Not a good start to the week for early risers or musicians: on Monday morning, September 1, the regulars at Cosmos Coffee Café in La Mesa arrived to find locked doors and a hand-chalked sign just inside the popular coffee shop. “It’s been a pleasure to serve the community of La Mesa for the last six years,” it said. “Cosmos is closed. Please check our website for updates.” It was signed “Cosmos Crew.”
As of this writing, the Cosmos website is offline.
“I found out about it on Facebook,” bassist Sam Johnson says. Johnson’s jazz trio (with tenor sax player George Kazas and Alan Worthington on guitar) performed at the coffee shop every Friday afternoon for the past eight years.
“We go way back to the original founders, Patrick and Paul, the two guys that started Cosmos.” Ari Bejar has owned the business for the past six years. “I sent Ari a text, and he wrote me back,” Johnson says. “He said he was trying to negotiate with the bank. And he thanked me for all of our work. Otherwise,” Johnson says, he and his band mates would have shown up there on Friday.
“I was surprised. I’m disappointed in the city, and in the way they’re doing things.”
In July 2014, La Mesa city planners launched a construction project to demolish, and then replace, the existing sidewalks, street lights, parking meters, trees, sewer lines, and amenities such as benches in the downtown area along La Mesa Boulevard from Acacia Avenue to 4th Street. Plans called for work to be performed on alternate sides of the street, one block at a time, with temporary pathways to shopkeepers’ front doors installed in an attempt to keep the village open for business.
Free parking was made available as well, but apparently it wasn’t enough incentive to keep cash registers ringing per usual through all of the bulldozing and jackhammering; this summer, O’Dunn’s Fine Art and Sanfilippo’s restaurant, both on La Mesa Boulevard, announced they’d be closing their doors.
The construction fallout likewise nixed popular summer events. For the past two summers, neither the antiques vendors’ street fair, nor the show of hot rods that was a Thursday-night tradition in the village have been able to participate. Then, there was the loss of Cosmos’ massive shade tree — a ficus better than two stories tall that some called a La Mesa landmark.
“I immediately noticed a difference in our turnout on Fridays after they cut it down,” Johnson says of the tree that shaded the coffee shop’s street-side patio “It had to be at least 100 years old. That tree was the essence of Cosmos,” he says. “People sat out there every day under it, and they bought coffee.” The tree met with the developer’s axe sometime last summer (reputedly, during the night), even though the sidewalk in front of Cosmos was not scheduled for demolition until August of this year.
Over the years of operation, Bejar showed support for local artists by hosting fine art and jewelry displays inside the café and by promoting musical events such as an open mic every Tuesday evening. “And Jim Earp was there on some Saturdays,” Johnson says. “Whenever he performed, the place was packed. Now, there’s one less venue.”
The construction project is said to be on schedule for completion in October. As for Cosmos' immediate future, amid rumors of everything from a last-minute investor to an outright buyout and change in ownership, Bejar did not return email requests for comment by press time.