Play it once, Sam. For old times' sake
Play it once, Sam. For old times’ sake

The most recent Ask the Chef’s post was about the ‘Dirty Little Secrets’ of scholarly publishing. I recused myself because I could not think of anything interesting enough that wouldn’t get me into some sort of trouble.

That is, until now, because there is a little secret (which was occasionally quite dirty, if you believe the stories) tucked away in one of the conference hotels that serves the most important (or at least the largest) meeting of the publishing calendar. I’m writing, of course, about the Frankfurt Book Fair, the behemoth tradeshow that brings together over a quarter of a million publishers, intermediaries, vendors, and bibliophiles for reasons that are becoming steadily less relevant over time.

Those of you in academic publishing who have attended the Buchmesse, that’s what the locals call the Book Fair, may have already guessed that I’m referring to the Casablanca Bar, in the Meridian Hotel. And for anyone who thinks that publishers are spending their exorbitant profit margins in a glamorous international setting, the Casablanca is the opposite of that: it is essentially a dive bar.

The reasons why Casablanca, of all the gin joints in all the world, became the focal point of annual STM publishing industry social calendar are mostly lost to publishing folklore and poor judgement. According to anonymous sources however, it has something to do with Springer using the Meridian as its preferred hotel. During the mid to late noughties, the disruptive effects of the internet really started to be felt in publishing, particularly among STM publishers. People felt the need to network and chat to compare experiences as the industry transformed. Springer were particularly open and collaborative and so naturally, the occasional meeting was arranged over dinner or drinks in the hotel bar. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and from there, like an internet meme gone viral, the use of the Casablanca as a meeting hub started to snowball.

Whatever the reason, the usual suspects who attend the Buchmesse will not be coming to Casablanca for the waters anymore, because the bar closed its doors for the final time on Saturday the 22nd of October. That’s why I can let you in on the secret: final orders have been called, Casablanca ist kaput, Sam will not be playing it again.

Let us reminisce a little about this odd little place that was the cause of so many regret filled mornings.

The place was WAY too small! It was cramped, noisy, it stank of cigarette smoke and the decor was notoriously hackneyed. You might say that the place had a fairly terrible user experience, but for some strange reason, everybody kept coming back. Obviously, the place had some value that both the customers and perhaps the proprietors had a hard time fully defining.

It was often difficult or even impossible to get served. The bar staff always struggled to keep up with demand. To make matters worse, they would occasionally claim that their credit card machines had stopped working, resulting in the occasional impromptu whip-round to find cash to pay for a round that had gotten slightly out of hand. As a result, you might occasionally look around the bar and see that a significant percentage of customers did not have a drink in their hand. You might say that they had significant inefficiencies in their eCommerce systems that frustrated users and failed to maximize revenue.

Speaking of money. There was often talk of people being charged wildly different amounts for the same drinks. It was almost as if people were sometimes punished with high prices for not buying enough drinks in one round, or that some people got a discount for having a good relationship with the bartender. Of course, those who got cheap drinks, generally kept that information to themselves. That makes sense, I suppose, you don’t want to ruin your own ability to negotiate.

And yet, all these obvious shortcomings didn’t amount to a hill of beans because the bar was wildly popular. In fact, it was over-subscribed. It was as if, despite all the problems, people had heard that it was a good place to drink and tried to get served there anyway, often spending significant time waiting at the bar that could have been spent more enjoyably elsewhere.

Not only was it popular, but it stayed open longer than many thought it would. Last year, specifically, I’d heard rumors that it would already be closed ahead of the book fair. I wonder why they decided to keep it open for one last hurrah. Maybe it was because the management at the Meridian were concerned that they’d lose some of that intangible prestige.

The former clientele of the Casablanca should not despair too much. We’ll always have Frankfurt and as time goes by, there will still be a bar at the Meridian that will serve cocktails and be walking distance from the Buchmesse, and it will still be attached to one of the more popular conference hotels. So long as the hotel does what it’s supposed to do and offer conference goers a place to sleep, eat, drink and relax, giving up that perceived value of tradition and prestige won’t really matter.

Poor user experience, overdue for a refurbishment, popular based largely on tradition — hmmm, remind you of anything?

Here’s looking at Michael Clarke for helping to formulate this post over one of the last beers at the Casablanca.

Phill Jones

Phill Jones

Phill Jones is Director of Publisher Outreach for Digital Science. His job is a complex and nebulous thing with seemingly ever evolving responsibilities. These days, he spends quite a lot of his time working in the Consultancy, drawing on Digital Science's data and expertise to support decision making for publishers, institutions, funders and governments.

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Discussion

6 Thoughts on "The Closing of the Casablanca Bar in Frankfurt – A Eulogy, or an Allegory for our Times?"

Really glad that somebody has written in this vein, not least as I am still feeling a bit guilty for NOT mentioning the major development of Frankfurt 2016 in my own Fair report for the IPG. Important perhaps to mention when writing its obituary that the Casablanca was not just an STM hub, but basically the social centre of Anglophone academic publishing during the Fair, especially during the 90s and noughties, and ‘going to the Casablanca’ was an important rite of social passage for any aspirant young academic publisher attending the Fair for the first time. It was, as Phill makes clear, a youngish person’s venue, and I vowed on reaching a certain age of semi-maturity in 2009 never to go again. And didn’t. But it was always good to know that other people were, and still getting to bed at 2am and emerging fighting fit the next morning on five hours’ sleep. For a couple of hectic days, anyway.

Well stated sir, and kudos for continuing the Casablanca theme all the way to the acknowledgements. As long as the new default watering hole doesn’t become the tired cliche that is the American sports bar at the Marriott, I’ll be happy.

Thanks.

Mike and I discussed some sort of working group to select a replacement focal point. On second thought, though, that probably wouldn’t work.

The new focal point will have to bubble up from the community itself, rather than being dictated by a group of people who imagine they know what the conference goers want. That is, if having such a place is relevant at all any more, and the function isn’t replaced by something new entirely.

I view the likely outcome of the working group (really more of a scouting party) as entirely separate from the question of whether there should be a working group.

As a quick update and point of reference Phill, many people were still talking about this post, and the closing of Casablanca at Charleston, interestingly some even noted that retired colleagues were reading (with rye smiles on their faces) … you seem to have touched a nerve, or perhaps a vein and major artery … look forward to hearing more from Mike’s advance scouting party nearer the time, perhaps a good topic/question for the next Ask the Chefs !

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