I flew to Paris the week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks (or perhaps two weeks, in any case when flights had resumed) to attend a conference. It was very, very strange. Practically nobody on the plane, but of course I couldn't be happy about that, thinking of all the people who had been murdered. I wasn't afraid though, at least no more than usual.
One of our biggest events ever was the exposition of Alain 1er de Métropotomie, a folkloric figure who had seen temporary glory and faded to oblivion.
His style was along the lines of pop art, but it had some really strange quirks. He was told that he could put as many paintings up as he could fit on the wall, and he asked if he could use the ceiling, too. Of course, he could! (But he didn’t do it in the end.)
We got quite a bit of media coverage for this expo, but it must also be admitted that the local ordinary customers were quite disoriented by it. And also, the exposition did not save the artist’s career. He is still living in a 15m² studio.
The café was used for shooting a television interview program twice, once with Laurent Fabius, a former Prime Minister of France and once with José Bové, the farmer activist who became famous internationally for “disassembling” the McDonald’s restaurant in Millau, France.
The Austrian director Michael Haneke almost used the café for scenes in his film Caché starring Juliette Binoche. He came to the café three different times to check out the place in person. The café was also considered as a major location in the film “Une vie à t’attendre,” which was quite successful in Europe. Unfortunately, another location ended up being used.
Naturally, there were major phantasms about the revenue that could be generated if the café were used as a film location, but they remained just that…. phantasms.
The TV show was filmed there because one of the producers lived in the neighborhood and spotted it as a possibility for people who wanted a different image from the usual slick television studio.
As for the movie people, they just spotted the café as combining two necessary elements -- 1. the look of a traditional old Parisian café of which tons are needed for movies and series filmed in Paris, and 2. big open spaces in front of the building, which are a technical necessity for movie crews.
The café was often quite a lively place. Naturally, it participated in the Fête de la Musique every year. As the month of June approached every year, young performers would begin contacting the café as a possible venue.
The employees were recruited for their personality as much as for their bartending skills or punctuality. Just like cities like New York or Los Angeles, Paris cafés are full of aspiring actors who need to earn a living when they are not acting. Cinephiles may have seen Vincent ever so briefly in some major French films, as well as in some music videos. At one time we were seeing him a dozen times a day on television in a Renault commercial.
Yes, the café was even mentioned in the Routard, the French equivalent of Lonely Planet guides.
Slam sessions became extremely popular, too popular in fact. The police would come visiting on a regular basis because the crowds would spill out onto the street and make too much noise.
One of the slam artists who was among our top draws has gone on to become very famous in France since those days, Grand Corps Malade.
There were also theatrical evenings.
Every now and then, we had special operations where we tried to serve real meals. For some bizarre reason, I was in charge of the kitchen for those things, which managed to sell out anyway. And I designed and printed the menus myself. While it was more fun than my real job, it was getting to be a bit much.
K2,I managed a cafe here for a brief time(less then a year)while I was trying to launch my garden "career",I can so appreciate so many of your comments. Nothing nearly quite as creative a venture as yours by any means. The staffing "problems" were by far the most challenging along with cost control. I designed the menu as well,all hand done with calligraphy.
yes, Grand corps malade is very popular in Québec too. There are certainly poetry slams in French, English and many other languages, and they are not reserved to the culture of any specific racial or ethnocultural group. And I'm sure I've seen Vincent the waiter in supporting film roles.
I'd found the address of Au vrai paris on websites, as well of reviews of it, including on the anglophone "Secrets of Paris", but since there are no current listings...
There is also "Le vrai Paris", but that is at Abbesses, part of the way up Montmartre.
We kept the café going as best we could. There was plenty of satisfaction and probably even more disappointment. Some of the people who had been with us from the beginning wanted to cash in their participation. Others who had been helping just were not available anymore.
The café was broken into more than once, although there was nothing worth stealing inside.
One profitable event was always the Braderie de la rue Didot, an annual street rummage sale. All hands on board on a day like that, and if there were scattered showers, you could expect 100 people to suddenly crowd in and order an espresso.
