• Culture The 'sorpasso' of bookstores in Madrid: how they became booming temples when the pandemic threatened to wipe them out
  • Culture The Book Fair, one step away from being protected as an Asset of Cultural Interest

Perhaps it seems like another business between the certain spectacularity of the fashion multinationals, the modern hotel explosion, the lethargy of the Palacio de la Música that never opens, the volatile franchises with the Madrid or tourist marabunta in between... But it's not. He turns 100 years old and his survival has the character of a miracle. It is unique in its antiquity and, to top it off, it is dedicated to the sale of books. In a country with a reading percentage of 64.8%, yes, but of a single copy, according to the latest Barometer of Reading Habits, and with 35.2% that never or almost never touches a page. Unusual in its kind, the Casa del Libro of Gran Vía is already centenary. Cheering. Ovation.

"We are the only business that is still standing, as it was founded in 1923," reaffirms Javier Arrevola (Madrid, 1972), the general director of the 54 bookstores throughout Spain and of this Madrid premises of 4,000 square meters. "And in the society of the big platforms and the immediate", gives the stitch in which the enemy to beat is guessed. "With the emergence of e-commerce and large digital platforms, we have had to fight against other ways of entertaining ourselves and buying books. We're competing with them face to face." Although it has been time, rather, the strongest of warriors, as Tolstoy wrote, that this Madrid icon has had to face. It has had to give birth to "another concept of bookstore", although its public has also toured it as "a monument or a place to visit", even with "personalities who only went for a walk but without buying books", in the style of those who discover for aesthetic enjoyment the Gran Splendid of Buenos Aires or the Lello of Porto.

Rafael Alberti, Mario Vargas Llosa, Peridis, Forges, Francisco Ibáñez, among many others, appear in the book of dedications. Or Queen Sofia, after the commemorative visit of the emeritus Kings in 2010, on the centenary of the Madrid artery, and even the archive of EL MUNDO keeps photos of Hugo Chávez leaving the Casa del Libro in 2009, with bodyguards loaded with the distinctive green bags. "For the great authors it was a must when coming to Madrid," says Arrevola. And more signatures swell the commemorative volume, after the celebration last Thursday with Don Felipe and Doña Letizia, the Minister of Culture, Miquel Iceta, or best-selling authors such as Héctor Abad Faciolince, María Dueñas, Javier Sierra, Julia Navarro or the academic Víctor García de la Concha.

The current aspect of trade. ALBERTO DI LOLLI

Lavishness typical of an institution, far from the archetype of a generalist bookstore. "That no longer works," stresses its director since 2018, the year in which the establishment was closed for an eleven-month remodeling. "The traditional model of fiction, nonfiction, literature, humanities... It has become a bit outdated to the reader. Now we create families: books that inspire, lives with history, essential books... to make the shopping experience more intuitive." In the same way that Spotify or Filmin suggest titles. "Together with the human factor, the bookcase, are the ingredients that we have tried to optimize and enrich over the years." And, of course, the irremediable digitalization, even with its hundred in tow: "The web captures 24% of the company's turnover. We have also modernized in loyalty programs or in stores at an aesthetic level. It is no longer the golden age of bookstores in the 70s, 80s or even 90s", despite the fact that reading rates increased after the pandemic.

Because the history of the Casa del Libro is also that of Madrid. In 1919, Nicolás María Urgoiti, a tireless paper and publishing businessman, founder of the newspaper El Sol -with his own chapter in the notes of the faculties of Journalism- and friend of Ortega y Gasset, bids to create his own bookstore for his Anonymous Company of Bookstore, Publications and Editions (Calpe). He buys some land in the, then, Pi y Margall Avenue, and from 1920 to 1923, this nine-storey building rises, with the plans of the architect José Yarnoz Larrosa and the design of spaces of the philosopher, which is still owned by the Constructora Calpense. On April 15, 1923, the Palacio del Libro was inaugurated, which due to "annoying confusions with other establishments", specifically with one in Buenos Aires, the chronicles say, they change the name of the current one. The novelty: it was the first bookstore where books could be touched. And in a mostly illiterate Spain, it will house in its upper part the editorial staff of the Revista de Occidente, so it will be the usual headquarters of Unamuno, Azaña, Gómez de la Serna, García Lorca ...

