Lisa Anselmo never stops fighting for causes in the City of Light. Author, blogger, coach, branding guru, and in a past life, a singer, she also manages to find time to take on an injustice she spots to bring it to the world's attention. A few years ago, she and a close friend (Lisa Taylor Huff, who sadly passed away in July 2015) spearheaded a campaign to do away with the love locks (No Love Locks) that were destroying the bridges...long before the damage was irreparable and before the city officials recognized the problem. In fact, it's thanks to "the two American Lisas" that the bridges were saved and attaching a lock became illegal.
Now, Lisa has a new cause: saving the dying Paris Café. More than 300 cafés in Paris have closed between 2014 and 2018 (French National Statistics Office) and for those of us who live in cafés (like almost all Parisians), that's a devastating number. In the rest of France, it's just as bad with 200,000 that reduced 40,000 in just 50 years. The real numbers are tough to get because the café isn't specifically defined, vis a vis a "bistrot" or a "brasserie" or a "salon de thé," for just a few examples. There's a lot of overlap, except you can spot a café by the hours it keeps and the type of food and beverages it serves.
Richard Nahem of I Prefer Paris, an ex-New Yorker's insider's guide to Paris, defines them all in his blog from as long ago as September 2011, but his take on the café was this:
"The most common eating establishment, the café, focuses more on beverages including coffee, tea, wine, and beer, and many now have cocktails and Happy Hour. Cafe's are open all day and night serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner and the same menu is served throughout the day, with more casual fare of sandwiches, croques, omelets, and salads. Most cafés have outdoor terraces which open all year round with heat lamps in winter. Some classic cafés include Café de Flore, Café de la Paix, Les Deux Magots, and Le Fouquet's."
Hmmm. With 300 or more gone since he wrote that, the café might no longer be the most common eating establishment. As Lisa Anselmo wrote on the Save the Paris Café site, "We love all cafés—old and new—and we pretty much live in them, sometimes all day long."
Ain't that the truth?!
We don't live in our tiny apartments all alone while the city of Paris beckons us. We're in the cafés with our electronic devices of all kinds...or not, alone or with friends or colleagues, doing whatever our heart desires, while being plied with food and drink, in the warmth of the cozy interior or on the terrace in the sun (when it shines). It's where we commune with our neighbors, our friends, our business associates. It's where we laugh or cry or make deals. It's what binds our little "quartiers" inside the larger arrondissements and makes us feel like we're a part of something...a family within a larger community.
Café culture is one of the big reasons we all love living here. It's a reason we can accept our tiny spaces at monstrous prices. It's a reason we feel connected with France and the French, even if we mostly harbor our smaller expat bubbles. At least we can live in the cafés. It's well-known how the Café de Flore in Saint-Germain-des-Prés was the center of the writing community in the early 20th-century, hosting such literary luminaries as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. This is where they warmed their hands, their hearts and their heads, came together or sat alone and pounded out their tomes as well as their philosophies. We're still doing it.
Café life is a phenomena unreproducible in the U.S. I've written about this in the past, how even in New York, a true French café can't exist for a variety of reasons that are even bigger than cultural. Starbucks is the closest thing to a French café one might find stateside, one reason for its popularity, but even that doesn't cut it.
Save the Paris Café is "a non-profit collective of local writers, artists, business owners, restaurateurs—Parisians and expats—celebrating café culture." Its goal is to celebrate the French café in a way that will help them thrive, prosper and grow. While Lisa and her collective are focused on Paris, President Emmanuel Macron is focused on the rest of the country. He's launched a 150-million euro ($165 million) rescue plan for 1,000 of them in the small villages "off the beaten track where the shuttering of cafés is often a drama because the closures leave inhabitants with few, if any, alternative places to socialize."
Photos copyright by Lisa Anselmo for Save the Paris Café
Café Charlot interior
Café Charlot lamb and green beans
Café Charlot specials board
When Lisa Anselmo was asked why Paris cafés are struggling so much, she cited the surgence of "Brooklyn-style coffee houses," rising rents, the difficulties facing small businesses (restrictive labor laws, expensive labor costs, high taxes, etc.) and lack of protection of independent owners against corporate chains. Her host of writers, such as Amy Thomas (Paris My Sweet; Brooklyn In Love), David Downie (Paris, Paris; A Taste of Paris), Janice MacLeod (Paris Letters, A Paris Year), Edith de Belleville (Belles et Rebelles), Janet Hulstrand (Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You), myself and others are on her side and the side of the Paris café.
Monday of this week, my own article launched on Save the Paris Café...about My Favorite Café...which everyone knows, is Café Charlot. I'm there just about everyday...for good reason. Read it on Save the Paris Café. Here is a short excerpt:
My Favorite Café Is...Café Charlot
by Adrian Leeds
Everyone who knows me knows that my favorite café is Café Charlot on Rue de Bretagne. When it first opened, it bothered me that it was a bit more expensive than the other cafés in my neighborhood. After ignoring it for a long time, I finally gave in to its popularity, and walked in. I discovered it was way more than a café. It's a way of life. Let me explain.
Café Charlot is owned by a restaurateur who has other cafés around town (La Favorite, Le St. Regis, for example), and like their other cafés, it looks like a New York idea of a French café, a sort of stylized retro: walls in white Métro tiles, dark wood tables and chairs, the zinc top bar, ceiling fans, indirect lighting — a sophisticated urban feel without being too stuffy...
So, how can you get involved in the campaign — either in Paris or beyond? If you love the cafés of Paris and France, then join community: 1) nominate your favorite café, so we can create a database and highlight local eateries; 2) alert us of a café closure (that’s important!); 3) contribute content for our site (photos, artwork, articles), 4) sign up for the newsletter...all here.
A la prochaine...
Adrian Leeds Adrian Leeds Group
(at her usual table at Café Charlot, photo by Lisa Anselmo)
"At age 50, I went back to university to get a guide-lecturer license. Good! I will not hide that it was difficult. But it was worth it because I discovered the history of art, the history of France, the history of Paris and also the history of French literature. Good French literature I already knew a little because before, I had a license of French as a foreign language and I gave courses in French literature to foreigners. Marcel Proust, Madame de Sevigne, Baudelaire and Zola did not have any secrets for my students."
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