MOSCOW – Natasha writes "Frank, 11:20 a.m." on a slip of white paper and hangs it on the pin board behind the counter next to "Nina and Katya, 10.55 a.m.," "Sergei, 11 a.m." and other names. Then she opens an antique cabinet filled with dozens of old alarm clocks and watches, all different, but with one thing in common – none of them work.
Symbolism plays a big role at the Clockface Café. Every guest puts their clock of choice – on which time has stopped – on their table. It may seem paradoxical, but the idea is for this to make you forget time even as the tab here is contingent on how much of it you spend in the café. Every minute costs two rubles, which means an hour costs 120 rubles ($3.80).
You could order, say, a frothy Caffè Americano, drink up in ten minutes, and leave. That would be quite a deal – even at cafés in inexpensive neighborhoods you’d pay more, and this one is on Moscow’s fancy Tverskaya Street, between Pushkin Square and the Kremlin.
But that’s not what people do here. Guests ensconce themselves on couches and armchairs in and among Singer sewing machines, a piano, lamps with fringed shades, a portrait of Pushkin, shelves of Jack London books – spread over nine small rooms. The net result is part artsy café, part chill out lounge, and part grandma’s living room.
For their money they get coffee, tea, toast, biscuits, and as much as they want. They also know that no matter how much time they actually spend here, there’s a ceiling on tabs – nobody can be charged more than 480 rubles ($15.25).
The idea has really caught on and there are now many imitators – so-called “anti-cafés” that also charge by the minute and hour. But Ivan Mitin was the first one to come up with the idea, and he’s asked me to meet him where his other Moscow Clockface Café is, two subway stations away.
Up a narrow iron spiral staircase and I’m in what looks like messy student digs from the 1960s. Mitin, 28, is just back from London. This is where it all started he says, in this very room, three years ago. He started inviting friends and neighbors, who in turn brought their acquaintances, and he had an old suitcase he left open for people to throw in whatever amount of money they could.
"More and more people kept coming, 50 a day, so the space quickly developed into a café." A year later he opened the first Clockface Café next door. Now there are two in Moscow, others in St. Petersburg, Rostov, Kazan, the Ukraine. And soon, Mitin hopes, Berlin and London.
Why is it so successful? "I’m not selling my customers tea and coffee,” Mitin says. “I’m selling them time.”