The Creative Life Of The Parisian Café

Sunday Morning correspondent David Turecamo takes a look at the legacy of the Parisian café. Their numbers are dwindling, but they still remain a cultural stronghold.


The café Le Select is one of the legendary cafes of Paris, it was once a Left Bank hangout for Hemingway, Picasso and Henry Miller, so it shouldn't be surprising to find an artist there. His name is Rick Tulka and he's been drawing the characters at le Select for more than a decade.

"I love drawing French faces, they're the best," he said. "They've just got the best noses and the expressions. A French nose is the best thing to draw. Next time you're walking around just look at the noses — some of them look like Pontiacs from the '50s"

Rick is a transplanted New Yorker. He has been living in Paris since the mid-1990s and while he's captivated by their noses, what he's captured is their attitude — a uniquely French ability to sit in a public café as if they owned the place.

"I think it's just cultural — people say the French are cold and they're not friendly. They are, but maybe when they're just sitting at the café they just have this 'French look,'" he said.

So like almost every artist, he has a hard time explaining his inspiration but as every American who's ever been to Paris has discovered, the café is a great place to observe the French in their preferred natural habitat.

"It's their living room, it's their library, it's their office," Tulka said. "Meetings? Many people come here and have meetings with people. Lunches can sometimes last two or three hours."

Spend enough time in one café and you'll get to know the regulars and then you'll notice they come at precisely the same time every day.

"There's a writer in the back who comes in the afternoon and in the mornings and he sits and writes his books here," Tulka said.

"Me, I've been coming here 42 years now," Charles Lancar said. "I was supposed to meet a young lady here. She was beautiful, I was crazy about her. She made the date and then she never showed up, but I got into the habit of coming here. But to this day she's still never come."

"It's the same parade every day, but it changes every day and the seasons change it, too. The guy over there with the bald head reading?" Tulka said. "OK, I don't wear a watch 'cause I ride my bicycle — 3:30, he's here having a cigarette and reading his newspaper. Basically sometimes I'm sitting here, and everybody who's sitting here, I've drawn them. It's nobody new 'cause I come at the same time and all these people come at the same time."

Didier has been working at the café for the last 25 years, and Arnaud has been there for the past six. Centuries before the Internet was ever born, cafes were neighborhood chat rooms — they were one of the few places where all strata of society could mingle, and around the bar there was an exchange of ideas that drew artists, aristocrats, writers and the rabble as well, because cafes were also hotbeds of political unrest. Supposedly Karl Marx met Engels in a Parisian café.

It was not uncommon for the regime in power to send spies into the cafes to keep track of dissidents. People used to get their mail at the café. Barmen would take phone messages for them. Those days are long gone, but Le Select maintains a link to its storied past.

Le Select opened in 1923 and quickly became one of the most popular cafés in Montparnasse because it was open 24 hours and catered to the whims of its bohemian clientele. It hasn't changed much in 84 years.

"I mean, they keep it looking like an original café," Tulka said.

But if for tourists cafes are a sentimental icon, for Parisians they're slowly losing their luster. More and more cafes are changing their look trying to capture a younger, hipper crowd that prefers something less traditional.

But maybe the biggest blow to the French is the new cafes don't even allow smoking. So places like le Select may one day be a memory — in fact, across France the number of cafes has decreased 90 percent in the last hundred years. In Paris, Tulka said there were 45,000 cafes in the city in the 1880s; the number has dropped to about 7,000 today.

In fact Bernard, the owner of my favorite café, keeps a list of all the cafes in the neighborhood that have closed in the last 20 or 25 years. And what isn't closing or changing its look may be going corporate, even one of Hemingway's haunts like La Couple.

"La Couple is now owned by a big corporation and it's just not anything like it used to be," Tulka said. "I mean, that building was built in the eighties. It used to be just two floors."

But as we know the French can also be stubborn, like Monsieur Francis who runs le Select and only wants to preserve the "bohemian atmosphere."

"Because all around us everything's changing, so we've got to preserve the tradition and the contact," he said.

So with all the material he's accumulated Tulka and writer Noel Riley Fitch have put together a book due out this fall, "Paris Cafe: The Select Crowd." But if you can't wait till then to see his work you could always pick up the latest issue of Mad Magazine where he works as an artist.

"I mean, I've been working there for almost 20 years," he said. "It's a family, and of course it's fun because it's Mad, but the people are just great."

And it gives him enough time to document what may in fact be the passing of an era. Although with or without cafes this city seems always to have been a magnet for artists and writers.

"Well, it is Paris," Tulka said. "I mean, what more do you need?"

And, hopefully, as the man said: We'll always have it.
  • Caitlin Johnson

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