"End of chapter looms for a Carlsbad icon"
Served with an eviction notice, the owner of the funky arts hub known as Lhooq Books is fighting back
Written by Pam Kragen
"Los Angeles Times" October 14, 2019
CARLSBAD — Over the last decade, Carlsbad Village has undergone a gradual gentrification, but little pockets of its former, funky self remain.
But one of the village's most unique gathering spots, the alleyway arts hub known as Lhooq Books, may soon disappear.
After 12 years operating a rare and vintage book sales business on Carlsbad Village Drive, fourth-generation Carlsbad native Sean Christopher was unexpectedly served with a 60-day eviction notice last month.
Without a reprieve from his landlord, Christopher has until mid-November to vacate the property, which is both a stand-alone business and an adjoining home, where the single father has lived for the last decade with his 10-year-old son, Jack.
Christopher, 45, said he has always paid his rent on time and over the years has invested thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of sweat equity fixing up the once-derelict properties, so the eviction came as a shock.
His landlord, San Juan Capistrano City Manager Ben Siegel, declined to comment on why the eviction was served or what plans he has for the property, saying only in an email: "Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the matter due to pending litigation."
Christopher said he knows Siegel has the right to terminate the lease on the 1941 horne and shop, but he wants more time to sell or move his inventory and find a new home and a retail space for the business, which makes just enough to cover his bills.
"I'm trying to protect my livelihood and my son's emotional security," Christopher said. "I'm just asking for mediation where we can sit down and I can get a reasonable deal. Ineed time to relocate or do a massive sale so I can get out by the skin of my teeth at the very least.”
Lhooq Books — located in an alley between Garden State Bagels and a Taco Bell/KFC restaurant near Madison Street — has the oddball, grass-roots vibe of something you'd find in San Francisco or Berkeley.
The front outdoor wall of the converted garage is lined with hundreds of books that community members are welcome to borrow or pay what they can to buy. Inside, thousands of rare, vintage and new books line floor-to- ceiling shelves decorated here and there with found art, globes, statues, antique typewriters, a fish tank and chess sets.
There are shelves devoted to literature, beat poetry, philosophy, religion, war, fiction, biographies and books by Ayn Rand, Henry Miller, Fyodor Dostoevsky, John Steinbeck and even Stephen King, among many others. "There's no filler. Everything in here matters. They're either classics or they came highly recommended," Christopher said. "My goal is to help people understand what they're reading. I don't just carry Oscar Wilde. I carry the books that Oscar Wilde was reading when he became who he was."
On the fenced patio, there are tables and chairs where visitors can order a cappuccino and watch movies or attend book readings, lectures, concerts, dance performances and writing workshops. The center's alley-facing west wall is decorated with a colorful mural by skater-artist Kris Markovich.
The hidden-gem quality of Lhooq Books - which Christopher named after "L.H.O.O.Q.," a tongue-in-cheek 1919 artwork by Marcel Duchamp - has made it a darling with travel writers and bloggers. It's been written about in the New York Times, the Hidden San Diego website and a local arts crawl guide.
Because Lhooq Books is a part of Carlsbad that's rapidly disappearing, longtime resident Jaimie Muehlhausen has pitched in to help Christopher try to rescue the property.
"There's no filter. Everything in here matters.... My goal is to help people understand what they're reading." - Sean Christopher, owner of Lhooq Books in Carlsbad Village
Back in the 1990s, MuehIhausen was in a band that used the old garage as a place to practice. The building and adjoining house were in derelict condition and the neighborhood was known as unsafe. The band moved out when someone used an ax to break down the wall and steal its instruments.
When Christopher arrived, he cleaned up the area and invited the community in, said Muehlhausen, a veteran designer, musician and longtime collaborator of famed skater Tony Hawk.
"Here's somebody trying to do something good in the community for kids who can't afford new books and young people who want to discover something they've never seen before," Muehlhausen said. "Sure, he's there to make a little money, but that's secondary to what the vibe of the place is as a community spot where people can gather with like-minded individuals and build a community."
Muehlhausen helped Christopher set up a GoFundMe account, which Christopher plans to use to cover attorney fees to fight the eviction. As of Sunday, the fundraiser has collected more than $2,200 of its $5,000 goal.
Growing up in Carlsbad, Christopher was better known in his mid-teens as a professional skateboarder. But when he found a greater passion in learning and books, he ceremonially burned his skating gear and moved to Europe at age 18 for three years of exploration.
After two more years traveling the U.S., he moved to San Francisco to workas a writer and study English literature and history at San Francisco State University. His goal was to become a college professor, but his life took a different turn.
In 2005, he ended up back in Carlsbad working for a professor friend at his failing San Diego bookstore. When the store closed, Christopher was given its inventory and he leased the garage, which had previously been used as a paint store, a newspaper distribution center and a restaurant supply storage space.
With the blessing of the property's owner, now-retired investor Gene Siegel (Ben Siegel's father), Christopher shored up the leaning building, repaired the roof and put in a new wood floor, bookshelves and French doors. Later, he fenced off the patio to connect it to the adjoining 1941 house that he rented in 2009 as a home for himself and his then-infant son.
For eight years, Christopher used the garage as a writing studio, tutoring center and storage space for the books, which he sold online. In 2015, he opened the space to the public as a store, arts hub and coffeehouse.
The city promptly shut it down, alleging a code violation, and it would take another year before he was able to prove the building’s proper zoning and reopen. Christopher said he invested heavily in the property over the years because Gene Siegel promised him he'd have the first rights of refusal to buy the house and shop if the elder Siegel ever decided to sell.
That commitment was not written in any of the leases, which switched from an annual term to a month-to-month term in January, Christopher is now working with an attorney to retrieve emails from a former property management company to prove Gene Siegel repeatedly made that promise in written communications.
The eviction notice was served Sept. 16, making Christopher's move-out date Nov. 16, but he won't be around. In December, he married an artist from Eastern Europe, and as part of her immigration proceedings, he must fly to her hometown Nov. 1-19 for a series of interviews. That leaves him with even less time to clearout or nail down a new lease deal.
Muehlhausen said he hopes his friend of five years is able to stay in Carlsbad Village. Lhooq Books is one of the few remaining independent bookstores in San Diego County and it's one of the features that reminds Muehlhausen of how Carlsbad used to be.
"Carlsbad is gentrifying and there's a lot of good that comes with that, but it's also losing a little of that unique personality it always had." Muehlhausen said. "I think if you're looking at something like a Sunset Magazine profile on a little town, Lhooq Books is the quirky kind of thing they'll point you to. It's these types of places that give a town its character and stand out in the crowd."