ON THE COVER: Joseph ‘Pepy’ Gonzalez maintains his post at Pepy’s Galley. PHOTO BY JOE PIASECKI.

ON THE COVER: Joseph ‘Pepy’ Gonzalez maintains his post at Pepy’s Galley. PHOTO BY JOE PIASECKI.

Neighbors unite in support of Pepy’s Galley, facing eviction in June after 44 years at AMF Mar Vista Lanes

By Joe Piasecki

Some say it’s a sign of changing times. Others see it as a front line in the battle against continued gentrification of the Westside. For Joseph Gonzalez — better known as Pepy to patrons of his traditional neighborhood diner inside AMF Mar Vista Lanes — it’s simply a heartbreaker.

After 44 years at the corner of Venice and Grand View boulevards, Pepy’s Galley has been ordered to shutter for good on June 30 to make way for bowling alley renovations that would exclude a public restaurant.

Also being evicted is Phil Yoakum, who has operated a tiny bowling supply and ball-drilling shop inside the lanes since 1974.

Reaction among Mar Vista residents has been swift and resounding. In just a few days, a “Save Pepy’s” group on Facebook ballooned to more than 5,100 members, and an online petition has received some 2,700 electronic signatures.

On Sunday afternoon, more than 200 people gathered outside the restaurant for a rally in support of the two longtime local businesses. Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin was among them.

“Every neighborhood has its special spots — places that generations of residents have known and shared, places that feel iconic, places that are part of the heartbeat of the community,” Bonin said. “On the Westside, one of those spots is Pepy’s Galley, and I am standing with the neighbors who are asking the new owners of the Mar Vista Lanes to reconsider their decision and keep this special place in our neighborhood.”

’54 years of basic neglect’

Following the 2012 bankruptcy of AMF, the company merged last year with Bowlmor Lanes to create Bowlmor AMF Inc., a conglomerate in control of some 270 bowling centers in the United States and Mexico.

Renovations at AMF Mar Vista Lanes are necessary to keep the location solvent, Bowlmor AMF CEO Tom Shannon wrote in a letter distributed at the bowling alley on Sunday.

“AMF Mar Vista Lanes opened in 1960 and has not had a major upgrading since that time. The entire infrastructure is old, dated, unreliable and uneconomic. I can think of no other business that has operated with success after 54 years of basic neglect. The facility does not earn enough to pay a market rent,” Shannon wrote.

The company has rejected offers to sell the expansive 28-lane facility and its large parking lot to developers who would build upscale condominiums, he added.

In addition to untenable bowling revenues, maintaining the lease for Pepy’s Galley since acquiring the building in July has also been a money-losing scenario, according to the company.

“It is impossible to economically maintain the current arrangement with Pepy’s Galley, as his rent is a small fraction of market rent and the restaurant space would need close to $1 million in upgrades to bring it to current code,” Shannon wrote of the inadvertently retro diner, where a very narrow walkway separates a plastic-laminate dining counter from a handful of cushioned window-side booths.

The renovated bowling alley would not feature a public restaurant, with food being brought in to serve only bowling patrons, according to the letter.

‘Don’t have the guts’

Gonzalez, who broke down in tears as he briefly addressed supporters last weekend, said that his most pressing concerns are the fates of his 20 longtime employees.

“I treat my employees like my family, and my employees treat the customers like family. This is what hurts me the most. All of a sudden my employees, who have been with me 20, 25, 30 years — they’re out on the street,” said Gonzalez, 74.

Although public dialogue began little more than a week ago, a representative for Bowlmor AMF said Gonzalez had been given a 60-day notice to vacate the property by June 30.

Gonzalez said he was initially reluctant to break the news to his employees and is waiting until the last minute to issue official layoff notices: “I don’t have the guts to tell them, ‘My kids, we’re out. I’m sorry.’ What else can I say?”

When completed, bowling alley renovations are expected to create 20 to 30 jobs, according to Shannon’s letter.

But that’s little comfort to Milagros Frausto, who — at 15 years — is one of Gonzalez’s newer employees.

“I had a savings plan for my son’s college. I can’t think about that now,” Frausto said.

Yoakum, a league play organizer who launched his Phil Yoakum’s Bowling Supply in March 1974, depends on the shop to support his 11-year-old daughter and now may have to relocate 20 or more miles away to find another viable work location, he said.

Yoakum’s humble shop — more of a walled-in service counter behind the lanes — isn’t much bigger than some walk-in closets. A single door opens to a walkway not quite four feet wide that separates archaic wooden shelves and dead ends after maybe 10 feet at a mounted ball-driller against fake wood panel wall.

“I’m overwhelmed. I’m on my third generation of drilling bowling balls for families,” said Yoakum, who maintains the shop with the help of his wife. “I’ll find a hole in the wall somewhere, but Pepy’s is the big one, with so many workers.”

‘The Cheers of Mar Vista’

During the rally, Pepy’s regulars recounted times that the omnipresent Gonzalez had gone out of his way to prepare them special dishes or let them slide on a check or two during lean financial times. Some said they ate at Pepy’s as children and returned over the years to introduce Gonzalez to their children and even their grandchildren.

“Pepy’s is a true mom-and-pop diner, the Cheers of Mar Vista, the heartbeat of the neighborhood,” said Mar Vista native Mia Duncans, who started the Save Pepy’s petition and Facebook group.

“Pepy’s has been here 44 years, and I’m 46 years old. I’ve been coming here since I was in diapers. Slowly you see gentrification taking place all over the Westside, but this place has been in everybody’s lives for so long,” said Duncans, who is calling on Bowlmor AMF to incorporate an updated version of Pepy’s into the new bowling alley footprint.

Damien Perez, a Pepy’s regular over the past 20 years, described the diner as Mar Vista’s primary anchor for interaction among neighbors.

“Part of our quality of life will be missing when this place is gone,” Perez said.

Local musician Chane O’Reilly, leader of the band Surgeon Marta, considers the loss of Pepy’s a threat to the community fabric of Mar Vista.

“It’s spitting in the face of the community,” O’Reilly said. “There’s no other word for it than disgrace.”

Mar Vista native Zee Mannsur said Bowlmor AMF’s Virginia-based leadership should consider Pepy’s vital role in the neighborhood carefully before making a decision from afar.

“I understand all about changes in life and changes in the neighborhood, but they don’t know what we have here,” she said.

Don’t say the ‘H’ word

Others at the rally expressed fears that a more upscale bowling concept would price out families.

“Just what we need — another place for hipsters,” said Venice resident Cindy Howard. “The neighborhood is no longer family-friendly. The parks are jammed. The beach costs $15 to park. The ice skating rink has closed. There’s no place for kids anymore.”

Shannon’s letter directly refutes claims that the AMF Mar Vista Lanes remodel will resemble upscale and often 21-plus facilities such as Lucky Strike lanes at Hollywood & Highland.

“There are all sorts of inflammatory and inaccurate statements about what our intentions are and how we have acted being floated on social media,” wrote Shannon. “We are not converting the property to a nightclub-type of bowling alley. It will remain a somewhat traditional, although very nice, family-friendly bowling center.”

Bonin said during the really that while some upgrades may be nice, the place won’t really be the same without Pepy’s.

“Things happen, and this place has a new owner. He has the right to do what he wants with the business that he owns, but we’re here today to say to him: We know this community, we live in this community, and there’s something very special that we love about this place,” Bonin said.

joe(at)argonautnews.com