In the heart of St Petersburg, nestled along Kazanskaya Street, there is a famous but curious establishment known as Stirka40º. For a non-Russian speaker, the name doesn’t automatically stand out, but with a quick tap on Google Translate you will discover that Stirka literally means “laundry”. Additionally, if you thought that the 40° in the name referred only to the temperature of the washing machine, you would only be halfway there. The number also refers to the percentage of alcohol in a bottle of vodka.
Going down the stairs, I see comfortable sofas and chairs laid around a graffiti-laden wooden piano. I am greeted by the familiar sight of a barman standing behind the counter. Nothing about this space resembles a launderette. Looking up at me with my big backpack full of clothes, the waiter immediately understands that I don’t want a drink and instead directs me to the end of the bar where I see the washing machines. Stirka is not only a laundromat, but also a cafe, a bar and a club; here one can enjoy an espresso on a calm afternoon or a cocktail in the evening listening to DJs while waiting for the wash cycle to finish up.
If you Google laundromats in St Petersburg, chances are Stirka40° is one of the first results. It is also cited in the famous travel guide “Lonely Planet”. That is enough incentive to make a visit to Stirka worthwhile. Coming across a laundromat is certainly not an easy feat in Petersburg. Instead the Venice of the North is populated with dry cleaners where you simply drop off your dirty clothes and later fetch them clean. That’s all. Stirka40° however transforms the chore, creates a memorable experience where ‘doing the laundry’ is not an end in itself but an excuse to have fun.
The Origins of Stirka
Having met in a club, Alexey Lukyanov and Anke Nowottne decided to open Stirka in 2004, thinking that it would be a cozy and exclusive place in St Petersburg. Nikolai Iakovlev, the current General Manager of Stirka, recounts the early phases of the establishment:
“In 2005, Alexey and Anke moved to Berlin. In 2009 after having spent entire nights here as a customer, I started working here.” For three years Nikolai was the art director and the event manager of Stirka but since 2013 – when the general director left – he has been managing the place alone. As to why Stirka has become so popular in Petersburg, Nikolai points out its ‘uniqueness’ which easily captures people’s attention: “We support the idea of mixing culture and ordinary life, and washing your clothes fits in this.”
(Un)fortunately most people have washing machines at home, which made it pretty difficult to attract locals to do laundry there when the place first opened. In fact, for the first two years Stirka was just a launderette and a café, but when they started selling alcoholic beverages and organized cultural and music events, the place became and still is populated by foreigners washing their dirty traveler’s clothes. Locals mostly come to drink.
“Stirka isn’t targeting a particular demographic. The customers are old or young, students or workers.” Nikolai says. He remembers meeting an old American couple who had come to do their laundry there. The couple was staying at a luxurious hotel and washing their clothes there was too expensive. “Why do we have to pay five dollars for a single item of laundry if we can pay the same thing here and wash an entire [load of] laundry while drinking a free cup of tea?”
The perfect mix indeed! And the last touch to Stirka 40’s eclectic scene is its art. “Every two weeks we have a new exhibition,” Nikolai explains. It is also possible, of course, to sit in the café and listen to authors read their poems, while your clothes are drying.