“We don’t know how many iconic shops we have; joining the iconic catalogue is voluntary and brings with it responsibilities”
A shop is iconic if it’s been in the same location for many decades and – usually – has done the same activity during that time, although some shops are iconic because of their unique architecture and decoration,” says Pròsper Puig, owner of the Puig delicatessen in Barcelona’s Sant Andreu neighbourhood and president of the Barcelona Comerç organisation that represents retail establishments in the Catalan capital. “In my case, our shop is iconic both for the building and its activity, because since 1902, when it was not yet in my family, pork products were already being sold here, while the building is from the 19th century,” he adds.
Indeed the building that houses the Puig shop, at number 147 Carrer Gran de Sant Andreu, has a long history. Before the first butcher’s shop opened there, it was hit by a projectile in 1843 during the Jamància revolt against the government of General Espartero. “In fact, the projectile is still there and can be seen embedded in the facade, above the first-floor balcony,” points out Puig. “My family bought the shop in 1957, but we have documents that show that the former owner, also a butcher, Emilio Bové, opened the business in 1902, when Sant Andreu was still an independent town. So this butcher’s shop and now delicatessen can be said to have been doing the same business for 121 years.
The Rovira drugstore has also been doing the same business for over a hundred years, an establishment on Carrer Madrazo that is not only unique in Barcelona but also has customers all over Catalonia and abroad. “There are almost no traditional drugstores left, and people have many questions and doubts that they don’t know how to solve on the internet,” says Ramon Segarra, of the third generation of the family business.
The Rovira drugstore was founded in 1910 and today boasts a catalogue of 30,000 product listings, including pharmaceutical and chemical products, culinary items, home furnishings and cleaning products. Amidst the mountains of products are many that stimulate memories. A shelf stocked with products that go back more than 50 years, such as rolls of El Elefante toilet paper that many people will remember using as children. Meanwhile, the walls sport old and familiar advertising posters, such as one for the iconic metal cleaner, Netol.
“Here we have solutions for everything and, in addition, we act as psychologists,” says Antonio, who has been working in the shop for more than 40 years. Antonio has a lot of anecdotes, because thousands of people, and some who were very famous, have passed through this shop piled with products from ceiling to floor.
“Johan Cruyff came many years ago, when he was doing an ad for Bruguer paints and he wanted to buy some, but at that time we only had the Titán brand. He took that, of course, but he made us promise not to tell anyone!” Antonio adds laughing.
Serving four generations
In the Sants neighbourhood, the Roé jewellery store has served four generations of locals. “Our great-grandfather bought the shop in 1925, but before that he had already run it for a few years with a partner. We don’t know how many years Esteve & Roé jewellery had been going before great-grandfather bought it,” say Francesc and Emi Garcia Roé, the current owners of Roé jewellery, located at number 41 Carrer de Sants. The interior of the establishment is the same as during the time of their great-grandfather, “who lined part of the walls with mahogany that he brought from Cuba”. A large standing clock, another wall clock and some bronze lamps on the counters where customers are served also date back to the 1920s. The shop window also have a mark from a bullet from the Civil War.
In Barcelona there are about 200 shops that catalogued as iconic. “We don’t know exactly how many iconic shops we have, because while we’re proud of them, joining the iconic catalogue is voluntary and brings with it responsibilities. If someone wants to sell the establishment or make renovations, if it is iconic and you need a permit from the City Council, on the one hand you can get help but on the other there are very restrictive regulations. This greatly limits the work that can be done in the shop because there are heritage elements that must be preserved. This explains why some iconic shops are not in the official catalogue,” says Puig.
Although there are iconic establishments all over Barcelona, most are in the central district of Ciutat Vella. Pharmacies, patisseries, herbalists, haberdashers, candlemakers, bars and restaurants. Many of the names are well-known: La Colmena pastry shop, La Campana torró shop, the Casa Gispert nut shop, 7 Portes restaurant, the Roca knife shop, Casa Beethoven and El Cafè de l’Opera. Other iconic establishments are in city neighbourhoods that used to be independent towns: Quimet in Horta, the Foix de Sarrià patisserie, the Mora tobacconist, the Baltasar printing house and the Franquesa pharmacy, in Sant Andreu de Palomar, and the Orxateria El Tío Ché, in Poblenou. There are also important places in Eixample: the Canut stationery store, the Serret i Risk XXI bakery, on Carrer Girona, Audenis, on Carrer València, the Web Center, on Carrer Aragó, and the Puigoriol pharmacy, on Carrer Mallorca.
The main problem that iconic shops have today – on the basis that they function as businesses, which most do – is that some rent the premises and right now rental prices have gone through the roof. Establishments such as La Colmena, which opened in the 19th century but which was in rented premises, had no choice but to close, and the El Ingenio shop only ended up staying open because the City Council bought the premises to protect the unique papier-mâché business. It is a similar story with the historic Marsella bar, which was able to stay open after a long neighbourhood struggle that also saw the City Council buying the building. But other businesses have not been so lucky: La Estrella pharmacy on Carrer Ferran had to move premises (in its place, there is now a cannabis business that, fortunately, has kept the interior furnishings intact).
Barcelona recently held a congress of iconic shops and one issue raised was the need to value these establishments so people continue to shop there as they have always done. “We have to go to these businesses because we don’t go there will be nothing left to save,” argues Puig.
Feature Iconic shops