A Novel Idea: Startup Book Tells the Tale of Sankt Oberholz

By David Knight |

“Für hier oder zum Mitnehmen?” They are words you will hear all over Berlin when you order food – “for here or to go?” But they have taken on a new meaning as the title of the first novel set in the city’s startup scene, penned by Ansgar Oberholz, the man behind the Sankt Oberholz cafe on Rosenthaler Platz

The book chronicles the first three months of a similar cafe and its owner as he struggles to make it a success. While a work of fiction, it draws heavily on Ansgar’s experience of establishing and running such a venue amidst the crowds of what he dubs “digital bohemians.” Silicon Allee caught up with the first-time author following the novel’s official launch.

As book readings go, this one certainly created a decent atmosphere. Dozens of people were packed into the spiral staircase set off to one side of the building which contains the Sankt Oberholz cafe; a feature unusual to Berlin and which is not normally open to the public. As faces leaned out over the railings and peered downwards, Ansgar Oberholz settled on a chair right at the bottom of the staircase. He opened the book in front of him, cleared his throat and began to read.

It was a special experience for him – always a passionate writer, this was his first professional work, a novel. The excerpts he read seemed to go down well with the crowd, which consisted of a cross-section of people he knew as well as complete strangers.

And Sankt Oberholz was the obvious place to host the event. It provided the inspiration and much of the material for the book. Nowadays, it is renowned as a centre for startup life in Berlin with Apple devices everywhere you look and a popular co-working space upstairs. It also hosts the monthly Silicon Allee breakfast meet ups. But seven years ago, when Ansgar first opened the cafe, things did not always run so smoothly.

The stress and suffering of those dark days comes out in the text, whether it be through lack of business at the unidentified cafe – “it might be Sankt Oberholz,” says Ansgar, “you never know” – or staff problems (at one point they start believing there are ghosts in the cellar).

“It is about a guy who learns a lot about setting borders with employes and other humans,” Ansgar explains.

That his first book has been published by a company like Ullstein will come as no surprise to many. Ansgar has been writing for decades; back in 2002 he was a contributor on one of the first German literature blogs (which, quaintly, was then called an online diary) and has produced a number of short stories.

Ansgar launches his book with a staircase reading

A meeting with an agency led to an idea to create a novel based around his patchwork family life but soon the stories which creep from every pore of the cafe began to return to the surface again and again. “A lot of the stories happened [in real life], not exactly like it is written down in the text, but most of the basic ideas of the characters are put together from two or three different people. I took all the small parts of the story and tried to spin a web and put it together.”

The real life events didn’t all happen in the first three months; rather, Ansgar condensed seven years’ worth of happenings and added “perhaps 20 to 30 percent fiction, otherwise it wouldn’t really be a novel. But it is inspired by real life.”

Ansgar decided not to expand too much on his “digital bohemians” – they are only there in the background – but bring his own struggles into focus. “We had a lot of problems in the first few months,” he adds. “Nobody believes it nowadays, but we paid a lot; not only money, we paid a lot in experience and stress. It was a very hard time and I really recognised it when I began writing the book. At the time, you don’t really feel the crisis, but when you look back, you ask yourself, how did I manage the first three years? I can’t remember.”

The cafe causes much less stress nowadays, and Ansgar managed to write the novel in nine months, starting at 7am each morning and pounding the keyboard for three or four hours. “If you are really into it, you switch over to the other world, and then it’s flowing. That is a great feeling. Then you are able to write about a drunken night in a nightclub even if it is seven o’clock in the morning and you are absolutely sober. It was a hard time as well, but funny. It was like a journey, an adventure… I’m addicted now [to writing]. I really learnt a lot of new stuff. It’s like founding a startup or something – you are on your own a lot of the time.”

Currently, Für hier oder zum Mitnehmen? is only available in German but that may change depending on sales. But whatever happens, Ansgar has had one of the thrills that few writers ever experience: “I saw it on sale at [famous Friedrichstrasse book store] Dussman and it was a very emotional moment. I was thinking, ‘Oh god I have to sit down.’”

But he is already thinking about his next novel, which, he says, may include themes like how children and parents interact with social media. Either way, the book has changed his life – although perhaps not too significantly.

“I had a fan, a groupie,” he says. “She came to the bar just to find me and asked me to sign her book. But she was over 60 years old! I love that even grandmas can read it – although I don’t know how she found the scene in the nightclub…”

Für hier oder zum Mitnehmen? Is available at bookstores and on Amazon, and as an e-book.