How a Riverside bookstore, a cultural oasis, got a new lease — drag readings and all

People stand outside a bookstore holding pride flags
Free Mom Hugs and other supporters stand outside to welcome people coming for last drag queen story hour at the Canyon Crest Towne Centre location of Cellar Door Bookstore in Riverside.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

If you happened to be in Riverside on April 29, there was only one place you could go to properly celebrate National Independent Bookstore Day: Cellar Door, the sole indie bookstore in the Inland Empire selling new titles for children and adults. If you pulled up into the lot that day, the first thing you would spot, even before the storefront, was a pair of pride flags — rainbow and trans-affirming blue, pink and white, rippling in a breeze carrying the faint sound of cheers.

Cellar Door wasn’t just celebrating the national indie bookshop holiday — it was holding its final drag queen story hour at the Canyon Crest Towne Centre, a location it had occupied since its founding 11 years ago.

While protests against drag shows have escalated over the last year, drawing national headlines and even a statewide ban, this small blue-state bookshop was facing a fight of its own. Cellar Door’s owner, Linda Sherman-Nurick, received notice in January from the shopping center’s management that her month-to-month lease would terminate on February 28.


The news shook Riverside’s passionate book lovers; Cellar Door’s announcement was reposted and shared many times across Twitter and Instagram, where it received at least 75,000 impressions and more than 1,000 likes.

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Sherman-Nurick and many of her supporters suspected the store’s drag events might have played a role in the Canyon Crest eviction. A drag queen hour had taken place just two days before the notice of termination. Earlier events had been interrupted by cross-wielding protesters and far-right groups.

Canyon Crest responded with a press release denying the move was “politically, racially, or otherwise motivated,” instead citing the death of the center’s developer, Mark Thompson, which had led to a new strategic plan that required moving some tenants out and repurposing their space. (One other tenant has so far been forced out.) Cellar Door was granted an extension of two months.

Whatever the case, the result for Sherman-Nurick, her staff and her customers was the same. The hurt they felt over the possible loss of an inclusive gathering place and a bright spot in a bookstore desert — that was undeniably real.


When you step inside Cellar Door, a bookish warmth envelops you: The carpet bears the names of classic writers, just one element of a quirky decorating scheme, including tall shelves and a brick-laid floor, that evokes the whimsy of an elementary school classroom.

Back in March, Sherman-Nurick invited me to visit shortly before closing time to talk to her and other bookstore patrons. I was greeted by her warm hug and the beloved bookstore mascot, Nya, an Australian shepherd mix who shuffled up for a gentle head pat.

A middle aged woman stands behind a window reading "Cellar Door Books."
“I was livid,” said Linda Sherman-Nurick, owner of Cellar Door Books, about the day she received a termination notice from the shop’s decade-long location.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

“The experience of books with Amazon is not the experience I want people to have with books,” said Sherman-Nurick, a wiry middle-aged woman with the air of a kind librarian glasses dangling off her neck on a lanyard. She was full of energy, despite having just hosted a child’s birthday party in the store, and offered stragglers the last of her frosted carrot cake muffins before we sat down to chat about what’s next for Cellar Door.

Only when the topic of the closure came up did the owner’s friendly manner shift into something steelier.


“I was livid,” Sherman-Nurick said of the eviction notice. “I was so angry because it doesn’t just hurt me. It hurts all of these people. … This is their space.”

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Sherman-Nurick described the community’s support as a silver lining. City officials and representatives reached out to help her locate a new home — including Clarissa Cervantes, who represents Riverside’s Ward 2, and the district’s U.S. representative, Democrat Mark Takano.

Takano, a longtime family friend of Sherman-Nurick’s, had no reservations about connecting Cellar Door’s troubles with the larger trends he’s been seeing nationally, with book bans restricting LGBTQ+ stories and state legislation targeting drag performers and gender-affirming medical care. Having attended the drag queen readings himself, he recalled their innocence and fun.

“So many members of my community saw value in Cellar Door as a space for not just acceptance but for building understanding and inclusion,” Takano said in an interview. “We are going through a difficult time as a nation and nothing can be more symbolic than a small little independent bookstore as the source of knowledge, education, information, understanding and inclusion.”

On the evening of my first visit, Tamika Burgess read aloud an excerpt from her debut book, “Sincerely Sicily.” Burgess grew up in the Inland Empire, where she was often the only Black student in her class.


“When I was a young reader, I never felt reflected in anything we had to read in school,” said Burgess. “And even if I went to the bookstore with my parents, there wasn’t anything there. So just to come in here [and] have this space to feel seen, I very much appreciate it.”

Two drag queens reading story books to children seated in a bookstore.
Drag queens Kelly K. Doll, left, and Scalene OnixXx read story books during Independent Bookstore Day at Cellar Door. “Drag is not a crime,” Doll said later.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

She wrote her newest children’s novel to highlight the experiences of Black girls — especially Black Latinas like herself. But she hasn’t had an easy time getting her book into stores. Burgess tried and failed to persuade the nearby Barnes & Noble to stock it, but Cellar Door quickly welcomed her with open arms.

