Like something out of an OuLiPo novel, the solution to a recent, mysterious crime involving an emblematic bit of architecture caught my eye this morning – but first, a bit of explanation is needed.
In Spanish, a “granja” is a “farm”, but in Spain it’s also a type of café where dairy products are served, along with things that one might have alongside dairy products. It’s a place where you can have coffee (or a glass of milk, obviously) and something to eat, but it doesn’t normally serve alcohol. Although you find these establishments throughout the Iberian Peninsula, they are particularly popular in Catalonia.
The Granja Vendrell on the Carrer de Girona was a venerable example of a “granja”, and had been in business for nearly a century. Its Art Deco details stood out in a surrounding sea of Art Nouveau excess and PoMo minimalism. Not too long ago, I paused there one morning on my way downtown, just to try to capture some of that clean-lined detail in the morning sunshine, and in particular the beautifully designed and executed metal letters on the façade. I mean, look at that elegant letter “G”: Hercule Poirot would go into raptures over it.
Unlike Madrid, Barcelona doesn’t have much in the way of commercial Art Deco. The city went from Modernisme (Art Nouveau) to Noucentisme (a kind of Mediterranean-Classical Revival), and with a few exceptions mostly skipped over the look of the Jazz Age. This makes the Art Deco that one comes across in Barcelona all the more significant of a visual treat, because of its comparative rarity.
This particular granja looked set to close permanently last year upon the retirement of its owner, a member of the third generation of the same family to run the place. Barcelona, like many cities and neighborhoods inundated with tourism, in recent years has been undergoing a significant increase in the growth of international brand presence at the expense of local, long-going concerns. Every time I go back, something else is gone, replaced with a shop or eating establishment that you could find in dozens of airport concourses around the world.
Fortunately, the city seems to be slowly awakening to the realization that it should try to help preserve these neighborhood businesses in some form, whenever feasible. In this case the owner was still able to retire, but while continuing to own the space itself, he would turn over the running of the granja to others. At present, the cafe is closed for some minor renovations, but when it opens it will still be very much as it was before, just with a bit of updating to the facilities and so forth.
Over the weekend however, those handsome Art Deco letters were stolen by an unknown person or persons. Neighbors didn’t realize what had happened at first, because they knew the place was closed for renovations. It was only when someone contacted the owner and asked what had happened to the letters on the façade of his old shop that the alarm was sounded.
In reporting the incident on Sunday, local newspaper El Periódico de Catalunya took the rather unusual step for a news article to call explicitly for their return, and shame those who took them. Very roughly translated:
The price of these 14 letters is not calculated by the material they are made of, but by their sentimental value. In recent years, pieces like these, the palpable history of Barcelona, have been resold in antique shops and in the Encants [city flea market], but always legally, because until recently they usually ended up in the dumpster…The letters of the Granja Vendrell are the fruit of a robbery. If they are put up for sale, they will betray their seller. [Emphasis theirs.]
In this instance, the public shaming, along with a threat from the owners on social media to go to the police if the letters were not returned, seems to have worked.
This morning, the city’s La Vanguardia newspaper reports that the thief contacted RAC 1, the news radio station owned by the same media group that publishes La Vanguardia, and explained that he had not stolen the letters for the purpose of making money. Rather, he took them because he loved their design, and was worried that the letters would be lost or destroyed. “I am neither a collector nor an iron thief,” he claimed, “just someone who likes typefaces.”
Whoever the miscreant is, he’s lucky that he spoke up when he did. The owner was just about to file a report with the city police when he learned of the confession. He indicated that he will be happy to meet with the thief at any time and place, in order to ensure the letters’ safe return; he also promises to protect the anonymity of the thief.
Off-hand, I really can’t think of another example of someone committing theft out of appreciation for a font, but then again, art thieves act under all sorts of motivations, not always financial ones. It certainly strikes me as perfect fodder for a novel or a film. Although, given the owner’s pledge to keep the identity of the individual a secret, we may never know more about what was going through the thief’s mind when he committed the crime, or whether he had engaged in this – ahem – type of behavior in the past.
In any case, I’m hoping that when I’m back in Barcelona on vacation in a few weeks – God willing and the Coronavirus don’t rise – I’ll see that tempting typeface back up on the façade of a newly-renovated Granja Vendrell.