The Anarchist Bookshop of Barcelona

There is a little anarchist bookshop in the Raval neighborhood of Barcelona, just off Las Ramblas. It is an anachronism of a bygone era. It sits beneath towering tenement houses on a road so narrow that the laundry drying from the fifth story balconies almost totally blocks the sun. I felt like I was wandering the streets of Europe from 100 years before, when the sky was still grey from the smoke of industrialization and the windows wept misery into the filthy, unpaved streets.


I hardly expected the shop to be open. It was the peak of the August tourist season when most shops closed for vacation. I didn’t expect anyone to be working, let alone an anarchist.


The facade was painted red and black, the colors of the revolution that’s been coming for over a century. Outside was a cork board to which the proprietors had affixed numerous cartoons, quotes and questions probing passersby towards an uprising against the oppressors. I peeked around the corner into the window and walked inside, surprised upon entry.


I’d expected a young, aggressive punky Catalan to greet my collared shirt with stares. Instead, I found a pudgy septuagenarian with a well-kept salt and pepper beard, wearing an olive colored shirt and drab slacks like a self-imposed uniform. He nodded and me, then returned to leaning pensively over a wooden desk pouring over a recent title on the Spanish Civil War, surrounded by rows of neatly organized books on revolution.


I smiled back, moving quickly to the back row to browse the titles. The covers were bold and aggressive. Between the rows of books were black and white photos of the CNT anarcho-syndicalist rallies of the turn of the century, images of moustachioed men in overalls waving flags before Barcelona’s principal plazas swelling with the ranks of workers. Large color posters from the 1930s calling citizens to unite and take up the fight against the fascist forces of Franco.


Anarchism, something I had previously associated with my adolescent punk phase, was alive in these pictures, not as a form of teen angst, but as a popular ideology.


“Interested in any one in particular?” he asked above the purring fan.


I sat down and told him that I was doing research on the subject for a report on the history of anarchy in Spain. I told him I was curious that as to why Spain was one of the few countries where anarchist ideas were put into practice at the turn of the last century.


“The people in Spain have always lived in misery,” he told me, stroking his beard and exhaling a stale breath of pipe tobacco. “It has been like this for centuries. A few rich families controlled everything while the peasants starved. So when the anarchist philosophers came here in the 19th century, we saw the truth in their words.”


I asked him to explain the tenants of anarchy. He told me that they didn’t believe in power or authority, preferring instead self-organization and autonomy without the intervention of rulers. I told him power naturally existed, if not simply by the unequal distribution of physical strength.


“There is a cartoon I like. It is an image of a big fish eating up lots of little fish. Then another picture of a lot of little fish teaming up to eat the big guy.” He smiled smugly.


A man walked into the shop with his young wife.
“Hello, do you have any children’s books here?”


“No.” He turned back to me and continued telling me about the class struggle. The couple walked out.


I asked him to tell me about Anarchism at its peak in Spain at the turn of the last century. His chest puffed out of his olive shirt as he told me about the rallies, of boycotts against raising the price of the trolley a single peseta, of taking over factories, of the era when people defined themselves by their ideology. It was better that way, he said.


“But it was the competition of these ideologies that ended in Civil War.” I said, referring to those bloody years between 1936-1939 when Spain’s conservatives felt the leftists had gone too far and staged a military coup that plunged the country into a bloody fratricide.


“We had to defend ourselves. When we tried to take back control of the factories, the industrialists hunted us down with hired gunmen. We had no choice.”  He let out a sigh and leaned forward.  “The world has always been the big versus the small. Look over history and you’ll see that nothing changes.”


“That’s rather nihilistic. Then why do anything at all?”


“I don’t think we should try to change anyone else.”


“Don’t you ever want to be the majority?”


“Never. Anarchy is about not having to live at the end of some powerful guy’s pointed finger. Other people can do what they want. We anarchists just team up with other like-minded people and live how we want to.”


He looked up at the old pictures of the rallies, perhaps for reassurance. I sensed he was tired from years of the struggle, and yet it was the cause that gave his life meaning. I looked into his eyes and asked him how it felt to be an aging anarchist.


“There are fewer and fewer of us every year,” he sighed. “Just a few old farts at the international conventions. Not like back then. Nowadays the kids don’t know what they’re doing. They live in this filthy occupied houses, running from the cops every two weeks. It’s crazy. That’s not what anarchism is about. It’s about bringing dignity to the workplace. But the kids don’t know anymore. They just don’t care.”


We spent another hour debating political philosophy, then I thanked him for his time and got up to leave. I stepped outside and walked towards Las Ramblas, feeling like I’d jumped out of a time machine as I passed the museum of modern art. There were dozens of skaters practicing moves, perfecting their latest lines, high-fiving each other and stomping their boards after a particularly well-executed trick. Instead of the A of anarchy they wore the international brand names of skating.


I sat down to watch and listen. They were all different countries and they spoke a skater patois of trick names, brands and pros, managing to find a common language to compare boards, bearings and shoes. Was this the generation that so disappointed the anarchist? How would he see them? Apathetic? Depoliticized? Perhaps they were free of ideology, but that is what allowed them to bond with other skaters from around the world. I wondered if a lack of ideology freed them from divisive thinking.


A security guard came out of the museum and told them to stop. He pointed a finger at them menacingly and poured out a bottle of water before the entrance. They smiled and him, laughed and kept rolling by.


And so while injustices continued all around the world, inside the bookshop the anarchist studied philosophy, and outside the skaters just focused on perfecting their lines, landing that elusive trick and riding away with style.

One Response to “The Anarchist Bookshop of Barcelona”
  1. Rachel says:

    I am a college junior who is also studying anarchism in Spain, but particularly in Barcelona during the 1930s. I found your blog post very interesting, and I would love to hear more about the things you learned from the old anarchist, if there was more of the conversation you didn’t include on the blog. I was also wondering if you would be willing to share with me the titles of any books that you think are essential to understanding anarchism in Spain, especially during the 1930s. I have about a 10 page bibliography of sources about anarchism in Barcelona, particularly during the Spanish Civil War, that I would be happy to share with you if you would like. I hope your report is going well, and thank you for sharing this story! It was really great to find someone who knew exactly what I am trying to argue in my thesis.

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