Feature: Community Crisis

Fans of the Depot Bookstore & Cafe fear the worst

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Gerald Nicosia stands outside of Mill Valley’s Depot Bookstore & Cafe, where he organized a press conference recently to address the community’s concerns over plans to renovate the historic site. Photo by Wayne Freedman.

Jack Kerouac once sat on a bench at Mill Valley’s Depot Bookstore & Cafe. Though it wasn’t exactly a cafe back then. It was a bus stop.

That was in the late 1950s, when Kerouac was living in Mill Valley with poet Gary Snyder, and though the building—indelibly described in Kerouac’s 1958 book The Dharma Bums—has not been a transportation hub for decades, its current owners have won city approval to renovate the site, and a number of Marin County residents have challenged certain details of the plan, asking the Mill Valley City Council to slow down a bit, and either rescind or amend its February 27 approval.

“This is a moral issue, at this point,” says author and activist Gerald Nicosia, taking a seat on what he believes could be the very same bench Kerouac once waited on. Nicosia, the author of Memory Babe, a 1994 biography of Kerouac, has joined up with Mill Valley resident Mary Fenlon and other Depot regulars to cast light on what they fear is a plan to gradually transform the institution into a high-end restaurant.

Nicosia and Fenlon have been collecting signatures on a petition that they plan to present to the City Council during an appeal hearing on the matter, tentatively scheduled for April 2. “This,” says Nicosia, “is about serving the community’s best interests rather than the interests of people who put the value of money over the value of regular people.”

The uniquely identifiable Spanish-tiled building—its image having graced countless calendars and books over the years—was originally built in 1929 as part of the Northwestern Pacific Railroad. When the oil trains stopped running and commuter trains no longer carried residents to Sausalito and back, the place was converted into a bus stop in the early 1940s, and it operated as such for more than 25 years. Now owned by the city of Mill Valley, the building’s interior has been leased to various businesses, including Ganey’s Bookstore and Cafe in the 1970s. The late Mary Turnbull and her husband William took over the lease in 1987, further establishing the space as a safe space for writers, artists, families and local folks.

In her 2015 obituary, Mary Turnbull was quoted as saying that the Mill Valley Depot was created, “as a place where book people could meet, relax with coffee or wine, laugh, gossip, cheer each other on, and talk about great writing.”

After Turnbull’s death in October of 2015, the lease to operate the business was acquired by local restaurateur Paul Lazzareschi, whose business partners include Gary Rulli. Lazzareschi is the owner of Vasco Restaurant, a stone’s throw from the Depot Cafe. Rulli owns Larkspur’s Emporio Rulli.

People sit on the popular patio behind Mill Valley’s Depot Bookstore & Cafe. Photo by Gerald Nicosia.

In January, Mill Valley planning commissioners were presented with plans to renovate the building. Those plans include remodeling the interior and parts of the exterior, moving the small existing restroom into the bookstore area and expanding the kitchen. The new restroom would be wheelchair accessible. In addition to adding retractable awnings outside, allowing for more exterior seating, the bookstore would be enclosed rather than remaining in its current status, fully open to those entering the cafe. Some windows would be replaced with doors, and the size of the store would be reduced to accommodate the new restrooms, and apparently to allow for an expansion of the cafe area, currently a counter-only operation, with no waitstaff. That expansion, according to architectural plans, appears to require removal of the historic bench that Kerouac once waited on.

At a study session on Tuesday, January 9, the Mill Valley Planning Commission appeared to be favorable to the plans, though making it clear that the bookstore must remain “viable.” At the session, Commissioner Anne Bolen warned Lazzareschi and his partners that the bookstore was not to be messed with, calling it “an important part of the business.”

Lazzareschi, who did not respond to a request for comment and clarification, has insisted that the renovations would reduce the bookstore’s footprint no more than 10 percent. At the Planning Commission’s February 17 meeting, the plans were approved, allowing the renovations along with a plan to expand operating hours from the current 7am to 8pm schedule, opening at 6:30am and closing at 10:30pm.

