The power of connecting

‘This might sound weird, but does anyone fancy a chat?’

My friend Linda had spent the day working in Bristol, which she didn’t know very well. Finishing for the evening she headed to a local café someone had recommended to her.

‘Entering the café, I saw that there were only four or five other people there, all of them women, and all of them sitting on their own,’ remembers Linda, who teaches people how to be more creative, and who is a great advocate of the power of connecting with others — even with people you ostensibly have no reason to connect with. ‘I just thought, this is silly, we’re all on our own, maybe someone fancies a chat just like I do!’ And so, rather than ‘lean in’, she spoke up.

All of her fellow customers smiled, she says, and one of them — Ellen — took her up on her offer. The pair ended up chatting about Bristol, about Linda’s new house near Cambridge, and, inevitably, asking each other about how they earn their money (as opposed to ‘What do you do?’, which all too often is code for ‘Are you like me? Someone I can relate to?’. Whenever I am asked, ‘What do you do?’ these days, I tend to answer, ‘It depends where I am and who I’m with!’)

And it turns out that Ellen Grist now runs a launderette/café (with her sisters), and that she had had quite the journey getting it. ‘It was such an interesting story,’ says Linda, ‘and Ellen is so passionate about it, that it really made my week. And just to think, if I’d just sat on at a table on my own, I’d never have heard about it.’*

Funnily enough, a very good friend of mine once approached a stranger in a bar and asked him if he fancied a chat. They recently celebrated their 23rd anniversary.

Linked in, is, of course, all about connecting. But sometimes it’s good to remember that you don’t need a laptop to meet some of the people who could change your life today.

Q&A, Ellen Grist 
The idea of a launderette-cum-café is, as anyone who has ever had to use a launderette will agree, is a no brainer. Ellen — whose mission statement is ‘sorting life one load at a time’ — talks about how finding her premises and opening At The Well Bristol Cafe Launderette.

What’s your background? 
My twitter introduction reads ‘Bristol based structural engineer and social entrepreneur’. I have an engineering doctorate in low-carbon construction materials and I co-founded At The Well, a cafe-laundrette in Stokes Croft, Bristol. I guess few people’s interests stretch from lime-concrete to laundrettes. Although I now consider Bristol home, I grew up in a small village in East Sussex ,where my extended family were involved in the local church and amateur theatre. I attribute my love of local community to my church and ‘can do’ attitude to the world of the theatre and the many weekends spent building scenery, painting flats and hunting out props or costumes.

‘Laundry is a real leveller’

How did you get the idea for a launderette/cafe?
I got the idea while sitting with my takeout coffee in my local laundrette, guarding my washing. I had mixed feelings about my weekly trip there. I liked the efficiency of taking home my laundry clean and folded and ready to pack straight back into my drawers (I owned a washing machine at the time, but hate laundry hung around the flat to dry). I liked the warmth and light in the laundrette, which was particularly good for mending. I liked the time-bound opportunity to sit and read. I didn’t like the faff of having to go to the pub opposite to get the correct change, nor the fact that the remote coin slot and basic instructions for operating the machines left me feeling somewhat confounded and rather moronic. I could perhaps have sat with my coffee in the trendy cafe next door, but I was never entirely comfortable about leaving my laundry unattended, and besides it felt somehow more acceptable to sit by oneself in the laundrette than it did in the cafe. Moreover, I soon found that the laundrette was a easy place for starting up conversations. Laundry is a real leveller.

You did quite a lot of research…
Google quickly identified a spattering of cafe-laundrettes across America and Europe, including the Laundromat Cafe in Copenhagen. Working at the time for a Scandinavian engineering consultancy I had been to Copenhagen and knew it was a good city for a weekend. In fact I think the long weekend that my mum, my two sisters and I spent in Copenhagen was one of the very few holidays we have ever done as a foursome. We are also probably one of the few families to spend their holiday drinking lattes, playing games, writing postcards and taking selfies in laundrettes. In fact, we found both outlets of ‘The Laundromat-cafe’ to be buzzing with groups of friends and post-work drinkers. We didn’t witness a whole lot of laundry being done.

