All the world's a stage

25th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

In the first of an occasional series on expats and the small businesses they love, Laura Martz talks to Gary Christmas of Backstage Café in Amsterdam.

Gary Christmas, his minuscule white Mohawk set off by his caramel skin, is knitting something bright red in his café one March afternoon.


"What sign are you?" he asks a customer, a young American man. It's not long before he's off on a trail of stream-of-consciousness advice, seasoned with a little astrology, for the guy's friend, a young woman from the neighbourhood.

"You really know how to love somebody. Your soul is coming from a good place. It will all work out the way you want it."

Eccentric and gezellig

At Backstage Café, every surface is painted with psychedelic stripes and designs. Its story is the story of Christmas twins, Gary and Greg, whose pictures dot the walls. Greg died in 1997. The impossibly fairy like dresses he designed still hang on the walls. Gary, who knitted them, still makes sweaters and caps. He puts down his needles often, the better to tell a story.

The twins, born, as Gary tells it, on either side of the stroke of midnight 70 years ago, grew up in Boston and travelled the world as a singing and dancing duo. They started spending time in Amsterdam  while working the clubs and hotels of Rotterdam and they settled in the capital in the early 1970s.

*quote1*Drunk one night in 1971, they told a friend, a neighbour on the Reguliersgracht, of their dream: to open a little shop somewhere in the world.

Five days later, the friend's husband rented them a place off the Utrechsestraat. And three decades on, Gary still holds court in the shop - now taken over by the café they started in the back in 1978 - and lives upstairs.

"It's been a nice life," he says, "It's fun."

 In the early 1970s, they sold custom-made costumes to fellow showbiz folk, some from the nearby Carré Theatre, others from places like France and Germany.

Registration as a knitting shop at the kamer Van Koophandel went without a hitch.

At the immigration police, "…there was a man - and I knew he was a Scorpio - and we kept in touch for five years and he had collected things form the shop," Christmas says. The Police gave the twins permission to stay and run their business, "…because," he says, "we were lucky and we were colourful and we were glamorous. We brought Hollywood glamour to the people here."


He attributes his large English-speaking clientele to word of mouth and foreign media attention. The menu is small, just non-alcoholic drinks - and sandwiches. But every customer gets a little something extra.

"People say, 'We feel safe here, it's like a harbour. You guys are always open to people and listen to their stories'," Christmas says.

Open more cafes, fans have suggested, but that's not the kind of businessman he is. "I like things small and I like them friendly, and if it gets too big, I can't give my customers what they come for" - intuitive readings and friendly conversation. "I don't want to be a businessman. We could change our prices, we could be more commercial, but this is my home," Christmas says.

 "Some days are more profitable than others. I don't make a thousand guilder a day but I've lasted 27 years so I must have something." he says.

"We're all here for a certain purpose and to do certain things. I think the gift God gave me is to help people, to listen to people, to inspire people," he says. "It takes two minutes to make someone happy, to say hello to them", he says.

"If I make someone walk out of the door and say, 'Hey, thanks, Gary,' that's all I want."

21 March 2001

0 Comments To This Article