The following remarks were made at Monday’s City Council meeting:
I want to present our store to you, as an example of what happens to independent, local, service-oriented businesses in Malibu under current conditions. I’m speaking out, knowing that others will feel constrained to speak out...
We opened our store just over 10 years ago in what is now called Malibu Village in the Civic Center, next to Marmalade and the Pet Shop, two doors down from the Ballet School and Levon’s shoe repair. Steve Soboroff and others who cared about the businesses that were there owned the property and responded to the community’s needs and interests.
... For four years we were successful in that location, bringing authors, events and books to the schools, students and readers in Malibu.
In 2008, the hedge fund D.E. Shaw and others purchased the same property as absentee landlords. Some tenants were bought out of their leases; others “encouraged” to leave by the goons put in charge of managing the property to make way for larger rents, so that the investment property could be flipped for profit. This “flipping” routine has happened twice since. This speculation drastically jacks up rents and property taxes (passed through to the tenants) throughout the Civic Center.
After the 2008 purchase, we were stunned to find out that we too were slated to be removed, and that they would not rest until this was done. Many developers find independent bookstores to be attractive businesses for their shopping areas. We are approached every few months about opening a store in a shopping center. However these developers--this hedge fund--tried to force us to leave, resulting in legal battles. By the fall of 2010, after endless legal shenanigans--each one of which we won in the court’s eyes--we were losing out on the financial side. (Really, who were we to go against money and power?) But the challenges continued. You all know most of this already. A trench was dug in front of our store just before Thanksgiving 2010 through Christmas of that year, crippling any chance of doing business. We closed that location a month later in February 2011, extinguishing the store and the legal wrangling, leaving us in continuing debt.
All of this is fairly common knowledge and I can’t speak to many things, due to the restrictions built into lease contracts and legal settlements. Though some parties can distort and exploit those silences, misrepresenting the facts, tenants don’t have the deep pockets to risk litigation by speaking out. So, contractual silences can hide great factual violence.
We reopened across the street, in the quietest part of the Country Mart, in hopes that we would be able to squeak out a business as a bookstore in a community we live in, love and are loved by. Even with these outside economic forces, which have nothing to do with Malibu, or concern for Malibu, or respect for Malibu, we hoped against hope; we tried to persevere against the development financial juggernaut.
We also hoped that the City Council would do something. Citizens spoke up where tenants had to remain silent and real estate agents and developers threatened the city with lawsuits to stop any restrictions on their profiteering, under the flag of freedom and free markets.
Anyone that believes there is anything related to a free market in this discussion is either silly or self-serving--usually the latter. Though we all know governments can be blunt instruments, we need them to limit the blunt force trauma inflicted by relatively amoral corporations out for their own bottom lines, often using the law as a threat and a club.
But the Council has consistently kicked all this down the road for years now: the original moderated discussions of three useful and staff-recommended options - any or all of which would have protected Malibu - were gradually dropped, watered down and postponed. The out-of-town developers have held the City Council hostage, seemingly, with threats of litigation, even though many cities faced with similar economic distortions have crafted similar proposals, which have passed all legal muster.
The developers say that lawsuits are forthcoming, but if they care about this town one bit, why can they not respect the place, the process, the political judgment of the town they profit from? They don’t have to litigate, though they may choose to... but the law allows itself to be used by the moneyed and powerful as an instrument of threat and for wars of attrition against small businesses and, now, against the town itself.
So, out of frustration, dismay, concern, respect and care for this town, the townspeople stepped forward, calling for the City Council to be responsive and responsible. Now they’ve quickly gathered signatures far in excess of what is required because the popular sense of necessity for this is so widespread in Malibu.
Our store is a casualty of out-of-town hedge fund and developer greed and indifference with regard to Malibu. Though we had hoped to find a viable location with a reasonable rent for a bookstore, we have been unable to do so. We love Malibu and are sorry to leave as booksellers, but will stay as committed citizens trying to protect the town we love.
As Arnold York so eloquently wrote in his recent letter in the Malibu Times:
“...What’s involved is not a question of what the staff thinks, or what the consultants think. The issue ultimately to be decided is: what do the voters of Malibu think? What do we want our town to be? And what don’t we want it to be?”
And he finished with: “I trust the City Council will put this on the ballot in November and not let this issue fester.”
So do I —it’s been far too long already.