Coffee and collecting create cottage charm

In the Normandy Apartments, a vintage landmark of Xuhui District, the recently opened Cottage Cafe & Bar lends an extra retro touch to an area with memories of the early 1900s.
Coffee and collecting create cottage charm
Ti Gong

Liu Renhe’s artistic talent is displayed on the chalkboard behind the bar.

In the Normandy Apartments, a vintage landmark of Xuhui District, the recently opened Cottage Cafe & Bar on the first floor lends an extra retro touch to an area awash with memories of the early 1900s.

Liu Renhe, 56, founder of the cafe, is a former financial specialist. Acquaintances call him Lao Mai. 

Liu designed the interior of the cafe himself, with furniture and ornamental items he collected from all over the world. It exudes the aura of Old Europe.

Although he never studied interior design academically, Liu’s longtime passion for collecting antiques developed in him a discerning sense of achieving harmony.

“The cafe is a symbol of freeing myself from a former 9-to-5 routine,” Liu says. “But that does open new concerns in my life.”

Liu strikes a different pose from other Chinese men in their 50s, with his iconic beret-casquette and suspender jeans. 

He is happy to regale visitors with the stories behind every collectable in the cafe. The classically carved table legs come from France. Some of the chairs were made in long-closed European factories. The cupboards were made from sign board bought from a bankrupt French bakery in Shanghai.

Perhaps the most impressive story of all is how he managed to persuade a junk shop owner to sell him a dresser that now serves as a shelf for vases in the cafe.

Made in the early 1900s, the milk-white dresser with mirror is so old that paint peels off every edge. Nonetheless, Liu cherishes it like a treasure.

He says he fell in love with the dresser when he first saw it in a junk shop around a corner on Wukang Road. The shop owner had stacked it with piles of books, obscuring the mirror. When Liu inquired about the price, the owner told him it was not for sale.

Sometime later, Liu revisited the shop and asked the owner, “If you were going to sell it, how much would you ask?”

The owner replied: “2,000 yuan (US$314).”

Liu once again offered to buy it, only to be knocked back a second time.

Coffee and collecting create cottage charm
Ti Gong

Liu strikes a Bohemian pose in front of his cafe.

When Liu visited the shop for a third time, the owner caved into his persistence and his passion for the dresser and sold it to him. Liu invited the shop owner over to see how perfectly the piece fit in with the décor when the café opened. They have become friends ever since.

One café isn’t big enough to hold all of Liu’s collectables. He also owns a vintage shop in Pujiang Town in Minhang District. It brims with more of his treasures, including furniture, ornaments, garments and daily necessities he has collected from flea markets all over the world.

Most of the customers at the vintage shop are designers, collectors or people who love a retro lifestyle.

“There are actually people who love old-school fashions,” Liu says. “They believe retro-style clothing and accessories are very stylish. And they can always find something good in my shop.”

The cafe, too, is a magnet for the nostalgic. Stopping for a good cup of coffee, patrons often walk around to take a closer look at the old typewriter attached to a wall, or the USSR army helmet once used in World War II, or an old pair of glasses for sale on a shelf.

Liu says a passion for art and antique runs in his blood. He was born and grew up in Hankou, central China’s Hubei Province. His childhood home was near an old foreign concession in the city.

When he was young, Liu used to prowl around the concession, looking for traces of the past, such as furniture and decorative items.

But his passion later took a back seat to career when he went to work in the finance industry. The decades passed by quickly.

“At one point, the driver who picked me up every morning and took me home every evening remarked that he had been driving me for five years,” Liu says. “It triggered something in me. I suddenly realized that I couldn’t continue in that life anymore. I didn’t have the time to waste on a life of unrelenting routine.”

So Liu ditched his financial career and turned his attention to his hobbies, which included painting, photography and, most importantly, vintage collection.

His desire to share part of his collections with the public led to his opening a cafe called 25A Taojiang Road, the predecessor of Cottage Cafe & Bar. It was a popular place for nearly a decade but had to close early last year when the landlord decided to stop renting the premises.

Liu despaired and was going to give up the cafe idea when about 30 former classmates at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing launched a fundraising drive to keep his dream alive. A year later, Cottage Cafe & Bar opened just 2 kilometers from the original site. 

Word of Liu’s success as an interior designer spread. He became known as a man with a unique sense of beauty. Friends and acquaintances asked him to do designs for venues they operated. Once again, Liu’s days are as fully packed as when he was in finance, though they can hardly be called routine.

“I’m beginning to think that I should change my life again,” he says. “After all, I’m not young anymore. I want to live every day as if it were the youngest day in my life. I want to spend every minute as I like. I hope that I can soon find a new balance between business and will.”

Coffee and collecting create cottage charm
Ti Gong

The dresser that cost Liu great effort to get stands in one corner.

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