Unfortunately, that event was only one day a year. The slam sessions were famous throughout the entire Paris metropolitan area.
To our great misfortune, the woman who lived directly above the café decided that she hated us, and she declared war on us. Even though the entire neighborhood supported us, she had the law on her side, and she called in the police and the municipal services that measure things like decibels. They measured the noise level in her apartment on a slam session night, and we were breaking the law.
We could not afford the acoustic modifications that would be necessary to continue, so the slam sessions were cancelled, as well as all musical activities and anything else that might make noise.
I now look forward to each chapter! To me, your cafe was a complete artistic venue. Good food, drink, friends of like sensibilities (or not), artwork, music and poetry...all in a lovingly restored cafe in Paris in vital surroundings. I know if I had come across Au Vieux Paris, I would certainly have gone in to to enjoy myself. I wonder how you had the energy to do this and to work a full time job. Did you ever take the time to sit and relax with your customers? There is nothing quite so exciting as to be midst this creativity on so very many levels...Your menu with its little vegetable artwork is dated 2003.
...the tension mounts...
I once owned my own shop and understand that odd mix of pure excitement and fear of creativity, total immersion and the hardest work of my life.
I've just come across this great story. Your cafe is exactly the sort of place I'd love to frequent. Above all, I'd go there to look at the artwork. The ambience must have been wonderful. I know of nothing like it in my part of the world. You must have had great fun whilst it lasted.
We had some big meetings. The obstacles were becoming excessive, and the associates working at the café were exhausted. Just as we were beginning to make some money, our profit-making activities had to be suspended, and we could not afford the necessary acoustic or kitchen modifications. Everybody’s savings were already locked up in the café, and it was becoming more difficult to pay the suppliers.
There was a remaining possibility, and I will always wonder if we should have done it or not, but the decision was not mine to take. We could have received major subsidies from the city of Paris, because we had created a “social tool” in a neighborhood that needed such things. We had provided a space for numerous political debates (generally the Green Party and the Socialist Party, but since they were in power at the moment, that was all to our benefit). There was a special municipal fund to help places that were helping the neighborhood, but my friend behind the project did not want to apply for assistance. He did not want to be under the control of political forces of any sort, even though the mayor of the 14th arrondissement was a regular visitor.
So it was decided to sell the café and to return to real life. Some of the associates were civil servants, like my friend, who had taken a leave of absence, and could return to their lives as functionaries as soon as they gave notice. Others needed to find jobs again in whatever they had been doing or in something completely new. I had it easy, since I had never left my job.
Selling the café was a major problem. For one thing, we had to pretend that everything was normal and not breathe a word of the decision to anyone, but at the same time we had to receive the visits of mysterious potential buyers and show them private areas like the kitchen and the storeroom. Some of the employees had not been informed of what was going on, but it probably took them about 10 minutes to figure it out.
Potential buyers were few and far between. It was not the best time to sell, apparently. Offers were made that were much too low. Some people can sniff out desperation. Beer and spirits suppliers also made offers. Their technique is to take over struggling cafés and then to install managers who give priority to all of the products on their list. Why not, but their offers were much too low as well. We had one passionate person, who had created two cafés in a renowned alternative area (Oberkampf), but who had lost everything during a messy divorce. He had the know how and the desire to create something exceptional… but not enough money.
We would have been happy (not really, but we would have done it) to sell even to McDonald's, but their nearest establishments were too close to our location.
Okay, I’ll cut it short. We finally selected a buyer, or rather two associates. They offered an honest price, and even though it was lower than we had hoped, we really needed to strike a deal. Papers were signed. They didn’t have enough money, but a four year payment plan was locked in. If they defaulted on the payments, they lost their money and the café was returned to us (that almost made me hope that they would default somewhere along the line).
All of this had been kept a secret from the customers, because we did not want them to feel betrayed or alienated. There would be plenty of time for that later.
At the end of the summer, the café closed, purportedly for a vacation, but with no date mentioned for reopening.
Financially, things turned out more or less all right. We all got our money back, even though perhaps we would have earned more if it had stayed in a savings account over all that time.
