On a soif

Photographer Jef Van den Bossche’s images capture the dying of the light for Belgium’s volkscafés, or people’s pubs, in the face of globalisation and cultural shifts.

As a child, my father used to take me to small pubs all across Belgium. In 2001 he wrote a book about the last so-called volkscafés, or people’s pubs in the province of Antwerp. Nearly two decades later I returned the favour and dragged my father on a quest for Belgium’s last remaining volkscafés.

Although no strict definition applies to all volkscafés, there are some recurring elements. The price boards often show little mercantile aspirations and are merely a bare necessity to keep things running. Therefore, few owners were able or willing to keep up with the latest interior trends and remained true to the original design in their pubs when first established. They may not have intended it as such, but that is what makes volkscafés an aesthetic document of time, in addition to the family legacies that they often are.

What intrigues me about these places, is that they incite an increasingly rare social interaction. Volkscafés are meeting places for a cross section of society where customers simply get to be themselves. So when lawyers, construction workers, know-it-alls and philosophers no longer get to solve world problems at their local bar, the communal life fades away. Under the wake of globalisation, small businesses make way for contemporary competitors with an international appeal. Nowadays traditional meeting points such as these are rather scarce.

This series is an attempt to keep their spirit alive.

Café America, Dikkebus. Alice has passed the blessed age of 90 years, yet still she hasn’t even considered quitting.
Café Bostella, Essen. Julia used to sell sausages, shirts, bacon, pants, bottles ... from her pool table. After the food inspection paid her a visit, she wasn't allowed to sell any food from her pool table anymore, so she moved business to her kitchen.
Café Nova, Baarle-Hertog. Also called Disco-Nel, the pub lies in the Belgian enclave in The Netherlands.
Café Beveren, Antwerp. This is the last pub in Antwerp with a Decap dancing organ.
La Rose Blanche, Sint-Jans-Molenbeek/Molenbeek-Saint-Jean. Molenbeek has a bad reputation since the Paris attacks in November 2015. La rose Blanche, the last Greek pub in the Brussels municipality of Molenbeek, is one of the last remaining places in the centre where you can consume alcohol. It is a place where all kinds of nationalities meet. The parents of the owners were Pontic-Greek refugees from Turkey.
De Kerselaar, Ypres. Before television found its way to common households, people used to go to their local pub to listen and discuss the latest news.
Café-Epicerie, Le Mesnil. In a tiny Ardennes village, Mémènne still runs the last pub and a small grocery store next-door.
Café Viking, Ghent. Café Viking used to be crowded with Scandinavians working in the port of Ghent. Nowadays there are no more Scandinavians due to stricter labour policies.
Café De Tijger, Jabbeke. Marie-Jeanne opening a bottle.
Café Beveren, Antwerp. A man proudly showing his tattoo, saying 'I am thirsty'.
De Spreeuw, Zandvliet. Customers joining hands in solidarity.
Café De Tijger, Jabbeke. Marie-Jeanne standing in front of her pub a couple of weeks before it was demolished.
Sportlokaal, Oost-Ham. Every Saturday the friends of barkeeper Guido come together to play billiards.
De oude tinnen pot, Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-Waver. Jozef and his daughter-in-law participate in a popular game that is only played during the fast. Behind the café, the living room and kitchen are also filled with enthusiasts. At the age of 97, Jozef is the oldest customer of the establishment.
Café De Tijger, Jabbeke. Closing party of Café De Tijger - people cried and laughed one last time in their local pub. Two days later they started demolishing the building.
In Milano, Ternat. The landlord pours a drink for himself.
Le Rétro, Velaines. A cafe just across the language border where both Dutch and French speakers meet each other. The owner is a collector and occasionally organizes flea markets.
De Tijger, Jabbeke. A man pointing out himself during a cycling contest more than fifty years ago.
Palais de la bière, La Louvière. Customers enjoying a drink.

The photographer

Jef Van den Bossche

Jef Van den Bossche (1993) is a Belgian documentary photographer who’s recent projects include documenting communal spaces emptied by the pandemic, and capturing Belgium’s vanishing café culture over a 2 year period.

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