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The Meaning of the ‘Magic Johnson’ Starbucks in Ladera Heights ~ Saying Farewell

[dropcap size=big]I[/dropcap]t was a Sunday afternoon like any other at the Ladera Center Starbucks in South L.A., filled with boisterous chatter, laughter and socializing. The speed chess guys sat inside and the cigar-smoking dominoes guys sat outside, set up around a couple of tables at the location’s sprawling patio.

But on this Sunday, October 21, the vibe felt more like a wake than a party, as a congregation of regulars gathered for one last hurrah. It was a send-off not just to a Starbucks store, but to the demise of a real coffeehouse, how they were originally meant to be, an open and accessible space for a community.

Photos by Philip Iglauer.

Earvin “Magic” Johnson opened this Starbucks in 1998, and the store quickly established itself on W. Centinela Ave. as a veritable institution of Ladera Heights. The regulars came to this cafe one last time to celebrate a beloved neighborhood meeting place, because the “Magic Johnson” Starbucks has closed for good.

Over the past two decades, the area has experienced notable revitalization, with rents increasing along with the number of updated chain stores and shops. In that time, Starbucks added three additional stores in the area — including a drive-thru location that is practically just across the street on La Cienega, and a coffee bar inside a Ralph’s across the parking lot.

Now, it’s pulling back by closing its flagship outlet in Ladera. Customer Geo Blaine said the closing Starbucks location helped change the neighborhood's fabric.

“Magic Johnson, when he came here in the mid-1990s, he brought TGIF, Starbucks and other businesses into the area,” Blaine said. “Pretty much what he did was bring the element of what was going on in Leimert Park up to Ladera Heights. What he did was take places like 5th Street Dick’s [located in Leimert Park], where you could play dominoes outside an establishment, and bring it up the hill.”

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[dropcap size=big]T[/dropcap]he end result was a mixture of holiday BBQ and alcohol-free Cheers. Everyone seemed to know each other’s name, with no ‘locals only’ snobbery that might usually be associated with social centers dominated by regulars. Venti sized americanos and frappuccinos dotted the tables, but the tournament-level speed chess games and multiple games of dominoes were the real draw.

“This was known as the ‘Black Starbucks,’ because you could see people playing dominoes out front,” Blaine said.

 Jon Machtig’s an avid speed chess player, and says he’s been frequenting this location for seven years beginning when he first arrived in Los Angeles from Utah. “This is a hub for real five-minute speed chess players. This is where they come," he said. "I don’t know how they’re going to make money if they close places like this.”

The focus of all of the action inside orbited around one long table dedicated to chess boards and clocks. On the other side of a back window, some old-timers were enjoying elegant cigars, dominoes, and friendly ribbing. The afternoon was waning.

“Initially [5th Street Dick’s owner Richard Fulton] would chase us away because we occupied his tables and played until 5:00 in the morning. So, we said, ‘Okay, we are going to go someplace else,’” said Michael Wade, a respiratory therapist at Harbor UCLA Medical Center. Wade also goes by his speed chess alias, “The Shredder.”

The opening of Magic Johnson’s Starbucks came at an opportune time for the guys who hung out at 5th Street Dick’s. “He regretted it later, [because] we made his place look busy. So, he put chairs and tables out for us on the weekends,” Wade said.

RELATED: Hot and Cool Cafe ~ In Leimert Park, A Coffee Shop Builds Community Bonds

Urban Coffee

[dropcap size=big]M[/dropcap]agic Johnson opened this Starbucks under the Urban Coffee Opportunities brand name, a 50-50 partnership between Starbucks Corp. and his company, Johnson Development Corporation. It was considered a risky business venture back in the 1990s. In 2010, Johnson sold his 50 percent stake of Urban Coffee Opportunities to Starbucks, making the cafe behemoth 100 percent owner of the more than 100 other stores, many of them in minority communities. It was speculated at the time that Magic was looking to invest in a sports franchise — we'd all later find out that would be the L.A. Dodgers.

Starbucks Corporation announced it will be closing underperforming stores in the coming fiscal year, according to media reports. That could mean closing locations where the rent is too high. But the company insisted that it is not abandoning Ladera Heights.

“We are actively looking for a new location in the Ladera neighborhood to replace it,” said a spokesperson for Starbucks by phone. “We are not pulling out of the neighborhood by any means. We will be very shortly providing another unique space to do that in.”

People meeting and playing chess or working on their laptops is what Starbucks is supposed to be all about, said Carlton Bullock, a 21-year-old barista at the Starbucks. “Opening four stores in such close proximity is ‘no bueno’ for business, but that’s what they did,” said Bullock.

After this location closes tonight, he is being transferred to a location closer to his home. Bullock has been with the company for four years. As for the regulars, speed chess enthusiasts and dominos players, they haven’t found a replacement worthy of the Magic Johnson Starbucks.

“We are going out with a bang. This was a group that has been going here for going on twenty years,” said Wade, the respiratory therapist. And then, after a pause adding: “We had a good run.”

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