If Everybody Looked The Same: Small Businesses In Increasingly Boring Cities

Last evening I was listening to Episode #389 of “Catholic In A Small Town”, the long-running podcast by my friends Mac and Katherine Barron – which you should subscribe to even if you’re not Catholic, as they are terrific, and hilariously funny. During the show, they discussed the travails of trying to cancel their account with a national service chain, in order to sign up with a local business providing the same service. They talked about how supporting local businesses was important to them, and that they had made the choice to do so in other areas of their purchasing lives as well.

Then this morning I learned with sadness that the venerable Embassy café, bakery, and restaurant in Madrid will be closing its doors after 86 years. An institution with a storied history, which you can read a bit about in this article, Embassy is a casually elegant holdover from a more civilized time. It is also very conveniently located in the same block as “my” neighborhood parish in Madrid. I was at Embassy last a couple of months ago, but unfortunately it will be closed before I return to visit Madrid in June. Despite the fact that it has plenty of business, the business it does have cannot compensate for the increasing rents for their property, which includes a lovely terrace under the trees on the Paseo de la Castellana, a wonderful place to meet friends for a meal or a drink.

Embassy is succumbing to the increasing homogenization of city life, which has led to the centers of many cities becoming more same-y, even as they come back from the dead thanks to a greater interest in urban living. Previously, when you traveled to another city, you might expect to see some chains, but these were counterbalanced by an equal number of one-offs – the kind of mom-and-pop businesses that locals or travel books would tell you, “If you’re looking for X, you really need to go visit this unique place.” Now, when you go to almost any city nationally or internationally, you will see the same businesses over and over again, with little in the way of local flavor.

When I first moved to Georgetown in 1991 for example, the main commercial thoroughfares of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue had a number of well-known names: Ralph Lauren, The Gap, Burger King, etc. Existing alongside these big-brand businesses were smaller, local businesses, who only existed in the village: Au Pied du Cochon, Little Caledonia, Café Northwest, and many others. People find it unbelievable when I tell them that back then, tiny Georgetown had four movie theatres, showing a variety of films from major release to art house to old movies. Today there is only a multiplex chain venue – and a very nice one it is, too, but the selection is almost entirely of the mainstream variety, that you could see in any suburban shopping mall cinema.

For most cities, neighborhood holdovers from 20, 30, 40 years ago or more are falling under an increasingly shortened list called “still there”. There is some inevitability to this, as business owners retire or needs change. Yet in many cases, these businesses are being driven out not because they lack customers, but by higher ground rent. The end result is that the chains that replace small businesses seem to last for a few years at most, and are themselves quickly replaced by another chain with outlets in every major city and airport.

Admittedly this post is more of a whinging lament, rather than a prescription for how to solve the problem. I’m not in a position to recommend solutions, or suggest that economies of scale are always bad. In fact they can be quite beneficial, when they bring in goods or services to an area that would otherwise be unable to support them. A diversity of choice creates options that improve our lives as consumers.

That being said, perhaps we have gone too far in the effort to expand perceived choice at the expense of uniqueness and individuality. The stereotype of seeing a Starbucks on every corner exists for a reason. When a local business pits quality and customer service against mass production, it can only succeed if it can keep up with its larger competitor on price, and that effort is seriously undermined when commercial landlords value rents first and foremost.

Now, I would never argue that a landlord must take a hit in the wallet in order to keep a local business in bricks and mortar. A property owner is not running a charity, after all. They have to pay their taxes, account for inflation, and turn a profit, just as any other business owner does. But perhaps what is lacking is an ingrained appreciation for the intangible value of having something unique. If the business is doing fine, then shouldn’t there be a greater effort to keep that uniqueness intact if at all possible? Easy for me to question, I grant you, but if you’re bored when you travel, and settle for shopping or dining at some place that you could just as easily visit back home, then it’s a question worth asking.

When the Emperor Charles V came to the city of Granada in order to see the Alhambra Palace, where his architects were preparing a new residence for him to live in when he visited the city, he was horrified to see that part of the Moorish fortress had been demolished to build a fairly unremarkable Italian Renaissance-style building. “What you have built here can be seen in many places,” he is reported to have said, “but what you have destroyed was unique in all the world.” Perhaps the same could be said, on a smaller scale, for those unique local businesses that deserve our support.

