How to Combine Business with Culture Three models of Armenian projects

“Artbridge” bookstore-café, which has a serious track record of 16 years, opened in Yerevan charged with a unique mission. ShakehHavan, its founder, not only does business but also helps people involved in arts, publishing industry and culture.

In her interview with “Aravot” Shakeh notes “ There are a lot of similar bookstore-cafes worldwide, but we were the first to open in Yerevan. Over the first three months it was rather difficult to persuade artists and painters to have their exhibitions hosted in “Artbridge”. However, having seen our democratic approach to things people started queuing for registration. We encouraged everyone, accomplished artists, students and starters to exhibit their work with us. Some pieces started selling, some did not. We used to have monthly exhibitions hosted on our premises but now we have them every ten days. This keeps visitors engaged. “Artbridge” was also the first to come up with the idea of putting on sale tickets for art and cultural events. Nowadays other establishments have also adopted this strategy.

The café’s founder says they set the benchmark high and guarantee success by nurturing respect for their work. “We respect our café customers, artists, publishers and creative people. There’s no conflict of interests. We have two different teams of people for the bookstore and the cafe.  Many years ago I used to be told that it would have been easier to start an outside café but I did not want the bookstore to smell of food and meals, as entering it implies entering a different world.  Now, we host book presentations in the café area, as the bookstore space is quite small. When we first started, we had very few books and people would laugh at us saying that the concept would not work, given the unpopularity of books. Fortunately, people read a lot in Armenia and we regret to have such a small bookstore. Therefore, we have come up with a solution not to exhibit books on shelves but just provide customers with any books of their choice.

We have been promoting books since the foundation of the store and we’ve always sought to agree on the business line with cultural demand.  Though we do not publish any books, we respect and honour people who write them. We try to establish a harmony between business and culture.  As all the authors and artists want to have their works reach a wider audience, we host their book presentations and art exhibitions. We are well-versed in featuring artists’ works and helping them achieve recognition.”

When I ask her how the country benefits from this establishment and what prevents “Artbridge” from further expansion, she says “You might call me a romantic but it makes sense to make an investment only when you are confident that you’ll receive something in return. I think we create opportunities and represent a new culture. The café’s sixteen-year track record and the fact that the concepts it advocated were adopted by different establishments makes it possible to consider that we have shaped a new café culture in Armenia …. We have also been offering daily newspapers for around 16 years. There was a time when early in the mooring people could get hold of flowers but they would not be able to find newspapers anywhere. Our working day starts at 8:30 and is over at 12 a.m. When people don’t find a newspaper kiosk open in the morning, they drop in and enjoy their morning coffee with the daily paper before they go to work. Though with the advance of the internet it has also become possible to keep track of the news online, I can still see a lot of people following the news both on their mobiles and by reading our newspapers. This means that they complement their knowledge through our help. We never force people to buy books. They can just drop in, take it, flick through and leave. We also offer a service of swapping books, when the customers take one book and leave another one. We do not need to advertise our services but we extend promotion opportunities. We also offer used books for sale for young people to afford them. As I have already said, the link between business and culture should be very subtle. I don’t see any problems posed by the country’s government.  Laws are for everyone, not just for “Artbridge”. If we are not aware of this or that regulation, that is our problem, not the government’s. We receive visitors of different ages at different times of the day and we do our best to make everyone’s stay pleasant. Some business-minded people might consider it wrong hosting a customer who stays in the café for four hours by just ordering a coffee. We do not mind that, as we respect all our customers.”   

“Since the foundation of the bookstore, I have never doubted the bravery of my ambition”. 

 “The history of “Bureaucrat” bookstore-café dates back to 2010, when the bookstore was founded following the mission of promoting Armenian and world literature in Armenia.   

Samvel Hovhannisyan, the café’s founder, in his interview with “Aravot” says, “Never have I doubted the bravery of my ambition since the day of the store’s opening. I had been wondering whether “Bureaucrat” would be a success in terms of business. The city residents and tourists, however, welcomed the new bookstore.” He adds smilingly “Although it has been seven years already, we still receive congratulatory messages on our opening. Exclusiveness has never been our target, whereas innovation and difference have. We have set the task of offering a getaway from the hustle and bustle of the city. I hope that people will follow our lead and the city will soon boast such places.”

 “Bureaucrat” is the favourite place of the city’s elite, artists and visitors, who attend meetings and cultural events here. Recently, the Minister of Culture, Armen Amiryan,   has paid a visit to the store and discussed with its founder a range of issues varying from publishing industry, the publication of children’s literature to the store’s development opportunities, namely its expansion and the establishment of a game centre on its premises that will promote reading habits. “When the Minister saw the bookstore, he was pleasantly surprised and we, in our turn, were pleasantly surprised seeing his ardour and knowledgeability.” / retrieved from a post made on the bookstore’s Facebook page/. It is worth mentioning that the Minister of Culture highlighted the importance of establishing new libraries and bookstores in the city combining leisure with literature. “Such places are great for family leisure. Their main highlight will be books but they will also be selling stationery, toys and similar items.” The Minister said he would like to collaborate with private organisations to reach this goal.”

The Loft: its Armenian Profile

Loft projects enjoy a tremendous popularity in some countries of the former Soviet Union, namely in Ukraine.  The “Loft” is a multi-functional platform designated for self-sustained and healthy lifestyle, self-development and leisure. The centre first opened in Yerevan back in 2014 and the opening ceremony featured the country’s president.

Arevik Hambardzumyan, the head of the centre, shared with us what she thought the centre’s contribution to the country was.

“During these two years, we have seen young people, businesspeople and diverse layers of society getting actively engaged in self-development projects.  The centre encourages exchanges of ideas, helps deliver diverse projects and fosters individual growth.  The “Loft” has actually become the space that on the one hand supports new ideas and on the other hand comes up with its own initiatives and events. Young people from rural areas are the first to respond to our development projects targeting villages, which shows that the “Loft” enjoys a growing demand in different parts of Armenia.” 

To our question whether there are any problems impeding its productivity, she says: “There are no problems as such, as initially considering the social function of the centre, we did risk assessment to determine the presence of any risks. However, I would like to mention that we could have more favourable facilities if investors recognized our potential and made a contribution to our development. As we have projected a special expansion plan for Armenia, (there is a “Loft” project operating in Gyumri and we expect to open another in Vanadzor), our target is to direct all the resources in the capital to remote areas. We would thus appreciate business investments of any kind either from individuals, private business sectors, foundations or other structures. Today we attach much importance to the regional development of the “Loft” network and to extending young people equal opportunities for development, quality pastime and alternative education. I am more than sure that this business model will attract the attention of some individuals and with small investments we will be able to promote healthy lifestyle, support new talents and start-ups even in remote areas.”

When I asked her if she had believed in the potential of revolutionary projects when she first started, Arevik Hambardzumyan said, “The “Loft” itself is a multifunctional project, which means that it could not be an immediate success, should there have not been for motivation, commitment and faith. We had projects that required lengthy discussions, minute strategy development and 24-hour commitment, however, not even once did we doubt the success of the set targets… The revolutionary nature of such projects can be questioned but the “Loft” has always demonstrated audacity and enthusiasm in tackling projects that at first glance seemed complex and unrealistic. Undoubtedly, the “Loft” is a project that breaks stereotypes and shapes new thinking.”

The article was drawn up in cooperation with the EU-Eastern Partnership Culture and Creativity Programme 2015-2018 – 

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