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Why Barcelona Is Giving Special Preservation Status to 228 Historic Stores

These businesses have survived this far, but they're fragile.
Sombrerería Obach is one of the soon-to-be-protected old shops in Barcelona.
Sombrerería Obach is one of the soon-to-be-protected old shops in Barcelona.Wikimedia Commons

Barcelona is about to get a new, different breed of protected monuments. They aren't churches, museums, or archaeological sites. They're a candle shop, a costumier, a drugstore, a café, and a herbalist. These sites, along with 223 more, have just been selected by a city committee as being worthy of special protection. When the plan is voted through after this year's election (and it's all but certain that it will be), these businesses will have extra planning restrictions placed on them that will make it effectively impossible to significantly alter their décor, and difficult to change their use.

The idea of preserving commercial premises unchanged in perpetuity, like a fly caught in amber, might seem impractical, but some of the chosen sites are effectively monuments already. Among them is the classic café Els Quatre Gats, long famous for its decision to hire a then-untried artist called Picasso to design some artwork. But across its older quarters in general, Barcelona is a treasure chest of old stores and bars of rare beauty and charm. Lined with old wooden cabinets, elegant tiles, polished brass, and florid signage (often in the art nouveau-esque modernista style Gaudí made Barcelona famous for), Barcelona shops can be as time-weathered and graceful as churches. They often house unique specialist businesses that not only attract visitors but foster a high degree of staff expertise—I rate the workers at soon-to-be-protected Barcelona hat shop Sombrerería Obach very highly for actually managing to find me a cap that didn't make my head look enormous.