A Village Preserves a Beloved Café
In 1900, a young couple, Gerrit De Ruijter and his fiancé Anna, were walking in Nieuwendam, a neighborhood in Amsterdam known for its marina, when they noticed that one of the street’s oldest buildings was for sale. Built in 1565, the building housed a café when Gerrit purchased it and renamed it “Café ‘t Sluisje”. The doors officially opened in 1904 and the first big celebration there was the wedding of Gerrit and Anna. They ran the café together for decades until Gerrit died suddenly, leaving Anna to run it alone with the help of her cousin until 1946.
Since then, several innkeepers together with their families kept the Café ‘t Sluisje running as a lively “brown” bar, which means an unpretentious, classic Dutch bar. It has continuously served as a communal space where villagers eat, listen to music, and celebrate life's milestone occasions. In warm months, visitors from outside the village join the local crowd on the large marina patio.
Over the years, traditions were formed, such as the Queen’s Day celebration on the terrace, which over time developed into a larger neighborhood party. The annual Christmas gathering was a tradition with pea soup and oliebollen (fried donuts). On this night, local families gathered around a firepit on the terrace, drinking mulled wine or hot chocolate and singing Christmas carols along with a local troubadour.
In 2016, the café’s proprietors Anne-Karin and her two daughters decided it was time to do something else and announced that they'd be putting ‘t Sluisje up for sale. Hearing this, villagers became concerned that developers would purchase it and raze the building to make room for luxury housing. A small group of residents put their heads together and set up a crowdfunding campaign. Their idea was to set up a cooperative with the neighborhood to buy the building and the café with it.
They created a simple flyer to appeal to everyone who cared about ‘t Sluisje and, within a few days, they raised 700,000 euros in shares of 10,000 euros each. A community bank agreed to give them a loan if they could raise 200,000 more euros, which they did in a second call for investors. The residents as a collective then made an offer of 2 million, slightly under the asking price, and it was accepted. The sellers were happy with the initiative to save the café and, in fact, became cooperative investors themselves.
The cooperative searched for a tenant innkeeper that the majority would agree upon and found Maaike van Zomeren, who has been in charge of the café since April 2017. She lives nearby and had worked there before leaving to run the “pancake boat”, a 90 minute cruise where people on board eat traditional Dutch pancakes.
I found this café and read about its rich communal history while looking for a place to eat in an area of the Noord, a less touristy borough of Amsterdam, where I planned to walk the following day. You reach it by taking a quick ferry ride from outside Central Station. The village where the café is located is roughly a two mile walk from where the ferry drops you off. After reading the website's “history” section, I emailed Maaike, the proprietor, who agreed to talk to me the following day to share her experience of the café and town.
Maaike wanted to run the café because she was familiar with it and finds this area of town more village-like, where people slow down and say hello to each other. A condition of her taking over the café was to preserve the historical interior, which she agreed to wholeheartedly, saying “there are plenty of modern and stylish places to eat”. She did expand the menu, which was considered a welcomed addition by the villagers.
I asked her about the cobblestone road leading up to the café, with its beautifully restored homes and exteriors that were only modernized with larger windows and lighter interiors. She smiled and told me that this is a unique street, and that property values are probably the highest of any street in Amsterdam, including the central historical region. Maaike spoke of the contrasts in the village between modern wealth and tradition, giving the example of how a few people who have lived in the village for over 40 years ever made it over to this road. In general, the cafe is a place where economic differences aren't on display as people come for a bite or a drink.
Maaike values continuing the tradition of renting out the café for special events and rites of passage, as well as hosting special events. She said that perhaps only ten percent of the 90 or so cooperative investors are regulars, but just recently, they asked her to host a Wednesday night buffet there. For 15 euro, they enjoy a buffet dinner and a drink, while having a place to connect to each other, much needed after the separation of Covid-19.
Vibrant communities need places to gather and, knowing this, this little village joined together to find a way to preserve one of theirs.
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