When we arrived in Paris, my love affair with London was at an all-time, heady high. I was buzzed on its culture, intoxicated by its energy. Totally drunk on love, I felt that nothing could top my feelings for London. Disembarking the Eurostar at night, Paris felt dirty, crowded, messy. Ah, but I’d forgotten how seductive a mistress she could be. Paris isn’t perfect, but that’s part of her charm. She’s the forever muse, the beautiful mess, the queen with a crooked crown. I’d almost forgotten in my crush on London: no other town tops the city of light.
Folks always talk about how Parisian women have mastered the art of unstudied sexiness, and so it fits that Paris excels in hidden gems, in places of profundity. My favorite case in point? Le Comptoir Général.
If you weren’t looking for Le Comptoir Général, you’d never know it was there. It’s secreted away down an unmarked alleyway, with an unassuming junk pile and a wonky neon arrow as the only (hard to find) clues to what’s waiting behind that dingy iron doorway.
From said alleyway through said doorway, one is led down a long, dark hallway lined in memorabilia of post-colonial black culture. There’s no hostess, no maître d’ to assure you you’re in the right place. They call it ‘The Abandoned Hall’, and it’s an eerie but also oddly upbeat homage to the pathway toward equality.
Keep on going, and eventually the scenery opens up into The Ballroom, a rusted expanse of color and light. Part cocktail bar, part coffee shop, part underground revolutionist meeting room, it’s a sun-soaked sanctuary dedicated to the creativity that springs up in poor or marginalized places around the world (and particularly in Africa).
This inspired appearance is more than a mere affectation. Billing itself as a museum to ghetto culture, Le Compotoir Général’s mission is to protect, produce and promote these otherwise unsung creative voices ~ through movie production and screenings, exhibitions, conferences, a record label and radio station, events, workshops, photoshoots and dance parties. It’s also just a super cool hang space, pulsing with rebellious intensity, where anyone is welcome, where conversations around environmental issues, social innovation and cultural diversity are encouraged and cultivated, and where all the proceeds are reinvested into financing artistic innovation.
Past the ragged prettiness of The Ballroom, further charming rooms house The Classroom and The Rampant Garden ~ spaces designed for use by NGOs and charity organizations. Floating over them all is The Mezzanine, which houses a cooly curated little secondhand store, stocked with vintage French military coats alongside hand-dyed African indigos. Together, every corner of this place tells a whimsically rich story of exoticism, simplicity, faith and conservationism. It’s an excellent example of how ~ in the right hands ~ hospitality and consumerism can truly be used as tools of empowerment and change.