By Richard Nieva
Like most businesses, the Vox Pop café in Flatbush stayed closed last Thanksgiving. Its mostly young staff was able to spend the day with their families. But for many of the café’s regulars, the day off was more like a day with nowhere to go.
So instead of meeting at the store, they met at CEO Debi Ryan’s house to celebrate the holiday.
“It ended up being this wonderful collection of Vox Pop people,” Ryan said. She uses the term “Vox Pop People” like a formal identifier, almost like a last name. The 6-year-old café has been described as a book publisher, music venue and center for political activists.
Now the Vox Pop People will have to find another place to spend the other 364 days of the year.
It officially closed for good on Sept. 7 when a committee of board members from the community voted to dissolve the company.
“We tried,” said Ryan. “Nobody could have tried harder, I promise you that.”
It isn’t the first time the Vox Pop People have had to look for other places to spend their time. The business has been shut down four times before—the first time by the Department of Health and the last three times by the state of New York for back taxes.
“The glory days were, I guess, any days it was open,” laughed Tim Olsen, chairman of the board.
The café, at 1022 Cortelyou Rd., was originally established in 2004 by Sander Hicks and his then-fiancé Holley Anderson. Hicks, a leftist writer and “truther” with the 9/11 Truth Movement, started the café as a response to the “blind war on terror mentality that taught fear instead of first amendment rights,” he said. The café had a publishing arm which produced a newspaper until 2008, going after New York City corruption, said Hicks.
Olsen remembers emptiness on Cortelyou Road at the time the café began. The Picket Fence restaurant opened around the same time, and more businesses, like the Sycamore and the Solo bar, came after.
The startup money, about $80,000, came largely from an inheritance Anderson got from the sale of a family farm after her mother passed away. The children’s nook in the back of the café was built with original wood from the farm’s barn.
Ryan described the cafe as a safe haven, not just figuratively.
“That was a long walk from the train station, all the way down there, in the dark with nothing in between,” she said, referring to the Q line, about four blocks away. “Getting to that corner, you knew it was going to be busy and safe and sort of a beacon.”
Kati Duncan, shareholder and secretary of the board, said Vox Pop—which literally means “voice of the people”—was about its customers.
The business’s mantra, “Books, Coffee, Democracy,” resonated with its customers, said William Cerf, a 64-year-old regular.
The store’s icon was a six-foot Statue of Liberty. The statue stood in the storefront until it was destroyed by vandals in summer 2009. People were distraught, said Cerf. A West Village restaurant donated a replacement, and a group of about fifty customers hauled it to Vox Pop over the Brooklyn Bridge on foot by hand cart.
He likened the café to where the real statue stands on New York Harbor. “It’s a place for a new beginning,” he said.
The café had regular, eclectic, evening programming: Open mic night was on Sunday. Monday was jazz night and Tuesday was blues. Wednesday was indy film night, organized by Rick Menello, co-screenwriter of the 2008 film “Two Lovers,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow. Thursday showcased local musicians and Friday and Saturday were for produced concerts. Every third Saturday of the month was reserved for comedy, karaoke and all-ages shows mainly for teens. Alcohol was not served on those nights.
The daytime was for children’s programming, including drum circles and sing-alongs for kids and parents.
It also was the catalyst for many a relationship.
Greg Di Gesu met his future wife Nancy Campbell the first night he walked in. Di Gesu, a 45-year-old singer-songwriter from Jersey City, was sitting at a table with a full pitcher of beer and empty glasses after performing, waiting for some friends.
He offered Campbell, a manager at the time, a glass of beer. She accepted. Six years later, last July, they were married. “I had finished my set, so it wasn’t even like I wooed her with my music,” he laughed.
But unlike that couple’s happy narrative, other parts of Vox Pop’s story aren’t so neatly wrapped up.
The store has been physically closed since Aug. 24, when the state seized all of Vox Pop’s assets for over $133,000 in IRS and New York State back taxes, according to an email sent to shareholders. Agents padlocked the doors so the staff couldn’t take anything out of the store. The state auctioned those assets publicly on Sept. 15.
Vox Pop had 211 shareholders who owned a piece of the company, most of them from the community, investing $100 to $200. The money gone, and little sentiment in favor of putting in more money to reopen Vox Pop, the shareholders on Sept. 7 overwhelmingly voted in support of “Option 4,” to declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy and dissolve the company.
Hicks said he was great at raising money—he mentioned his record as raising $50,000 in one night, $25k from two investors—but bad at managing debt.
Hicks admitted that the business didn’t take city agencies and regulations too seriously when first starting out.
“We just got off on the wrong foot with the Department of Health, so there was always a debt there to manage,” he said.
In one day in 2008, the Department of Health levied fines totaling $14,000. That was just when the café established itself as a radical independent voice in the community, and Hicks suspects there was a connection.
He brought Ryan aboard to help fix the financial situation. She took over as CEO in early 2009, when Hicks left the company for a job offer in sustainable investing.
When management changed hands, Vox Pop was around $184,000 in debt from back sales taxes, Department of Health fines, and employee back debt, said Ryan.
Prices were kept intentionally low, said Ryan. Bottled beer was $3 while drafts were $5. “We know the economy is hard. We know that you need to go out, too,” said Ryan. “So we’re going to try our best to keep it affordable as possible.”
Maybe too affordable, she admitted.
At one point, in 2008, Hicks explored the idea of franchising Vox Pop. He leased a space to sell food and coffee in the lobby of the Bowery Poetry Club, nearby the now-defunct legendary punk club CBGB in Manhattan. The venture closed within a year.
“Oh, my Waterloo,” said Hicks, referring to the Bowery location. “Next question,” he laughed.
Ryan’s goal was to tailor Vox Pop to the Ditmas Park community. When she took over management, she tempered down the leftist political tone. “What you had to say, to me, was not as important as the fact that you had something to say.” Ryan said. “Every opinion was valid.”
She joked that the state shut them down every quarter.
They would close for two weeks at a time when they got shut down—meaning two weeks without revenue, and restocking two weeks worth of food and drinks, all the while interest and penalties growing, said Ryan.
But when the state came knocking the last time on Aug. 24, she gave up.
“No more,” she said. “How many times are we going to do this? Nobody invested in Vox Pop to become rich.”
Ryan said employees and vendors at the Cortelyou location have been paid. Hicks said he could have tried to raise money to save Vox Pop again, but he was not asked.
The final debt at the time of closing was $246,647.
The Vox Pop People are now looking for another place to call home. Cerf said a few of the customers are working on a new project, tentatively called the Cortelyou Community Center. They held a meeting Monday night at the Qathra café at 1112 Cortelyou Rd.
While they are looking for a building to gather in, Ryan said that is not as important as the spirit of the people. She recalled Vox Pop’s last open mic night in early September, held outside the store after it had already been padlocked.
Amidst all the singing and dancing, it was like “being at your own funeral,” she said.
“We realized what we’d succeeded in doing was, even without the brick and mortar to hold it together, we’d built a community,” she said.