Midnight run

In this town there’s always a place to pick up a pack of smokes, a beer or even groceries at five in the morning: Spätkäufe, or Spätis as they're affectionately known. Welcome to an insomniac netherworld of underdogs, thugs and boozehounds.

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Photo by Lindsay Isola

Whether it’s the witching hour or five in the morning, there’s always a place the Berliner can pick up a pack of smokes, a beer or even regular groceries: all-night stores, Spätkäufe or Spätis as they are affectionately nicknamed. Robert Rigney took a stroll through deepest Neukölln to uncover an insomniac netherworld of underdogs, thugs and boozehounds.

Rami at U-Bahn Boddinstraße is an Albanian-run shop, offering among other things an array of Balkan newspapers, with a smoky back room always full of Sandzak Muslims from south Serbia. Serbian narodna music plays over the stereo while the men – mostly construction workers in plaster-smeared work clothes – sit around drinking bottles of beer and talking in Serbian. It’s a closed society. Non-regulars are regarded with suspicion and hostility.

“You get all kinds of crazy people coming through here,” says the owner’s brother Senol, who works in the shop on occasion. He recalls one time standing behind the counter when a fellow Kosovo Albanian showed up and laid a jewel-studded gold watch in front of him.

“He said, ‘I have a one-of-a-kind watch maybe you can get rid of. Only five of these watches exist in the world.’ He showed it to me. It was gold, full of diamonds. ‘I’ll sell it to you for €5,000,’ he said. I asked him where he got it and he wouldn’t say.”


From there to the Späti on Flughafenstraße. Can, the Turkish owner, closes the shop at 2am. “After that,” he says, “it gets too crazy.” Can adds that he hates the neighborhood and that if he could, he’d “leave and set up a business where the Germans are.”

“I have children and this is no place to bring up children,” he continues. “Robberies everywhere, knifings, shootings, brawls, überall Blaulicht. Someone was stabbed here the other day. Right out front. There were posters put up by the police everywhere.”

The perpetrator of the knifing is reported to have walked around the corner to Boddinstraße after leaving the scene of the crime on Flughafenstraße, where he entered another Späti and bought cigarettes. Upon leaving the shop, he was arrested.

This Boddinstraße Späti was itself in the news a year ago when three men robbed the establishment at 5am, beating up the 24-year-old employee, taking money, cigarettes and a laptop. The employee ended up in the hospital.

Murat, who owns a pizzeria next door, is circumspect: “Those guys belong to a big Arab family in Neukölln. No one messes with them. I can’t believe that someone would have the balls to rob that shop.” Emre, an employee at the Boddinstraße Späti confirms the incident with glee “The area is exciting. Always action. Parties. Knife fights. It’s fun to work here.”


Halfway down Sonnenallee, sometimes called “Gaza Strip” for its many Palestinian-run establishments is a Späti near the popular City Chicken. Like a lot of Spätkauf owners, the boss of this shop refuses to give his real name and instead insists on being called Ali. No robberies, brawls, knife fights in his shop.

“It’s tote Hose here,” says Ali. “Dead. Not much going on.” Asked how he is doing business-wise, Ali says. “Financial crisis, you know. Anyone that says business is going well on Sonnenallee is crazy. You can say die Suppe kocht.” The soup is cooking. Which is to say: one gets by.

Action picks up a bit at Hermannplatz at the end of Sonnenallee, where we pop into another Späti, this time German run. Here Simon, a short, bald Iraqi Christian who claims to be often mistaken for Danny Devito, stands at a table and drinks a Sternberg.

“Rubbish,” says Simon in English about Sonnenallee and Neukölln. “All the Turks and Arabs. I fuck them. Is so rubbish here. I like the food here. But I don’t like, you know, the place here. This is very danger. At night time you can forget it. Because there is a lot of people, you know, they don’t have no money.” He then leaves the shop, headed to a nearby disco to dance lambada and try to pick up an “elderly German woman”.

Benjamin, the brother of the owner, works the register. He lives in Schöneberg and has been working here four months, time enough to get a sense of the flavor of Sonnenallee at night. “It’s a different climate from Schöneberg – how the people deal with each other. A little bit more brutal, rougher. Last week I saw a fight across the way. The police are often here. The people don’t talk – they punch. Then there are lot of people who sell stolen goods. They sell it on the street or come in here and try to unload their goods on me. Bicycles, Handys, everything.”


Turning right on Hobrechtstraße, we enter the Reuterkiez, ‘Kreuzkölln’, Berlin’s latest hipster party-zone. New bars and cafes have been sprouting up like mushrooms lately, and there is even – somewhat worrisomely – a new Bioladen on the corner of Hobrechtstraße and Weserstraße.

Still, despite the boom in young Germans and “creative migrants” from the West, the Kiez remains a poor one and Spätkauf owners say they are yet to reap the benefits of the new nightlife activity. A lot of the owners of Spätis in Reuterkiez say business is a little bit la-la.

Mal so mal so,” says Engen, the Turkish owner of a four-year-old Spätkauf on Hobrechtstraße across the street from the bar Raumfahrer. His shop is a popular hangout for local grizzled-looking Reuterkiez alcoholics, who congregate outside, while inside Engen sits behind the counter watching TV and listening to Arabic love songs. “We have our regular customers. But there’s always one black cat,” he says.

One Späti that has managed to jump on the new artsy trend in Reuterkiez is Spätkauf International on Weserstraße. The owners are Turks from Prenzlauer Berg, who not long ago were approached by neighborhood artists with a proposal.

“They wanted to do something for us,” says Metin, the son of the owner. “They staged events in the back room: exhibitions, readings, concerts. They brought a little bit of art in here.” According to Metin, things are changing for the better here on Weserstraße, where in the past Turkish and Arabic toughs used to parade their pitbulls on the sidewalk, but increasingly, young expats wander around benignly looking for some kind of new kick.

“I remember the way it was in the past,” says Metin. “It was tough. We were robbed a number of times. Once, while my father was working here, three kids came in wearing ski masks with a gun and tried to hold us up. But my father realized these guys were only kids and the gun was probably only a toy gun. So he took a frying pan and beat the kids over the head and said, Raus mit euch!

It is late. Business has been quiet tonight. While we are talking, a neighborhood alkie comes in. He is drunk, German, and shows signs of wanting to go on a serious shopping spree. However, there is one problem. After he gathers up an armful of chips, cigarettes, beer, chocolate, plops it all down on the counter, he says brazenly in slurred German, “I don’t want to pay!” – “Then what are you doing here?” says Metin, “Raus mit dir!