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BEHIND THE SCENES / ORANGE COUNTY

Personal Touch Works Both Ways at Koo's

June 13, 1996

Bring in your paints and attack the graffiti wall at Koo's Art Cafe in Santa Ana. Lug in your bongos and join the drum circle. Or grab the open mike and let your impulses fly.

Personal expression is the thing at Koo's, a coffeehouse on Main Street.

"We're an uncensored forum," says Dennis Lluy, 23, who co-founded Koo's in 1994. Lluy explains that he's not the owner ("you can't own a movement"), but he's there on a daily basis making sure everything works.

There's a lot to keep an eye on: music--jazz, hip-hop, punk, folk, Spanish rock, indie label rock--as well as environmental and social education events, independent-film showings, performance art and poetry.

"We have live bands, local and foreign bands. We get 30 demos a week from people under 21 who want to perform. We welcome all levels of talent," Lluy says. "We're a judgment-free environment run by a co-op of volunteers who do everything, from handing out flyers to serving up coffee and vegan food."

The rules are simple: No alcohol, drugs, forms of disrespect, sexism, homophobia or violence.

"We want people to express themselves with their minds, not physical aggression," says Lluy, who found an abandoned Chinese takeout restaurant and petitioned the city to let him start a coffeehouse on a tiny budget.

The city agreed, hoping to encourage an artists village on Main Street.

"Koo's was the name of the restaurant so we just kept it," Lluy says. "Besides, it had a great neon sign and we couldn't afford to get another sign."

Lluy says the coffeehouse, which relies on beverage and food sales and donations, is limping along financially. Volunteers--who range in age from 17 to 40--work other jobs to support it. Lluy is taking a job with a speech and hearing clinic to pay off some of Koo's debt.

"But we're doing better than last year when we fell behind on our rent," he says. "It's important to Orange County that we're here. We're doing a lot of social activism.

"We have turned kids away from violence and gotten people off the streets. Even the police, who worried about us at first, have changed their attitude. They know that we're not troublemakers."

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