Local Heroes #65 - Sala Babel - Bringing Madrid City's Hectic Agenda into a Small Town

Sala Babel has gained a special status in Madrid by creating a place where communities gather for mindfulness workshops, movie nights, theatre plays, concerts, and plenty more. Let's meet the co-owners, Carlos & Ana.

Published by Patricia on 18/12/2017

Sala Babel has already established itself as a meeting point among Madrid’s small mountain villages. Opening its doors early for those who enjoy having a tasty Italian coffee, Babel stays far from being a regular cafeteria. Mindfulness workshops, original version movies, independent theatre plays or life jazz concerts are only a few of what the place has to offer.

Ana and Carlos both lost their jobs as NGOs legal councillors after the economic crisis in Spain took place and decided to start new. After moving to a small town towards the biggest mountain range in Madrid, they realized they were used to a very busy cultural agenda that none of those towns could meet. They piled up all their savings, partnered up with a well-known cinema director, and started to run Babel.

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So, Ana, Carlos, where are we. What is exactly Babel?

Ana: Babel is a safe and polyvalent space set in a small village outside Madrid. You may want to enjoy a cup of coffee, watch a movie or set up a readers club once a week, but you may just as well do it while embracing the local culture.

 Carlos: I like to see this place, Torrelodones, as Madrid’s last neighbourhood, but also as its first so-called ‘pueblo’ or village. There is a huge gap between Madrid’s city center and its hectic lifestyle and the villages near the mountain range. Babel is thought to be a meeting point in between them both.

What’s your story?

Ana: Well, I was born and raised in New York and, as a kid, I used to come to Madrid every summer to visit my grandma. I even got baptized at the local church here! Since then, I’ve lived all around: France, Italy, Holland, Belgium… and so I had become used to attending a wide variety of cultural events. Before Babel, we both used to work in NGOs. We actually met while working at CEAR, the Spanish Commission for Refugee Assistance.

Carlos: Yeah, but after the economic crisis and the salary cuts, NGOs were among the first affected and we slowly run out of projects. I had always worked in bars to complement my salary, and Ana and me were always talking about starting a project of our own, maybe a cafeteria, but we were not sure where to start.

Ana: Babel was born as a cafeteria, but we soon run into Mariano Barroso, a well-known Spanish cinema director and producer and we all decided to set the movie theatre in what used to be an empty building right next to the cafeteria.

Carlos: Mariano was interested in setting up a place like that and we were missing our old lifestyle: concerts on the weekends, workshops, original version movies… we were also aware that the space beside us was available, so it all came pretty natural. We three became partners and it worked out just fine.

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How are events being arranged and managed?

Carlos: Everything is done here. We started by calling some friends that happened to be musicians and set up a few monthly art exhibits as we went. But it now works both ways: some musicians heard of us and call us, or we pick up the phone and try to set the agenda ourselves. Many artists actually call us with the idea that Babel is placed in the city center, because they heard of other known musicians or actors who have already played here.

Ana: Exactly. The exhibitions are often from local artists, as well as they tend to form their own gatherings, the readers club for instance. Our workshops consist on meeting the locals needs: mindfulness, yoga for birth preparation, scenic workshops for actors and writers, hypopressive training…

What kind of public comes along?

Carlos: Oh, you can either find here the artsy in his twenties trying to figure out his life, the seven-time- Grammy-winner, or one of the old local folks enjoying his last cup of coffee of the day while enjoying a jazz concert.

Ana: We like to think that Babel is a safe space. A place where you feel you belong and that which provides an environment to grow and meet others. We also openly support collectives and initiatives such as the LGBTQ+ community or an environmental-friendly product use, for instance. We are open to all topics and discussions… These villages might seem conservative at times, but Babel was born as an open community and will always remain like such. Everybody who respects that, is more than welcome in here.

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What is that you think Babel is contributing to the local community?

Carlos: When we decided to start a new life here and to bring part of what we thought was missing, we came to a conclusion: we may run out of money on the attempt, but what we do shall be remembered.

