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French Coffee House Owner Refuses to Sell His Life’s Work – A Story of Courage

Although his is the only standing building in what used to be an old neighborhood of Roubaix, in Northern France, Salah Oudjani refuses to sell the coffee house he has worked in for the last 46 years.

The title doesn’t sound like anything special, after all, many people refuse to have their property demolished, at least in the beginning, until they get a good price or they notice everyone else is selling except them. But for the 71-year-old business owner neither of the above reasons were good enough. The two-story triangular building once located at the intersection of two streets appears to be the only survivor of a serious air raid. Everything around it has been turned to rubble and taken to local landfills, brick by brick, and Oudjani’s place looks like it’s the only sign of life in a wasteland. Like all the other residents, the café owner has received numerous proposals for his property, but he never even considered selling it. “I will not sell! I worked for it, this coffee house. They will not make me go, I’m used to pressure” Oudjani says, and everyone knows he means it.

Photo by M. Libert/20 Minutes

Originally from Algeria, Salah Oudjani came to France in 1949, and worked hard for many years before he and his wife Ginette bought the “Café Chez Salah” building, in 1965, and claimed their financial and social independence. All through the 70s, the streets of Roubaix were teaming with all kinds of people, from doctors to miners and shoemakers, and the inside of his cafe is a reminder of those days; faded curtains, an old jukebox playing timeless classics, yellowed photos and postcards on the walls, they all tell stories of a time when everyone had a workplace and life was easier. And Salah doesn’t want to part with his memories and life’s work: “I told them I will die here” he says, “I don’t need money, it goes too quikly. I will never move, this is my life, here. And this will be my life. Why go elsewhere when it’s better here?”

Photo by Laurent Ghesquiere

Since 2000, every piece of land in Salah Oudjani’s neighborhood was bought from the community, and in 2003 and 2004 the last two factories closed. The new Union eco-district was supposed to be built on the empty lot, but Chez Salah is located right at the junction of two axes the city is trying to rehabilitate. The project is spread over 80 hectares and will provide homes for 240,000 people. 174 million euros are to be invested in the process, and it’s scheduled for completion in 2022. Developers hoped Salah could be swayed until they reached his coffee house, but he is determined to live in the same place he has for the last 46 years. His telephone, gas, and power are occasionally cut off, and garbage trucks don’t even stop by his place anymore, but he keeps serving pints of beer and cups of coffee as if nothing happened. He hasn’t got too many customers apart from some old regulars, but that doesn’t seem to scare him at all.

Although construction would go a lot smoother without a relic right in the middle of their project, developers have come to the conclusion that the man to convince Salah Oudjani to move hasn’t been born yet, and have recently decided to alter their plans in order to include the old 60’s café. It’s the only viable solution right now, considering they can’t force him to give up his property, but they hope his descendants will be more easily convinced…

If you admire Salah’s courage in the face of change, or simply want to follow how his story develops, you can check his page on Facebook.

Sources: France Soir, Direct Lille

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