Two years later, Calpe merged with Espasa -that sign that frames the Casa del Libro-, to illuminate the famous encyclopedia of Spanish homes. Now, "the book business is complicated," says Arrevola, but then it was in this luxurious building, with a glass dome and neo-bar airs, where you could achieve The theme of our time, by Ortega y Gasset, or Tirano Banderas, by Valle-Inclán. An ark of Noah, today of almost 100,000 titles of background, which was also salvation during the Franco regime. If during the Civil War the building was occupied by the Central Office of Propaganda of the Unified Socialist Youth, those of Carrillo, then survived circumventing censorship. "Being a cultural agent, he was very greedy for the authorities during the war. There were booksellers on one side and the other," says Arrevola. "During the dictatorship we went through a grayer, darker stage, because many of the references we had could not be for sale." However, he tried to be "a center of freedom" and during that time of scarcity, also intellectual, he tried to get those forbidden copies that did not circulate in the rest.

The original interior of the bookshop, in 1923.CEDIDAEThe interior of the Casa del Libro, in 1960.CEDIDA

An arduous stage, but not the only one. "It seems that opening a bookstore is simple and that it is a business that will work, but it is not like that," says the director of this chain, who was previously in charge of Uno de 50 and worked for Suárez or Loewe. "Our DNA is to be a bookstore in the background" and it is not a light task "to have a central location, with depth, staff" of between 60-70 employees or 90 at Christmas -almost 900 in the whole group-, with a collection of titles that suits each reading species and that "in 24-48 hours you can have what you ask for" if you are not in store. Nothing to envy to Amazon. "And all in a cost-effective way." Therefore, whenever the business has faltered, the formula has been to "renew the bookstore". In 1968, it was extended with a double basement for children and young people; in 1975, with a second floor of fine arts; a third, of scientific and technical books and, in 1978, with travel, cinema, photography ... Until the 90s, with the integration into Grupo Planeta and the national expansion, with 54 branches in 25 provinces. "There has never been any doubt about Gran Vía," says Arrevola. Not even when the rumor spread in 2018 that Cristiano Ronaldo had bought the building. The CR7 hotel, of the Pestana chain, rented the upper part of number 29, which they share "in good harmony".

Although he does acknowledge that the pandemic was "very hard", confined and a posteriori, because the influx in the Center decreased, as well as sales. "The more non-Spanish-speaking foreigners visit Gran Vía, the less sense a bookstore like ours will be." It therefore supports the intangible protection of this route. "It is true that it is already done with certain actions so that citizens feel comfortable visiting the Center, but it is not enough. The more hotels and attractions for tourists from outside, the less sense this type of business will be." In the memory is that Gran Vía overflowing with cinemas and theaters as if at a banquet. Even, they are not afraid of competition. "La Central had that point, I don't know whether to call it political or intellectual, and we are more generalist, each with its audience. But the more bookstores I have in a neighborhood, the more attractive. If each one specializes and you are well cared for and prescribed, you will love going to three or four in a morning visiting the Center."

The Kings visit the exhibition of the commemorative act, last Thursday. KIKO HUESCAEFE

Because the Gran Vía branch, with its more than half a million books shipped every year, has also witnessed the cultural mutation according to readings. Even, of social fashions, their intellectual diatribes and... your mental health. The best sellers, between the years 20-50: Ortega y Gasset, Baroja, Salinas, Laforet, Delibes, Sánchez Ferlosio, Martín Gaite... In the 2000s: Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Dan Brown, Almudena Grandes, Ken Follet, María Dueñas and historical novels, such as those of Santiago Posteguillo, sharing the podium with Marie Kondo, Masterchef, Paz Padilla or self-help. "The change of trend is brutal," Arrevola replies, as shown by the 250-page commemorative volume they have launched for the occasion, along with the exhibition of historical works that the Eugenio Trías library will host during the Book Fair. "It went from essays to best sellers, and now the thriller is fashionable, which before there was very little. And the essay, which before was more about philosophy, has gone towards personal growth, "he reveals. If during Covid-19, the most demanded were cookbooks, now is the time for travel and leisure.

This is clear from its more than two million members, to whom Arrevola recommends El infinito en un junco, by Irene Vallejo, while she is reading La voz de los valientes, by her friend Rafael Tarradas and the last by Elvira Roca Barea. Although he landed from the luxury sector, for him his current management position is "a kind of dream". "It sticks your feet to the ground and makes you feel more alive." He lived in Magdalena and Barco streets; He says that he used to walk to the Casa del Libro with his daughter's stroller as a baby. And he defends that "with a great human team, taking into account the world of culture" and "that bookseller who thinks about the reader and knows how to recommend" it is possible "to defeat the great sharks of corporations". He proclaims, "If physical books disappeared, they would have to be invented," he says. There is a future. Who knows, perhaps, another 100 years.

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