Jimi Gureje, the owner of the Art Café, is wearing tie dye pants with gray underneath coordinated-rung splotches of purple. “These?” he says pulling at his pants after receiving a compliment, “these are ten years old!” He then moves his hand and curves it like he’s clutching a baseball or working a puppet, shifting from place to place with his feet, along with squinting his eyes, which he usually does when he gets into a story. “I wear em’ down. I like to pick three or four pairs for the month and change them out throughout,” he says. Jimi has dark skin, short dreads, and large smile and a short beard. “I’m always doing something, crafting something. I can’t stand still.”
Jimi founded and created his clothing store, Gureje in 2000 after leaving a job with Verizon Communications. Later Gureje transformed and expanded to what is now known as the Art Café. The place—a café, restaurant, bar, art gallery, event space, and clothing store—is in Prospect Heights on the corner of Underhill and Pacific. The space use to be an auto repair shop. Jimi says there were rats, infestations, car parts, and a big mess.
He first started his clothing store, Gureje, where he sells racks of custom made pants, jackets, hats, shirts, and scarfs, costumes, and other clothing accessories. Many are splashed with dye such as bright magentas, canary yellows, avocado green. All his clothing is hand dyed, stitched, and tailored. He operates the place with a group of experienced tailors.). Jimi was born and grew up in Nigeria, and moved to Germany before he came to the United States. He spent his youth making art, learning to dye clothing and stitch. “I had ripped jeans, earrings, I was somethings man,” Jimi tells me. (New York Times Travel section featured his store in a 36 hours in Brooklyn earlier this year.)
After establishing his clothing store, he moved on to the bar. He started with a simple bar that sold cheap beer and had a place to sit. He slowly added more and more to his Art Café. Today, the bar is small, chest high with a box crate sitting on the bar with triangle sized business cards and drink menus. Large jars of moon tea sit next to the box, which is tea that’s been outside all night with the moon. Behind the bar there’s liquor, a mirror, a sliding door fridge, and deep fryers causing warm air and the smell of fried empanadas to fill the place.
Dried roses hang from a chandelier, a portrait mirror hangs on a wall, there are scrolls of take-away menus. Next to one wall a large picnic table and a half mosaic-covered mannequin sit in the corner. There’s a large amount of blank hardwood floor in the middle. Jimi says he likes to keep the place open. When he sees other places with tables and chairs in the middle of the space, he believes the energy is restricted, along with the possibilities. There’s also an outdoor space with metal tables, scalene triangle covers to give shade, picket fence posts lined up like primarily colored ski poles, and at night movies will often play on the outdoor wall space above the building.
The Art Café doesn’t like to conform to one type of event either. They’ll host Deejay birthday parties, wine and paint nights, Indian music raga nights, art workshops, spiritual gatherings titled, “one love spiritual group,” stand-up comedy, and of course it’s constant RAM art gallery. The walls serve as the gallery for any type of art piece. At the time of writing there were tops of drums—the circular top—woven together in massive shapes that hung against the walls. RAM stands for Renate Albertsen Marton who sponsored Jimi when he moved to Germany when he was a teenager, and well before he moved to the US.
Jimi likes to use the word, ‘share’ when he describes the place. “Forget the internet man,” Jimi says. “People need to be around people. Places like this is where energy can collide.” He likes to also point out that the space functions as a place where people can share an experience. The people make the experience. Not the other way around. “If something is happening here, it all starts with you.”