A disclaimer for those unfamiliar with the inner workings of RETRO or for those who randomly found their way to this blog post on the internet: RETRO forening (association in English) was a non-profit organisation based in Copenhagen which ran two cafes, Café Retro and Retro Nørrebro. Both the RETRO organization and those cafes are now closed.
It’s been said time and time again. It’s been said as you’re volunteering behind the bar. It’s been said when you’re enjoying an after shift drink. It’s even been said on this blog, multiple times. And now it will be said perhaps for the last time: Cafe Retro was a home away from home. It was more like a living room than a cafe. Cafe Retro truly was a gem in the city of Copenhagen for over 13 years. It had a strong name that was recognized by locals and tourists alike, but now, it is time to say goodbye.
The phrase ‘social capital’ is what brought me to the Retro team. During the first few months of moving to Denmark, I was constantly looking for new cafes and places to go. During my first semester at University, someone in my project group was a volunteer at Cafe Retro. He would take us to this cosy little cafe where he volunteered. We would sit upstairs by the giant world map, and furiously brainstorm and write up our massive 80-page research project. The day before the deadline we met up at the cafe, pulled out our computers one last time as a group, and submitted that very project on one of the wooden retro tables.
After that semester I knew what a hyggeligt place Cafe Retro was, but I didn’t find my way back there until a few months later. I ran into my friend who had been working there and I asked him about the cafe. He reminded me once again, knowing I was fairly new to Denmark, that it was super cosy and a great place to expand on social capital. This was a term I’d heard before but only in an academic setting. I’d heard him use it to describe the cafe, but it wasn’t until then that I really understood what that could mean for me. For him to break down the value of human interaction into a calculable term such as ‘capital’ was the final breaking point for me. “All right, fine. You win”. I told him I wanted to be a volunteer. I wanted to expand my social network in Copenhagen and get a chance to do something for the community at the same time.
After that, I joined the bar team and never looked back. Although I thought I had already built a fairly decent sized network of social capital to draw on, I knew that the Retro team and the cafe were always there for me when I needed them. When a friend’s plan fell through, or the library’s study space was unexpectedly closed, Cafe Retro was always there in the back of my mind, ready to take their place. Being the geography nerd that I am, I would call it an alternative safe space in the city, especially with the dominating presence of ‘classic’ cafes where you go in, order an overpriced drink, sit down to work, and eventually get kicked out for not ordering another item. Cafe Retro was a stark contrast to those spaces of consumption. It was filled with music, art exhibitions, discounted prices, overly friendly strangers, a subconscious buzz of social justice, and someone’s literal living room couch.
The RETRO organisation was a living, breathing organism that existed through its volunteers. We made up how the cafe operated in a literal and concrete sense, but also figuratively. We provided social capital to Copenhagen’s newcomers and long-time locals alike – always there when they needed a space to chill out or party it up; when they wanted to play foosball or board games, or listen to some silky jazz and escape from the chilling Nordic wind. It was a home away from home, a public living room. So much so that we used to have an iPad right up on the wall when you first walked into the cafe. People contributed to the togetherness that the cafe encouraged by taking selfies, writing sweet notes, or putting up funny GIFs of cats. One person even had the brilliant idea to make their own contribution to the cafe by putting up porn on the iPad. As you can imagine, this was later removed and replaced by something less accessible, a scratch-map where you could mark where you were from in the world.
There is something unique about having a reliable alternative space in the middle of a bustling city such as Copenhagen, teeming with laptop-oriented cafe-goers during the day and a steady stream of drunk party-goers at night. Of course, there are always new and hip cafes and bodegas to check out, and those places are certainly humming with the excitement of organic unfiltered lagers or home-made [insert current food trend of choice here]. However, there is one essential element they are missing out on, and may not ever achieve with that highly specialized audience they are attracting. That element represented the very heart and soul of Retro; it was an indispensable factor which makes Retro’s closing even more sombre.
We were more than just a couple cafes with an all organic menu and locally-brewed beers. With the risk of sounding like someone who has lived in Scandinavia a little bit too long: Retro was comprised of the people. We were Retro, the ones behind the bar, the musicians, the artists, the Ale No. 16-lovers, the students, the Copenhageners on first-dates, and all of the volunteers. We had the power to keep the cafes open, to provide a space for all people to come and socialize for a few hours, showcase their art, drink their favourite beer or coffee, possibly even find ‘the one’, or become a part of something bigger than one individual; become part of the team that kept Retro alive. That is to say, until now. Cafe Retro and Retro Nørrebro have been struggling financially for a while now. This is an unfortunate obstacle that many organizations face. And the closing of Retro is certainly not due to lack of effort that hundreds of volunteers put in over the span of 13 years.
So… What happens now? Although Retro no longer exists due to financial reasons, it is an understatement to say that the spirit of Retro still continues through its volunteers. The ethos that Retro perpetuated and the concept of a cafe driven wholeheartedly by people that are passionate about an idea is still needed in Copenhagen! There are in fact many other cafes in Denmark that also follow the same structure of being run by volunteers, but it was Retro who gave many of them advice on how to get started in the first place. The closing of Retro leaves an emptiness on Copenhagen’s cultural scene. This should pave the way for fresh new projects and ideas to come forth, driven by those willing to put forward their time and commitment to contribute to a cause. It is when energetic and engaged people follow their passions that cafes become reality and communities make a difference; and as we volunteers know, nothing feels better than giving back. I hope to see the same volunteers again in the future, vi ses på den anden side!
– Maya Kitra Schwartz
Comments from other volunteers:
+ the important thing to know about retro is, that it was an easy place to be. it was the first place in copenhagen i walked in and was myself completely from the first day, filled with so many wonderful people that soon would become an important part of my chosen family. And as somebody said before me: it was indeed a home away from home.”
+ Perhaps the best thing that has come out of Retro, is that each and every individual involved here aknowledge a sense of ownership for Retro that most of came to realize especially after the Retro era ended. That it belonged to me, and to everyone that I met alongside my journey at Retro. We made it ‘ours’.