The AIDS epidemic, L.A. riots, Northridge earthquake, same-sex marriage celebrations, political campaign trail stops, and COVID – The Abbey in West Hollywood has seen the best of times and the worst of times. What started out as a small coffee shop in an old dry cleaners in 1991, David Cooley has expanded his operation into one of the world’s most iconic and oldest LGBTQ establishments.
Cooley’s annual Academy Awards viewing party has raised about $2 million for AIDS Project Los Angeles. He helped found Gay & Lesbian Elder Housing and hosts an annual Christmas in September event and toy drive for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. In 2012, Cooley was selected to join President Obama’s LGBT Advisory Committee and famously banned bachelorette parties from The Abbey until marriage was legal in California.
Over the past 30 years, the space has grown from 1,100 square feet to 14,000 and has gone from coffee and cake to drag brunches, go-go dancers, an elevated bar menu and world-class specialty cocktails.
“When I opened the little coffee shop back then, I never imagined that it would become the heart of the community,” says Cooley, who left his job as a banker to sell coffee. “The Abbey just became the town hall – for joy, marriage equality and politics – and a safe haven during times of crises. It was a place where people came in to watch the debates and be together when election results were coming in. Four years ago, we were there together in despair to comfort each other and for a special time last year when Biden and Harris won and the city erupted with joy.”
In 1991, ACT UP used The Abbey as their base for meetings to get the word out on AIDS. When the Northridge earthquake hit in 1994, being on the same electrical grid as the nearby Sheriff’s Department, The Abbey had electricity when the rest of the city was down and neighbors gathered in their pajamas over coffee to offer each other support. But living through the last 15 months may have been the toughest.
“There’s been more wonderful than bad,” says Cooley, who was surprised by Lady Gaga last week when she celebrated her 10th anniversary of “Born This Way” at The Abbey. “The difference between the two pandemics that we’ve been through is that in 1991, when we opened, our government was not being supportive and we had to fend for ourselves. We had to go out there, do the marches and speak out and see so many of our brothers and families in the community pass without our president at the time mentioning the words ‘AIDS.’ The difference with this president and these 15 months have been difficult for all of us. Now we have a government that is hands-on and our current president has moved quickly.
In the current pandemic, The Abbey opened and closed four times and Cooley was close to not making it, but credits the city of WeHo and the Alcoholic Beverage Control for their support, making it possible to get margaritas to go with your cheeseburger and being able to legally drink martinis on Robertson Blvd.
Moving forward and anticipating much celebration for the month of June, Cooley’s message for Pride month is not to lose sight of what we’re celebrating.
“It’s taken generations of people dying and being discriminated against to get to where we are today,” says the crusader who is no stranger to a good time. “June is not only being able to go out there and drink, but to remember the decades and decades of what the older generations have gone through and what the history is of Pride. Years ago they stood up at Stonewall and said ‘we’ve had enough.’ Then a year later came the first gay pride march. It’s important to keep that in mind when you’re dancing your hearts out once the restrictions are finally lifted on June 15.”