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'Café Comercial, la casa de todos', between yesterday and tomorrow

Five years after the reopening of the Café Comercial, located in the Bilbao roundabout in Madrid, the writer Rafael Soler gathers a group of "parishioners" to tell their memories; the result: the book "Café Comercial, la casa de todos"
cafe comercial

Antonia Cortés/Atalayar  -   Rafael Soler, Juantxu Bohigues, Rafael Martín y Santi Alverú

At the end of the 19th century, specifically in 1887, the Café Comercial opened in Madrid. For more than a century it became a wonderful meeting place for the intellectuals of the time. The coffee, with its aroma, and the traditional churros, were mixed with the power of words and good times. Its large windows, mirrors, marble tables, lamps... were witnesses of interesting gatherings, spectators of love and heartbreak, accomplices of those first verses written on paper napkins and forgotten forever in any book, and treasurers of unconfessable secrets in those times when freedoms were scarce.

The Café Comercial, run since 1909 by Arturo Contreras and his wife Isabel, saw how time went by until it could boast of having lived in three different centuries, with its bright and dark periods; with its people from the neighbourhood and from other places, famous and not so famous, writers, dreamers, students who grew up and even became important, to make way for those other young people who brought new concerns. And one and all were weaving adventures and misadventures, comings and goings, yesterdays and tomorrows.

But one day something happened that nobody thought could happen. And on 27 July 2015, that door through which illustrious characters had passed stopped swinging. And there was no shortage of rumours about its closure, nor about its future. But, fortunately, that fate that was drawn did not come true, and on 27 March 2017, two restless entrepreneurs, Caleb Soler and Alejandro Pérez Alburquerque, turned sadness into hope and that hope into a pleasant surprise: the Comercial returned to its life steeped in its memories, but embracing a new and active reality. And so, tradition and modernity left us open-mouthed.

cafe comercial
Antonia Cortés/Atalayar - Editor Rodrigo Varona with Rafael Soler 

Now, five years after its opening not only as a café but also as a restaurant, the writer Rafael Soler, an essential part of this emblematic place, and responsible for the fact that this space breathes the perfume of poets, fulfilled a shared dream: the presentation of the book 'Café Comercial, la casa de todos', published by Muddy Waters Books. There are its 330 pages in which a group of "illustrious parishioners", as stated on the back cover, recover their memories in this Café, in this Madrid. The event was held in the upstairs, where so many conversations, meetings and verses are kept in its walls, now completely refurbished. 

Rafael Soler was overflowing with happiness, and rightly so. So were the entrepreneurs who took on, not without effort, the new cultural and gastronomic challenge. And there was contagion. Too many sensations together, wishes fulfilled, friends reunited, that Rincón de don Antonio (Machado, of course), the big wink to those who left before seeing this project come true: Paco García Marquina and Maxi Rey, the reopening, the hopes and dreams... It was an emotional meeting, led by the comedian Santi Alverú, in which past and future became present. The editor Rodrigo Varona defined it with a phrase as forceful as it was beautiful: "A tribute to believing in the impossible". So let's believe.

It was also moving to hear Maribel Serratacó, Arturo's granddaughter, and her concern about whether "the spirit of culture and friendship" would be maintained; and Fernando Vera and his Christmas Eve dinners, when the Comercial was only for the family. They were grateful for this continuity, while Rafael Soler did not hesitate to affirm that the moment that gave meaning to the event was the presence of both of them. "We are where we come from", he recalled.

Writers, politicians, professors, artists, economists, musicians... searched their memories of their experiences in this warm place and wrote them down. Beautiful texts full of truths, those of each one, which are mixed with Victoria de Diego's illustrations and María Yelletisch's gallery of illustrious people: from the protagonists of this new era, Alejandro and Caleb, to José Hierro, Pablo Sorozábal, Carmen Martín Gaite, Almudena Grandes...

But what are the customers without the staff who make it all work every day? And there was Juantxu Bohigues, who was a waiter for 24 years at the time when he wanted to be a writer (and he is one), a desire that grew as he was lucky enough to meet Sánchez Ferlosio, Tomás Segovia, Pérez Reverte, José Luis Sampedro... and Rafa Soler himself, whom he asked to read his first story. More dreams fulfilled. 

cafe comercial
Antonia Cortés/Atalayar - Los emprendedores Alejandro Pérez Alburquerque y Caleb Soler.

And also invited to this banquet was Rafa Martín, the newsagent, who, after 40 years watching the movement of these revolving doors, boasted of being, surely, the one who has drunk the most coffees, and also the one who has gone to the toilet the most times... And at this statement, laughter was heard, which joined the ones already recorded, the ones that will be recorded.

Great moments among friends, as the writer Fanny Rubio recalled, in this Café Comercial, which she defined as "the frontier of freedom", because the greys, in those university years, did not reach the Bilbao roundabout, because they stayed in Argüelles. From there, they, walking or running, would meet in the place where there was dialogue, where his generation met with others "who spoke in a low voice", such as Tierno Galván or Ridruejo. "It was an enigmatic café full of secrets".

The writer Inma Chacón also searched in her head, in her heart, for dear moments to bring her memories to this presentation, to share "that cultural and emotional refuge" and all that the name of this place evokes: the word, memory, culture, politics, desire... "The Bilbao roundabout would not exist without the Café Comercial, nor would Madrid", said the poet in this "Café de todos".

David Moralejo, director of Condé Nast Traveler, recalled how he slipped into that Commercial under construction to write about what was happening there and spoke of a Café that will give many more stories to write about.

And from behind the curtain, to close the event, came out those who make the day-to-day possible, in the kitchen, in the management, in the organisation of cultural activities, such as the chef Pepe Roch, who spoke of the existence of 2 "Comercials": when Rafael Soler is there and when he is not.

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PHOTO/ATALAYAR - Rafael Soler, Maribel Serratacó and Fernando Vera.

All of them were the protagonists of an evening that has already become part of history. They raised their voices, and represented that group of "illustrious parishioners" such as Luis Alberto de Cuenca, José María Merino, Ángel Antonio Herrera, Ana Rossetti, Javier Lostalé, Manuela Carmena, Joaquín Leguina, Carlos d'Ors, Joaquín Pérez Azaústre, Pez Mago, Paco Caro, Jon Andión, Sol Carnicero... up to 74. Representatives of different generations, who have come to this welcoming Madrid from many provinces, and who have captured their experiences in prose or verse in the pages of this book.  An open work... because it has been said that there are many things to tell and so many more to come.

May the door of the Bilbao roundabout keep on turning, the one Rafa Soler opens to us from his heart, "because the best is always yet to come, and everything has just begun. Come in and read". This is this writer's invitation for us to delve into this book, in everyone's home, in the Café Comercial.