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NGO turns over new leaf with café

3 Lana-Lee and Josh Robinson

A café and bookshop stocking 3,000 titles will open this month just off River Road, near the Old Market overlooking Wat Preah Prom Rath. The New Leaf Book Café is a not-for-profit business and will support local NGOs, as well as hold regular exhibitions and evenings.

The literary coffee shop is the brainchild of investment banker Ian Croft and fellow Brit Georgina Hemingway who met in Siem Reap in January. Hemingway had volunteered in Siem Reap three years ago with NGO Cambodian Children’s House of Peace, a children’s home which provides education and healthcare, and returned there earlier this year.

“Georgina wanted to see what she could do to get more funding for the Children’s House and that’s when she met Ian,” says events and PR coordinator Lana Lee, “They decided they should start up something to give it a stable income.”

The original plan was a to open a bookshop, but when Croft and Hemingway found the three-storey French colonial-style building off  River Road, they realised there was enough space for a café as well.

Croft and Hemingway also started asking people to donate books and conducted book collections in Singapore, China, and the UK.

“At the moment we’ve got 3000 books on their way, all donated and they should arrive here in the next week or two,” says Lee. “The idea is that the books are all second hand and we’ll sell them for quite a low price. People can also do book swaps, or give a little donation.”

In addition, the café will stock books by Sipar, a French-Cambodian NGO working towards tackling illiteracy and developing school libraries in Cambodia. Sipar also publishes educational books for children and young adults in Khmer, and Croft and Hemingway have purchased some of their publications.

On the food side, New Leaf Book Café will be open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, serving a combination of western and home-grown Khmer food.

“We want to source everything locally,” says Lee. “All the produce will be from around Siem Reap or in the countryside. Our head chef is very good – we’re lucky to have him because he has worked all over Cambodia, abroad, and in 5-star restaurants.

“He has a lot of ideas, and what he wants to do is to bring back authentic Khmer recipes. His grandma, who is about 90 years old, is always saying the fish amok they serve in restaurants these days is not real fish amok, so the chef wants to bring back real traditional recipes.”

The ground floor of the building will house the café and bookshop, the first floor will contain offices space for volunteers, while the top floor will provide an exhibition space with a rooftop area which the owners hope to use for talks, film screenings, concerts and readings.

“There will also be an area where we’ll have some kind of notice-board for NGOs to display their information, as well as artwork from the Small Art School,” says Lee.

“It will be a fluid space – we are thinking about holding talks, book readings and presentations by NGOs. Any kind of thing that promotes culture, and to raise awareness about the work that NGOs do.”

As well as funding Cambodian Children’s House of Peace, Hemingway and Croft plan to use New Leaf’s profits to help other local NGOs. One of the café’s first collaborations will be with the Build Your Future Today Center, which supports local communities through education, healthcare and business skills training.

“We’re having an event with Build Your Future Today Center, probably in mid-July,” says Lee, “The BFT Center goes out to rural communities and sets up a community centre there. It also trains farmers. So we want to have them come to the café and give a talk about what they’re doing and at the same time have this really nice 3-course dinner where all the food is sourced from their farms.”

New Leaf Book Café is set to open in late June 2013.

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