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Closing Time 

The Howling Monk’s last wail

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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.

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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.

Moore already looked wistful about his last stand at Monk’s, but he made light of it too. “It was kind of like being able to attend my own funeral,” he said. “I got to stand up and make my own eulogy, talk about where I’m going next. And I got to see who showed up to see me off.” There was something otherworldly about that Saturday, perhaps because magic was happening for the last time in what could turn out to be a while. A young pianist Moore had never seen before showed up with a drummer and played an electric-bass keyboard atop the piano with his left hand, rhythm on the standard piano with his right; he astonished the crowd out of its inclined somberness with the sheer force of talent, grinning crazily à la Stevie Wonder all the while. A rainbow coalition of unusual vibrancy touched down and filled the Monk with black, white, Asian and Latino jazz aficionados who were hipsters or grizzled traditionalists, or both; multicultural L.A. lived up to the press releases right up to ’round midnight. I pulled Moore’s shirttail at one point, when he was headed off to get another chair, and mouthed the words: You can’t close now. He nodded.

I considered the possibility — well, the truth — that I had something to do with Howling Monk closing. I hadn’t spent enough money. I hadn’t bought enough pounds of coffee, or enough tickets to jazz dates — how many times had I planned to take friends, show off the neighborhood? I was more talk than action, a weak link in the great equation of black self-sufficiency/liberation that suffered from a chronic preponderance of weak links. Moore dismissed the notion, at least to me. “No,” he said. “I was undercapitalized. I used a lot of my own money. I can’t tell you how many people called me to offer to save the Monk, with fund-raisers and rallies, things like that. That’s not the way to go. It’s fine, but it’s not long-term.”

Moore admitted to entrepreneurial mistakes — ignoring his core of coffee clients to nurture the jazz, which was supposed to unfold the other way around. He remained adamant about keeping jazz and coffee a business, not a cultural or museumlike endeavor living on the vagaries of nonprofit money and good will. He is looking to reopen the Monk next January. In the meantime he’s still mounting jazz and music events around town at various venues under the banner of “Howling Monk Presents.” During this time of regrouping he hopes to cultivate the investments of middle-class black professionals — which he broadly calls “the doctors and lawyers” — who are looking for a sound business venture and looking as well to perpetuate the historic and artistic legacy of blacks in jazz. That’s always been a tall order, almost mythic, but Moore says he doesn’t have a choice not to. He’s too far away from being an accountant for Sony Pictures, his last gig before starting the coffee line, and too enamored of the possibility that his vision is only a month, or a day, or a couple of investors shy of full realization. “What else can I do?” he told me good-humoredly. “I’m 54 years old. I’m giving out. I went to the doctor recently, and after an exam he asked me, ‘So when did you have your heart attack?’ I didn’t. I have to count that as a good thing and move on to the next step while I can still do it.” And while we are still raptly listening.

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