And finding your premises was a bit of an adventure…
So we thought the idea of a cafe-launderette was a good one and we’d seen a couple in the flesh, we’d even started a vintage cookery collection in the garage, but I still don’t think we envisaged actually opening our own launderette, which was still little more than an outline business plan (which I’d produced as a piece of coursework) and a notebook full of sketches and menu ideas. This in itself was enough of an excuse to have started viewing empty commercial premises in Stokes Croft — which at that time was every other building (it’s now a very exciting area of Bristol). This did help us start to assess some of the costs, as well as some of the specific requirements associated with installing commercial laundry equipment.

It was about this time that I had a dream about being at St. Paul’s Carnival and being let inside the derelict launderette in Stokes Croft (not a building I was conscious of but that I was clearly aware existed). In the dream it was not derelict inside, it had a black and white checkerboard floor and gleaming washers and dryers and my dreaming-self cried at the sight of it. Off the back of the dream, my attention was drawn to the old boarded up launderette tucked behind the bus stop, opposite one derelict club and next door to another. The place had clearly been closed for years but still had the opening hours and laundry prices up in the window. My sisters and I liked the story of re-opening the former launderette and thought we’d take a bit of a stab in the dark and look up the building’s owner on the Land Registry. We paid our small fee and received the address of a gentleman living somewhere up north.

Not really knowing how to begin a letter to an absentee property owner, a few weeks went by (we were all at the time studying/working) with the launderette-cafe idea hovering just below the surface. My sister Cassie was, at the time, volunteering for an anti-human trafficking agency and struck up a conversation with her fellow volunteer. He casually asked how the cafe-launderette planning was going and Cassie recounted the story about the Land Registry and the yet un-written letter… ‘The old launderette in Stokes Croft?’ he asked. “My father bought that property in auction just yesterday.” So the following day we were inside!

Needless to say it wasn’t full of gleaming equipment, the old washers and dryers were long gone, and rather the space was dark, dank and full of junk — and there was water dripping through the little that remained of the electrics. Climbing back out of the bramble-covered back entrance, we knew this had to be the place.

And so the connections went on… There was a plasterer working on the house I was renting at the time, I asked him if he’d come and take a look. I asked him if her knew a plumber… He did — his brother was a gas engineer and plumber. Days later and we were back inside, with the new landlord and with a team! We paid for the planning application — that was it, the ball was well and truly rolling.

‘We are now getting a reputation as an intimate gig venue and quirky place for a private meal or function’

How is it going now? There’s more to the place than just soap suds and cups of tea, I believe…
We have now been trading for four years and can testify there is more to running a cafe-launderette than just spin cycles and pots of tea. The cafe-launderette now also hosts a number of private and community events. As well as a weekly knitting group, we are now getting a reputation as an intimate gig venue and quirky place for a private meal or function. We are now visited by tourists from all over the world, musicians and artists on tour in Bristol and regulars we see on a weekly, bi-weekly and even daily basis.

We have connected with so many people through this project … tradesman, volunteers, local people, other local businesses, celebrities, pirates… people from all walks of life. And we’ve had some amazing staff on team too!

What did you think when Linda asked if anyone fancied a chat? 
I had noticed when I walked into the Folk House that evening how interesting it was that the five other customers were all women and all sat at their own tables. On one hand this made me feel right at home, I was after all, about to buy myself dinner and a glass of wine and sit by myself. On the other hand it was surreally quiet. I was as surprised as the next man (or woman) when Linda piped up and asked the room full of strangers if anyone fancied a chat. Surprised and impressed! This was the sort of thing I’d love to be brave enough to do myself, but I’m not sure I ever could (nearest I get is on occasions of unusual courage asking those in front and behind me in the taxi queue at the train station where they are heading, which has for the record also been a great success). Of course I was going to move and enjoy my dinner in company rather than hiding behind my mobile phone or a magazine. It was a great pleasure to share some of this story with Linda and hear about her stay in Bristol. In fact when my friends arrived an hour later for the dance class we were all about to attend, they quite naturally assumed Linda was an old friend. I was thrilled that she enjoyed the dancing and it was great to hear from her again last week [to make this post happen].

* Linda said that the other thing she really loved about the evening was that she ended up being taken by Ellen and her pals to her first ever Ceroc class in ‘the least dance-y footwear imaginable’.