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It’s a coffee shop. A nightclub. A West Hollywood institution. And its founder, David Cooley, is showing no signs of slowing down
By Drew Mackie
April 28, 2016 :: 9:00 AM
Put aside every association you have with The Abbey—as a West Hollywood nightclub, as a brunch emporium, as a place you were obligated to take your relatives when they last visited L.A., as a bustling gay nightclub that you hit right after you came out, all fresh-faced and unschooled in the electric world of homosexuality. For a moment, just consider The Abbey as a metaphor for big city gay life as it has evolved to be today.
Unlike the windowless, privacy-protecting gay bars of ages past, The Abbey is out in the open and basking in the light; anyone walking by can see you hanging out on that patio. It’s also firmly integrated into the community around it. The Abbey is not and never has been some seedy spot on the edge of town. In fact, it almost functions like a de facto community center for West Hollywood. And perhaps most telling of all, it’s not a homogenous group that’s gathering there. Gay and straight alike are enjoying cocktails side by side, as if to remind you that—at least in this part of the world—Joe and Jane Heterosexual are down to celebrate diversity. (Or at least they want in on the party.)
Yes, The Abbey, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this May, is an institution—in the way it’s become a focus for a quarter-century of gay life in Los Angeles, but also in the way the Hollywood sign is an institution. You can’t say it doesn’t loom large over the greater Los Angeles area, even if you haven’t actually been to it in a long time.
It’s also a remarkable business story. During a time when gay bars nationwide have struggled to keep their rainbow flags flying, The Abbey hasn’t just endured but has thrived.
“It’s very exciting. It’s a little overwhelming,” says Abbey founder and owner David Cooley during a recent sit-down with Frontiers. “I’m very proud to have a dream that started off as a little coffeehouse with seven employees and that is now celebrating 25 years. It’s all because of the support of the city of West Hollywood and an amazing clientele that’s been with me since day one.”
Before the end of the year, Cooley and his longtime patrons will have an additional reason to celebrate. The currently 14,000-square-foot bar is scheduled to open its newest expansion—the 5,000 square feet of adjacent space formerly known as Here Lounge—by early autumn. Cooley swears that the added space, which will operate under the name The Chapel, won’t feel like a mere conquest of the Abbey empire, with a different look and even more patio space. And at least for the first few months, The Chapel will be operated as a separate business from The Abbey.
Upon being asked why his bar should be thriving (and how West Hollywood bar-goers should feel about the perceived conquest of Here by the Abbey empire), Cooley gives away one of the secrets to his success.
“People ask me why I’m so fortunate to be expanding, and I tell them that I never cater to one sort of clientele. All the bars that did specify in a certain sort of customer, those are the ones that are closing. I can name off 10 bars in Los Angeles that have closed as a result of that,” he says. “Since I opened up my gates 25 years ago, I’ve always said that everyone is welcome. Everyone. That is my policy. I feel everyone is treated as my VIP. There is no red velvet rope.”
To Cooley, that policy includes straight people, too—in spite of those who feel boy-on-girl dance floor grinding infringes on their homo space. Explains Cooley, “When people say, ‘Oh, The Abbey has become so straight,’ I say, ‘Well, everything is becoming so straight, in a way.’ You can’t discriminate against straights just because you want to have a gay bar.”
It’s a theory that members of the West Hollywood City Council support.
“The Abbey has always been cognizant of cultural trends,” says Councilmember Lindsey Horvath. “I think the more we see equality becoming the law of the land, the more we’re going to see people celebrating the diversity that West Hollywood has always celebrated.” Horvath alleges that the city of West Hollywood currently has the highest percentage of LGBT-identifying residents that it’s ever had—40%—and although its culture has changed, the core principles remain. “I think who we are has stayed the same and is very much rooted in the kind of community we have and the kind of businesses, like The Abbey, that we’ve celebrated for a long time,” she says.
Councilmember John Duran praises The Abbey as a symbol of the progress made by West Hollywood and gay culture in general.
“Instead of being in the darkness and the shadows, the gay community has come into the light,” he says, drawing a parallel with The Abbey’s prominence and the way its design makes it open to the world around it. “The Abbey is one of the cultural landmarks that show how far we’ve come.”
As Duran sees it, The Abbey’s acceptance of all customers—gay, straight and otherwise—is an example the rest of gay culture should follow.
“One of the biggest challenges for the gay community is that we have over the decades been demanding equality. Now we’re finally getting there, but if you really want equality, you have to extend it back. This is what we were fighting for,” Duran says. “Some people feel it’s threatening, but I see it as a sign of progress that we can mingle together in a business like The Abbey as long as everyone can respect the culture.”
It remains to be seen if time will prove Cooley correct in his theory—that gay bars today need to be all-inclusive to the point of expanding the general definition of a gay bar. It should be noted, however, that there’s a precedent for Cooley to be ahead of nationwide trends. After all, when The Abbey first opened in 1991—notably across the street from its current location, where Bossa Nova stands now—it was not a bar. It was a coffeehouse—the first one ever to exist in West Hollywood, no less, as strange as it may seem to imagine any L.A. neighborhood without a coffeehouse on every corner.
Cooley says he got the idea from the Living Room, L.A.’s very first coffeehouse, which Robert Kass opened in 1990 at La Brea Avenue and 1st Street.
“I studied his business and thought, ‘I can do that,’” says Cooley, who at the time had only recently graduated college with a degree in hotel and restaurant management, then come out (as gay) and come out again (to move from Las Vegas to West Hollywood). “So we opened up 1,100 square feet with an espresso machine and a few cakes.”