LONDON, U.K. On a miserably dark February day I could think of nothing better to do than venture out and discover a new place to spend an afternoon. However, the establishment that I uncovered doesn’t follow the modern day philosophy of ‘grabbing’ a coffee. Oh no! Far from it, Ziferblat advocates spending time in good company and surroundings, fighting hard against today’s current of draining drinks at breakneck speed and rushing from A to Z without stopping to pause.
I buzz upstairs and am grateful to be let inside speedily, finally finding respite from the atrocious rain. My hair dripping water everywhere, I am warmly received with a handshake by one of the workers here. She immediately introduces herself as Sophie and notes down my name on a little card along with my entrance time. I am invited to choose a clock off the shelf for timing my stay. I select the one curiously named Sibyl.
Time is literally money, as your stay is paid by the minute and not by what you consume. 3p per minute to be exact, and although there is a detailed list of how long all durations of stay will cost, most patrons just make a donation.
She walks me, accompanied by Sibyl, into the main room, very much in the style of the reception room of someone with distinctively alternative taste. And I’m not wrong. ‘Treat this as your living room’, she states gleefully, pointing out where I could sit, and then whisking me into the kitchen area. Another worker, Sasha, introduces himself and explains that I can help myself to teas, coffees, biscuits and other snacks, and that if I want to bring my own food and cook here then that would be perfectly acceptable.
I return to take my seat, asking if I can join someone at their table. A typically awkward situation in most places passes with ease here as this is what is being emphasised, making yourself feel at home amongst others. The large tables and free seating arrangement encourages community and interaction, with strangers often making each other drinks.
The clientele is predominantly young; I only notice a few over 30s frequenting the place during my stay. With free internet and a help yourself attitude towards food and drink, many students come to escape London briefly, exploring social media or writing their essays in a different environment. Ziferblat London, based on a successful model already running in Russia, is located in Shoreditch, where the young hipster scene is currently thriving. Ziferblat, which means ‘clock face’ in Russian, belongs perfectly in this location, where unusual is the norm.
The radical break from mainstream coffee shops is refreshing and inspiring, as is the decor. The tables and chairs seem sourced from a flea market. No furniture matches, bookshelves are scattered with a varied selection of novels, magazines, vinyls and board games from around the world, and the wallpaper and hanging pictures are decidedly vintage. How delightful compared to the sterile nature of the big chains.
I ask the person at my table to keep an eye on my belongings whilst I make my own drink. Yes at first it does seem bizarre and slightly uncomfortable, as if you’ve just strolled into someone’s house to make yourself a cuppa, but then again it’s the same for everyone and the freedom to act how you wish is liberating. I amble into the kitchen and flick on the kettle whilst another lady battles with a ready meal and the microwave. I speak to Sasha who describes the place as ‘the Facebook of reality’ and says it can get ‘buzzing’ on the weekend. I couldn’t have described the place better myself.
After having soaked up as much atmosphere and tea as I fancied, I washed up my cup and ‘clocked out’, parting with Sibyl. My name ticked off the card, I made my donation and headed back out into the wilderness of the London streets. However I felt this was more a ‘see you soon’ than ‘goodbye’ moment. The tranquillity of Ziferblat stays with me for a while, and I would definitely return hastily.
And promptly it may have to be, as the threat of closure looms because of a legal dispute. The owners see it as a communal office space where people can work, but the law wants to close down a ‘cafe’ that has been open less than a month. This would be a huge shame, but judging from the positive reception it has received, there is certainly a new market waiting to be tapped. Sasha reassures me that, after having visited, the landlord and local council are starting to understand the philosophy. We should not despair; if the worst comes to the worst they will relocate. Ziferblat is here to stay.
For an alternative and unforgettable afternoon in East London, head to:
388 Old Street, London, EC1V 9LT