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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This next story is about cafes, the kind of coffee houses where you hang out, meet your friends or find a quiet space to work. In most cafes, the rule is you pay for some food and you get to hang out for as long as it takes to consume it. Now an entrepreneur in Russia is trying something new. At his cafes, money buys time, and the food is free.

NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Welcome to Tsiferblat - or in English, the Clockface Cafe. Polina Poliakova will lead you to a cabinet filled with ancient alarm clocks.

POLINA POLIAKOVA: When you come to Tsiferblat, first what you should do is to take the watches...

FLINTOFF: She means clock, so you chose a clock - most of them say made in the USSR -and Poliakova notes down your time of arrival. You take the clock to your table as a marker and a reminder that you are now, literally, on the clock.

Clockface is the brain child of Ivan Meetin, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who got started in the business by experimenting with a cafe that ran solely on donations. Clockface is different.

IVAN MEETIN: Because you don't have to pay for coffee or tea or cookies. You should pay for time, and time costs - I hope - not that expensive.

FLINTOFF: By Moscow standards, it's not. You pay two rubles a minute for the first hour - just under four dollars for an hour - and then one ruble a minute for all the time beyond that. After five hours, it's all free, so you can never spend more than about $12 a person.

Clockface is much larger and busier than it looks from the outside. The clientele runs between about 18 and 30 years old, ranging from students in study groups to business people who crowd around a table that's bristling with computer screens. Poliakova leads the way through seven good-sized rooms, all decorated with homey furniture.

POLIAKOVA: This is the second big hall. It is the place for meeting people, and we have an amazing coffee machine.

FLINTOFF: Meetin says customers can bring their own food, as well. So many people use the space for parties and birthdays. You can bring anything, he says, except for alcohol and drugs. And there's no smoking. Tsiferblat provides space for classes and events, board games, books and newspapers, even art supplies.

POLIAKOVA: Paper, pencils, brushes for drawing, because we have a drawing club here on Tuesdays.

FLINTOFF: In fact, Meetin says that for him, the cafe is more of an educational or artistic project than a business.

MEETIN: Sometimes I call it the social network in the real life. I want people to communicate.

FLINTOFF: And in that sense, Meetin's idea is a throwback to what people did before there were social media. He may have just figured out a different way to make it pay. He has nine cafes up and running, seven in Russia and two in Ukraine. He already has plenty of competition in Russia from people who have taken the pay-by-the-minute cafe idea and tried to give it wider appeal by providing pop music and video games. Meetin calls that killing time.

Before he got into the cafe business, Meetin says he tried his hand at theater, art, music and literature.

MEETIN: I realized that I am not a genius.

FLINTOFF: But he also decided that he wanted to do something on the level of genius, to be as good at something of his own as his childhood favorite, Charlie Chaplin, was at comedy.

MEETIN: It's not Charlie Chaplin, of course. But somehow, it's a good thing, and I can say that I am satisfied with it.

FLINTOFF: Meetin is thinking of opening his next Clockface in London.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.

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