Spätis: Berlin’s Beating Heart

Fancy a beer on your way home? Go to a Späti. Having a party and running out of crisps and booze? Go to a Späti. Perfect summer night, don’t feel like going to a club or bar? Have some drinks at your local Späti. Spätis are the beating heart of late nights and weekends in Berlin. There are more than a 1,000 of them, they’re on almost every street (more about that later) and open 24/7 (more about that later). And, believe it or not: they were invented in the GDR.

So what is a Späti? 

For those who have never visited Berlin, I will try to paint a picture. Think of a 7/11, a Tesco Express or the store of a gas station. Make it smaller and remove any sense of order. Now add some regulars, having a smoke and/or a beer inside or in front of the store. In most Spätis, all available wall space is taken up by fridges full of – well, mostly beer. In the centre of the shop you’ll most likely find more beer, often in a wonderful installation of crates placed on top of each other. The check-out desk is a shop in itself, sometimes piled up with so much candy, lip balm, condoms and other handy things that it’s hard to find the shop assistant. Most Spätis look identical, but they all have their own charm and some even specialize. There is a ‘Baumarkt’ (home improvement) Späti in Neukölln, for example.

Declarations of love

For many people, Spätis are what makes Berlin Berlin. The disorder, the opportunity to drink in the streets (and on public transport), the strangest people meeting each other and becoming friends in the time it takes to drink one beer, and the fact that Spätis make it possible to buy whatever you need whenever you need it – even though Berlin is part of Germany, where ‘Sonntagsruhe’ is still sacred and virtually all other stores are closed on Sundays. Just google ‘Späti’ and you’ll find declarations of love to this ‘Indispensable Aspect of Berlin Life’ and even poems dedicated to ‘dear Späti’:

 ‘You’re where I go when I’m thirsty, and after a night out of being dirty. […]On a long summer night, we grab a bench, on the stoop outside—English, German, French. Expats and foreigners; I’m still an out-of-towner. Our barkeep? The woman behind the counter.’ 
(Source: Travelsofadam.com)

Another GDR invention

Knowing all this, it never really occurred to me that the Späti could be an East German invention. The GDR wanted to meet the needs of shift workers, who didn’t have the option of buying their groceries during regular store opening times. The government-run HO and also the co-operative-run Konsum opened ‘Spätverkaufstellen’ (late-night outlets) and stores named ‘Früh & Spät’ (early & late). It didn’t mean that the people of the GDR could buy their cigarettes and booze all night long, living the life in Berlin as we know it now. The stores stayed open until 9 or 10 at night. Still quite something though, when you consider that supermarkets in Holland still closed at 6 when I was younger.

There weren’t hundreds of Spätis in the GDR, but the numbers exploded (and swiftly expanded to the west) after the fall of the Wall. How to find them? Have a look at the ‘Spätifinder’, a genius website that is trying to map all Spätis in Berlin. Their slogan: “Whether open 24/7 or the ultimate neighbourhood meeting point, whether they boast a speaking parrot or a massage chair as an added attraction – we want them all!” The map is impressive: there doesn’t seem to be a street in Berlin without a Späti.

But wait! Zoom in a little, towards the area east of Alexanderplatz and south of Volkspark Friedrichshain. That’s Strausberger Platz and Karl-Marx-Allee, my beautiful street. What do you see, how many Spätis are here? None! The map shows one on Friedenstraße, right next to the park, but that one doesn’t exist anymore. I think I’ve managed to move into the only street without a Späti – how about that? The closest two are a 15-minute walk away – and that’s too far when all you want is a beer or a coffee.

Save the Späti! 

So yes, I should be pleading for a Späti on Karl-Marx-Allee, as I already briefly did in one of my first blog posts on Central Berlin. But it appears that there’s a more urgent matter to attend to. All Spätis in Berlin are under threat, since officially they aren’t allowed to be opened on Sundays. Wait. Really?!  The law is quite complicated: stores that sell nothing but newspapers, magazines, flowers, bread and milk are allowed to open on Sundays, but only until 4 p.m. Tourist stores, with city maps, souvenirs and sandwiches, can open between 1 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Sundays. But Spätis sell much more besides; toilet paper and deep frozen pizzas are verboten.

Who needs bars and cafés when there are Spätis? Image courtesy of Daphne Daamians

If the Spätis do open, they risk a fine of €2,500. More and more Späti owners decide to keep their stores closed on Sundays, even though it’s their most important day of the week. A crazy situation according to many people in Berlin, so an online petition is asking for the law to be amended. 30,000 people signed within the first three months, by now the number is almost up to 40,000. In total, 50,000 signatures are needed, so #RettetdieSpätis (Save the Spätis) will have to keep fighting.