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Update: La Colmena is sadly no longer open.

After four generations of doing business in the same shop – housed since 1907 in a beautiful moderniste building between Paseo de Gràcia and Gran de Gràcia – the beloved patisserie La Colmena has closed.

One of Barcelona’s most iconic and historic establishments, La Colmena made some of the best artisanal candies, turrón de Jijona, Lenten fritters and Swiss rolls (called a brazo de gitano, or “Gypsy arm” in Spanish) in the neighborhood, and was run by siblings Cristina and Francesc Font, the fifth generation of the family. The venue was effectively forced to close because its rent was set to more than triple, and because of a requirement by City Hall that they restore and update the premises. Although Barcelona residents were aware of the situation, the owners’ decision to close still came as something of a shock to longtime customers.

La Colmena in happier times, photo by Paula MourenzaLa Colmena was a local institution with a long history behind it and was part of the identity of the Gràcia neighborhood. What is at stake here are not only the livelihoods of those families who want to keep their businesses running or the disappointment of the neighbors at losing their favorite shops, but also the character and the heritage of the city, which is undergoing major gentrification while still trying to remain authentic in a globalizing – and homogenizing – world.

In some cases, other, more successful local businesses are pushing out these small, old, family-run operations – at least they are locals. But in the majority of cases, the new businesses with enough money to rent these privileged spots are international retail chains like Mango or Geox or luxury retail brands. These issues have become a frequent topic in the Spanish and Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia, which in late 2014 published an interesting virtual map showing old, iconic establishments in the city that had been lost or were at risk of being lost. Around the same time, The New York Times also reported on this sad phenomenon in Barcelona (which is also happening in Madrid).

Yet while La Colmena’s demise, and that of other famous old shops, endangers the fabric of Barcelona neighborhoods, some other businesses are doing what they can to hold on, and we are very fortunate to have them still in our streets. This is the case with the other La Colmena, located in the Barrio Gótico, a beautiful old-fashioned patisserie that has occupied the same premises since 1872. First established in 1849, this Colmena changed hands a couple of times before the Roig family – relatives of the family that owned the other Colmena, in Gràcia – acquiredLa Colmena in Barrio Gótico, photo by Paula Mourenza it in 1927. Its current owner, Josep Maria Roig, decided to hold his ground and, after a great deal of fighting in the courts, agreed to pay the new rent – which, although still a bit lower than the market price, is nonetheless more than seven times higher than before (from €1,000 to €7,500). Roig is also the secretary of the Asociación de Establecimientos Emblemáticos (“Association of Iconic Establishments”) and one of the main voices representing the affected businesses, so he is very conscious of the cultural loss signified by the closures. His business is fortunate to be situated on a good corner that is well transited and very touristy; since they also produce such excellent products, with some additional effort, it looks like they will survive. Good for them and lucky us that we still can enjoy them!

Another survivor is Colmado Quílez, a revenant from its own ashes. Originally opened in 1908, it was bought in 1940 by Julián Quílez, who made it one of the biggest and best colmados – traditional stores specializing in preserved, cured and bottled products – in the city. In 1974, Quílez sold his shop to the Lafuente family, then its main competitor, for a symbolicColmado Quílez, photo by Paula Mourenza sum, because of their great expertise in the business. Some months ago, Nino Álvarez, a luxury local brand selling men’s clothes, became the new tenant of the charming, old-school Quílez store; the new owners restored the premises, changing the name on the old-fashioned black sign that still prominently covers the large corner of Rambla Catalunya and Aragó Avenue. But the Lafuente family didn’t give up. They moved to a much smaller and more affordable location just next to the old one, where they could reopen an updated mini version of their old venue. Amazingly, the old black sign with the new name Nino Álvarez ends exactly where the new small black sign with the old name Colmado Quílez starts.

Bombonería Fargas, photo by Paula MourenzaThe Bombonería Fargas chocolate shop is a historic jewel – constantly emanating the delicious, sweet aroma of cocoa – situated on a corner where time stopped in 1827, in another beautiful moderniste building. (Next door, the old stamp shop Monge, with its remarkable wooden Art Nouveau façade, also had to close recently.) This building will soon be transformed into a two-floor commercial gallery. There is a plan, involving the owners of this and other nearby buildings, to move the storefront of the bombonería to another location on the property (close to La Pineda charcuterie), keeping its original essence, old décor and some furniture, but moving the workshop where the chocolate is made to a location on the other side of the street.

Another of our favorites, Fleca Fortino, a bakery specializing in healthy confections made from a variety of grains and run by the same family since 1925, is also fighting for its survival. Strangely, the building’s owner has been completely opposed to considering any proposals from the family, even when they offered to pay a higher rent at the market price and refurbish and update the premises. Anticipating the impending move, third-generation owner and current shop manager Gemma Fortino recently turned off the old oven for the first time in more than a century and opened a new workroom on a nearby street (Monseny 17).

With support from their customers and neighbors, the Fortinos are still attempting to at least keep their old storefront in the same place. The 2,000 signatures they have collected from their supporters have forced the City Council to study their case. Unfortunately, their building is not an Art Nouveau beauty, so they won’t be eligible for the council’s patrimony protection plan, even though the oven and the traditional tiles decorating the workroom are from the past century. Thus, they have no legal protection and very likely will lose their case, which has a hearing scheduled for March 8 (see their Facebook page for updates).

There is an expression in Spain, “Dios aprieta, pero no ahoga,” similar to “When God shuts a door, he opens a window.” Last year – already too late for many establishments – the City Council approved a “Plan de Protección y Apoyo a los Establecimeintos Emblemáticos,” a law that protects the city’s most iconic establishments, due to their architectural, artistic or historical importance. In 2014, 389 commercial licenses were suspended. The plan saved 228 of these, leaving 161 without protection, but helping numerous others and making 32 venues – including our beloved Casa Gispert, the classic Pastelería Escribà and the historic restaurant Els Quatre Gats – completely untouchable.

The problem with the current plan is that it protects only the buildings and the specific activity of the business. If a protected bakery passes to new owners, they must keep everything the same. However, the law does not protect the original owners and their knowledge, experience and legacy. What Josep Maria Roig and the other association members are fighting for is the protection of establishments for their immaterial cultural value, including gastronomy and other cultural activities, as a patrimony that belongs to the entire city. This kind of protection would recognize the work of people and their expertise over generations – the knowledge and life histories that make a city what it is, beyond the façades.

As Maria Teresa, an employee who has worked half her life at Fargas, told us about their fractured survival, “The important thing is that we are still here for our customers, whom we have known for generations, from grandparents to grandsons; they are part of our lives and we are part of theirs.”

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Published on March 04, 2016

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