“This all sort of came out of the blue,” says Fenlon, displaying a copy of the architect plans. “Shouldn’t there have been a public meeting of the community to talk about this, before plans were sent to the city for approval?”

On Friday, March 15, Nicosia and Fenlon held a press conference at the Depot, inviting television and print media to attend, with the hopes that expanded awareness of the issue would encourage those opposed to the plans to speak up. This afternoon—one day after the press event, which Fenlon says was well attended—Nicosia says that he was somewhat offended at the previous day’s event being characterized by some local media outlets as a protest rally.

“It wasn’t a rally, it was press conference,” Nicosia says. “If I do a rally, you’ll know it. I was against the Vietnam War. We carried picket signs. That’s a rally. I’m not saying it might not get to that, but there aren’t any picket signs yet.”

According to Nicosia’s reading of the plans, they detail a 50 percent reduction of the bookstore.

“Everyone knows the bookstore’s being cut in half, and that the children’s section is basically history,” he says. “So it’s nonsense to be saying that [the bookstore] is only losing 10 percent. The store is going to look like an airport kiosk when this thing is through.”

Though not reached for comment, Lazzareschi has repeatedly stated that he has no plans to drastically alter the operation, and that it will remain a counter-only operation as it has for decades. To opponents’ claim that the restaurateurs secretly intend to install a high-end eatery in the place, Lazzareschi has firmly denied that, emphasizing that the renovation is to give the iconic building a long-overdue facelift, to bring it up to date and to modestly expand seating inside and out.

Nicosia and his supporters stand firm in their belief that, if the current plans are seen through, it will spell the slow, eventual death of the Depot as an unofficial community center.

“The big issue is money,” Nicosia says. “The owners keep saying they’re going to keep things the same way they are, just selling coffee and chili, with no plans to convert the place into a full-on restaurant, with waiters and waitresses. But no one has revealed how much this remodel is going to cost. I’m guessing it’ll be expensive to knock down walls, install new restrooms, put in three new doors, close in the bookstore, change the outside area and all the other refurbishments that the Planning Commission has approved.

“The cardinal rule of business,” he continues, “is that if you put money into something, you expect to take money out, with interest. How are you going to get this kind of money out if all you plan to do is sell chili by the bowl and coffee by the cup? I think there’s going to have to be major meals served, I think prices are going to be going up, and eventually this place is going to be a full-on restaurant. But no one is saying that, because if they said that, the city would never go along with it. That’s my best prediction.”

Asked whether or not investors and business owners have the right to expect to make money, Nicosia says yes, but adds that some things aren’t about money—or shouldn’t be.

“This is a de facto community center,” Nicosia says. “It’s been operated as such for years. It would be such a shame to lose that. I understand why the owners would do that. Paul has said he’s a businessman, and he has the right to make money, and legally, he does. But there are ethical considerations.

“I have no doubt an expensive restaurant here would be successful,” he goes on. “This is the best location in Mill Valley. This would be a hotspot restaurant. It could probably be called Paul’s on the Square and end up listed in all the best restaurant guides. But that would take away something that has been precious in Mill Valley for decades. And by marginalizing the bookstore, it’s going to hurt the whole tone of the place. If they really do have to lose the children’s books section, that’s going to be a huge hit to this community.”

Nicosia and Fenlon are hoping that if enough concerned citizens register their wariness about the approved plans—with construction potentially beginning soon—the Planning Commission will take a firmer hand in guiding the future of the Depot.

“We hope as many people as possible will come out for the meeting, to show the village that they care about this place. Our hope is that the Planning Commission rescinds its approval of these plans, and requires the owners to modify them. But leave its character alone. Don’t change anything that you wouldn’t logically do to preserve a historical building. And don’t turn it into something it isn’t.”

The appeal hearing is tentatively scheduled for April 2, 6:30pm, at the regularly scheduled Mill Valley City Council meeting at City Hall, 26 Corte Madera Ave., Mill Valley; cityofmillvalley.org.

