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AJ's Music Cafe Plans to Close at End of March

AJ O'Neil, owner of the downtown Ferndale coffee shop that brings in local artists, says he can't keep up with rising costs.

The Ferndale music cafe that has been in the spotlight over the past five years for its support of local artists, initiatives to support local autoworkers and its recent , tentatively plans to close its doors at the end of March.

has been a popular spot downtown to stop in to hear a local musician sing or hear poetry readings, for college students to study and local artists to hang their work.

But owner AJ O'Neil says he can't keep up with rising costs as business slows down. He says he is working 70-hour weeks and trying to maintain $3,100 rent on income of around $250 a week the past four years.

“And I'm not complaining. I'm just saying I can't keep doing that. I'm real proud of what we've done here and I love the city, I love the people,” he said. “It's not about that. It's about being able to survive.”

'It's been five really great years'

Since it opened in April 2007, AJ's has offered up its venue for various fundraising concerts,  and in 2008 gave out free coffee to anyone who signed a promise to only buy an American-made car.

“This is like a cultural institution that's leaving the city because it's not humanely possible to work under the conditions,” said O'Neil, who has been running the shop with the help of his brother, Dennis O'Neil. “I've really enjoyed it. It's been five really great years.”

Though AJ's has gained much media attention over the years for its charitable events and initiatives, O'Neil said that doesn't necessarily mean business is good.

“Nothing could be further from the truth. It's a community service place. It's not like a typical business,” he said, adding that AJ's has become a sort of “living room” for the community. “We did some great things here. There's nothing to hold our head down about.”

Local artist Dennis Bruce Spencer started hanging out at AJ's as a patron and more recently . Serving as art curator, he helped bring in artists for art on the walls and he and other local artists have helped clean and paint the cafe.

“It was the kind of place where people like me would hang out,” Spencer said, explaining why he wanted to get involved. “People in Ferndale need a place like that to hang out.”

But Spencer said he thinks the cafe needed more upkeep along with menu improvements and that O'Neil's focus on political issues may have gotten in the way.

“That didn't do anything to help his coffee shop,” he said.

O'Neil announced in November that he is running for a congressional seat in Michigan's 9th District.

Spencer said it would be a “shame” to see the business close but that he understands why it would.

“Most people that hang out there don't anymore,” he said.

One door opens when another closes

O'Neil said he has other opportunities on the horizon, including a couple of tentative offers in other communities that he isn't ready to discuss.

“One door opens when another door shuts. That's kind of the way I'm looking at it,” he said.

As he looks back on the past five years in Ferndale, O'Neil said he is proud to have served the community and work on events that “put a face on the economic realities that really lent to the recovery that we're at today.”

“That's just a wonderful tribute to this town and to my participation in it. It feels good,” he said. “I don't know what else to say except thanks, it's been great. Time to go to the next step.”

Brian Clark February 08, 2012 at 10:32 PM
Can we stay on topic and stop insulting people? Is that possible? We should be allowed to express opinions without being mocked and insulted. Regardless of the reasons why a business has to close, people should be allowed to be sad or disappointed (or happy). We should be able to share thoughts and memories. We aren't all emotionless robots merely acknowledging the market data input. For some people, these local businesses mean a lot. They make a town a special place. Losing them can be like losing a friend. It should be acceptable to have feelings, to ask questions. For others, that must not compute. All they can output are mockery and insults.
Tim Bencsik February 08, 2012 at 11:22 PM
Well, you don't know the context; and life is not lived out of context! AJ laid in bed with the LIBERALS, and now he is paying the price! sO IS OUR ECONEMY! And if you don't like the price, you can always go somewhere else! DEFINE Price Gouging! You can't, because it's a fee market! Business is business, and if AJ was rolling in the $$$$, all would be good and fair/OK. But since he had a bad business plan, poor timing, and a President destroying a economy; the land lord is blamed for all his failure. Typical Libral BS with no accountability. GIMMY, GIMMY, GIMMY... It is Darwinism in revers! That to you must not compute??? And you all can comment all you want; just as I too may! It's not one way; your way and not mine! This is my badge of Honor; being different; or is that not OK in Ferndale? I say to you all; BAAA, BAAA, BAAA. SHEEPAL
Linda Baker February 08, 2012 at 11:56 PM
I'm sad to hear that AJ's will be closing - my experiences there were always positive from the service to the food and especially to AJ himself. He was one of the first to offer a helping hand when Ferncare was just an idea and helped us raise our first $ for our clinic. We will be eternally grateful to him and certainly wish him the best - I personally will miss stopping in periodically and always getting a warm welcome from the owner personally and knowing that there was someone ready to jump in and offer their assistance to so many of our non-profits or up an coming entertainers and artists of all kinds. Thank you for your 5yrs of hard work AJ and know that you will be missed and that you have been appreciated by many.
Jerry Smokes February 09, 2012 at 04:57 PM
AJ was a shameless self promoter who served Kroger brand coffee, FACT. Not at all surprised to see him go. One gimmick after another with that clown. He would still be in business if he had hired a chef, roasted his own coffee, redesigned with a clean modern look, and stopped being a douchebag making the business an extension of himself. If your rent is 3,000 a month you need to gross 10,000 just to survive. You can't do those numbers slinging kroger coffee in a town with Torino, Java Hut and Charzano, FACT. Hope the space becomes a restaurant or an art gallery.
G-Money February 09, 2012 at 07:02 PM
I always thought it cool that there was a place like AJ's for the arts and music. I even took part in it a couple of times. But by the lack of any type of real effort to get any attention for its business, I assumed that it had a way of doing very well for itself business-wise. I see I was wrong about that. But I dont think it was because of any political affiliation he has that the business was failing. It just seems he did not have much business savvy. He could have just hired an experienced manager to run the place with him (he still can), and it could have done much better, turned a bigger profit, and he would not have had to work 70 hours a week.

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