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Shopping in the streets

Shopping in the streets

Over the last years, Barcelona has witnessed a proliferation of open-air markets of all kinds on public thoroughfares. Apart from the different fairs traditionally held at fixed dates - Sant Ponç honey and candy stands, the book fair on Saint George's day, Christmas street markets, etc.. -, there are more and more outdoor exhibitions of goods available for buying insofar as antiquarians, dealers in second-hand goods, artists, craftmen and collectors of all types, or small-scale producers of natural foods, organize their own fairs. In some aspects, the trade world seems to be acting out its longing for its remotest beginnings and for the space that had for so long been the natural setting for its development : the city's squares and streets. In this respect, it is not by mere chance that many Barcelona residents still use the colloquial expression "anar a la plaça" (i.e. to go to the town square, in the original acceptation of the word) when they are going to market.

In an attempt to ascertain the actual scope of that new reality that is periodically invading our streets and pavements, "Barcelona. Metròpolis mediterrània" has carried out a survey with a view to taking a census of all the fairs and markets held in our city all through the year. The fact is that they currently add up to a good one hundred. But what are the reasons for such a phenomenon ? They might actually lie - as anthropologist Danielle Provensal, author of the introductory article, advances -, in a deep-seated tendency within society itself and in a "healthy complicity among all the people who refuse to be the passive victims of market surveys".

We have divided these markets, fairs and bazaars into six large groups : market bazaars (comprised of all the stalls positioned around the municipal markets); district stands (i.e. those which are lifelong features of the different neighbourhoods); traditional fairs (such as those held on Saint Ponç or Saint George's day); markets specializing in handmade articles, art works or auctions; collectors' fairs; and "others" (an epigraph that includes the most diverse events, such as alternative fairs or those organized by private or public bodies).


Markets, bazaars, gourmands and onlookers. saunterers.
by Danielle Provansal, University of Barcelona.

The world, our world, is becoming a gigantic, increasingly dense network of channels of transaction for all kinds of products : merchandise, information and knowledge, beliefs and symbols. Distant areas seem to draw nearer and nearer, becoming familiar to us, as people use, see and admire the same things in many different places on the globe. The world, our world, appears to have shrunk in size, to the extent that it is now referred to as "the global village", while habits and tastes seem to be becoming more and more standardized. Actually, that it the vision we might initially infer from the observation of the incessant movements of capitals, people and images. However, it is but an "astronomical" perception of reality. If we look at it from closer quarters and consider the way people go about their everyday business, the things their lives and dreams are made of, that same reality appears to be much more complex, subtle and diverse. We may ask ourselves whether one of the collective responses to the generalized standardization characteristic of "the global village" is not evidenced by the multiple expressions of local self-assertion and, more particularly, by the recourse to newly recovered or alternative forms of trade and exchange. Running counter to the figure of the anonymous consumer induced to buy indiscriminately by the big chains of stores and to the omnipresence of large shopping centres which, from New-York to Singapour and from London and Cape Town, impose their criteria in matters of habits and tastes, we see the appearance of a certain eclecticism, a certain search for individuality and even a healthy complicity among all the people who refuse to be the passive victims of market surveys and strategies.

Over the few last years, new open-air shopping areas have flourished in many parts of Barcelona : markets, bazaars and local fairs that give the city quite a festive, joyful and colourful atmosphere. At the same time, other trading spaces that form part of the city's commercial history have been preserved or restored for public use. That profusion of locally created shopping areas is undoubtedly the most lively and inventive response to the process of standardization that is threatening us. There is no limit to inventiveness, as we are boundless in our - by definition, never satisfied - urge for discoveries and new experiences.

"Barcelona es bona si la bossa sona" (Barcelona is pleasant if you've got money in your purse). Everybody knows that popular saying. It is a testimony to the character of a city which is amiable to everyone, the poor and the rich alike, but its very formulation shows us indirectly that money is a matter of great importance in our city, the kind of money people carry with them in a purse, immediately available for spending should an occasion for some kind of transaction arise; in summary, the kind of money which is actually meant to circulate. Another equally popular saying - "Roda el mon i torna al Born" (roam the world and come back to the Born) - reaffirms that message. The "Born", viewed as the heart of the old city and its central market place, has since time immemorial been a major symbol of the city as a whole and, more particularly, of its first vocation : to be the central nexus within a spreading system of land and sea business routes.

