By Michael Joseph Gross
Designed by Philippe Starck, SBE's corporate office (in the building that used to house Madonna's Maverick record label) looks like a cross between the airy Delano Hotel on Miami's South Beach and the industrial-looking Control headquarters from TV's Get Smart. When David Cooley arrives at 11 a.m. on a Monday morning for a meeting, he's bleary from having hosted a gay club night at Area, another of SBE's L.A. properties, the night before. At 2 a.m., as the nightclub was closing, he says that a beautiful young Englishman called out his name: 'David! David! I'm way sexier without my clothes on!' Then the man peeled off his shirt and said, 'Take me home!'
'This never happens to me!' says Cooley, who is single. 'I said, 'Oh, my gosh, you're very sexy. I'm very flattered. Could I get your number? I have a meeting in the morning.''
Cooley is at once the life of the party (some nights, he says, his upper arms are bruised from people tugging to get his attention) and the guy who, being responsible for keeping the party going, can never quite let go. When he's in Los Angeles, he works about 15 hours a day (the Abbey opens at 8 a.m. for breakfast and closes at 2 a.m.), and he says the job is perfect for him because 'I can't stand to be alone. One day at the house in Malibu with just the dogs and I'm going crazy. I have to have friends around me all the time.'
He was, however, all by himself when he got the news in May 2006 that attorneys had closed the deal with SBE. In a hotel in Washington, D.C., he ran to the minibar, shook up a tiny screw-top bottle of champagne, hollered, and doused himself -- then showered for a dinner out with his mother to celebrate her 75th birthday. His own celebration continued across Europe later that summer when he took a two-month vacation with friends, starting in Ibiza and ending in Mykonos, where he ran up a $7,000 bar tab in one day that ended with Cooley pouring magnums of champagne and bottles of tequila over the side of a balcony and into the open mouths of some rowdy Italian men in their 20s. He laughs: 'They looked like baby birds.'
After returning from vacation, he spent almost half the year on the road, scouting for the Abbey's next location. 'I'm really getting to know the communities, because I want the Abbey to have the same involvement in the community everywhere,' he says. He meets with politicians, local charities, and business owners. (In Chicago, he met with Art Johnston, who helped found Sidetrack bar 25 years ago and says he's open to the competition. 'With leather bars, gay people already have the equivalent of a chain. There are a lot of bars called the Eagle -- in Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, and others -- that feel like the same bar. There's no reason a chain of gay bars couldn't work.') Cooley says that when he goes to bars around the country he's often recognized by men who've been to the Abbey, and reports being greeted with something like the fervor that must have met St. Francis as he seeded monasteries in the 13th century: 'They say things like 'You're David from the Abbey! Have you come to bring the Abbey to us?''
Cooley is tall and slender, with big, wide-set robin's-egg-blue eyes that don't miss much. On a scouting trip for possible Abbey locations in a Southern California beach community, he orders a drink at a local gay bar and barely hides a scowl at the tiny six-ounce glass he's given. This reminds him of a research trip to Atlanta, he says, where he was shocked to find that even the best gay bars serve drinks in plastic cups: 'I don't get it, how people work all week for their drinks, and then they go out and get $9 drinks served in these little Dixie cups. I'd be so disappointed.' Abbey martinis -- which range in price from $12 to $14 -- are served in 10-ounce glasses that wholesale for $6 each. An average of 12 cases get smashed every week, but Cooley says the weight and quality of 'the drink experience' make it worth the expense.
The Abbey's menu and mixology at least match the quality of the best gay bars anywhere in the country. The real challenge in engineering the Abbey's expansion, Cooley says, is finding the right physical space. He wants to re-create the mazy, multilevel, open feel of the West Hollywood location -- his realtor knows not to show him places smaller than 10,000 square feet - - but there are few such prime spots available, and in the past year negotiations to buy two of them -- in San Diego and Atlanta -- seemed done deals but then fell through.
Today's scouting trip brings Cooley to a venerable but run-down beachfront bar, the kind of place that cries out with the tragic joy of old queens who've been getting bombed there for decades. The place is flawed in many ways that Cooley quickly enumerates: inefficient use of space, flimsy construction, cheap 1990s-era Sharp TVs for video screens. 'It would have to be a teardown,' he says, leaving the place.
Gay life as we know it took shape around local businesses that were created before big corporations decided to go after the gay dollar. Everybody knows these places are tacky, but there's a charming valiance to their aesthetic shortcomings. Bars like this may remind us of historic traumas that we feel we have outgrown, but they also preserve our link to ongoing struggles for visibility and cultural coherence.
Does Cooley feel sad at all when he considers that the Abbey may displace bars like this one? 'No,' he says, because he believes he'll be able to integrate the L.A. Abbey's glamour with the local character of the new cities where he sets up shop. 'The Abbey started off just like that broken-down bar. We were just a little coffee shop. We're still going to be a local bar, whether it's in Chicago, New York, Miami, or wherever. We'll blend what the Abbey is with the existing community and that architecture.' At the same time, he recognizes that the new Abbeys will mark a new age in gay nightlife. 'People may think that places like this are charming, but some changes will have to be made.'