The Iguana Cafe Is a ‘Living Room’ for Its Intellectual and Artistic Clientele
A middle-aged woman leafs through pages of a Duke Ellington biography. Two intense chess combatants contemplate the next move. Several dozen others sway to the sounds of a singer playing acoustic blues.
Just another night at the Iguana Cafe. Opened last October, the North Hollywood establishment caters to the intellectual--books from Charles Bukowski to Isaac Asimov fill the room--and the artistic--paintings, photos and ethnic artifacts cover the walls.
“I want this to be a living room,” said Tom Ianniello, 39, of Van Nuys, who owns the cafe along with his wife, Pat. “I want people to come here and do whatever they want.”
The place does breed intimacy. Well-lighted, with circular tables packed closely together, it has a lot of room for interaction among customers. Each night features musical guests, ranging from acoustic singers/songwriters to avant-garde jazz. Exene Cervenka, formerly of X, has played there several times; almost 100 people showed up for her March performance. Poetry is a regular favorite too. More than a concert, every show takes the shape of a mellow evening among friends. It feels like a student union at college.
Ianniello knows something about coffeehouses. For years, in his native Greenwich Village and Los Angeles, he traveled the cafe circuit, struggling with various day jobs while pursuing his passion--music--at night. After a hitchhiking trip out West in 1972, he was hooked on the Los Angeles night life. He was working for a fast-food company in Canoga Park when he heard about the chance to rent the space, which had been used by an American Legion chapter. So far, he and his wife have invested about $20,000.
Not surprisingly, it’s a daily struggle to stay financially afloat. As Tom runs the club, Pat keeps her job at an electronics firm in Woodland Hills. During the week, admission to the cafe is free. On weekends, a small donation, from $2 to $4, is requested. The money is split with the performers. Musicians often pass the can for tips.
“This isn’t a real wealthy neighborhood,” Ianniello said. “You can’t really put it to them. We don’t want to drive people away, and yet we want to survive. It’s a very tough balance.”
Ianniello said the cafe makes most of its money from the sale of jewelry, paintings, records and books. Hundreds of records and books are scattered everywhere.
From late afternoon to when the music starts, usually about 9 p.m., most people who come to the cafe are looking to buy something. Neighborhood artists offer their works, ranging from $25 to $800. Ianniello regularly sells $200 a week in artwork, books and old records. The cafe keeps 40% of the sales, the artists get 60%.
The Iguana Cafe has few rules. One is no alcohol. “I don’t want to go through the hassle,” Ianniello said. Instead, there is coffee. Of course, a patron must walk next to the stage to get some, but few artists seem to mind the disruption.
The other is no partisan politics. Even though the store is filled with books, magazines and pamphlets promoting all kinds of political thought, Ianniello has refrained from the temptation to hold speeches or meetings here. “I don’t want to be known as a place for a certain kind of people,” he said.
Pat said political conversations take place all the time, but at other, less intellectual moments “the toughest issue is whether black or red checkers go first. We have great arguments over proper words for Scrabble.”
The Iguana has already drawn its share of regulars. Most live in the neighborhood and come by after work.
“Initially, I came here to listen to the music,” said R.C. Conklin of North Hollywood, “but as time went on, I realized there was so much else to do here. You can play chess. You can read. You can just sit.”
Ianniello sees his cafe--it got its name from the family’s pet iguana, Armando--as his own little kingdom. He has already put out two issues of a newsletter, “The Tale of the Iguana,” which features offbeat poetry, prose and photos compiled by local artists. It costs $1.
“I don’t want to go back to the ‘60s,” Ianniello said, “but I’d really like to help develop the culture in this area. A lot of people who come here thought of the Valley as a wasteland, but realize here’s a place where they don’t have to go over the hill and battle the traffic.”
On Sunday nights, from 7 to 10, the cafe provides an open forum for new musicians experimenting with their material. “We’ve gotten some really good talent out of that, and some that wasn’t so good.”
Meanwhile, the chess game goes on. A college student works fast to finish his homework. An elderly man reads the newspaper.
“You can be whoever you want when you come here,” Ianniello said. “That’s what I remember from the coffeehouse experience.”
The Iguana Cafe
10943 Camarillo St., North Hollywood. (818) 763-7735.
Provides nightly musical entertainment from 4 p.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday and 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Admission is free during the week. A small donation, usually from $2 to $4, is requested on weekends.