Sisterspace and Books, the black-owned bookstore that tried to create an oasis of African American culture in the fast-gentrifying U Street corridor, was evicted yesterday after years of legal battles over property maintenance and skyrocketing rent.
Dozens of supporters rushed to the storefront at 1515 U St. NW after receiving emergency cell phone calls from proprietors Faye Williams and Cassandra Burton.
But they could do little more than stand on the sidewalk in the sticky heat, exchanging hugs and laments over the death of the bookstore and the changes they see unfolding throughout the city.
"It's like a kick in the face. It's a frontal attack on the African American community," said Tricia Kinch, a resident of Columbia Heights who volunteered at the bookstore.
"Somebody wants this building, and they don't care that the community wants Sisterspace."
Since an eviction order was issued in May, Williams and Burton have sought -- and received -- support from city politicians, African American religious leaders and D.C. residents, urging them to help preserve the bookstore and its community-oriented programming that ranges from adult literacy classes and book signings to activities for children and teenagers.
City officials pledged monetary support, and a community fundraiser was held Saturday at U Street's historic Lincoln Theatre.
Williams and Burton said they had been contacted by someone willing to lend them $875,000 to buy the building, and they were working on getting a contract. Their hope was to make a formal offer to buy the building for $2.4 million, financed in part with a loan from the Industrial Bank of Washington.
At an unsuccessful mediation session Thursday, Williams promised such an offer would be forthcoming within a few hours, said Stephen O. Hessler, the attorney for the trust that owns 1515 U St. The beneficiary of the trust is an African American man who lives in Prince George's County. His brother operated a consulting business in the building and lived in one of several apartments upstairs until his death.
After waiting until Thursday evening, Hessler said, he phoned the lawyer who he understood was supposed to convey the offer. Hessler said that lawyer, who had not been at the mediation session, knew nothing of the promised offer and had no specific proposal to make at that point.
"We were lied to," Hessler said. "They've wasted my time. They've lied to everyone involved and lied to everybody about what they're going to do."
Burton said she and others made clear to Hessler that they were still finalizing their financial arrangements and might need more time.
The owners of the bookstore have fought with their landlords for more than five years -- over repairs to the building, maintenance costs and, more recently, proposed increases in their rent. For much of that time, they withheld rent in protest, or paid it to a court-monitored escrow fund. In the meantime, trendy shops and cafes opened, and pricey loft condominiums were built -- some named for the African American artists whose performances during segregated times gave U Street its reputation as the "Black Broadway."
In May, a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that Sisterspace failed to renew its lease when it expired last fall and therefore had no legal right to stay in the building. The trust is suing Sisterspace to recover back rent and legal fees, which Hessler has told the court total $379,000.
Outside the store yesterday, as men in sweaty T-shirts carried out couches and cash registers, bookcases and artwork and hundreds of paperbacks in black plastic trash bags, Lillie Baker, 71, begged an official from the U.S. Marshals Service to stop the eviction.
"We had a meeting," Baker, who had attended the Saturday event, told the marshal. They were "collecting donations and everything . . . fixing to buy the building."
After the storefront was emptied and the logos scraped from the plate glass windows, Williams and Burton staged an impromptu vigil on the sidewalk and steps.
"We had to stand up, for U Street and for people who look like us around this city," Williams said. "That's what this is really about -- rolling back our history."