And, even though there have been later moments in its history when Barcelona has opted for different economic orientations, fulfilling other ambitions first as an industrial centre and, more recently, as a capital of the service sector, that first vocation as a trading centre continues to be very much alive and important, and it still appears nowadays as one of the most deeply ingrained distinguishing features of our city, where it performs multiple functions. In effect, apart from their obvious economic role, all those trading spaces fulfil other deeply interconnected functions that are constantly brought up to date through the daily or periodical practices of the people, and that somehow reflect the city residents' attachment to their urban environment. Even daily markets intended to satisfy people's most basic, ordinary needs are places that brim with cultural components : you merely have to take a look at the fruit and vegetable stalls along the main pathway at the Boquería market, at the profusion of colours within the central rotunda reserved for the seafood and fish stands, or at the rows of special pieces of game and venison on display at Christmas time, to understand that eating and drinking are pretexts for experiencing many other pleasures in which aesthetic appeal and gourmet sense of taste are mingled with the pursuit of exoticism and a certain capacity for playful behaviour. Moreover, present-day markets are public places where, in the tradition of the Agora in ancient Greece, people meet and interact with each other and information circulates, more particularly those local pieces of news or gossip that are of no interest to the general public and are not considered worthy of press coverage, but which nevertheless contribute to the development of an active and lively society with an identity of its own.


Daily markets.

At the present time, Barcelona boasts 41 covered markets that are scattered across the city and that are obligatory points of reference for the inhabitants of the different districts. These markets are social points of reference not only in topographical and architectural terms, but also because of their symbolic significance, which is shown through the familiar names by which people call the most popular ones, such as "El Ninot" or "La Boquería". The covered food market, known in Barcelona by the generic name of "la plaza", is at the same time the bowels and the heart of the neighbourhood but, furthermore, where popular imagery is concerned, it is a testimony to the last visible link between our society and nature, therefore appearing as a contributing factor to the maintenance of a certain ecological frame of reference, as opposed to the industrial production of processed food. Finally, among the functions performed by covered markets, an aspect that has been particularly emphasized over the last years is their potential as forums for leisure activities. Nearby establishments such as the bars and retail shops that liven up the neighbourhood have something to do with it, but what contributes most directly to bring new life to the place is the organization of diverse festive events within the premises of the markets : the special Christmas draw, the Shrove Tuesday carnival when shopkeepers come to work in fancy dress, the celebrations on Saint George's day - when customers are rewarded with the gift of a red rose - or on Saint John's Eve - when, in some markets, shopkeepers have a glass of "cava" with their customers -, etc...

Two major cycles mark the rhythm of district market places : the short cycle of day and night activities, and a longer, more imperceptible sequence that covers the first one and follows the pattern set by the alternation of seasons. In this double movement, there is a combination and an overlap between the changing course of nature and the rhythm of human activities on which is periodically superimposed the pattern of effervescent, crescendo notes of profane or religious festivals, alternating with silences due to pauses in the work calendar and the great summer migrations. The continuous weaving process of everyday life and its different sequences (distribution and consumption, cycles connected with feeding functions) is paralleled by a more whimsical itinerary that is not regulated by the rhythm of our basic necessities, but rather by a passion as secret as irresistible : the urge to collect things. In Barcelona, as in any other large city, everything, or practically everything, can be bought or exchanged : old coins or stamps as at Plaza Reial on Sunday morning; old records or cassettes, books and postcards at Sant Antoni market, also on Sundays in the morning; pieces of furniture, antiques or simply old objects, every Thursday morning on the avenida de la Catedral, some other day of the week on Plaza de Sarria and, on Saturdays and Sundays, at the Moll de les Drassanes. However, the most emblematic place is still the "Fira de los Encantes", Barcelona's main flea market, whose name is in itself a promise of adventures for bargain hunters. Its atmosphere conjures up images of remote horizons and those exotic places we might have once travelled through, or those far-distant times we might have known in our imagination through the stories we heard or read in our childhood. Taking on different aspects - Maghrebian souk, oriental bazaar, African outdoor market, or old-fashioned fair with a turn-of-the-century flavour -, the "Fira de los Encantes" is an inexhaustible source of oportunities to marvel and reinvent our past, creating other memories, nostalgic evocations we find in quite useless though deeply touching objects : old toys; photographs of unknown people, yellowed with age; old-fashioned wedding gowns and hats, etc...