Feature: Community Crisis

Fans of the Depot Bookstore & Cafe fear the worst

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.

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