Bob’s Espresso Bar – a place for coffee and poetry
I walk into Bob’s Espresso Bar on Lankershim Boulevard in the heart of the NoHo Arts District a little late tonight.
It’s another Wednesday night and I am about to co-host the Writer Wednesday Open Mike and Feature at 7pm with my NoHo co-hort Jessica Wilson.
But Bob (Robert Romanus) who has been the owner and proprietor of this independent coffee shop since February of last year, catches my eye and we go outside to talk.
On first appearance, Bob does not look that different from the young actor he was when he starred in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” the 1983 coming-of-age comedy that defined the early 80s, and, well, the rest of the decade. It also launched the career of a very young Sean Penn.
Bob tells me that he opened the coffee shop because he needed a job.
“I,” says Bob, “could either own a coffee house or work in one. If I owned one I could make it what I want.”
Bob drills a hole in the sidewalk with his eyes.
“I have always been a fan of coffee houses,” says Bob. “(The coffee shop) is an extension of everything I love under one roof.”
Bob is one of the busiest actors in Los Angeles and recently finished another independent film.
“I was a singing waiter,” Bob explains about how he became an actor, ”and I was shy. So I took an acting class and fell in love with the idea that I can be whomever I want to be.”
“What I love about acting,” Bob stresses, “is that it allows me to do and say things on stage and film that I can’t in real life.”
Bob points-out that the reason he started the coffee shop is because he could not find what he was looking for in the neighborhood.
“I used to live up the street,” Bob says, shaking his head, “and I couldn’t find what I was looking for anywhere.”
“(The coffee shop),” he says, “has sort of taken on a life of its own.”
But the lead singer and guiding force behind the rock n’ roll band “Poppa’s Kitchen” admits times are not easy.
“I’m always broke,” Bob says, “and sometimes I can’t even find money for cigarettes.”
Bob stares straight ahead and realizes that he has another customer waiting.
“We are still struggling,” Bob emphasizes, “but we are doing better.”
I go inside the coffee shop where tonight’s Featured Poet Le Anne Hunt is riffling through her work.
“This is a very welcoming and friendly place,” Hunt says. “I would come here again. I am excited about featuring. A little nervous, but excited.”
I recognize Chris Nash, a musician and regular at Bob’s. He has just finished singing the allotted two songs per musical act. I ask him to step outside and talk. Nash obliges.
Nash looks me straight in the eyes. He credits Bob’s and Writer Wednesday for making him play his guitar again.
“(At Bob’s) it’s do your thing and everybody appreciates your art,” says Nash, dressed mostly in black.
“I like the diversity,” Nash continues, “There’s a lot of inspiration (at Bob’s). I needed to pick-up a guitar and checked-out the internet and there was Bob’s.”
At Bob’s, Nash reunited with Bob with whom he starred in the television series, “The Best of Times.”
The native New Yorker was also looking for an arts scene and has found it at Bob’s.
“I wanted a scene,” says Nash, “and this is like a little So Ho or Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground.”
To the left of Nash, Michael Zvaleko and Corrie Wisner are talking.
Zvaleko, from the Ukraine, likes Bob.
“Bob is a nice guy,” says Zvaleko, smiling. “It’s good people here with a minimal set-up. I would come here again.”
This is Wisner’s second time at Bob’s.
“I was here once before,” says Wisner, who is on the Executive Board (Secretary) of the North Hollywood West Neighborhood Council, “and I had a coffee. I would rather support an independent coffee house like this than the chains.”
Wisner is fond of the ambiance at Bob’s.
“There is a lot of character inside (the coffee shop),” says Wisner, “ but it’s not pretentious.”
Wisner says that Bob’s is a big part of the community.
“If you are part of the community,” Wisner points-out, “and want to feel supported, then this is the place to come.”
I run into guitarist and vocalist Joe Willis nearby.
“One day I was just walking by Bob’s,” recalls Willis, 28, of Elfers, FLA, “and he said I could come in and we jammed together . Bob’s music brought me here. It wasn’t like we were meeting, it was like we were re-connecting.”
Willis says that going to Bob’s feels like family.
“What I experience (at Bob’s) is an extended family,” says Willis, who is part of the rock n’ roll group, “The 66,” which has featured at Bob’s and Skinny’s Bar in North Hollywood. “I get positive energy (at Bob’s), collaboration takes place. I feel every time I come here it’s a new experience. What I get from Bob’s is a home.”
Willis emphasizes that being a regular at Bob’s has helped his music.
