Notes from an author: Calla Henkel on Berlin's ever-evolving späti scene

As nightclubs and bars closed, the city’s long-popular, late-night convenience stores, spätis, became a focal point for al fresco fun in the German capital.

By Calla Henkel
Published 26 Sept 2021, 15:00 BST, Updated 27 Sept 2021, 12:57 BST
The term ‘spätverkauf’ was coined in the former state for shops intended to supply night workers ...

The term ‘spätverkauf’ was coined in the former state for shops intended to supply night workers with a place to buy basic goods after the Konsum (a chain of co-ops) had closed.

Photograph by Alamy

Spätkaufs, or spätis, are late-night stores that dot Berlin’s silver streets like neon charms. ‘Spät kauf’ translates as ‘late purchase’, and these stores offer up a range of beers, cigarettes, magazines, crinkly bags of erdnussflips (puffed peanuts), sometimes even the internet on ancient computers, and a generous selection of Haribo. There are around 900 spätis in Berlin and their contents are almost always the same, yet each has its own logic. There are family-run spätis, party spätis with techno synced to lasers, spätis with Deutsche Post kiosks, spätis employing drag queens, spätis selling hand-cut fruit, and spätis that host elderly, smoking men at outside tables. Each späti is highly local, servicing a specific intersection of streets, and catering accordingly. And due to the absence of outdoor drinking laws, they’re also the backbone of nightlife in Berlin.

They’re a decidedly East German invention: in the 1950s, the term ‘spätverkauf’ was coined in the former state for shops intended to supply night workers with a place to buy basic goods after the Konsum (a chain of co-ops) had closed. When I visited Munich for the first time, I couldn’t put my finger on why the city was making me feel claustrophobic — then I realised, with a small gasp: there were no spätis. You either had to sit in a restaurant or go to a grocery store — which, by comparison, feels dramatic for just a beer. Since moving to Berlin in 2008, I’ve learnt that the späti is the nexus of the kiez (neighbourhood), an ever-evolving patchwork of necessity and desire. Then came coronavirus, and suddenly everything a späti did, or meant, was intensified.

I live on the same block as KitKat, a sex club infamous for its weekly fetish parties, so my späti has a distinct party vibe. Many of my favourite nights have unfolded sitting at one of the two tables watching the queue of leather-spandex-harness-wearing clubgoers as they tried their luck at the door. If they got rejected, they almost always dipped back to the späti to regroup, laughing it off or desperately prepping for the next place. But about a year ago, KitKat became a coronavirus test centre and the line of clubbers morphed into a line of boringly dressed people waiting for a nose swab. Yet the muscular bouncers stayed on, only now checking sign-in QR codes and enforcing distance. 

Come summer, with all the bars and clubs still closed, the energy that usually throbbed behind thick concrete walls was dumped out into the street and parks. Raves were organised in Hasenheide and Grunewald, the banks of the canal became the new beer hall, and all of this was fuelled by the späti. Suddenly, the culture of exclusion that once ruled the city’s club scene evaporated — anyone can join for the cost of a beer.

It feels somehow like a new era, one where the intimacies of clubbing and socialising are mixing with the architecture of the city. Open-air raves and parties have always had their place in Berlin but entering a park at night these days feels like moving through a solar system, with clusters of people on the ground, their phones glowing as they release their own soundtracks from Bluetooth speakers. At some junctures, these clusters come together, multiplying into organised groups and dancing. And in this new era, the particularly well-placed spätis — the ones close to these parks or boulevards — have turned outward, now playing to a wider public amphitheatre. Every day, kerbsides act as benches and people spend the day adjusting their chairs in the direction of the sun, all while maintaining a safe proximity to the späti.

If one were to plan a walking trip through Berlin in warm weather this year, I’d suggest making stops at the Späti an der Admiral-Brücke in Kreuzberg, where there will inevitably be dozens, if not hundreds, of forms, lazily lounging across the stone bridge. There’s also Pipapo, an oddly half-empty späti at Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz in Mitte, which supplies beverages for sprawling in the grassy triangle in front of the Volksbühne theatre. Or, if you’re in the west, stop at SPÄTSHOP on Kantstrasse in Charlottenburg, where at night the storefront is lit like a spaceship-cum-nightclub, with green LED lights and dance music pulsating into the street.

Berlin-based US artist and writer Calla Henkel is the author of Other People’s Clothes, published by Sceptre, £14.99. 

Published in the October 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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