The people who had worked their asses off in the café got a bit more, and it was richly deserved. They should have received more.
Call me compulsive, but I had lived too intensely for a few years at the café. After the first two years, I had even become the webmaster of the internet site as well as the author of the monthly newsletter. Not only did I give news of the café and the neighborhood, but I became an expert about the entire southern half of the 14th arrondissement, even though I was living as far away as was possible, in the northern half of the 18th arrondissement. Speaking of the website, I maintained it, at my own expense, until mid-2008 for the sake of the artists. For many of them, it was the only contact that anybody could find concerning their work. When I finally gave up the website, all of the information was destroyed forever.
Anyway, I needed to see what would happen to "our" café. I peeked through the windows and took photographs of the transformation.
I was devastated to see everything we had done being destroyed.
All of the old "authentic" elements were removed. What was going to happen?
At this point, I should mention that the buyers were Sri Lankan immigrants. No, they had no plans of opening an ethnic restaurant. They had a different vision of things. How ironic that I live next to the Sri Lankan section of Paris and that Sri Lankans had gone to the opposite side of the city to take over the café.
They said, sadly, that they did not feel that they could keep the name of the place. "Au Vrai Paris" just would not seem correct if they were not real Parisians, they thought.
I had no idea what they were going to do. My former associates claimed that they were not interested and had turned the page. (They were in greater pain than I was.)
I was sort of having trouble letting go, since I had not suffered as much as many of the other associates.
I saw where they were putting the new bar counter.
I disapproved, of course, because we had made a point of keeping the old zinc bar as the centerpiece. Moving it off to the side was heresy.
Meanwhile, the outside still looked the same for the time being.
Remember how I said the whole building except for the café had been a squat in the last century? It's hard to imagine when you see the whole building.
Finally the new café was ready to open. Yes, the Sri Lankans invited us. I thought the new paint job looked rather drab.
The new owners had nevertheless adopted our concept of art expos and other events. And on top of that, they had full restaurant service, the principal thing that we had never been able to do.
The new owners were right to change the name. This place would never be the old "vrai" Paris. It was in tune with the new century and did not cater to nostalgia.
One month after the opening of "Les Artistes," one of the two new owners suddenly died of a heart attack. He was 35 years old.
No, don't even think about it. There was no default and the café did not drop back into our hands. The Sri Lankan community knows the meaning of solidarity, and they were able to surmount this tragedy.
Today, the new place is alive and well -- open until 2 a.m. -- and seems to be a major success. We have been paid in full, even though there were some difficult times and a delay once or twice. They have even "corrected" the color scheme, because they have become real Parisians. The city is a wonderful melting pot.
We wish them continued success. Here is their website, which is well worth a visit: Café Les Artistes
And that's the end of my café adventure. I will never forget it.
Kerouac, do you feel in a way the Café Les Artistes is a logical outgrowth of Au Vrai Paris? In other words, with money and time you all might have gone in that direction anyway? It seems that the new owners took many of their cues from what you all had built.
Was the new side bar at least with the old zinc top? I'm not just saying this to be loyal to you and your associates, but the new lighting is really ugly. Wonder if they eventually changed that. Also, the pictures on the wall shown both in your photos above and on their website seem to be smallish photographs framed with glary glass. Does the exhibition change from time to time?
It is great that a café was able to stay in that location. Do you and your former comrades in the café biz ever visit it, or is that too painful?
That was a fascinating story -- thank you so much for telling it.
Yes, we did indeed set the tone for the continuation. If they had not come and visited many times before making the deal, I'm quite sure that they would have done something different, although I don't know exactly what.
The exhibitions continue to change regularly, and I even know people who have exhibited there just because they never got a chance to exhibit at the "original" place and just went back to the same address.
The new bar is not traditional zinc -- it is wood. That can be nice as well, after about 40 years.
I have been back maybe twice, but never with any of the original associates. I have a vague plan to go and have dinner there one of these days with another friend, who lives just two blocks away. He was the first webmaster but never an official "associate", because he had no money to invest (divorce + 3 children).