For generations, the day in Spain has begun with picking up the paper from the newspaper kiosk and then reading it over breakfast in a bar. These two urban institutions – the kiosk and the bar – have been the twin pillars of any barrio, or neighbourhood.
“You have a close relationship with your clients,” says Máximo Frutos, who owns a kiosk and is vice-president of the city’s news vendors association. “I have copies of the house keys for around 15 people in the barrio, in case they lose theirs. It’s not like any other business.”
The kiosk is a social nexus as well as a point of sale, and is often passed down through generations. But with falling newsprint sales, many Spanish kiosks are struggling to adapt. Over the past few years, 53 of Barcelona’s 338 kiosks rolled down their shutters for the last time. Many more are expected to follow.
“Fifteen years ago, newspaper sales accounted for about 80% of income. This year I made more from selling soft drinks than newspapers,” says Frutos. He says most vendors now survive by selling advertising space on the kiosk.
“Another problem is that, outside tourist areas, the average age of our clients is over 60,” he adds.
“Besides, young people aren’t interested in the work. You’re a slave to the job because you have to open seven days a week.”
Now the city authorities have launched a pilot scheme to give kiosks a new lease of life. They have chosen 10 defunct kiosks and are establishing a cooperative of people with mixed abilities, including those with disabilities, to staff them.
As well as newspapers and magazines, the kiosks will act as information points, book exchanges and places where you can charge your mobile, electric scooter or bicycle.
In areas where tourists congregate kiosks have found it easier to adapt by catering to them. La Rambla, the city’s most famous and visited street, wouldn’t be what it is without its 11 emblematic kiosks – but although they still sell newspapers, they have become little more than souvenir shops, bedecked with key rings, fluffy toys and Barça football scarves.
Juan Jiménez, who has worked on La Rambla for 30 years and is president of the street’s news vendors association, rejects the accusations of tackiness.
“Kiosks on La Rambla have always sold other things apart from newspapers,” he says. “They used to sell books and publishers used them to launch their latest publications. They were also where people went to buy pornography, though not any more.”
La Rambla is being reformed to attract citizens back to a street that is synonymous with the excesses of mass tourism. The first stage involves widening it, by reducing traffic lanes. There is also talk of moving the news kiosks down to the far end nearest the sea, which is commercially less attractive.
Jiménez claims they haven’t been consulted by Km-Zero, the consortium in charge of the scheme, and insists their agreement with the city council, which expires in 2030, gives them the right to stay put.
Meanwhile, the consortium is intent on getting rid of the stalls at the top end of La Rambla that sell ice cream, sweets and souvenirs. Until 2013 the stalls in this stretch sold songbirds, rabbits, chickens and small reptiles. A campaign by animal rights activists forced them to close; they were replaced by kiosks selling waffles and souvenirs. Many locals dislike these new kiosks and there is an ongoing legal battle to close them down, too.
With the animals gone and the newsstands given over to trinkets, it is left to the flower stalls to maintain the spirit of the old Rambla. Now 16 in number, they once served as the city’s wholesale flower market. When the poet Lorca’s show Doña Rosita opened on La Rambla in 1935, every night the star, Margarita Xirgu, received an anonymous bunch of flowers; realising the senders were the Rambla flower sellers, Lorca dedicated a performance to them.
Carolina Pallés, a florist whose family have had a stall on La Rambla since even earlier, 1888, would be happy to see the more tourist-oriented kiosks depart.
“Tourists never did buy flowers, unless it’s for Valentine’s Day,” she says.
Behind her are news clippings of her grandmother pictured with Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, and her mother with the opera singer Plácido Domingo.
“Our clients are people from here,” she says. “They buy flowers for Christmas, for weddings, funerals. We do flowers for the hotels. We don’t sell souvenirs.”
The essence of urban life in Spain is the barrio, and the kiosks are a focal point in everyone. The vendors know their customers, their families and their habits. In much of central Barcelona, however, that culture is barely clinging on.
“I preferred Barcelona the way it was,” says Pallés. “In other barrios the local businesses have survived, but here we’ve lost everything.”