When they say, "Long Beach is a great place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit there" (well, actually, they don't say it—we do), it's not meant as a clever insult so much as a startlingly vicious backhanded compliment born from years of pent-up frustration at a city that can't pull its head out of its ass long enough to see what it has going for it.
Long Beach is a wonderful place, yet one of its most identifiable characteristics is its tragicomic history of trying to be something it's not: an archetypal Southern California tourist destination. Then again, there's something sadly Southern Californian about that.
It's been this way from the get-go. Long Beach's tambourine-banging founder, William E. Willmore, used wagon rides, picnics and revival meetings to promote his 1880s beachfront real-estate development. The town was called Willmore City until he went broke in 1884. In 1897, locals killed a stray 63-foot finback whale, nicknamed it "Minnie," dragged the carcass onto the beach, picked it clean, and put the skeleton on display downtown. The local paper declared, "Long Beach is now in possession of the wonder of the world." That carny-hawker attitude has persevered through the Pike to the Iowa Picnic to the Spruce Goose to the Mega-Bungee jumping tower, which have all come and gone.
The current batch of tourist traps includes the Queen Mary and the Aquarium of the Pacific, attractions so specific that visitors really only need to see them once but so expensive that locals will be paying them off for a lifetime.
Meanwhile, Long Beach remains California's fifth-largest city, and its 440,000 residents comprise a dazzling cross-section of humanity that pretty much defines the contemporary American experience. There's a lot to explore, but here are some places—of Long Beach, not foisted upon it—to start with.
READING LONG BEACH
Acres of Books. This dusty ol' barn of a used bookstore is the antithesis—and sometimes the antidote—to the berchain booksellers. Since it was founded in 1934, it has featured reasonable prices, a great selection (an estimated 750,000), and an incredible atmosphere. Books are stacked everywhere on rickety shelves that wind along like rabbit warrens. Don't be afraid to ask for assistance. Don't be shy about asking for a flashlight, either, especially if you wander into the gigantic fiction room in the back. And that big cat? Her name is Penny. 240 Long Beach Blvd., (562) 437-6980.
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ARTY LONG BEACH
Art Theater. The last of the neighborhood movie houses that used to dot the city turned 50 last year, and owner Howard Fine keeps it alive with the time-tested recipe of serving his neighbors—in this case, selecting independent films that appeal to the clientele of the small, artsy-retro boutique district that surrounds the theater and the large gay and lesbian population that lives nearby. That and Rocky Horror—yeah, we know—Saturdays at midnight. 2025 E. Fourth St., (562) 438-5435. Museum of Art. Housed in a tree-framed 1912 mansion of textured brick that overlooks the ocean, the museum has recently expanded its exhibition capacity. Belying its traditional setting, the museum has long been on the cutting edge of video art. And if you don't like art, there's still a great coffee bar and garden in which you can read the sports page. 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., (562) 439-2119. The Skinny House. In 1932, somebody bet Nelson Rummond that he could not build a habitable residence on a lot that measured only 10 feet wide by 50 feet long. Rummond won the bet and ended up in Ripley's Believe It Or Not with the nation's narrowest home—three stories high, 860 square feet, and built in the Old English Tudor style. Drive by, but don't bother the occupants. You can probably imagine how irritating it is to live in a house 10 feet wide. 708 Gladys Ave.
LONG BEACH GETS OUT
Blue Caf. In the midst of a supposedly tony redevelopment district that never quite reaches its caf-society goals, this bona fide honky-tonk just keeps kicking ass. There's music at least twice a night and all day on the weekends that draws from the considerable local talent pool and lots of major touring acts. And speaking of pool, there are plenty of tables upstairs. And speaking of tables, the food's good, too. 210 The Promenade, (562) 983-7111.Morry's of Naples. Founded in 1938 and still family-owned, this neighborhood drinks-and-deli store is an anchor of local stability and world-class civility. A stroll through its beer and wine selection is like a mouthwatering international tour. Beer tastings are every Thursday, and wine tastings are on Friday evenings. But Morry's remains stocked with neighborhood staples, too, and kids still come in with Mom's shopping list. 5764 E. Second St., (562) 433-7843; www.morrys.com.The Sky Room. The cuisine is delectably and expensively gourmet; the 15th-story waterfront view is incomparable; the music is 1940s supper-club cool; and the ambiance is rose-hued, Art Deco elegant. But what really distinguishes the Sky Room is its authenticity. Since it opened in 1938—atop the Breakers Hotel and under the ownership of Conrad Hilton—the Sky Room has been a rendezvous for the rich and famous and lots of others who want to feel that way. Local legend has it that Elizabeth Taylor spent her first wedding night in this hotel with husband No. 1, Nicky Hilton. She's eligible to honeymoon here again; the hotel is now a seniors development. 40 S. Locust Ave., (562) 983-2703. VIP Records. The birthplace of LBC hip-hop. Snoop Dogg recorded his first demo tape in the backroom of this store, and his first video was shot on its roof. All the stars—Warren G, Nate Dogg, Tray Deee . . . and remember the Twinz and Domino?—grew up sifting through its record racks, and owner Kelvin Anderson is still serving up sound to their musical progeny. Feel free to roll through. 1014 E. Pacific Coast Hwy., (562) 591-2349.WestCoast Hotel. There are a gazillion hotel rooms in this city, and the most famous hostelry is the Queen Mary, but we like the place right next door better. The WestCoast looks like a collection of architectural corkscrews, and the design creates great across-the-bay views of the city from most of its clean, spacious rooms—including the closest view of the big ship herself. It's a little remote, but water-taxi service solves that in a fun way. 700 Queensway Dr., (562) 435-7676.