“THIS business (Book Cafe) cannot last beyond a year, maybe a year and half. This is me being proactive. I’m trying to deal with the problem before we get too desperate,” said Tomas Brickhill, the proprietor of popular arts venue Book Cafe.
Thomas, son to the late Paul, was thrown into the deep end upon his father’s death three months ago and is learning the ropes the hard way.
Debts, going back as far as three years, are threatening the survival of the popular venue, which is a home to hundreds of artistes, established and upcoming.
Workers’ salaries are also in arrears, while the place itself is in desperate need of renovations.
Even the PA System needs replacement or servicing, among a host of other problems.
While for months Tomas and his team have been running an online fundraising campaign and held a benefit concert featuring some of the top artistes to try and save the venue from folding, the 36-year-old guitar maestro, who is also a songwriter and a filmmaker, is now taking more radical actions.
He says the days of over relying on donor funds are over: “We want business partners. We can work with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), but only as strategic business partners and when we feel that the direction they are taking is not in our best interests we can just cut ties.”
Tomas, who acknowledges the trouble he is in – says he is changing things, “but not everything”.
“Back in the day our competition was Jazz 105 and Sports Diner, now we have all sorts of places sprouting up and we feel it is the time to adapt or die. I will not let Book Cafe die, because this company is how I honour my father,” he said.
He added: “This is how I remember him, honour him and his works, by making sure that Book Cafe stays alive and grows from strength to strength. He taught me that Book Cafe lives in the hearts and minds of the people.
“When we left Five Avenue, we thought the brand would die, but the people, the artistes kept it alive and now they are going to keep it alive again.
“Now more than ever we need their help and we will succeed in keeping this project going.”
Tomas says he and his team have managed to raise about 20 percent of their target and are certain that even if they do not get the whole amount – other ideas and strategies will get them out of the current mess.
“Online fundraising and crowd funding are just the beginning of the process, Book Cafe is changing and we are going to survive,” declared Tomas.
“As we pay off our debts, we will invest in marketing and branding because these are more important now.
“But apart from that, we are also venturing into merchandise; we are going commercial, building an industry around Book Cafe.
“I have been telling my colleagues that ‘this is the first year of Tomas’. Things are going to change. We will be hosting events outside the Book Cafe. Because our brand is strong we will do great as promoters.
“There are plenty of other measures we will be taking but those are trade secrets,” he said.
For someone who took over the management of Book Cafe in tragic circumstances after the death of his father in October last year, his energy and optimism is remarkable.
Tomas, who fronts the band Chikwata 263, a mbira punk group whose music is more inclined to rock, says he is taking over Book Cafe not as his father’s son but as an artiste.
“When the old Book Cafe was closed down on December 31, 2011, artistes were scared and hurt in equal measure. Right now they have no other home – there is probably no other place like Book Cafe in Zimbabwe where artistes feel at home like this.
“I have come with that same mindset – that of an artiste – I know the struggles, the tribulations, the thinking and when I make decisions, believe you me, I make them as an artiste. There is a sense of continuity and this project will go on even long after I’m gone,” he said.
Born in 1978 to a Zimbabwean father and a South African mother, Tomas lived a fairly average Zimbabwean life – completing his primary school at David Livingstone before going to Prince Edward High School.
At age 16 while doing his Form Four, Tomas joined the group Luck Street Blues and got his first professional job at Pensao.
Several years later he was to pursue his other love, film, which saw him migrate to the United Kingdom where he obtained a degree in film and video production.
“I could have stayed there for good. I spent a number of years working freelance in film, even started a band with my sister in the UK. I knew that in six to 10 years I would have worked myself up the ladder and be leading a fairly comfortable life with job security and all.
“But I was unhappy there, I was a foreigner in an unfamiliar land – I just wanted to come back home,” he said.
Upon his return home in November 2010, Tomas was asked to run the Mannenberg, one of his family’s clubs.
“It took me less than six months to double the turnover – it is that experience I use even today,” said Tomas.
Artistes who spoke to this publication expressed a desire to save Book Cafe from collapsing as it is an important aspect of the arts and culture industry in Zimbabwe.
One of the artistes who took part in the fundraising concert, Alexio Kawara, said the venue gave him his first opportunity to perform using a live band, yet he did not have to pay a single dime.
“They gave us space for free rehearsals, a free PA System and we did not even have to pay money for advertising – they had it all covered. If it shuts down it would be a big blow, especially to upcoming artistes. I am taking part in all the campaigns they are carrying out so that others may continue to benefit the same way I have benefited from the venue,” said Kawara.
“I’m doing this from the bottom of my heart,” he added.
Arts manager Chido Musasiwa, who manages the affairs of a number of musicians, comedians and poets, described Book Cafe as one of the oldest arts venues that offer a complete package to artistes.
“It would be a huge setback if Book Cafe closes down. It’s a place that is so easy for artistes to hang out and to perform. It is an artistic hub and there is no other place like it in Zimbabwe.
“Artistes network there, and the Book Cafe itself is networked to hundreds of festivals that artistes benefit from – it would be a huge loss,” said Musasiwa.
Talented singer and dancer Ammara Brown said the “young local arts and culture industry cannot afford to lose Book Cafe”.
“That venue is incredibly important to every musician – professional and upcoming alike. We cannot afford to lose a venue of that magnitude.
“All sorts of activities take place there from poetry, book launches, industry discussions, album launches and performances of all kinds. This is really a matter of cultural conservation,” said Ammara.
Fortunately for the arts industry Tomas is optimistic the venue will get back to its feet. “Come what may, Book Cafe will survive,” he declared.