I first discovered them in Paris. It was finals season, and there was nowhere to study. I had spent so much time poring over piles of notes in my homestay bedroom that I had mindlessly memorized the pattern of cracks on the wall behind my desk — cracks in which I desperately searched for an understanding of French literature and psychology and politics. I needed a new study space: somewhere with outlets and Wi-Fi, where it would be socially acceptable for me to pull out a laptop and drown out the French swirling around me.
My answer came in anticafés. I first stumbled into the one on Rue Quincampoix, and reading my obvious confusion, a peppy barista asked if it was my first time coming. I nodded, relieved that my uncertainty was natural, reflecting the unfamiliarity of the concept, and not — as usual — my unfamiliarity with French culture. She proceeded to explain that I could order unlimited drinks from the bar at the front or help myself to unlimited snacks from the counter in the back, for only five euros per hour.
I ordered a tea; she served it up within seconds. No money was exchanged.
I set my tea down at an empty table by the front window. Succulents lined the windowsill and soft light illuminated the cherry wooden tabletop. On the right side of the café, gathered around a long table scattered with papers, a youthful group bubbled animatedly in French. Colorful pillows tumbled across a squashy couch against the back wall.
The snack counter glistened from the left side of the café. Glass shelves held up round white bowls of madeleines, speculoos cookies and pretzels, while a fridge cooled celery and carrots. I helped myself to an assortment and returned to my tea. No money was exchanged.
An anticafé operates based on the concept that customers pay for time, rather than refreshments. Customers can pay five euros per hour, 24 euros per day (or for five hours or more) or 240 euros per month. Discounts are available for students, “creative unemployed people,” and members. There are currently five anticafé locations in Paris, two elsewhere in France and one in Rome. The space is meant to provide a creative and comfortable place to hang out or do work.
The anticafé brand wasn’t the first to employ this business model. The original anticafé, Ziferblat (Russian for clockface), sprung up in Moscow in 2011. Funded by donations, aspiring poets held meetings in an attic filled with old things but new ideas. As this poetic community grew, attracting other generally creative individuals, the current pay-by-the-hour system was established. A splattering of Ziferblats, and later anticafés, have since cropped up throughout Europe, from London to St. Petersburg to Kiev.
I’m doubtful that such a model would work as well in the United States as it does in Paris. It’s a matter of cultural differences in attitudes toward food and work. The model seems to work in Paris, where meals are more strictly defined sessions, where snacking is discouraged, where moderation is enforced and where the average customer probably consumes food that costs less than the time they spend. In Paris, the most savored refreshment is conversation, and an anticafé offers a comfortable space to cradle it. Customers are willing to pay for the space; the snacks are just an added bonus. The model seems to work well in Paris, where libraries and schools are typically only open during the week — a vestige of their emphasis on work-life balance. Casual, comfortable workspaces are hard to come by at night and on the weekends.
But in the U.S., where the words “free food” seem to startle a frenzy amongst any bigger-is-better thinking American, and libraries accommodate students and employees around the clock, anticafés would likely falter. They would fail to attract as many customers as do those in France, and they would lose money on those they do attract. The average customer would probably consume food that costs more than the amount of time they spend. The unfortunate reality is that Americans show less appreciation for the value of conversation than the French. For an American, conversation plus comestibles is an outing. Conversation minus comestibles is therapy.
Rather than turning to an anticafé, Americans turn to Starbucks. Similar to an anticafé, this third space provides a more comfortable setting than a library, but a more structured one than the home; it serves as a space to foster creativity and collaboration. But unlike an anticafé, of course, it doesn’t charge for time — at least not directly. Instead, Starbucks charges steep prices for its snacks and drinks to include the price of time customers may spend there.
An hour later, I rolled out of the anticafé five euros down, but with more snacks, tea and hot chocolate than I could’ve imagined eating in one sitting. Was my second heaping bowl of snacks necessary? No. Did the barista give me a look when I ordered my third drink of the hour? Yes. Altogether, my food and drinks probably would’ve come out to fifteen or twenty euros in a traditional café — but had I been at such a café, I probably would’ve felt justified to stay longer than an hour, given the amount of business I had given. It’s a tradeoff between spending more money for more time and less food, or less money for more limited time and more food. Pro- or anti-café?