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How to build a café society

When Rachel Smillie first opened the Glad, she had a community vision in mind. Did it work out?
9 May 2020
Posted in Opinion

By Rachel Smillie

Rachel is the founder of the Glad Cafe, an award-winning community interest company on Glasgow's Southside.


Inside the Glad. Photo Paul Chappells

I recently heard a woman speaking on the radio. She had given up a well paid regular job to follow a dream that had suddenly taken possession of her — to set up a restaurant. This project had taken over her whole life. She wryly said: ‘To me the world is divided into two sorts of people: entrepreneurs and happy people.’ I get where she is coming from.

Ten years ago, I spent a life-altering evening at a new music venue in Dalston, east London. Though small and rough around the edges, Café Oto was instantly inspiring. Its daily programming of experimental music, the making-it-possible attitude of the founders, the broad church of ages and ethnicities among the customers. All of it made a big impression.

When I returned home to Scotland, the question wouldn’t go away: could we do the same in the Southside of Glasgow?

I’d lived in East Pollokshields in Glasgow since 1978 with my husband, a Southsider all his life, with ancestry that stretched back at least four generations in the area. As an English newcomer, I had settled in well, and remembered feeling blessed as I looked at the mix of cultures at one of our children’s parties – a mix of Asian Scots and white Scots, as well as children from Iraqi and Ugandan families. What better place to bring up our children.

“Part of the problem, it seemed to me, was a distinct lack of places to encourage us to socialise outside the home. I dreamed that Glasgow’s answer to Café Oto could be that place”

But day to day, the lack of socialising between the communities became a deepening disappointment. Friends at school didn’t meet out of school hours. A good proportion of children went straight from school to the local mosques, and as parents we found ourselves organising playdates and sleepovers with the community we knew best – our own. The men didn’t socialise – out all day at work, they didn’t even know each other. At least we women would have conversations at the school gates, and I would be invited in by the lovely Asian Scottish women in my close to have coffee while our kids were at school.

Part of the problem, it seemed to me, was a distinct lack of places to encourage us to socialise outside the home. I dreamed that Glasgow’s answer to Café Oto could be that place. Not that I had any experience of running a live music venue, or a café for that matter. Trained as an archaeologist, I had spent two years as a volunteer teacher in Nigeria, followed by years working at home with my children. I then got into storytelling, working for 10 years at The Village Storytelling Centre in Pollok on the outskirts of the city. It was there that I learned about social enterprise, as we tried to be less dependent on grants. Not that this limited ‘expertise’ equipped me for the world of business.

“By now I was a full-blown entrepreneur nut. Nothing daunted me. Obsessed by the venue/café idea, we searched long and hard in Pollokshields for a home for the Glad”

But it was too late: by now I was a full-blown entrepreneur nut. Nothing daunted me. Obsessed by the venue/café idea, we searched long and hard in Pollokshields for a home for the Glad – we knew many people in the area and felt we could develop a local hub that would represent different pockets of life there. It was a search that wasted time and money. The only property that we could find to fit the bill (and our budget) was half a mile away.

The premises had been built as a billiard hall at the back of the Camphill Gate tenement in 1906. By the time my husband was at school in Shawlands it was a snooker hall, and by the time my children were at school it had morphed into Laser Quest. In the 2000s it housed a number of short-lived ventures from a night club to a Malaysian restaurant to an African restaurant. These later iterations meant that, crucially, 1006A Pollokshaws Road already had some of the right infrastructure in place to make the venture possible. But with that change of locality, part of the original vision died. We had drifted away from the very communities we had hoped to serve.

The gig space. Photo Paul Chappells

After hard graft on the site, we opened in 2012. I see myself in the early days scurrying around the café trying to be helpful, accidentally spraying table cleaner into my eyes instead of on the table. I was clueless! But I had embarked on an adventure. And though not in the original direction we intended, it was going somewhere.

Eight years on, I find myself reflecting on our early vision for this space.

Did we bring the dream to life? Certainly, we have a café, a live music and arts venue, an exhibition space and a literary and art zine. We provide a platform for local, national and international musicians to showcase their work. We try to stay true to our ethical base as a not-for-profit social enterprise, and work to provide free and affordable music lessons for local people.

“We also work to keep our arms and attitudes open – even to the possibility that we might never be that diverse hub we hoped to be”

We also work to keep our arms and attitudes open — even to the possibility that we might never be that diverse hub we hoped to be. Interestingly, our recent Crowdfunder campaign made us realise that fundraising for our £40,000 bill for roof repairs was actually not all about the money. Through it we received an amazing affirmation of all that we are doing – gifts from musicians, artists and writers to provide rewards for donations, comments and inspiring ideas generously offered. Deacon Blue and Aidan Moffat set up fundraising gigs to give the campaign a boost, and many musicians responded to a call from Modern Studies’ Emily Scott to produce a special Raise the Roof album. We felt endorsed and energised for the future.

So what can I say? We love the Glad Café and it seems a lot of other people do too. We love being in the Southside, and even if some of our vision faded as soon as we moved our home out of Pollokshields, as I look around at Milk Café, Govanhill Baths and many other initiatives, the things that we can’t achieve, others are achieving in imaginative and generous ways.

We all do what we can, and together with the Southside’s open-hearted, creative and inspirational projects, we are partners in our commitment to making our neighbourhood something very special. And you know what? I think together we might just be succeeding.