Photo by Julio Arboleda
Barcelona’s centuries-old markets are being made over. But with the onslaught of corner stores and inner-city supermarket chains, will it be enough for them to survive?
The Ajuntament is pouring funds into keeping Barcelona’s famed meat and produce markets alive. These fresh-food mercats are an important part of the Catalan cultural and historical heritage. While those built on the outskirts of the city in the Sixties and Seventies were the result of population growth thanks to Spanish immigration, many in the city were constructed in the Modernista period. Since 1992, 19 of the city’s 40 markets have been modernised, and another seven are currently in the process.
“They got their beauty from the same craftsmen who later worked on emblematic monuments to the city,” explains Barcelona’s mayor Jordi Hereu, in ‘La Ruta dels Mercats’, a pamphlet guiding tourists through the iconic markets of the city.
“Before newspapers, television and radio existed, they were the places to find out what was going on in the villages, towns and around the world.”
The process of modernising the buildings is long and arduous. Typically, the market is moved in its entirety to a temporary facility housed in gigantic tents, while roofs, pavements and floors are replaced and façades are restored. Once complete, some markets update their services as well as their dwellings: boasting WiFi, home delivery, underground parking, internet and telephone orders, stools for customers who sit and wait to be served, extended opening hours without lunch-time closures and benches for resting shoppers.
In markets like the completely refurbished Concepció, these kinds of strategies seem to have paid off. The Eixample edifice bustles on a Saturday morning, its bars full of men drinking beer and chewing through sandwiches as their wives negotiate shopping trollies through the aisles, while the on-site Caprabo supermarket in the basement is relatively empty. Nevertheless, stall holders agreed that sales during the 2009 Christmas season were sluggish. Unemployment and the crisis took their toll, and elderly shoppers were venturing out less.
Still, Barcelona’s markets have probably gone through rougher times. After all, written evidence of their existence dates back to the end of the 10th century. The renovation process, started in 1992, is an attempt to keep these cultural institutions alive and relevant in an era of hypermarkets and cars. The Barcelona City Council has allocated m138.5 million for this work between 2008 and 2011.
“We’re not doing the buildings just as a question of prestige, or for historical remembrance or things like that,” Jordi William Carnes, Deputy Mayor and president of the Municipal Institute of Markets of Barcelona (IMMB), told Metropolitan. “What we want is to make those buildings economically competitive. We don’t want to have just a building; we want to have an economic instigator.”
Eighty-five percent of shoppers at the markets arrive on foot, according to figures from the IMMB, and they spread their spending over a wide range of family businesses, ensuring the survival of inner-city shopkeepers whose livelihoods may be threatened by ‘big box’ retailers in the suburbs. “It keeps people in the vicinity,” said Carnes, adding that markets “protect” the central-city areas and allow them to continue providing a wide variety of services.
At present, the markets employ around 8,000 workers and generate an annual turnover of up to m1.1 billion. IMMB surveys have shown that 69 percent of residents shop at Barcelona’s markets, with approximately 65 million visits per year. They are a loyal bunch of customers too: 79 percent of them always buy from the same stalls.
Critics, however, point to a lack of diversification in many of the markets. Barcelona is no longer a monocultural city thanks to recent immigration from Asia, Africa and South America, but these demographics frequently are not reflected in the make-up of what’s on offer.
Sonia Baluk, a 34-year-old Argentine immigrant, lives five blocks away from the Hostafrancs market, but usually shops at Mercadona or Carrefour. “I think the prices are more or less the same,” she said. “But if you go to the market you spend plenty of time there. You have to go and wait at the butcher’s, and then you have to go and wait to buy cheese and so on.”
Argentine products, such as dulce de leche, bizcochos and yerba mate tea she buys at Carrefour. Conversely, those who work in the markets see the supermarkets as being less specialised.
David Sánchez Ponsa, the owner of Maria Teresa fruit and vegetable shop in the Concepció market, rejects the notion that the markets are not globalising. “Go into the supermarkets, look at their fruit and vegetable section, and then go to a fruit store in the market. I’m absolutely certain you’ll find more variety in the fruit store. There are more and more products, and every day people are asking for more and more different items.”
Sánchez recalled that when the Concepció market reopened, not everyone was willing to pay the taxes required to move back into the shiny new facility. “That year was a critical year. People thought about whether it was worth it to reopen after the renovations, there were people close to retirement who didn’t know if it was worth investing because the business was going to bring in less.”
Jordi William Carnes sees the closure of smaller shops and those headed by the elderly who don’t have family members standing in line to take over the businesses as a positive thing. “The renovations help with two phenomena: one to make [the markets] younger, and also to make them bigger,” he told Metropolitan. “They have more space and they can enlarge their businesses.”
David Sánchez said that while the Ajuntament “give themselves medals” at the reopenings of renovated markets, almost all of the cost of the renovations is actually paid by the shop owners, the people who “have spent years and years working in the market, who paid to move in, who pay for the square metres, who pay their taxes each month. They paid for the floor space when they first got into the market, then they have to pay again after the renovations.”
In some cases, these increased costs are passed on to the consumer in the form of higher prices, although Jordi William Carnes maintained that, in the end, that’s a matter to be decided by the “intelligent” consumer. In locales in which dozens of vendors compete for the same clients, customers are able to pick and choose.
Other business owners said that the city council has to prioritise the markets better. “There have been four supermarkets built in the vicinity recently,” said Lidia Castelló, who runs Lagrana dried fruits and nuts store in the recently reopened Llibertat market in Gràcia. “They come one after the other. The Ajuntament says it wants to promote the markets, but acts otherwise.”
David Sánchez agreed, and said that the city council’s primary interest is collecting taxes. But at the same time, he’s most decidedly staying put. “You take risks, obviously, and it works out for some people and doesn’t for others,” he told Metropolitan.
“The numbers come out in the end, but it’s tough."
A little history from the IMMB’s website ( www.mercatsbcn.cat ):
- “The first documents written related to the markets of Barcelona date back to the end of the 10th century, although their origin could be earlier.
- “Since the Roman period, Barcelona has had intense commercial activity, thanks to its privileged situation open to the Mediterranean, with easy access by sea, and a starting point of different natural ways that go deep into the interior of Catalonia...
- “The first open market was organised on the other side of the Roman wall, on the site of the present Portal de l’Àngel. In this way a merchant neighbourhood emerged made up of little stalls and specialised shops, workshops or stores, that were to grow with the passing of the centuries.”