Ana: You cannot bring something slightly new to a small village. Either you bring the same old trend or you commit to disrupt the dynamics completely. We wanted a place where people could enjoy a cultural agenda but also to provide a space to encourage people to break their comfort zone and meet others. What ended up happening is that people from different villages and likes have now become our regulars and altogether built a safe space where to meet, discuss, and form new communities. Back in 2014, we were awarded one of the Rafael Martínez López awards, for having set a “social aware meeting point for civil society.”

Carlos: We come from years of working in NGOs and social awareness projects; we know our way to bringing communities together. See, all the flowers at the bar come from a client that also owns a florist. It is also the case of the honey we serve in here. In exchange, we connect customers that are looking, let’s say, for a wedding florist, or we support the local honey production. We try to serve as facilitators for other local businesses and networks to grow, as they all help us to rise every time they choose Babel for their morning coffee or their weekend entertaining place.

Ana: It is not possible for everybody to like what we are doing here, but one thing is for sure, Babel will be remembered if it closes. There is not another place in town doing the same thing: French pastries, Italian coffee, artisanal beer, premiere movies, mindfulness sessions, exhibitions, live music, independent theatre… We are here to set the agenda we would like to follow, and that is what we are doing.

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What is Babel’s gem? Its most valuable aspect?

Ana: The space we provide, what we constitute here. This area of Madrid can still be very conservative, but that often responds to younger generations moving outside of Spain or to the city center. It is well known that the town hosts musicians, actors, journalists and artists… quality of life here is outstanding. They just happen to hang out elsewhere. Our staff is multicultural, we come from many different countries: United States, Ukraine, Colombia, Spain… Babel is been put together by several open minds working along, and so we attract the same kind of vibe.

Carlos: Look, I often walk barefoot in here, early in the mornings. Some people may not like that, but some truly appreciate feeling at home. Of course, I put on shoes when people start coming, but the point is that locals here know that we set up this place and behave in it as if it’d be our home. There is nothing in here left to chance; we took our time to stop and analyze our favorite cafeterias and cultural centers from the client’s perspective. I rather have coffee here than at home, and that is what some of our clients tell us as well…Somehow we are a place to experience, not to merely stay. If someone comes during lunchtime and orders for a ‘quick’ meal because they have to leave fast, we simply tell them that is not possible. We do not pick the food and reheat it; we actually prepare each meal at the moment. It is good, but it takes its time, just as when you cook at home.

It must be difficult to manage it all by yourselves. Are you investing in advertising?

Carlos: You may know it, as you are also from here around. Villages do not work through regular advertising. It is not like it would make a difference to invest in advertising in the local paper or so… although we could use a community manager (laughs) but starting a business is just so expensive and we can’t afford it at the moment. People here need to trust you, and to do so, they first have to get to know you. You would think that they do, after four years running this place, but villages have their own daily dynamic and locals often walk the same route everyday. They might not even be aware that a place opened several years ago.

Ana: But it is changing. The good side of living in a small village is that people, especially youngsters, move among towns indifferently. They can pick up a friend in a nearby village, have a beer here and head to the next town for lunch. That is actually working great for us. We focus on bringing great musicians and original version movies and they do the rest. The word is now spreading quickly. You do not need to drive all the way to Madrid for a great concert anymore and people like it.

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What kind of public comes along?

Carlos: Oh, you can either find here the artsy in his twenties trying to figure out his life, the seven-time- Grammy-winner, or one of the old local folks enjoying his last cup of coffee of the day while enjoying a jazz concert.

Ana: We like to think that Babel is a safe space. A place where you feel you belong and that which provides an environment to grow and meet others. We also openly support collectives and initiatives such as the LGBTQ+ community or an environmental-friendly product use, for instance. We are open to all topics and discussions… These villages might seem conservative at times, but Babel was born as an open community and will always remain like such. Everybody who respects that, is more than welcome in here. 

Words by Patricia Charro
Pictures by Patricia Cabeza

What a great interview of one of Madrid's local community ventures, thanks for this one Patricia! If you like what you've read, our print journal could be the perfect café companion for you. Come check it out! https://store.acitymadebypeople.com/

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