“I feel my music has grown (at Bob’s),” says Willis. “It’s not anything I pick-up. From Wednesday to Wednesday I express what I’ve been feeling in that week, the accumulation of positive, negative and life in general.”
Willis also says that being homeless has made him stronger.
“Being homeless,” says Willis, “has actually helped me. I had to learn to rely on myself.”
Willis stresses that his life is now his music.
“My music,” says Willis “is now the line I walk. Life has bottlenecked me to a certain road.”
Beverly Swanson, a poet, read in the open mike for the first time tonight. I ask her to come outside and talk.
Swanson explains that the audience at Bob’s is more accepting towards her poetry.
“My poetry,” says Swanson, “meshes with Bob’s. It’s a very receptive, organic environment. It transports me to different genres, possibilities and time periods.”
Swanson, another native New Yorker, says that Bob’s is something special if you’ve never been there before.
“If you’ve never been here before,” says Swanson,” you’re in for a treat with unique performances and a relaxed atmosphere.”
My fiancee Patricia Murphy is enjoying the night air when I approach her.
The half Irish, half Italian sparkplug deeply appreciates Writer Wednesday and Bob.
“Bob’s Espresso Bar,” stresses Murphy, who is a native North Hollywood, “is a congenial, artistic and friendly atmosphere where people can perform to their heart’s content. Bob is a warm, considerate and compassionate artist, actor and musician. His generosity in allowing poets, singers, comics and musicians to perform is a fait accompli.”
I go inside and ask Juan Cardenas, who is Wilson’s husband, and a regular from day one, to come outside and chat.
Cardenas sites the many different cultures and friends he has observed and made at Bob’s as the major reasons for his coming every week.
“The diversity of the arts,” says Cardenas, 28, from Leon, Mexico in the province of Guanajuato, “to music from all over the world and also the friends I’ve made from so many beautiful countries is why I come here.”
Cardenas says that both his music and poetry have grown because of Bob’s.
“My music has grown,” Cardenas insists, “along with my musical ability at (Bob’s). The other musicians have changed my life.”
Bob’s has seen his poetry break through, according to Cardenas.
“With poetry, the best is here,” says Cardenas, “it is like English 101 and better. Bob’s was my starting ground as a poet.”
Cardenas says there is a definite scene outside Bob’s.
“The scene here,” says Cardenas,” is definitely growing. All ego goes out the window. If you pass by Bob’s you hear people talking about poetry, music, politics and art. There are no judges here. There should be no apologies from anyone on the microphone.”
After all, as serendipity would have it, Cardenas and Wilson, both big fans of the rock n’ roll band the Doors, met on opening night of Writer Wednesday.
“I am indebted to,” says Cardenas, speaking softly, “Jessica Wilson and Radomir Vojtech Luza for starting this open mike. It has helped artists and people grow and prosper.”
Wilson is not far away now that another Writer Wednesday is over.
“I launched Writer Wednesday with Julio Rodriguez, the conga poet,” Wilson explains “at the Republic of Pie (in North Hollywood). It didn’t work. They were interested in only music. So now I’m doing Writer Wednesday with Radomir Vojtech Luza at Bob’s. It is a mesh of arts.”
Co-hosting at Writer Wednesday has encouraged Wilson to write more.
“I get excited to share my work more,” says Wilson, 33, born in East Los Angeles. “It has been very enriching. It has encouraged me to write more since now I have a creative family to share it with.”
Wilson sees a scene developing around Bob’s.
“I believe there has been a scene (at Bob’s) since the conception,” Wilson points-out. “We have regulars that collaborate with one another. Bands come together. Lots of relationships are made at Bob’s and keep coming back.”
Wilson also emphasizes that there is a sense of community at Bob’s.
“There is a tight cultural community (at Bob’s),” says Wilson. “All these people have stops along the way and spread the word about Bob’s.”
Wilson, wearing a coat and smiling, is excited about a recent endorsement.
“I am excited as a co-founder (of Writer Wednesday) that ‘Poet and Writer Magazine’ has named Bob’s the number two literary destination in Los Angeles.
Wilson’s hazel eyes widen.
“I would like to say ‘step up to your mike.’”
Bob’s Espresso Bar is located at 5251 Lankershim Boulevard in the No Ho Arts District. (Across from the Art Institute) (On the same side as El Portal Theatre).
Writer Wednesday Open Mike includes a Featured Poet/Performer and begins at 7pm every week. Each act gets approximately five minutes to perform.
Bob’s Last Sunday Salon takes place at 2pm on the last Sunday of the month with an Open Mike and Features except for pre-announced schedule changes.
Photos courtesy of Bob’s Espresso Bar
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