[Correction: a smart reader has reminded me that Charles V said this about the alterations to the Mezquita (former mosque, now a cathedral) in Cordoba, not the alterations to the Alhambra Palace. Mea culpa.]

The author (l) at Embassy last summer

The Iron Lady WAS For Turning – When It Came To Great Art

Recently released papers reveal that, during her tenure as Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher became personally involved in the effort to obtain one of the world’s most important private art collections for Britain.

The Thyssen-Bornemisza collection was begun by the German industrialist Baron Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza back in the 1920’s. During the Great Depression, he began snapping up art from American and European collectors who had fallen on hard times. When his title and collection passed to his son Heinrich, the new Baron began to collect even more works of art, until eventually the collection was second in size only to that of Queen Elizabeth II.

It is difficult to fathom just how vast an array of paintings we are talking about, in terms of scope and quality. The collection includes works by Fra Angelico, Van Eyck, Holbein, Titian, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, and many, many others. If it were the national collection of a single country, it would be the pride of its citizens; as a private collection put together for the pleasure of one non-royal family, it is one of the greatest ever assembled, and unlikely ever to be duplicated in our time.

In the 1980’s, the Baron and his 5th wife Carmen Cervera, a former Miss Spain, realized that they did not have enough room to store and display all of the art in their collection. They began searching for a permanent home in which to house it, and a number of international cities were put on the couple’s short list. Countries fell over themselves trying to persuade the Thyssens to sell them their collection, and thanks to some significant, personal wooing by Baroness Thatcher, at one point Britain looked to be the front-runner.

British government documents show that, among other things, Baroness Thatcher sent personal notes to the Thyssens, to try to sweet-talk them into sending their collection to the UK. She invited them to visit her at Downing Street, when they were in London for the opening of an exhibition. Her cabinet appeared split over her desire to secure the collection for Britain, including future PM John Major (who was against it). Opinion was also split among the journalists, historians,  and curators whom Thatcher consulted privately, as to whether the country ought to purchase the art.

In the end, much to the disappointment of the Iron Lady, most of the collection went to Madrid. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, or “Thyssen” as it is called for short, opened in 1992, and is thus celebrating its 25th birthday this year. The Baron’s wife thwarted the Prime Minister’s plans, to benefit her home country. Interestingly enough however, the museum is currently having a bit of a problem with its patroness, as indeed Margaret Thatcher did 30 years ago.

After the Thyssen opened, Carmen began assembling her own great art collection, a skill which she learned about from her (3rd) husband. Her cache of nearly 500 paintings was subsequently lent to the Thyssen for a period of ten years. That period expired several years ago, but has been continuing on one-year renewals ever since. This might be coming to an end, unless the Spanish government and the widow can come to some sort of a more permanent arrangement.

The takeaway from this is that Baroness Thatcher clearly understood the power of truly great art. No, she was not a modern-day Isabella Stewart Gardner. Yet the fact that she realized the value of this collection so much as to become personally involved in the effort to bring it to her country, even when art critics and political partners advised her against it, ought to make people pause before repeating the old canard about conservatives having little regard for art.

The Curious Conundrum Of Catalan Vs. Castilian Coffee

I’ve recently returned from spending the holidays in Spain, which began with Christmas in Barcelona followed by New Year’s in Madrid. I also spent my summer vacation visiting both cities, enjoying time with family, great art/architecture, music, and of course, food. Yet a curious aspect of both trips was something which confused me and my traveling companions on both occasions: why was the coffee in Barcelona so good, and the coffee in Madrid so terrible?

Back in May/June, when traveling with an American friend with ancestors from Catalonia, I introduced him to what is called a “tallat” in Catalan, and a “cortado” in Spanish, which is essentially espresso that has a shot of steamed milk mixed in with it. It’s similar to the Italian “macchiato”, although in Italy they use milk foam rather than warm milk. [NOTE: the flavored “macchiato” that you order in Starbucks bears no resemblance whatsoever to the real thing.] We began at Francesco, my favorite local café on the Passeig de Gràcia in Barcelona, where we went for breakfast every morning, but we also ordered it in many places around town. It was always hot, creamy, sweet, and delicious, no matter where we drank it.

