Vanishing Late-Night Stores Spark Battle Over Berlin’s Soul
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Berlin might never look the same again.
For years, Dominic Abels counted on Sunday business for a quarter of the weekly revenue his store earned in the now-posh Berlin neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg. But in the past few months, the gaunt-faced Abels has been fined three times for keeping his shop open on Sundays in defiance of the law. The fine increased each time — from 400 euros ($440) the first time to 800 euros ($880) most recently.
Since a May ruling by the Administrative Court of Berlin, city authorities have fastidiously targeted family-run convenience stores such as Abels’ if they’re open on Sundays. The crackdown is part of a broader debate that’s erupting over the future of these stores — known as Spätis — that have over the decades emerged as cultural symbols of Berlin. For thousands of Berliners, it’s also a fight over the soul of their city.
Though they originated at the start of the 19th century, Spätis really took off following reunification in 1990, emerging as unpretentious meeting points for cash-strapped locals. They’re open into the night — “spät” is German for “late” — and have traditionally welcomed customers on holidays, when other larger stores and supermarkets are closed. But these typically Eastern German establishments — that sometimes offer couches and benches for customers to drink their cheap beers straight from the bottle — are now closing down in the face of growing gentrification, booming rental costs and tighter regulations.
Alper Baba, head of the Berlin Späti Association, says they estimate that the German capital had more than 1,500 of these stores in 2010. But more than 500 of them have closed since then, he says. Stephan von Dassel, mayor of the Berlin neighborhood of Mitte, has promised to target Spätis, seen by some as noisy hubs of illegal activities.
But the crackdown on Spätis — which have even inspired tourist walking tours — has sparked opposition from many ordinary Berliners. Most Spätis are managed by Turkish immigrants, and the government moves against these stores have drawn charges of veiled racism. More than 22,000 Berliners signed a petition this June against the closure of Spätis.
Spätis are to Berlin like cafés are to Paris. It’s where all forms of life come together.
William Grob, Berlin-based artist
“For Berliners, it’s like saying that Sundays are alcohol-free,” says 26-year-old artist William Grob. “Spätis are to Berlin like cafés are to Paris. It’s where all forms of life come together.”
An earlier law also restricted all shops from being open on Sundays, principally to ensure workers had at least one day off. But authorities didn’t actively enforce the law against Spätis before the May order. For the city, that meant Spätis were often the only place to get cigarettes, groceries or a drink late at night or on holidays. Abels wakes up at 8 am and goes to bed after closing the shop at 1 am. Now, he must skip that routine on holidays — or risk another fine.
Spätis often also serve as delivery places for parcels ordered by locals, who can collect their packages at the shops after work. Späti owners only occasionally charge for this service, for the most part doing it to build goodwill within the community. “It is just a freedom we had in Berlin so far,” says Sandra Schmalzried, a resident of the Prenzlauer Berg district, after picking up a package delivered to the local Späti.
Jan Wetzel, a research fellow at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, is convinced Spätis — which he says are mostly run by “hardworking migrants” — will survive. But Späti owners and workers expect many more of these stores to shut down in the coming months. Where rental contracts cost 300 euros ($330) a month a decade ago, they can be as high as 1,500 euros ($1,655) today. With lower earnings, owing to Sunday closures, making ends meet becomes harder. “We need our Sundays back. But it will be difficult,” says Furat Yldirim, who manages a Späti on the way from the Alexanderplatz public square to KitKatClub, one of Berlin’s most provocative sex clubs.
To many, there’s a darker side to Spätis. “Some of these shops are carrying out illegal activities,” retorts a young woman carrying her newborn baby in the streets of Neukölln, possibly the most bohemian neighborhood in town. In September, police found prepacked drugs in one Späti. And even those opposed to Spätis’ Sunday closures say it’s key to protecting workers’ rights. “I would like to have Spätis’ opening on Sundays to be legalized, but it also has to be assured that workers are not exploited,” says Martin Delius, former member of the Berlin Parliament for the Pirate Party.
Baba, of the Berlin Späti Association, says some 15,000 people — mostly of Turkish and Asian origins — live off the earnings of Spätis. If these stores shut down, migrant workers will be the worst hit, he says. “I believe that these laws are targeted against people of non-German origins,” he says. “I think it is a case of discrimination, against Germans like me and my children, who, by the way, don’t even speak any Turkish.”
Delius disagrees that racism or discrimination is behind the crackdown, though he acknowledges that most owners and workers are of migrant origins. Germany has 4 million residents of Turkish origin — 5 percent of the total population.
Ironically enough, as their number dwindles and their prospects turn grimmer, the cultural cache of these convenience shops continues to grow. Erkan Acar, born in Berlin to Turkish parents, recounts how he tapped into his own experience as a Späti owner to write the script of the low-budget film Ronny & Klaid, which premiered in Berlin on Oct. 8. “Spätis … must remain a symbol of Berlin, despite all the changes,” Acar says. In 2017, the term Späti was introduced into Duden, the German dictionary.
None of that helps Abels, however, who says he’s barely able to run his business anymore. “Before, we had a life,” he says. “Now, we survive.”