Iconic Silver Lake queer bar Akbar has been inundated with donations in the past 24 hours, raising over $150,000 from more than 2,500 donors. Each dollar is aimed at keeping the historic spot alive into 2021 and beyond, thus preserving one of LA’s queer bar icons for years to come.
What’s even more amazing: Akbar’s fundraising page wasn’t even supposed to happen yet.
Late last week, co-owner Peter Alexander quietly posted the $150,000 fundraiser on popular crowdfunding site GoFundMe, hoping to save his 24-year-old Silver Lake bar from closing forever as a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. He and co-owner Scott Craig quietly set up the page and hoped to begin raising funds on Wednesday, December 16, with a push on social media and everything. Both patiently waited for the designated start date, not realizing the fundraiser web page remained public.
Quickly enough, word was out on Twitter, Instagram, and in local media outlets. Donations flooded in, and in just about one day the pair had managed to mostly meet their stated goal. As of this writing, Akbar’s GoFundMe raised well over $151,000, and is still rising by the minute.
Alexander is in a state of shock. “We’re as high as kites over here,” he said when reached by phone. The amount of money is staggering enough, but so is the show of immediate support. “LA Magazine just went ahead and published their story and things started happening. We’re so humbled and awed by the response.”
Like most bars throughout Los Angeles, Akbar has struggled during the pandemic. The state has at various points mandated that bars temporarily close, reopen, then close again, all without a financial safety net. At least Craig and Alexander are in a unique position with Akbar, because they own the building. So while they’ve watched solemnly over the last nine months as many of West Hollywood’s longstanding queer bars battle with landlords and fight to survive, they’ve also been spared the worst of it all. Bars and nightclubs across the city including Rage, Flaming Saddles, Gold Coast, and Gym Bar have all closed permanently already.
The partners did secure an initial round from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which provided payroll for 20 employees earlier this year. But the money only lasted 16 weeks, and was split between staff and necessary operating costs. Alexander says they are currently running at a $10,000 deficit per month, and PPP funds only got them through three months. Since then, Alexander and Craig have taken out small business loans, which added $150,000 of debt to a business that has not seen any income since March.
“The easy out for Scott and me would be to sell the bar, the building, wash our hands of the whole thing, take what we can, and get rid of this,” says Alexander. “But how do I square that with my sense of responsibility to the queer community that we have created here? It’s bigger than me and losing my home.”
Akbar’s owners say things were going well until the pandemic hit. “At this point in our history, we’re a very well-oiled machine,” says Alexander. “Scott has worked really hard to build a roster of clubs, and our managers helped bring in different nights, with performance artists, stand up comedy, DJs, or crafts. Those nights offered something unique to queer bar culture. We’re not the Eagle, and we’re not the Abbey.”
Over the decades, many have come to see Akbar as a safe space, a communal living room, performance den, or meeting place for when things get hard personally or politically. “It’s home for a lot of people,” says Alexander.
That home began on New Year’s Eve in 1996, when Craig and Alexander opened Akbar. Both met as self-described young punks thriving in LA’s 80s underground club scene. They frequented legendary spots like One Way Bar, Theoretical, and the Anti Club.
“There was a really vibrant Silver Lake, Echo Park, and Downtown arts scene,” describes Alexander. “It was intermingled with music, arts, club, and the queer scene. We found our identities there, but we lost that with the AIDS epidemic. One of the things that inspired us to open Akbar, was that we missed that scene. We opened Akbar with that template in mind, where you have performance artists mingling with video artists, or music people talking to the PhD, who spoke to the speed head freak. The mingling of communities is important. That’s what creates a vibrant city and a vibrant scene.”
Alexander credits his LA community with quickly supplying the needed funds to keep going, saying that “everybody responded out of love and solidarity.” Still, asking for public donations during a pandemic is not a long-term, business-saving model.
Alexander believes the entire hospitality industry, from bars and clubs to restaurants and small venues, needs federally-backed mortgage assistance. “That would ease the grip around our throats a lot,” says Alexander. “How about we don’t pay it back for the next six months, and tack it onto the end of the loan? People are dying by the hundreds of thousands, but the banks aren’t doing a goddamn thing except lend money. Shame on the government for not helping.”