The red-on-beige sign outside the La Torre boutique advertises the type of underwear previous generations might have worn, primarily knickerbockers and girdles.
The boutique – known as The Tower in English – has been a standard in Barcelona for over 120 years, preserving a glimpse of the city’s past.
La Torre has withstood the relentless march of Starbucks, McDonald’s and other international corporate chains that critics say have devoured the soul of downtown areas. Other vintage stores, cinemas or libraries were not so lucky and were forced to close.
Activists in Spain are determined to safeguard a form of heritage they say is increasingly under threat: shop signs that display small businesses often run by families.
Described as “the Indiana Jones of lost signs” by the Spanish newspaper ABCthey champion everything from Art Deco movie theater signs to flashing old-fashioned Buy Easy signs and ornate gold shoe store signs.
Commercial signs outside shops that have long shaped the identity of cities and towns are part of our past, said volunteers from the Iberian Network for the Defense of Graphic Heritage, a collective of around 50 projects across the ‘Spain.
For most people, heritage sums up the idea of castles, priceless paintings and royal jewels. But these activists argue that the urban landscape that most people inhabit every day is just as much part of our precious past.
Spanish heritage law protects everything from cathedrals to castles to bullfighting, but not shop signs – until now. So activists must first convince local councils to protect these symbols of everyday life.
“We are against nostalgia because it says the past is better than the present or the future. We want to preserve these signs because they represent something from the past that we can use to learn about the future,” Alberto Nanclares of the Iberian Network told VOA in an interview.
Nanclares said the organization started in 2014 after the then government scrapped a law that guaranteed cheap rents to businesses, causing many small shops to close. He said they planned to open a museum to show the signs they saved.
“It should be very popular because it will attract designers, architects, old people who want to see the past and people who want to take their grandparents to see the place where they grew up,” he added.
Laura Asensio is a graphic designer who works for an organization called Valladolid with Character. They hope to prevent Valladolid, a city in northern Spain, from becoming a bland version of many other cities in Europe.
Volunteers map old shop signs that have been saved or are at risk of being lost.
Asensio said she hopes to convince the city council to change local laws to preserve this part of the city’s heritage. A book will be published with photographs in December detailing this part of town life for future generations.
“The reason we created this organization is to prevent brands from being lost to globalization. Across Europe, city centers are dominated by McDonalds, Zara or Burger King,” she told VOA.
Laura Aseguradade, interior designer and member of the Iberian Network, said young people may not appreciate the value of the architectural heritage of their own cities.
“But if you don’t value the traditions and distinctiveness of your cities, Madrid ends up looking a lot like Barcelona or London with the same chains that are popping up due to globalization,” she told VOA from her home in Madrid.
“We are not against globalization, but architectural heritage brings value to your city because it differentiates it from other places, which is important for tourism and quality of life.”