A few words in writing struck the owner of Riverside’s independent bookstore like a body blow. Not a line in a powerful novel or a searing nonfiction tome, but an email from the landlord. Subject line: “Notice of lease termination.”
Cellar Door Books had until Feb. 28 to vacate the premises of Canyon Crest Towne Centre, its home for 10 years. Say it ain’t so, Canyon Crest!
Owner Linda Sherman-Nurick was at home Tuesday night when she read the email in horror. (Never open work email at night. No good can come of it.)
Word began spreading Wednesday — Cati Porter of the literary nonprofit Inlandia messaged me that night — and became amplified on Thursday when Cellar Door posted the news to social media.
The books community is up in arms. Some questioned whether the store’s liberal politics, quarterly Drag Queen Storytime and masking policies led to the decision. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Riverside, visited Friday to show his support.
I’m disheartened to learn of the eviction notice for Cellar Door Books and its potential connection to the hosting of Drag Queen Story hour. Linda, the owner, has long been an ardent supporter of our LGBTQ+ community, and these story hours are enriching spaces for all. pic.twitter.com/nQZ6Lvga5J
— Mark Takano (@RepMarkTakano) January 20, 2023
The most recent Drag Queen Storytime was Jan. 14. Someone slapped a Proud Boys sticker on the store’s front door that day in protest. A man in a truck was said to have harassed families entering the store.
Three days later came the lease termination.
“Riverside’s one and only indie bookstore @cellardoor_12 is being targeted by right wing loons. Now, the #canyoncresttownecenter is refusing to renew their lease,” writer Alex Espinoza, a UC Riverside writing professor, said on Twitter.
Canyon Crest Towne Centre general manager Jeff Lerch said that’s not the case. I inquired Friday morning about the matter, including the reason for the Feb. 28 lease termination. He got back to me that afternoon with a written statement — and a surprise.
“Rumors are rampant that the decision from the CCTC ownership and management waspolitically, racially or otherwise motivated and tied to Cellar Door Books’ special events and patrons,” Lerch wrote. “In fact, these rumors are completely and totally unfounded and could not be further from the truth.”
The upscale center, known for its Ralphs market, restaurants, red-tile roof and bubbling fountain, is owned by its original developers, the Thompson family. Patriarch Mark Thompson died in August 2021, and only nine months later, so did his son, Scott, 37, who had succeeded him.
“This second tragic blow deeply impacted the Thompson family as they struggled to deal with the losses and reestablish management for the center,” Lerch said. After a period of interim management, Lerch assumed those duties on Jan. 1 with plans for “a larger strategic initiative” that will affect several tenants.
“Cellar Door Books was not in default of their lease, had timely paid their rental obligations and had no outstanding complaints served against them,” Lerch said. “As a part of the transition, management and ownership decided to terminate Cellar Door Books’ tenancy and has given them until March 31, 2023 to relocate their operations.”
An extra month! The breathing room was news to Sherman-Nurick when I phoned her late Friday afternoon. (As a journalist, it’s a nice change to be the bearer of good news.)
“That’s helpful, thank you. I appreciate it,” she told me. “It’s still only two months to move, but it’s better than what it was.”
Next time I’m in, maybe I can score a free bookmark.
Sherman-Nurick is meeting Sunday with supporters, including a real-estate agent, to brainstorm how to quickly find a space in Riverside and how to pay for the move. The current space is 17,000 square feet. Downtown is a desirable option.
When we spoke Thursday, she was fretting that there’d be no way to find a space by the end of February, which would mean she’d also have to figure out how to store the shop’s 10,000 books in the interim.
Having until March 31 may be enough time to eliminate that extra headache, she told me Friday, but will still require speedy action.
Because a bookstore is not a big moneymaker, she couldn’t afford the common-area maintenance fee charged atop her rent. She’d been paying it out of her personal funds during her initial four-year lease. The Thompsons let her out of that fee in 2016 in exchange for going on a month-to-month lease, she said.
She acknowledged that management had the right to terminate her lease whenever it wished and that doing so was not strictly an eviction. However, she said Thursday that the abrupt termination was “disrespectful” to a longtime tenant who paid her rent on time.
The expressions of support, both online and in face-to-face encounters with customers, was heartening. It let her know there was reason to carry on.
“The first day, I was panicked,” Sherman-Nurick said. “But we have a wonderful community that feels that this store matters to it.”
Cellar Door touts itself as the only independent bookstore in the Inland Empire. There are other places that sell new books, including a children’s bookstore in Redlands, and a few used bookstores, including two in Riverside.
But Cellar Door does seem to be the region’s only locally owned store that sells nothing but new books. Astounding, especially in a metro area serving 2.5 million people.
It’s our Vroman’s, our Book Soup. If Cellar Door goes away, then what?
“I’m angry to hear this news,” customer Justin Holzer told me as he left the store on Thursday. “This bookstore is part of our community.”
Holzer had picked up two cookbooks his wife had special-ordered. Their daughter, who’s 14, has been going to the store since she was 4.
“My daughter, all she’s ever known is this bookstore being open,” Holzer said.
A resident of Riverside since her teens, Sherman-Nurick was teaching English at Riverside City College when, to fill a void, she launched Cellar Door Books.
Opening day was sometime around Oct. 20, 2012, a few days earlier than planned. “People kept stopping by, saying, ‘Open! Open!’” she recalled. “We didn’t have many books on our shelves. I didn’t know how to do this.”
The store quickly became a mainstay with author events and book clubs. The number and range of books expanded and has fully embraced writers of color and the LGBTQ community.
The store has hosted Drag Queen Storytime events, in which performers in drag read picture books to children, on a frequent basis since 2018 to up to 80 children and parents at a time.
The message to children, Sherman-Nurick said, is that “there’s all kinds of people out there, and it’s fine.”
All the support in recent days has only affirmed her commitment to keep Cellar Door Books in Riverside.
She told me: “This is the community that’s been built here.”
David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday and reads daily. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.