Le Comptoir General, Paris
Hidden in a Parisian alleyway, an eclectic, living museum invites the curious traveler to immerse themselves in creativity
by Meghan Sebold
For any travel enthusiast, the best venue to visit is often one that requires processing time to absorb the scene—a place that makes you wonder, "What on earth is going on here?" Le Comptoir General (LCG) in Paris’s 10th arrondissement pushes all concepts of what can be done in a space that is categorized as a bar/restaurant.
While walking along the Canal Saint-Martin, it's easy to miss the tiny sign encircled by a hand-painted arrow pointing down a driveway. Keep going though, and you'll find a banner that reads “The Little Museum of Francafrique,” drawing you into a long hallway filled with grand chandeliers and photos covering walls of faded primary colors. Visitors are then transported into a lofted ballroom with a black and white tiled floor spilling over with plants and light.
There certainly are bar-meets-restaurant staples (for example, Le Rade's secret recipe cocktail "the Secousse" can create a buzz all on its own), but examine the scene further and visitors will see that each establishment within operates as a vertically integrated micro-business that sustains the more adventurous and socially conscious activities of LCG. The space projects itself as a live history museum—primarily focusing on Francophone Africa and the Caribbean—but an immersive one.
Start with a coffee at Le Petit Noir espresso bar. Not only does Le Petit Noir use filtered rainwater to brew its coffee, but the beans are LCG’s own, grown on pesticide-free, fair trade farms in Haiti, Congo and Ethiopia. Le Snack Local restaurant is worth a stop. The street food-inspired restaurant serves a menu of typical al fresco dishes and skewered snacks found in Vietnam, India and West Africa.
ICI Bon Coiffeur is full of pomp and charming signage, and is as worth a visit to simply gaze at the space as it is to actually get a haircut there (which visitors can do three times a week).
L’ecole Buissonniere, a still-life classroom set up with rows of old wooden desks and a chalkboard, which acts as the children’s rendezvous. On Sundays the space comes alive as a daycare and school that honors the oral tradition of storytelling and performance.
And next door, The Explorer exhibit stages the headquarters of a 12th century explorer on the hunt for the Mokole Mbembe, a mythical dinosaur-like creature native to Congo according to legend. In 2012 LCG crowd-funded an expedition to the Congo—called the “lung of the earth” as the jungle’s density is the thickest in the world—on a hunt for the Mbembe. LCG also regularly organizes "Mbembe-hunting" trips to the Congo for travelers, who work with locals to build homes, reclaim property and protest illegal hunting while exploring the depths of the jungle.
La Petite Boutique des Horreurs cultivates and sells rare plants. Once a week, botanist Sylvie da Costa gives personal consultations on what oils and extracts from plants grown in the garden can improve your health.
When we visited, LCG’s radio station and record shop Secousse was featuring William Ferris' "Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues". Armed with a tape recorder and camera, Ferris roamed the American South and captured testimonials from churches, cotton farms, prisons, and nightclubs in a segregated America.
Upstairs is Le Marche Noir (The Black Market), a thrift shop and street styling agency. Despite well-intentioned donations of second-hand clothing to developing countries, imported used clothes can have an adverse effect on economies by crippling local textile industries and propelling Western style in place of a regional identity. LCG bargain hunter Amah Ayivi reclaims economic authority by buying second-hand clothes back from African cities and reselling them yet again.
The profits from each live museum are invested into new projects at LCG, and the space also plays host to meetings for Amnesty International, Greenpeace and various crowd-funding ventures. LCG is a place for visitors to explore and learn, and—as the saying goes—a mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.
Le Comptoir General (80 Quai de Jemmapes, Paris) is open seven days a week from 11AM to 2AM.
Images by Meghan Sebold