The Ferndale music cafe that has been in the spotlight over the past five years for its support of local artists, initiatives to support local autoworkers and its recent longest-concert-ever event, tentatively plans to close its doors at the end of March.
AJ's Music Cafe has been a popular spot downtown to stop in to hear a local musician sing or hear poetry readings, for college students to study and local artists to hang their work.
But owner AJ O'Neil says he can't keep up with rising costs as business slows down. He says he is working 70-hour weeks and trying to maintain $3,100 rent on income of around $250 a week the past four years.
“And I'm not complaining. I'm just saying I can't keep doing that. I'm real proud of what we've done here and I love the city, I love the people,” he said. “It's not about that. It's about being able to survive.”
'It's been five really great years'
Since it opened in April 2007, AJ's has offered up its venue for various fundraising concerts, broke the world record for longest concert and in 2008 gave out free coffee to anyone who signed a promise to only buy an American-made car.
“This is like a cultural institution that's leaving the city because it's not humanely possible to work under the conditions,” said O'Neil, who has been running the shop with the help of his brother, Dennis O'Neil. “I've really enjoyed it. It's been five really great years.”
Though AJ's has gained much media attention over the years for its charitable events and initiatives, O'Neil said that doesn't necessarily mean business is good.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. It's a community service place. It's not like a typical business,” he said, adding that AJ's has become a sort of “living room” for the community. “We did some great things here. There's nothing to hold our head down about.”
Local artist Dennis Bruce Spencer started hanging out at AJ's as a patron and more recently has been involved with helping O'Neil improve the shop. Serving as art curator, he helped bring in artists for art on the walls and he and other local artists have helped clean and paint the cafe.
“It was the kind of place where people like me would hang out,” Spencer said, explaining why he wanted to get involved. “People in Ferndale need a place like that to hang out.”
But Spencer said he thinks the cafe needed more upkeep along with menu improvements and that O'Neil's focus on political issues may have gotten in the way.
“That didn't do anything to help his coffee shop,” he said.
O'Neil announced in November that he is running for a congressional seat in Michigan's 9th District.
Spencer said it would be a “shame” to see the business close but that he understands why it would.
“Most people that hang out there don't anymore,” he said.
One door opens when another closes
O'Neil said he has other opportunities on the horizon, including a couple of tentative offers in other communities that he isn't ready to discuss.
“One door opens when another door shuts. That's kind of the way I'm looking at it,” he said.
As he looks back on the past five years in Ferndale, O'Neil said he is proud to have served the community and work on events that “put a face on the economic realities that really lent to the recovery that we're at today.”
“That's just a wonderful tribute to this town and to my participation in it. It feels good,” he said. “I don't know what else to say except thanks, it's been great. Time to go to the next step.”