When we got to Madrid, it was as if we had moved to another country where the same word meant something completely different, like how in Spain a “tortilla” is an omelet, whereas in Mexico it is a flat disc usually made of corn. During our entire time in Madrid, every cortado that we ordered was terrible: tepid, thin, watery, and bitter, whether it was in a corner bar or in a swanky restaurant. I was genuinely confused and apologetic, and wondered whether we were just having bad luck, but this seemed improbable given the wide variety of places where we drank it.

Over Christmas break the situation repeated itself. We drank cortados at Francesco every morning for breakfast, but we also drank them elsewhere. We had cortados for elevenses or after a meal at various restaurants and cafes in Barcelona, and we had them at the seaside in the resort town of Sitges, about a half hour south of the city. While Francesco is unquestionably the best, even at these other establishments, the coffee was always good.

In Madrid, the cortados were once again a serious disappointment. We tried corner bars, nice restaurants, and even the café at The Prado, but the only place where we were able to get a good cortado was at an Illy café located across from the Mercado de San Miguel in Old Madrid. The fact that this was an Italian establishment was not insignificant, because unlike virtually every coffee chain in this country that claims to make espresso-based drinks – which in fact taste like burnt worm excrement soaked in muddy water masked by large quantities of corn syrup – Italians do it better, as the saying goes.

While café society in Madrid looked to France for inspiration, coffee culture in Barcelona was heavily influenced by the coffee culture in Northern Italy, Sardinia, and the Italian cantons of Switzerland. Although the French originally invented the espresso machine, Italians bring the hot water in their espresso machines up to about 195 degrees Fahrenheit, so that espresso drinks prepared in this way arrive at your table nice and hot. While I can’t be certain, I suspect that the inevitably tepid coffee in Madrid is at least partially the result of not getting the water in their espresso machines hot enough.

Many Italian restauranteurs opened restaurants and cafes for the Barcelona bourgeoisie during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. The now-gone Torino, for example, was an opulent establishment opened by the equally opulently-named Flaminio Mezzalama of Turin in 1902. It marked the only architectural and design collaboration between two of the greatest rivals for Art Nouveau outlandishness in Barcelona at the time, Gaudí and Puig i Cadafalch. As you can see here, it was quite a magnificent building.

And then there is the problem of the coffee roasting itself.

During the period of austerity which followed the Spanish Civil War, Spanish coffee importers began using a processing method called torrefacto, in which the beans are roasted with large quantities of sugar. This helps the beans to keep longer in storage, by coating them in a black film of burnt sugar. This coating comes off when the beans are ground for making coffee, and the result is the bitter, nasty aftertaste that we were experiencing. Even though the lean years of the Civil War era are long over, at least some Spaniards developed a taste for this abomination, I suppose in the way that many American GI’s during World War II developed a taste for spam, which is why you can still find this product on just about every grocery store shelf in America.

As a result, torrefacto-processed coffee is still widely and commonly used throughout Spain, either on its own or blended with other beans. You can even buy it from Spanish food importers in the U.S. (dear Lord, why would you do this?) However it turns out that Barcelona has long been in the vanguard of finally casting off this dark shadow. For years now, Catalan coffee importers and roasters have been rejecting the torrefacto process, in favor of single-source beans and bean blends roasted in the traditional way. This, in combination with the Italian coffee preparation methods that are a long-standing part of coffee culture in places like Barcelona, explains why the same drink tastes so much better in Barcelona, than it does in Madrid.

If you ever get the chance to visit both Barcelona and Madrid, visit any corner bar in the morning, and you will quite literally be able to taste the difference between the coffee cultures of these two cities. Taste is largely individual, of course, so it may be that you prefer the inky, oily taste of Castilian coffee. But for my money, when I’m back in Madrid this summer I’m sticking to the Italian coffee shops – or ordering a cup of tea.

Caffe Francesco, Barcelona