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Berliners peeved at Sunday ban on convenience stores

Stuart Braun, BerlinJuly 17, 2015

Want to buy cigarettes on a Sunday in Berlin? That's getting more difficult. A law forbidding neighborhood stores from opening on Sundays is now being enforced. Stuart Braun explains why he's speaking out against it.

Convenience store in Berlin-Neukölln, Copyright: DW/S. Braun
Image: DW/S. Braun

"I can't work in an office, I need to be free," says Nafiz as soul music drifts from his so-called Spätkauf in Berlin's polyglot Neukölln district. Coming to Germany from Turkey 50 years ago, Nafiz knows a lot of people in these parts. He points out an Italian musician who leaves the store after purchasing cigarettes. And he recalls a visit from an Australian - a mutual friend - who lives across the street and stopped by earlier for his daily morning coffee.

Nafiz speaks in Turkish to the old ladies passing by on their way to the bakery next door. It's a sunny mid-morning and pretty soon the trestle table where I sit and drink espresso while Nafiz smokes will be taken up with freewheeling youth enjoying a beer en route to the nearby park.

The convenience store owner specializes in brews from Bavaria, but also sells whiskey, Italian olive oil, wine, lottery tickets. To compete with the supermarkets, his opening hours are long. That's why stores like his are called Spätkauf - literally, buying late. (They're affectionately known as Spätis among the locals.)

Sundays, when discount markets like Aldi and Lidl are shut, are his best day for business. Beer and tobacco sell the best.

Naviz Illmaz is the owner of a convenience store in Berlin-Neukölln, Copyright: DW/S. Braun
Naviz Illmaz specializes in Bavarian beerImage: DW/S. Braun

Shops forbidden from opening on Sundays

But following a decision by Berlin's Higher Administrative Court in 2012, Spätkaufs that don't primarily sell flowers, newspapers, bread, and dairy products must close on Sundays.

Späti owners across the district reportedly earn around 1,000 euros ($1,090) a month after tax, and their margins are minuscule. Surviving without Sunday sales would be a feat. That's why so many, including Nafiz, who also sells newspapers and dairy products, still open on the day that has traditionally been reserved in Germany for church-going and family lunches.

These rebel sole traders are increasingly being harassed by local authorities and issued with fines. Nafiz paid one such penalty last month and fears that there are more to come.

Threat to 'beer any time'

Nafiz's neighborhood shop is one of around 1,000 Spätkaufs that can be found on every second corner of the capital. It's by now a cliché to call Spätis cultural institutions, hubs of the laid back, cross-cultural, egalitarian Berlin neighborhood "Kiez" mentality.

These indie businesses are the antithesis of the branded convenience store: They're irregular, improvised, intimate, reflections of the people who run them - people like Nafiz, who is a kind of town crier. Most importantly for Berlin, they're open all the time.

But in working-class Neukölln, a district with a population of 300,000 and arguably the heartland of the Berlin Späti, there has been a crackdown on shop opening hours via a law that is very loosely enforced elsewhere. Some conservative politicians from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) are also demanding that Berlin's Spätis stop selling alcohol between 10:00 pm and 5:00 am.

The Puritans, it seems, are trying to take down the soul of anarchic, get-a-beer-at-any-time Berlin. Alarmed locals have decided to take the law into their own hands.

Christina Jurgeit is a concerned citizen and Neuköllner who posted an online petition in June that aims to rescue "Berlin's unique Kiez culture" by changing the shop opening hours law in the state parliament. The petition has already collected around 30,000 signatures.

I signed it last week. Here's why.

Sunday, bloody Sunday

It's true that Berlin is the capital of a historically Christian country that tends to observe the Sabbath. That is typically the argument used when opening hours are discussed anywhere in Germany. Not only should potential customers be spending the day with their family, so should employees, according to supporters of no-trade Sundays.

But as one Späti owner who proudly displays the "Rescue the Spätis - Spätis in danger!" petition in his shop window asks, why are fuel stations, restaurants and sundry other stores able to sell alcohol and tobacco in a so-called Christian country on a Sunday?

Of course it's taken for granted that doctors, train drivers and many other professions are expected to work on Sunday as well. Throughout the country, opening hours vary slightly by state, but the Sunday and holiday ban on retail stores is widespread.

Discrimination claims

It's the Berliners who are griping the loudest because elsewhere, the convenience store tradition doesn't run quite as deep. The existing law is piecemeal. And Späti owners feel they are being discriminated against.

In a city where around 70 percent of Spätis are owned by families of Turkish origin, it's not surprising that some claim the opening hour crackdown is a form of racism.

At a meeting of police officials and Spätkauf traders at the Neukölln Town Hall on July 10, one trader claimed that a police officer told his wife that, because she was open on a Sunday, she obviously wasn't a Christian. In response, a police representative reiterated that the law is the law.

Scene in Berlin, Copyright: DW

Meanwhile, on July 16 the district mayor of Neukölln, Franziska Giffey of the Social Democratic Party, said that there is "No persecution strategy against Spätis," as the issue was again hotly debated in the council chambers. Members of the Green party are now also pushing to have the law changed.

Memory of an unregulated Berlin

Whether or not claims of racism are justified, I've met Späti owners of German ancestry who have also copped 500-euro fines for opening on a holiday. One trader who runs a vibrant Späti on Holbrechtstrasse, Neukölln, said she opened during Easter when thousands of people are on the street and looking for a drink. She added that this summer, for the first time in nine years, she was forced to close on Sundays for fear of persecution. She says that some of her regular employees might now need to apply for social benefits.

The whole city seems to be getting behind the downtrodden Späti traders. The populist daily, the "Berliner Zeitung," ran a story this week on an Indian Spätkauf owner in Wedding, in Berlin's proletarian northeast, who works very long hours, never takes a holiday, and who acts as a kind of counselor since his shops has become a de facto community center. The newspaper also advertised the Save the Spätis petition.

On Neukölln's Wesserstrasse, Firat's family have run a Späti for more than eight years. He says times were much better before they had to close on Sundays. We talk also about the rising rents in Neukölln, how he moved to cheaper Britz, the next district beyond the ring train line.

But Firat says it's a trade-off, that he likes that so many people from around the world are flocking to the area, that the different cultures bring more color and life - and, of course, business.

They have come because Berlin feels open, a little unregulated, and the Sunday Späti is perhaps a small symbol of the city they love.