The search is over. Call off the dogs and bring the troops home. I found heaven, and it’s in an old stables building in Paris. They say you should never meet your heroes, but what if the hero in question is a building and a unit of people, does the rule still stand?
The obsession began - as many of them do - with an email from a friend a few years back with a bunch photos of an incredible interior. Something that looked like a living installation. And although that would have been enough, the reality of Le Comptoir Général is something so much more special, engaging and inspiring. This beautiful house, with a family-style team and flexible spaces is really a multi-platform fair business, working with and for marginalised people in Paris and Africa.
So where to start?
Le Comptoir Général is a lounge, a bar, a restaurant, a coffee house, a boutique, a museum, a gallery, a shop, a conservatory, an apothecary and a curiosity, where everything - even the billboard sized, hand-painted Jaws movie poster - is for sale. I think that about covers what you see and can immediately engage with when you enter the venue.
After two visits for general gawping, meeting the team and some completely essential cocktail sampling, I finally sat down with Céline - one of the directors at LCG - and she talked me through the social schemes that sit just below the surface of each of the different parts of the house.
For example, when you buy an item of vintage clothing from the Marché Noir (the boutique located in the leafy rafters of the bar area) there is an amazing process that the garment went through in order to land in your hands. If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember all the televised charitable efforts in the 80s when everybody sent - amongst other things - clothing to various parts of Africa. At the time it was the right thing to do, but also sending your out of date 80s garments probably didn't seem like a gross hardship, especially when it was helping those in need. Not many people realised or had reason to consider then that a lot of the pieces (especially the denim) that they sent away would become incredibly valuable in the future booming vintage trade. LCG saw an amazing social opportunity in this. They began to train “pickers” in Togo to sort through clothing at markets and spot key garments that are in high demand in the western fashion market. These great picks are then sent back to Paris to be sold a price that would probably knock the people who received them all those years ago off their feet, but allows LCG to pay both the boutique staff in Paris and the pickers in Africa a fair wage to do their jobs. Like all the best ideas, it’s devilishly simple, and the model works beautifully for everyone involved. It’s not charity, it’s business, and that’s why it works. It gives purpose and worth to people and their skills - one of the most important factors in enabling people to grow.
As money comes into LCG, it filters into other branches of the project. Le Petit Noir is the coffee brand that they have developed. Again, working directly with the growers and roastery in Africa gives LCG the opportunity to select the best and most flavoursome beans without restriction, but also to pay people what the deserve for their product. No middle men, no extra slice to share in the money pie. A more direct way that they work with people in Paris involves the little Centre Des Objets Perdus (Centre of Lost Objects). There is a whole class of people in Paris who operate and live on and through the streets of the city. In LCG they have a platform to display curiosities and vintage items they find on the streets, and have direct access to an appreciative end-buyer. There's everything you would expect to find in a thrift store, and even some highly sought after rarities if you have the right eye for it.
So what’s next for LCG?
Firstly, having originally been influenced by the mainly African backgrounds of the founders and staff, the LCG is ready to open out into the world and embrace the aesthetics, skills, crafts and ideas from a greater range of countries and cultures. Then - and I think this is the most interesting and inspiring part of the next line of development - LCG are looking to open a halfway house for those individuals on the streets of Paris who are ready to re-engage and find a way back into a stable life. This is something that is near impossible without help. Without an address, you can’t get a job, without a job you can’t get an address.