For many outsiders and visitors, Germany must seem so very extra about its weekend laws. Even Berlin – having quickly transitioned from the beaten European underdog to the political and economical hub of the continent – usually adheres to the one rule that throws everybody off: on Sundays, everything is closed. Only a few formal exceptions are miraculously allowed to stay open in the otherwise vast emptiness of consumerism. Alexander Freas, expat mobile developer in Berlin, has started to collect them all on his iOS and Android available app Sonntags.
“It’s hard to be spontaneous and grill with friends when the weather happens to be good on a Sunday”, Freas says, and indeed: there’s only so much meat and produce a Spätkauf (or Späti), Berlins version of an all-night open 7-11, can (or should) provide you with. Freas, originally from the USA – land of the perpetually open, galaxy-size grocery stores – created the app Sonntags to guide him and his friends to local supermarkets that were an exception to the rigid German shopping rule. “I knew that the large shops in the train stations are open on Sunday, but the smaller ones were hard to find, so I thought it would be useful to keep them all in one place – so everyone can shop for their grill supplies.”
Every Germany raised person knows what it’s like to be stuck with no options on a Sunday. In suburbia, that usually means a tedious hike to the local gas station before 6 PM just to buy an overpriced bottle of water and perhaps a smutty magazine. Of course, Berlins solid Späti infrastructure is already a cultural shock to the flayed German heart (my brothers, when they visit, are especially fond of the crazy collection of niche sweets they provide their guests with – some stuff of it even hard to find in proper supermarkets). They’re not only usually open all night, but also around every corner, and provide extraordinary services for their residents I am especially fond of the niche Spätis – those that have an integrated postal service, niche products, stationary, sometimes even electronics). So much in fact, Johan König gallery and Sleek magazine have dedicated a whole calendar to the best of them (if, for whatever reason, you’re looking to gift me something, this may be your chance).
Späti plus oder Supermarkt?
But Freas doesn’t list Spätis on his apps’ map. “Many people have asked for a ‘Späti’ category in [Sonntags], but I think it’s not in the best interest of the shops to be in there.” I’m disappointed at first – after all, the app is at its strongest when moving into foreign neighborhoods, when the “Späti des Vertrauens” axiom ceases to apply. In the past, I’ve often found myself in the depths of night, or – of course – on Sundays in the middle of nowhere (like that dire stretch of nothing between Heinrich-Heine-Straße and Nikolaiviertel, or anywhere in Charlottenburg), trying to find a place to load up on necessities for the night. But Freas reasoning is valid: Spätis have been in a precarious state, depending on the district they’re in.
“Some districts officially don’t allow Spätis to be opened on Sundays, and the law has been strictly enforced in some places, for example in Neukölln”, he explains. “It’s not in my interest to get those people into trouble – we all rely on their defiance.”
The app, Sonntags, instead lists actual markets, gas stations, bakeries, flower shops and other speciality shops that are (kinda) allowed to be open on Sundays – the Edeka at the Hauptbahnhof, for example, but also Freas’ local Sunday deli on Frankfurter Allee, Natural Feinkost. He also takes me around the block to show me two Asian speciality markets – “Späti plus”, he calls them – that sell all kind of trinkets, fresh produce and rice cookers. Even on Sundays. While some of the data he collects is scraped from other sources, users can add their own suggestions to widen the scope of its use.
The (un)reasonable Sunday laws of Germany
Before Aesop moved into my street in Kreuzberg, there used to be a small grocery store at the corner which would open on Sundays between 1 and 3 PM. It was not a Späti plus but a bonafide, legitimate supermarket in a quaint neighborhood. It was old and ratchet, but it occasionally saved me from buying an off-brand frozen pizza from one of the Spätis on hungover Sundays and let me spontaneously invite people over for dinner.
As far as the law goes, only souvenir- and travel-shops, bakeries, flower shops and gas stations are allowed to be open on Sundays.
(1) An Sonn- und Feiertagen dürfen öffnen
1. Verkaufsstellen, die für den Bedarf von Touristen ausschließlich Andenken, Straßenkarten, Stadtpläne, Reiseführer, Tabakwaren, Verbrauchsmaterial für Film- und Fotozwecke, Bedarfsartikel für den alsbaldigen Verbrauch sowie Lebens- und Genussmittel zum sofortigen Verzehr anbieten, von 13.00 bis 20.00 Uhr (…)
3. Verkaufsstellen, deren Angebot ausschließlich aus einer oder mehreren der Warengruppen Blumen und Pflanzen, Zeitungen und Zeitschriften, Back- und Konditorwaren, Milch und Milch- erzeugnisse besteht, von 7.00 bis 16.00 Uhr und am 24. Dezember, wenn dieser Tag auf einen Adventssonntag fällt, von 7.00 bis 14.00 Uhr,
That rules out most Spätis which sell more than that, and definitely all supermarkets that aren’t in a major travel hub (like at Hauptbahnhof, Ostbahnhof and Zoo). However, enforcement of that law is an entirely different issue, and Spätis (and subsequently, Spätis that have expanded their range of products to include produce and other necessities) have become part of Berlins culture. The Ordnungsamt only follows up on complaints from neighbors – there’s simply not enough man-power to regulate the opening times on Sundays.
While any spoiled urbanite would feel irritated by such rural attitude (“This would never happen in New York or London!”), there’s a good reason for Sunday’s closing times (and it’s got nothing to do with the churches perspective on holy Sundays): all employees deserve one guaranteed day off-work, and changing the laws would only put more pressure on competition. Freas agrees. “Coming from the States, where everything is available almost every day of the year, I think it’s good that Berlin and Germany have strict laws regarding Sunday openings; if there are some small shops that are open that offer the essentials, and the large train stations for supermarkets, I think that’s enough.”
It makes sense until you look at it closely: travel hubs like the Hauptbahnhof or the airport aren’t cheap to rent, resulting in only big-name brands occupying their spaces, presumably profiting tremendously from the desperate Sunday crowds and needy travelers. Meanwhile, the little corner stores – usually family-run businesses with few employees – which are truthfully convenient to the locals and lend an additional community value to the neighborhood are the one’s threatened by the fines.
For now, Freas circumvents the problem by collecting only legit stores for Sonntags. In Neukölln, some Spätis are avoiding the Ordnungsamt by either actually closing down on Sundays or simply masquerading as closed. I’ve been into a couple of Spätis now that had the lights turned off and corner boys posted on the outside on Sundays, on full alert if a bureaucrat shows up. And the whole neighborhood knows.