12 COMMENTS

  1. I love the Depot. I dig Jack Kerouac. I know that Paul Lazzareschi has lived in Mill Valley for decades and raised his family there, besides running one of the best and most affordable fine eateries in town. Mr. Nicosia, on the other hand, is from elsewhere, speculates wildly here about things he knows nothing about, and has a long history of making himself unpopular in the literary world by seeming to think he “owns” Kerouac’s legacy (he doesn’t). I’d wager he spends precious little cash at the Depot, too, and zero on kids’ books. So I’d trust the local who loves his own town and would do nothing to further wreck it, not the crusading crank needing attention. The latter should just bug out and cool it, man.

    • “I know that Paul Lazzareschi has lived in Mill Valley for decades and raised his family there, besides running one of the best and most affordable fine eateries in town. Mr. Nicosia, on the other hand, is from elsewhere…”

      You sound a bit xenophobic. That said, I was aware of Nicosia when we both lived in Chicago and I can understand why he was happy to leave.

      • Hi – thanks, but not xenophobia – just favor those who actually know what they are doing and talking about, wherever they might be from!
        SH

  2. Paul Lazzareschi is our neighbor in Mill Valley. There is a lot here that is simply not true and I am concerned about the misconceptions it might cause. The plans for The Depot, which will continue to be called The Depot. (There is absolutely no plan for it to be called “Paul’s”) is to upgrade the existing structure which is badly needed. A plan to widen the door for customer access will cut down the bookstore only minimally (maybe 10%) . Saying that it is 50% is blatantly untrue. Mr. Lazzareschi is a beloved part of Mill Valley . His
    restaurant Vasco’s is a wonderful and affordable place and Paul knows everyone who comes in by name. He is generous and unpretentious and this portrayal by Mr. Nicosia could not be further from the truth. Mr. Lazzareschi is a professional who knows how to run this establishment and provide good food, a pleasant atmosphere and keep this landmark afloat. The Depot will benefit from his stewardship.

  3. I’ve known Paul for over 10 years and he is a stand-up guy with ethics and morals. He would do a great job bringing the Depot up to more modern standards and keep the flavor we all love. I couldn’t think of a better or nicer guy to take over the Depot.

  4. Personally, I don’t particularly care for the building. After all, it was built as a train station and while I do love trains, the station is nothing to write home about. I’ve always found it cramped, noisy and awkward to use. The seating is totally cramped and not much more comfortable than the bleacher seats in AT&T park. At a minimum the building should be enlarged and the outdoor seating as well.

  5. The paradox of life is that change is the only constant, so deal with it.
    After living in Mill Valley from 1974-94 & operating The Brown Bag Country Eatery in Old Brown’s Store, I saw many changes, and none of the things doomsayers predicted would happen did. So get a grip, and go buy a book or a bowl of chili, if you really want to support this wonderful business.

  6. The place deserves a historical designation that keeps it just as it is for all time. It’s adored nationally and globally, it has resonance with beat poet history. It’s the beating heart of Mill Valley.

  7. Kerouac’s bench? For real? If this cartoonish character was a little more familiar with the Depot, he’d realize that the bench he sits on every day (same seat/same order/same brownie from the middle of the pan/same harsh treatment of the staff) was never part of the Bus Depot. Rather it was added when the building was renovated to include the coffee shop – after Kerouac’s death. Having closely followed the progress of this most welcome renovation for more than a year, I can assure readers that Nicosia’s self serving accusations are patently false. The City realizes this, as they also realize that the finest example of regular people in Mill Valley is none other than Paul Lazzareschi. If Kerouac was still here, he’d likely be mixing it up with Paul over at Vasco, another worthy renovation. Meanwhile, Nicosia is creating his own new rep, a sad fellow who lied and lost. Tip o’ th’ hat to Paul for freshening up the old place!

  8. As an old resident of Mill Valley for ten years I have fond memories of the bus depot, there was a bench set into a redwood that is very special to me! Last time I was there I had flown in from Costa Rica for the showing of the Michael Bloomfield movie Sweet Blues. After the movie I sat with my old mate Dan Hicks and had a cup of tea. Mill Valley in the 70s was the place to be from the Sweet-water to the Old Mill, I lived there for ten glorious years.

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