There are no second acts in America, wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, but the great writer never heard of Alvin Reed. After struggling valiantly to hold on to his precious Lenox Lounge in Harlem, it became a daunting task and he finally let the commercial space go, the doubled rent hike was his own personal fiscal cliff.
But as one door closes, an old adage reminds, another one opens, and that’s what is in the works for the resilient Reed and his new location (333 Malcolm X Blvd. across the street from Sylvia’s) which will be within shouting distance of the place where he held forth since the late eighties near 125th Street.
“I plan to hang my sign in the summer,” Reed, said during a recent conversation at his attorney’s office in Harlem. And it will be the same Art Deco signage and name that was trademarked by him and that has beckoned to patrons from all over the world.
“We signed the lease on New Year’s Eve with a feeling of jubilation,” he added when reminded that he shared a moment with President Lincoln 150 years ago on the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
It was a moment of celebration, attorney Tyreta Foster said, “And the people gathered there were exuberantly happy, embracing each other and enjoying the victory.”
Tyreta and her law firm partner Angélica Thomas, Esq. spent the entire holiday season negotiating the deal and securing the 15-year lease which at $8,000 a month ($2,000 less than his rent before the increase), for 2,700 square feet may not be a bargain in Harlem where the rent seems to be going up exponentially by the week, “but we have two floors with an option on a third,” she explained. “Moreover, we have a right of first refusal if the building is put up for sale.”
“None of this would have happened without Tyreta,” Reed insisted, referring to the deal and unable to keep a beam from his eyes as he praised his attorney of seven years. Theirs appear to be a special collaboration, one in which they have endured a number of troubling emotional moments that allow them to share tears upon recalling a few of them. “What I want to get back to are the good old days when the clubs in Harlem had round-robins and shared their good fortune.”
Those days are in the distant past, Reed admitted, but he still remembers when he first purchased the lounge in 1987 with money he and his late wife, Ethel (she died in 1996 at 51) had amassed through hard work and savings. Reed, 72, originally from Richmond, Va., came to New York in 1944. After a brief stint in the service, he worked at several menial jobs before passing exams to become, in succession, a post office employee and fifteen years as a police officer.
“I never had much formal education,” he said, “but from my parents I learned some basic lessons in life—respect and hard work. Also, there was the common sense they instilled in me and the notion that I had to own something.”
When the idea first occurred to him to buy the Lenox Lounge, Reed said he couldn’t find anyone willing to put up the initial money to assist him. “I needed three people to put up $15,000 each to meet the selling price of $85,000 (the balance was to be paid off pursuant to a Purchase Money Mortgage), but nobody was interested,” he recalled. “At first, even my wife wasn’t interested.”
Reed could find no takers in his quest to acquire the bar which was founded in 1939 and was noted for hosting such formidable performers as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Billie Holiday, and an occasional watering hole for Langston Hughes and James Baldwin.
An ad in the Amsterdam News documented the moment and Reed was on his way to the ownership his parents once encouraged him to pursue.
“Ownership is very important,” Foster chimed in, “and people should not underestimate Mr. Reed. And they should also understand that Harlem is not going out of business. We have to patronize our small businesses because for several years now it’s been small businesses versus conglomerates, and small businesses are the economic backbone of this country.”
If that’s the case then Reed’s Lenox Lounge is a critical vertebra in that spine, though he is very much aware of the challenges he faces to stay afloat. “Management is one of the challenges I face,” he stated, “because there’s no way I can be there all of the time.”
Expanding his property and cultivating a larger clientele are also challenges he acknowledges but he’s hoping that these things will occur as he resumes business and gets in position to compete with downtown clubs.
“Thankfully, there are some musicians who are willing to keep their engagement fees at a level where I don’t have to charge patrons $75,” Reed said. “And I’ve got a pretty good lineup once we’re open with headliners such as Patience Higgins, Eric Wyatt, Nat Lucas, and Fred McFarland.”
“What you have to understand,” said Foster, “is that Mr. Reed is not about being in the spotlight; it’s all about Lenox Lounge, which is supported by the people. To this extent, what we’re talking about is a process. And we’re certainly thankful for the support we’ve received from our loyal patrons, elected officials, particularly Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright, Council Member Inez Dickens and Senator Bill Perkins..”
At the close of the interview, Reed was asked how he felt about the relentless and pervasive spread of gentrification. “Some of it's good and some of it's bad, so I have mixed views about it,” he concluded. What he is not conflicted about is the idea of “giving back.”
“A guy came into the place recently and wanted to know if I would join him in a group interested in a charity drive for the community,” Reed recounted. “I told him I’ve been giving back to the community for more than 25 years, so charity is nothing new for me.”
And once the Lenox Lounge is restored we can expect that Reed will continue to find ways of giving back to a community that has, over the years, given so much to him.