Inside ‘Bernie’s Coffee Shop,’ a gathering place for activists and protesters

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Bernie's Coffee Shop exterior Photo credit: Amy Ta

On the northwest corner of Fairfax and Wilshire is the historic Johnie’s Coffee shop. This classic Googie building has become one of those places you drive by and do a double take because something about it seems unusual.

Inside, the general vibe of the place is post apocalyptic. The windows and walls are nearly all covered with posters and signs, remnants of protests and street marches. It feels like some sort of revolution happened and it didn’t go well and everyone fled, leaving everything behind like the 1950s cash register and milkshake machine that still sit there gathering dust.   

In 2000 Johnie’s closed its doors. But the diner wasn’t bulldozed and replaced by condos. A new business didn’t move into the space. Instead Johnie’s spent the next 16 years frozen in time, becoming a filming location for movies like “The Big Lebowski” and “Reservoir Dogs.”

But then it transformed again, and is now a gathering place and workshop for a network of progressive activists, originally working to elect Bernie Sanders.

Recently, the space has become a gathering place for more than Bernie Sanders supporters. The list of groups who use it as a community center includes Extinction Rebellion, Me Too International, Black Lives Matter, Humanity First and at least a dozen others.

Inside ‘Bernie’s Coffee Shop’

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All photos by Amy Ta.

The Johnnie’s buildings is owned by the Gold family, which started the 99 Cent Only chain here in Los Angeles.
Howard Gold was a big Bernie Sanders supporter and one day he was talking with his brother who was said, you know we’ve got the Johnie’s Coffee Shop property just sitting there doing nothing. Maybe the Bernie people would want to use it?

So Howard reached out to some Bernie supporters he knew, “I told them about it and I didn't hear anything for like a month or two and then somebody finally called me back. And I guess the rest is history.”

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Because Johnie’s was a filming location for the last 20 years it has remained frozen in time, like a life size museum exhibit of 1960s Los Angeles diner culture.

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Since the 2016 election Bernie’s has become a community space for a wide array of progressive activist groups including, Extincion Rebellion, Youth Climate Strike, Black Lives Matter, Me Too International and many others.

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Johnie’s became a phone banking center for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. Hundreds of volunteers piled into the old vinyl booths to make calls asking voters to support the Vermont senator’s bid for the Democratic nomination.

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Over the last few years as a hub for left wing activist Bernie’s has slowly accumulated a large collection of protest signs, posters and artwork used in various marches and protests since the 2016 election. Today they cover most of the wall and window space of the restaurant.

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Bernie Sanders’ supporters are gearing up for the 2020 presidential election and plan to use Bernie’s Coffee Shop as a hub for organizing and phone banking as they did in the previous election.

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During a recent visit to the shop, a cardboard candidate Bernie Sanders just happened to be hanging out by the back booth.

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One of the owners of Bernie’s, Howard Gold, had this sign made to show his support for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary.

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Once again, Bernie Sanders supporters plan to use Bernie’s Coffee Shop as a hub for organizing and phone banking.

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Since the 2016 election Bernie’s has become a community space for a wide array of progressive activist groups including, Extincion Rebellion, Youth Climate Strike, Black Lives Matter, Me Too International and many others.

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Though the exterior and interior remain the same since it was a diner, Johnie’s has been closed for business for the last 20 years.

Credits

Host:
Steve Chiotakis

Producers:
Christian Bordal, Kathryn Barnes

Reporter:
David Weinberg