-like majesty of the reading rooms of the great libraries of New York, Boston or London, but like L.A. itself, our library offers privacy, comfort and anonymity — a matey respect for each patron’s intellectual and personal liberty — that the big boys just can’t touch.
Perhaps because Southern California has been so ribbed as shallow and “La-la,” all our libraries and bookstores tend to share something of the same friendly, gently inclusive character. It’s a very ignorant man who supposes that Southern California is not a mecca for bibliophiles of all varieties. UCLA’s University Research Library is a particularly hospitable place for study and worth taking an extension class just to have library privileges there. My hometown Long Beach library, a very mid-’70s smoked-glass-and-concrete affair that looks quite groovy now, is as strangely meditative, comforting and quiet as a Rothko painting. The original building was also a victim of arson in 1970, and the library moved to the spankin’-new Long Beach Civic Center in 1976. In the meantime, temporary headquarters were set up in a nondescript office building near the Traffic Circle, a very short bike ride away from the house I grew up in on Euclid Avenue.
This fugitive location may have been my favorite library ever. Sometimes high on the weak pot we used to buy in pillowy “lids” from the local riffraff, and sometimes not, I would drift over and into that fluorescent-lit, linoleum-tiled heaven almost every summer day of high school. I had a private library game of closing my eyes and walking down a corridor, then placing my hand randomly on a book and trying it out. My best discovery by these means was Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, one of the most thrilling romances of all time, with a heartstopping denouement and love scenes so unbearably sexy as to produce all sorts of sensations completely foreign to a 14-year-old Cuban-American bookworm.
I lost myself countless times, spelunking in the intoxicating perfumed cavern of books that reached into the limitless corridors of what used to be called The Mind. Soundtrack, courtesy of Dark Side of the Moon. And not because I had a Walkman! There was, as yet, no such animal. But nobody needed any such clankingly prosaic devices of plastic and metal in those heady days, with the floodgates of imagination burst open and Henry Miller, William Burroughs, William Kotzwinkle and Lester Bangs cascading in.
Acres of Books in Long Beach is still the best bookstore I have ever visited, though I could never have guessed this as a travel-crazed teenager on the brink, so I thought, of being blown away by the sumptuousness of foreign cosmopolitan bibliothÃ¨ques on Charing Cross Road and on the Left Bank. If the best bookstore in my sleepy seaside hamlet covered a quarter of a city block, I reasoned, Manhattan must boast one six times as large. Ha ha! I am so sure. Not only does Acres of Books leave its Manhattan brethren in the dust, it also leaves in that same dust every used/rare bookstore I’ve ever been in. I hadn’t yet realized that the mislabeled shelves, the agreeably surly and eccentric staff, the mysteriously segregated fiction room and the higgledy-piggledy shelving weren’t incidental, but positively crucial, to its strange allure. Good thing I never really left, after all.