WEST VILLAGE — On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Cornelia Street Cafe owner Robin Hirsch was busy darting around his restaurant of 40 years.
He tasted new wines brought by a woman who works with black female South African winemakers, helped a cellist set up for an upcoming performance in the basement-level music venue and straightened the wall hangings of an art exhibit in the back room titled "Drawing Out Obstetric Fistula," featuring sketches of Tanzanian women in recovery or about to have surgery for the childbirth-related injury plaguing Sub-Saharan Africa.
"Now there's a title for an exhibit," said Hirsch, 74, theatrically wiping a hand across his forehead.
Hirsch is the last remaining of the three artists who founded the cafe, art gallery and performance space at 29 Cornelia St. in 1977 with nothing more than a toaster oven in the front room. In the early days, he recalled, they would often have to run uptown to Macy's to buy a new toaster oven when it burned out mid-brunch.
In those days, the cafe was the heart of the bohemian Village, the birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway, where Eve Ensler launched the Vagina Monologues and artists like Suzanne Vega "sang their first songs in front of our cappucino machine," Hirsch said.
"Monday night, songwriters would meet and were allowed by their own rules to sing only what they'd written that week," he said. "Inside the street, from Day One, we've had everything imaginable — and some unimaginable things going on."
The street outside the cafe was also a performance space, where Philippe Petit "used to string a wire from the tree outside our little cafe across the street and dance across it juggling," Hirsch said.
Stilt-walkers have performed outside as well, and four years ago a Guinness World Record was made for the largest-ever keyboard ensemble, featuring 175 people playing keyboards donated to the cafe by Casio and then donated by the cafe to 20 New York City public schools to start music programs, Hirsch said.
In the early 1980s, they were prompted to clean out their "hideous" basement to host a poetry reading by Virginia Sen. Eugene McCarthy — "the good Senator McCarthy," Hirsch said, as opposed to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who ran the Communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee.
"We went clean for Gene, which was his slogan when he was running for president," Hirsch recalled.
To this day, they host 700 shows a year in the basement, recently rebranded "Cornelia Street Underground" as part of Hirsch's new effort to cope with "extortionate" rent increases by forming a non-profit to support the cafe's arts programming "just to keep the doors open to do the kinds of things that we're known for."
"We do poetry in 14 languages — not all at the same time," Hirsch said.
"We do music in as many genres. We’re very well-known for jazz because we’ve been named Jazz Venue of the Year in New York eight years in a row, but that’s not all we do. We do an enormous variety of things."
But when they opened in the 70s, their rent was $450 a month. It's now $33,000.
"We are now paying effectively 77 times what we were paying and if you were to invert that — which I think is an argument for commercial rent stabilization which doesn’t exist in New York — you would be paying $77 for a croissant," Hirsch said.
So Hirsch "had the notion that we should establish our arts program as its own 501(c)(3) [non-profit] so people can support the arts both individually and through foundations."
While New York has "a real range of very expensive, very high-toned art" with plenty of museums, galleries and large-scale performance venues like Lincoln Center, "there's no space that does the kind of stuff that we do at this scale," Hirsch said.
Cornelia Street Cafe is "very nourishing" both for consumers of art and artists themselves, Hirsch said, because of "the intimacy of the space and the support of a community of artists."
For the moment, Cornelia Street Underground is "sheltering" under the fiscal sponsorship of an existing organization called Fractured Atlas, but Hirsch is working with an longtime lawyer friend to form a non-profit of his own.
It's "a matter of survival" and "keeping the spirit of Greenwich Village, which is being eaten apart by real estate moguls," Hirsch said.
"We're sort of the last left standing" of the Village's bohemian past, he added.
Their first landlord "was an old Village landlord" with whom he and his partners had a good relationship, Hirsch said.
"We could have bought the building if he had any money at all, but we were three starving artists," Hirsch said.
So the landlord sold the building, with 28 apartments above the cafe, to his plumber, Hirsch said. Hirsch and his partners negotiated a 30-year lease with the plumber and his son, until Mark Scharfman, a frequent fixture on various "Worst Landlord" lists, bought the building 15 years ago.
"If I'm 10 minutes late with my rent, he threatens me with eviction," Hirsch said.
About 10 years ago, their rent was market-rate, at around $12,000 a month, Hirsch said.
Hirsch offered to agree to a 15 percent increase if he could sign a 10-year lease extension, but Scharfman said, "Absolutely not, it's five years and 50 percent," according to Hirsch.
The next time the lease was up for renewal, he was able to negotiate a 10-year term, of which a little more than five years are left, but the lease includes property taxes and "a built-in 3.5 percent annual increase," Hirsch said.
"You put all this together and you're up at $33,000 a month without batting an eyelash, and it's hard to sustain that on a diet of Romanian poetry — although I think Romanian poetry is very important," Hirsch said.
Reached by telephone, Scharfman first said "I don't know anything about it" when asked about the Cornelia Street Cafe.
When pressed, he replied, "No comment," and hung up.