The Free Cafe, Islington

This post was written by Jacob on April 25, 2010
Posted Under: Uncategorized

Amongst the catalogue of errors that right-wing economist Milton Friedman made in his life was the use of the term “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Yesterday he was proved wrong. Upper Street in South Islington is a strange place. Every other shop is a swanky restaurant, and those in between sell designer brands, the sort of thing that not only people can’t afford but that there’s no real reason for them to want. And plonked right in the middle there’s a squat. Walkabout, a nasty chain bar closed down three months ago, and the building has been squatted for two months. With their eviction imminent, the squatters and some friends decided to open it up for a day as a café, serving free food, tea, coffee, and lemonade to anyone passing by, with all of the food coming from skips and bins on supermarkets.

Opening up at midday (or just a little after that) we were concerned no-one would come in. Two massive pots of soup had been cooked, we had a giant basket of bread, and a big bowl of salad, all alongside all sorts of cakes and pastries Sainsbury’s had kindly decided to throw away, but as soon as the doors were opened, and a “squatabout free café” sign had been put outside, people began to pour in. All sorts of people ranging from young hippies, to old men in suits, to people who just wanted to sit down and have a coffee while reading the paper. What was really interesting, though, was that so many people were resistant to the idea of everything being free. Many people didn’t even want to come in because they were distrustful of the idea of free food. One man, ater having a coffee and a piece of cake, gave us a pound and said “this is symbolic.” I thought to myself that it was symbolic of everything we disagree with: of having to pay for food, to pay for a community experience. Nonetheless, the money (people randomly donated about £20 throughout the day) will be used for essentials for the squatters such as toile paper, which you can’t get out of skips.

We sat outside on a couch we’d put out in the street and watched the people go past, encouraged them to go in. One woman who must have been in her 80s said to us “I should have come here, I just spent £3 on a coffee!” People were intrigued, joined us, chatted to us, enjoyed the soup. At one point a whole group of school kids came in, they were happy with the possibility of free food, but left pretty promptly when they were told that it had come from bins. Other people stayed for hours, strummed on guitars, sang, read books and newspapers. I did rather a lot of knitting.

And what was interesting is that given the large amount of negative publicity that this squat had in the local press a couple of weeks back, we received very little hostility. People thought it was a great use of the space, people were glad that what was once a really nasty bar, and what would have been an empty building was used in this way. The police didn’t even bother to visit, which was uncharacteristically kind of them. The politics of the entire project, without being explicitly political, was extremely radical. The ideas, in this most commercialised high street, that things didn’t have to cost money, that food didn’t have to go to waste, and that our bonds with other humans did not have to supervene on each of our relationships with the market and capital were new and exciting. The free café was free beyond the price of the food.

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Reader Comments


I’m sure Friedman could work out what you had earnt for your services, and what the punters had ‘paid’ you. The free cafe has resulted in a nice blog article with an advert for a book next to it, for example. There was also a trade in commodities between the free baristas and the patrons: they got a coffee which they wanted more than you wanted it and in return you got their interest (and maybe changed some opinions or struck a figurative chord) which you wanted more than they did. So wealth was created. Now, if you were to sustain the free cafe for long enough, people could start to invest the money that they don’t have to spend in Starbucks and we’d have real growth…

Just a niggling point, but I thought you might enjoy it.

Written By Hugh on April 25th, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

This is fantastic. Why the hell do I never hear about these things until it’s too late?

Written By Greg on April 25th, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

Hugh – I think you’re right that Friedman was making the point that you can put a monetary value on most transactions as well as material things – but what Jacob might be implicitly pointing out is that it’s far harder (and less ahem productive) to do so about some transactions than others. Also could you actually say of the transaction you describe above that ‘new wealth was created?’ Be interested to know – also if that was the point anyway.

Written By Gloria on April 25th, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

Ha, we visited this place on a day trip to London!!!
I’d nevr been to Angela or Islington before but id certainly go back.

Written By darl_in on April 26th, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

*never and *Angel. DOH!

Written By darl_in on April 26th, 2010 @ 1:21 pm

Ah, I guess that’s the descriptivist/unfalsifiable ‘genius’ of the Austrian school: if value is only a mental construct, then wealth only consists on more people having more things that they want, irrespective of the distribution of actual resources. I suppose the relevance is that ‘capitalism’ isn’t about wasting stuff either. Also we should remember that the reasons good food gets thrown away also have as much to do with regulations designed to protect people as with spurious ‘display until’s which are designed to persuade people to pay more money.

Written By Hugh on April 26th, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

“‘capitalism’ isn’t about wasting stuff”! Hahahahahaha! Brilliant.

Written By julia on April 30th, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

How instructive, Julia. Thanks for that.

Written By Hugh on May 1st, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

You’re welcome.

Written By julia on May 1st, 2010 @ 6:46 pm

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