Adelaide's original small bar, La Bohème is launching one final attempt to get out of the crippling debt that's mounted since Her Majesty's Theatre closed a year ago.
Is this last drinks for La Bohème?
“‘People will be really cross with you if you don’t give them an opportunity to help you,'” says Paul Boylon quoting his wife, singer and university lecturer, Catherine Campbell.
Paul is talking softly and slowly. There are long pauses. It’s the first Saturday of the Fringe Festival but this will most likely be La Bohème’s last Fringe.
36 Grote Street
Adelaide SA 5000
La Bohème has launched a crowdfunding campaign that encourages Adelaide to cheers the venue. You can donate online or – better yet – book tickets to a Fringe show, see something, drink something and celebrate this unique place and all it’s done over the years
We’re sitting in one of the booths he and his brother – co-owner of La Bohème – built. Paul and Adam and Darren Boylon have built this bar themselves, everything from these leather-lined booths, to the bar and tables. Everything except the Thonet bentwood chairs. Paul’s eyebrows rise sharply when he recalls how much those chairs cost.
La Bohème isn’t the new breed of small venue in Adelaide, with their architect-guided aesthetics and gilded signs. In many ways La Bohème created the template for Adelaide’s intimate and otherworldly spaces, with great service and an experience so foreign you forget you’re in Adelaide.
“I saw the opera La Bohème – Catherine was in it – that’s where I got the name, the idea” says Paul. “Turn-of-the-century café-slash-bar where artists mingle to gain favour from rich people who are trying to gain lustre on their life, you might say.”
It was a model that Paul could see working for Adelaide, a literal translation from stage to street. And La Bohème has seen it all – straight dance, burlesque, straight cabaret, visual art exhibitions, live music, chamber music, operetta. Paul lists off such a wide variety of art forms, we wonder whether he’s said ‘no’ to anyone in La Bohème’s 12 years.
“I’m not really good with sword dancing,” says Paul. “Everyone who’s been here would know that if you’re standing on stage you can see the whites of everyone’s eyes. It’s a pretty tight room and swinging around a sword in a room of 50-odd people, I thought, was a bit dangerous.”
Risk has always been on Paul’s radar.
We still remember our (not CityMag but Merge magazine’s) first story on La Bohème back in 2008. Paul introduced us to the fact it’s very expensive to run a cocktail bar and the inherent risk associated with having capital locked up in 100 bottles of spirits on your back bar, worth $30,000-$50,000.
Paul has always been cautious and diligent in running La Bohème but the past 12 months and more have seen a slow and steady decline on Grote Street.
“When Her Majesty’s closed, we dropped 30 per cent,” says Paul.
We never would have thought Her Majesty’s temporary closure during its redevelopment would impact La Bohème so directly but it makes sense. Drinks before a show and afterwards; the upmarket option on Grote Street if you’re not into to the Metro’s front bar scene.
Again with the theme of fiscal responsibility, Paul rang us yesterday to clarify his original quote. “I looked at our books again,” he says. “Trade didn’t drop by 30 per cent immediately after Her Maj closed. It has been a steady decline in revenue over the period since it closed to a point where it seems to have bottomed out at 30 per cent down.”
We labour on the point of Paul’s bookkeeping with this story because we want you to appreciate that La Bohème hasn’t been mismanaged. We want you to understand a little of the helplessness small business feels when their environment changes beyond their control. It was the same for Red Door Bakery. The same for The Ed Castle.
La Bohème is in arrears to their landlord by a significant amount – an untenable amount – and their landlord is calling the debt in after being flexible for more than 12 months.
There are also 160 new small bar licenses within the square mile of Adelaide.
“I’m not begrudging of those venues,” says Paul. “It’s just a factor that’s contributed to the position we’re in.”
And so taking his wife’s advice, Paul reached out to CityMag to see if we could help.
We don’t think we’re overstating it to say La Bohème is an institution. We caught a glimpse of it when we happened upon the Wednesday night residency of local jazz band, The New Cabal. The New Cabal have had a 10-year residency at La Bohème – unheard of in the local music industry.
“It comes from a belief in an ideal – an idea – that this should be here,” says Paul about the relationship between The New Cabal and La Bohème.
“They shouldn’t have to scratch around for a stage to play, y’know? We don’t make a motza out of it. They don’t make a motza out of it but I can tell you when the room’s humming, when there’s 50 people sitting here, listening to what they’re doing – it’s electric. That experience is possible because they’re doing what they’re doing and I’m doing what I’m doing,” says Paul.
And the reason why Paul started up the business all those years ago is still just as true today. There’s really no place that supports the arts in the same way that La Bohème does. Paul could see no one was doing it and believed someone needed to do it.
“While we were one of the only cocktail bars in town, we could afford to facilitate art for not much, but as soon as that started waning, things changed a bit. And that’s when some historic debt started to creep in and the landlord’s been very kind and given us leeway. But as soon as Her Majesty’s came on board it became untenable,” he says.
La Bohème need to pay back a portion of the debt they owe their landlord if they’re to keep the doors open. The portion is $50,000 and it’s due at the end of Fringe.
We feel a responsibility here at CityMag, to do whatever we can to ensure La Bohème keeps its small stage going. Every week we write about the new bar, the new café and restaurant that’s opened in Adelaide, but we acknowledge that every new opening must put tremendous pressure on the established venues out there to lift their game and keep updating their formula.
La Bohème has done that. La Bohème has continued to invest and evolve their offering over the years, just this month they started a joint venture with Brett Dowsett, serving coffee in the morning.
Paul hasn’t drawn a wage from the bar since his short stint at the start of its life when he was a bartender. Instead, Paul has worked as a commercial cleaner for the past 10 years to support himself and his family – and his bar.
But business isn’t like going to the gym. You can work your guts out on a business and yet still find your books in bad shape.
We want La Bohème to stay open, so we can wander in once again on a cool Wednesday evening and listen to The New Cabal do their thing.
A city can’t be made up out of places built just yesterday. A great city needs favourites – old haunts, and familiar places that give more than they take and make a home for our culture to thrive.
Support La Bohème here.