(Jonathan A. Berz, Ferndale 115 News, April 1, 2012 ed)
“Five years. We did it,” says AJ O’Neil of AJ’s Music Café in Ferndale, just before turning off the open sign one final time.
Since 2007, AJ’s Café on 9 Mile has been a gathering place for creativity and powerful ideas. AJ grew up in Highland Park and graduated from Berkeley High School, and has lived through Michigan’s steep decline, spending most of his working life as a roofer. An unfortunate accident caused him to hang up his hammer for good, and he decided to turn his attention toward his local community.
AJ’s, which was initially conceived as a soup kitchen, had become a sounding board for local activism, a gallery for local artists, and a stage for local and touring musicians from all walks of life. In addition to weekly open-mics and regular events, AJ’s hosted a series of “Assembly Line” concerts intended to raise awareness of the plight of Detroit’s auto workers, two of which, at 313 and 360 consecutive hours, set the Guinness world record for world’s longest concert. The idea began with a 50-hour marathon of the song “Danny Boy,” documented in the book In Sunlight or in Shadow by Karen Wilhelm.
Over the short run of AJ’s existence, his activism had gotten the attention of several prominent media organizations such as BBC, AP, Reuters, and an array of magazines and newspapers. His voice reached across our state as he provided a venue for local politicians to meet with their constituents. Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm touted her book A Governor’s Story at AJ’s, and more recently Dr. Jill Stein, Green Party candidate for president held an appearance. Letters from the Obama administration celebrating his work adorned his walls. A phrase coined by Midwest Living Magazine, AJ’s has come to be known in the national spotlight as “the little café that bailed out the American auto industry, one cup of coffee at a time.”
“I’ve been accused of being a media hound,” says AJ. “I’ve been accused of being a selfish promoter, locally and nationally. I have been a very selfish promoter and I’m not apologetic. I’ve done that for our team. And by our team, I mean every ordinary citizen out there who’s lost their job because some Wall Street mindset said, ‘I don’t care where you get it built. Just get it built cheaper, because I answer to investors.’ Those are my customers. I am fiercely loyal to my town in that respect. If you want to call me a shameless reporter for that, go ahead. I succeeded pretty well for five years of doing that.
“AJ’s is news,” O’Neil emphasizes. “I mean, there’s sensationalism, which is also news, and I’m not downgrading it. There’s relevant world news, and national news, and local news, and then there’s your community news. Community news is what will close at midnight tonight. It’s who got a hit at the ball-game. It’s whose kid’s going to college. It’s who lost a job, or who got a job. It’s who’s behind on their mortgage payment, or who’s just moving in. Or a low-beat crime report. Or who’s getting married. Those are things that happen in the café that are very relevant, that we’ve captured in the time-honored essence of, ‘hi, how are ya? Have a cup of coffee. What’s happening?’ Look ‘em in the eye. ‘Oh my god, you’re in school? You’re going for your master’s?’ You’re not going to read that in the paper, but that means so much to me.”
AJ has recently considered making a run for United States House of Representatives. Whatever the case, the next chapter of AJ’s life will still involve selling coffee, but this time not from a storefront, but from the website AJsCoffeeWorks.com, as an attempt to bring much deserved national attention to yet another Metro Detroit-area industry.
“Coffee. I mean, that’s what’s underlying every conversation, you know? And I’ve noticed that that cup of coffee is the quintessential American conduit,” he says. “My roaster in Highland Park roasted coffee for the United States Army in World War II. My roaster’s been roasting in Highland Park for almost a hundred years. And it’s fantastic coffee. And it’s been done in a mom-and-pop family environment that honors and pays homage to our hometown in ways that I am going to spend the next five years. We’ve spent the first five years in AJ’s quietly tweaking that. There’s been people that have said, ‘hey you know, it tastes better.’ We’ve taken blends and we’ve made this our own.
“AJ’s came in here without any knowledge of how to run a café,” he admits. “I really let the community run this café. I opened it and closed it every day, but I tried to stay out of the way as much as I possibly could and listen to the community and what they wanted. Unfortunately what gets lost is that these things need more than just one person running them. Maybe the coffee is a great conduit, but at $3500 a month, you know, that’s a lot of coffee.
“I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s a disservice in a way that there are not places like this all over. And there should be. I mean, in every town. How do we keep a place like this? Maybe they need to be recognized as non-profits, or they need to be recognized as community institutions that have to be defined in things other than profit. Other than currency. You can’t take away from a landlord who wants to get the most he can for rent, but at the same time you can’t expect something that’s so invaluable to fall on one person, or a very small amount of resources, because its value is so potentially great for a city. It is a fertilizer. It can help the city to say, ‘wow, that place is a destination for people. I want to locate down the street. I want to buy a house here. I want to live in this town.’ I love that, and that’s what community’s all about.
“I want to spend the next chapter of my life validating Detroit’s hard work through our coffee. That’s been that conduit, and I think that’s a real important aspect. I did exactly what I signed up for. I signed up for five years… and I’m very honored to be able to be a part of Ferndale’s living room for these five years. The people of this city have really embraced me, and what this has meant as a wonderful ambassador for Main Streets all across the USA.”
Live music filled the Café for the entirety of its final weekend, and from around the corner we suddenly heard a dozen voices in harmony. “What you hear is the General Motors Employees’ Chorus, who were here for two of the three Assembly Line concerts. They said, ‘for all the support you’ve shown the auto industry, on your last day we wanted to be here. This one is for you.’ So you have people from all walks of life that come through these doors that find home, and they feel comfortable. The first Assembly Line Concert, they were sandwiched between a Ramones cover band and some rap group, and there they were, singing angelic, orchestral music, and all of them feeling just like they belong. And I think that’s why the place is so magical. A lady came in here last night, and called me this morning, and said she was so moved because there were so many people who were just beside themselves saying it’s like they’re losing a member of their family. She’s like, what is that place? What is it about it? It put a tear in my eye. That’s beautiful.”
“Obviously this place has been real special for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons,” I noted.
“I forget that sometimes,” AJ admits. “I have to really meet the obligations of running a business, and you know, you get people who just don’t have two sticks to rub that are validated as much as anybody. I wonder, what’s gonna happen to them? I know how many people sweep for soup here. Yesterday there was a guy in here sweeping, and he was in shock. He did not know what he was gonna do. There are people who are mentally unstable that come in here, and you can’t tell that they have problems because for a couple hours, when they’re here they feel like they’re on top of the world. They’ve got dignity, and I don’t treat them any differently than anyone else.
“This morning I got an email from a teacher at the University of California in Berkeley. In the UC newsletter it said ‘AJ’s Café in Ferndale, MI is closing today.’ We succeeded in giving meaning and life to what Main Street is and how Main Street survives… and it’s imported from Detroit. We had a hand in it. The entire country knows it. So, be proud of that. I’m proud I’ve been a part of it. I’ve never seen a place affect so many people. It’s an incredible thing.”
Jonathan A. Berz is a Ferndale-area musician, writer, and photographer. His work can be found at http://songsfromthemoon.com.
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