Illustration by Shino Arihara
For a year and a half, the Howling Monk Jazz CoffeeBar was a wonderful little respite at the edge of Inglewood’s Market Street, a small-town commercial drag that is, unfortunately, exactly that. Like the main streets of many other small L.A. County towns forged out of free-radical civic particles that never belonged to L.A. proper, Market once claimed a modest glory that included movie houses, boutiques, pharmacies and even department stores, all within rock-throwing distance from one other.
All that fell away with deindustrialization of the urban core, suburban flight, the rise of the indoor-mall economy and the more recent rise of superstore chains like Target and Home Depot (Inglewood is angling these days for a Wal-Mart, too, though that feels curiously unprogressive). For a while, the Monk raised a possibility that the neighborhood’s old character might return in force.
But now the Howling Monk has gone quiet. Owner Ken Moore has said for the last couple of weeks to call it anything but the end, but I’m far too naturally pessimistic not to. When I got Moore’s distressingly upbeat e-mail a couple weeks ago announcing that the place was shuttering, I went into a slow shutter myself. I didn’t want it to be true. The Monk was the kind of place that anchors a small town much more meaningfully than any anchor store could. It sold excellent coffee and eats but offered so much more: cultural preservation through live jazz, community building by simply having its doors open daily and providing the black public with a gathering place that wasn’t a church or beauty shop or burger stand. Sounds hokey, but the truth is that black people are still in search of community after the frenzied pursuit of integration scattered us all to the wind; we are trying desperately to meet back up in a kind of latter-day Reconstruction era, and the Monk was a godsend. But the realities of business — particularly business launched in the leaden air of post–September 11 — care nothing for good causes, as Ken Moore discovered. After a final Saturday of jazz played before a full house in folding chairs that Moore retrieved endlessly all night from the back of the store like fishes to feed the disbelieving hungry, Howling Monk closed for good.
That isn’t exactly true. Howling Monk is still in the gourmet-coffee trade, which started out in 1998 and has always been the foundation of its business; the jazz and the space on Market was really Moore’s second thought, though it was his higher one, the real leap off the cliff into an unknown that he knew could be either wonderful or bone-breaking. I caught up with Moore a week after the closing, and he said it had been both. I had called him during the week after realizing I was running short on his coffee beans and then realizing, unpleasantly, that I could no longer pop over to Market to pick up some more (I’ve used stopgap product from Trader Joe’s and even boutique beans from Mäni’s Bakery on Fairfax Avenue, and it’s all fine but not the same). Moore was still in the process of clearing out the Monk and moving the remnants of the business there across the street to an office on Hillcrest. That he’ll still have a local business address encourages me, but when I actually walked into the old Monk to get my stuff, my heart fell. It looked like the set of a long-running Broadway show being struck; the magic of the whole affair had been reduced to plywood and stacks of paper and naked light bulbs.
Moore was alone in the middle of all this rubble of a dream, grateful for the interruption. He confessed he spent the previous day sitting immobile on a couch. “When I took that first picture off the wall, it hit me that I was really closing,” he said. “Going through this has been like going through the phases of death — you know, anger, denial, acceptance. I was depressed. I felt like a total failure. I sat and sat and thought about what had gone wrong.”
For Moore, as for us in Inglewood and in the black community at large, Howling Monk was a small business that was very nearly a spiritual undertaking. Moore did not create such a burden of expectation or set up shop with that burden in mind, but he bore it nonetheless, even willingly. His various passions for good coffee, jazz, cultural preservation, image building, business growth, community empowerment and Inglewood boosterism were, and are, necessarily and inextricably bound.
While the Monk was open I had many a spontaneous conversation with Moore over coffee about all of these things. Each conversation always segued into another, and another, until finally the morning merged into noon and I was horribly late to work again. Our discussions were all merely different ways of examining one great, inexhaustible idea, like a discussion about the starburst effects of the Enlightenment on Western society. The great idea underlying every talk was, for lack of better words, black self-sufficiency and liberation.