Sherman-Nurick emphasized that’s why she’s there — to provide a platform for local and marginalized writers who might not get support from larger bookstores more focused on their bottom line.

That inclusivity is just as important to local readers as it is to writers. Quiana Johnson works nearby as a manager for Kaiser’s radiology department. She brought her 14-year-old daughter, Eden, to hear Burgess read, hoping she might be inspired by seeing their family’s roots in the Caribbean and Central America reflected in Burgess’ work.


“We often dealt with those same questions: ‘Who Am I? Who do I identify as?’... There’s not a lot of people of color where she goes to school,” said Johnson. “I felt that it was important for her to have some way to connect.”

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Those connections are deep and long-lasting for Sabrina González, the executive director of the Civil Rights Institute of Inland Southern California, who called the community around the bookstore “family.” She had only heard of her current employer during her last job — as a bookseller for Cellar Door.

Now González leads the Latinx Book Club, one of more than a dozen book clubs Cellar Door hosts throughout the month.

“My office is filled with books, most of them from Cellar Door,” said González. “It’s just really exciting to be part of a space where you can come and feel at home. And we can also hold each other accountable and have some of these tough conversations.”

National discussions around book bans and restrictions have trickled down to local communities. Even at Cellar Door, abuse allegations against authors such as Junot Díaz and Sherman Alexie have forced tough decisions about which books any store should carry. Sherman-Nurick remembers some complicated interactions with customers. Ultimately, she opted to keep those titles. Though she is much less likely to recommend Díaz and Alexie to her readers, she is proud to have reached that decision through dialogue rather than confrontation, and to have come down on the side of inclusion rather than bans.


Fortunately, these dialogues will continue in a new location. Cellar Door recently announced that it will move to Riverside’s Mission Village Shopping Center — just 10 minutes away. Sherman-Nurick hopes to reopen by mid-June. The shop’s last day at Canyon Crest will be May 6.

Rents will double at the new location; Sherman-Nurick acknowledges that it will be a struggle to figure out balance sheets, as the store was already barely scraping by. She says they’ll have to find other ways to adapt and experiment, maybe even expand. San Bernardino, for example, lacks a major bookstore.

“I’m going to start bringing our books over to San Bernardino and having pop-ups and see how it goes,” said Sherman-Nurick. Regardless of the barriers, she is determined to persist and serve the Inland Empire’s readers. “I think books are important. I think they change the world.”

On the day of Cellar Door’s last event, a dozen or so supporters were set up along the portico leading to the entrance, there to defend customers in the event of a protest. (They outnumbered the protesters — two men in baseball hats and sunglasses quietly observing nearby.) Signs promoting LGBTQ+ rights included one that read, “You are seen and loved,” over a painted trans pride flag. Many supporters wore pins and T-shirts from the organization Free Mom Hugs.

Inside the store, a dozen school-age children and toddlers sat in rapt attention as three drag queens read aloud, their long eyelashes fluttering and rhinestones jangling. Even with the shutter and flash of a background camera going off, the listeners — a notoriously fidgety demographic — sat unmoving, engrossed in “Gustav Is Missing,” about a mushroom boy looking for his lost slug.


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“A lot of the kids have been coming since the very beginning,” said one of the readers — stage name Athena Kills — who was serving business-professional in an emerald ensemble with slit sleeves contrasted by her bright red wig. “And we literally watched them grow up from little toddlers to grown kids now. It’s amazing. It’s beautiful.”

The drag queens were organized by a former employee, Elisa Thomas, who had pitched the idea seven years ago. Sherman-Nurick jokes that the drag queens have become so popular with children that she can’t even book herself as a reader.

After the story hour, a long line formed of children eager for their photo op with the queens.

A 4-year-old girl poses for a photo with three drag queens in a bookstore.
Jennyvieve Barquero-Hughes, 4, gets her photo taken with Kelly K. Doll, left, Scalene OnixXx and Athena Kills after the reading.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Sherman-Nurick started charging $5 per adult after protesters entered and disrupted an event (police suggested it might deter them). This particular reading sold out, but money has never been the focus of their participation.


“I didn’t come out the closet til I was, like, 21,” said Scalene OnixXx, who was dressed to the nines in a cowboy-themed outfit complete with a pink tutu and knee-high purple boots. “So to be able to pave the way for this newer generation to come out, have fun and just be themselves is rewarding.”

But that visibility — the move into the daylight of an art form once relegated to dark clubs — is a double-edged sword. The criminalization of drag in Tennessee and proposed bills in other states have put drag queens across the country at risk. Even at Cellar Door, they’ve been heckled and called groomers. They have learned to be careful after performances, making sure to park closer to a venue so they can make a quick exit if a situation escalates to physical violence.

But Kelly K. Doll, wearing an elegant purple cocktail dress inspired by Disney’s “Encanto,” said she wasn’t cowed by such threats: “If [I] end up in a bad predicament, I know I’m going in a way that I was doing what I want to do in life. Drag is not a crime.”

Sherman-Nurick says her new landlord has already made it clear that story time will not be a problem at the new location. The bookstore, and the drag show, will go on.

Deng is a queer Angeleno and multimedia journalist.