The Spanish live their lives on the street – and who could blame them? They have the weather for it. Except when it gets excessively hot or rains the odd time, the streets of Spanish towns and cities are crammed with people and are joyful, noisy, bustling places, filled with lively conversations, laughter and movement. Is it any wonder then that your typical Spanish street is packed with street furniture, from benches to fountains to advertising hoardings to the many and varied stalls of street vendors?
The press kiosk (quiosco) is a universal feature of the Spanish streetscape. In a country where the British/Irish concept of the corner shop doesn’t exist, the kiosk fulfills many of its roles. As well as selling the daily press and magazines, kiosks stock a wide variety of trinkets and convenience items. In tourist hot-spots, you can buy postcards, fridge magnets, Spanish flags and the like. Your local neighbourhood kiosk will sell you cigarettes, bus and metro tickets, sweets and soft drinks. Kiosks are family businesses and you sometimes hear of the more venerable stalls having provided a livelihood for four of five generations. In Madrid at least, they tend to open at six or seven a.m. to catch the early morning commuter/rush-hour crowd and generally stay open until lunch time (two o’clock-two thirty), while reopening again for a couple of hours in the evening. The majority will have shut up shop by seven/seven thirty.
Another regular on the Spanish street is the ONCE booth. ONCE (Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles) is a charity for the visually impaired that gains much of its income through the selling of lottery tickets and their stands are everywhere — and I mean everywhere. The Spanish don’t bet on horses or greyhounds or football matches (you just don’t find betting shops in Spain) — but boy do they love their lotteries! You’ll find an ONCE booth every couple of blocks in the bigger cities, each operated by its own visually-impaired vendor. When I first came to Madrid, I once tried to orient myself using an ONCE booth as a reference point (thinking that something so unusual as a stall selling lottery tickets must be a rare enough landmark in a city) and became hopelessly lost, but not before realising that I had been mistakenly using several close by booths as the same landmark!
Despite the ubiquity of the ONCE booths, there are plenty of independent (and sometimes illegal) street traders of lottery tickets. I’ve included a photo of one of these rogues who operates in our neighbourhood.
It is quite common to find florists’ stalls on the streets of Spain. Many of these are run by gypsies and do most of their business at specific times of the year such as All-Saints Day (when almost every Spaniard brings flowers to their loved ones’ graves), Mothers’ and Valentine’s Days. It appears that many shut up shop for the summer (at least in my barrio), because it has proven impossible to find one unshuttered for the purposes of taking a photo for this article!
With the arrival of summer, ice-cream booths, which have been removed and put into storage for the winter, reappear. These are franchises and a vendor will only deal in the products of one company (Nestlé, Frigo, Kalise). Besides ice-cream, these stalls will sell you ice-cubes, minerals, sweets and cold, cold water. If ice-cream vans exist in Spain, I have yet to come across one; these booths seem to occupy their niche.
Another summer visitor to the streets of Spain is the melon stall. You can buy fresh, high-quality and reasonably-priced melons and watermelons from these guys from mid-May until the end of September. Most of these stalls tend to be run by South American immigrants these days and many are the property of co-operatives of growers. The wonderful thing about them is their guarantee, along the lines of “if the melon isn’t good when you get it home, Mrs., bring it back and I’ll give you another one.”
In autumn, the roasted chestnut sellers hit the streets along with churro (a fried dough confection somewhat like a straightened out doughnut) and hot chocolate stalls and the smell of smouldering coal and scalding-hot oil fills the air. It seems like you can track the season’s progress by looking at who’s selling what out on the street. A question that exercises my kids is where, for example, does the ice-cream man go during the winter? I often speculate that perhaps in another neighbourhood he stands warming himself by an oven of glowing coals shouting “chestnuts for sale, chestnuts for sale” and dreaming of the summer where he can sit in his cool and shady stall bagging ice-cubes and checking the temperatures of his freezers.