But there are some that flourish. Antón Martín, Maravillas, La Paz, los Mostenses: a bright flurry of escarole, gleaming olives and crates of twitchy shrimp. Crowds of people of all ages, tasting and haggling and elbowing each other in line. How have these markets survived the general decline?
Mirror of a Changing Neighborhood
El Mercado de los Mostenses was one of the first two indoor municipal markets to be built in Madrid, though the magnificent original building, inaugurated in 1875, was demolished to make way for the construction of the Gran Via in the '20s. The market is now housed in a modest brick building just behind the Gran Via, at the edge of the neighborhood of Malasaña.
It's not fancy and it's not groomed to impress. This is a highly functional market, about buying and selling foodstuffs. The novelty here, and the reason for which this market is booming while others languish, is that the foodstuffs sold here are from every corner of the world: shining mounds of Asian cabbages, Brazilian beans, manioc, okra. Products unheard-of and unknown in Madrid just a few years ago, but suddenly in huge demand thanks to recent immigration.
Some 15 years-ago, a few merchants in El Mercado de los Mostenses began to sell a small selection of Latin American products, and found an enthusiastic public for their wares. The idea caught on. Eventually the market became a point of reference for immigrant communities all over Madrid: that rare place where one could find the taste of home. Now, people flock to the market from all over the region. Many of the shopkeepers are from Latin America or China and specialize in products from their home countries, many now grown in Spain to accommodate recent demand.
In other stalls, typically Spanish products cohabit with international ones. Old Madrid adapts to a new reality, cheerfully pragmatic: "I don't touch the stuff, I don't know how to prepare it, but I certainly sell it. Everyone likes their own food, that's normal." But gradually tastes begin to overlap, as another shopkeeper observes: "At first people only bought their own foods. But now they try other things. Lots of young Spanish people come to buy yucca or plantains..."
Beating the Supermarkets at Their own Game
El Mercado de Maravillas is also one of the classic old covered markets of Madrid, and has also flourished in this age of decline. Part of its success must be its location: the Calle Bravo Murillo runs right through the densely populated and traditional neighborhoods of Estrecho and Tetuan. But its prosperity can largely be attributed to an economy of scale: it's enormous. A half a kilometer around, to be precise, with 260 different stalls. When, some 15 years ago, the managers of the market saw the threat presented by the newly introduced supermarket chains, they opted to beat them at their own game. Why do people go to supermarkets? Because they're convenient and comfortable. So the Mercado de Maravillas invested in a free underground parking lot, escalators, racks of shopping carts and all the other amenities which make supermarkets so irresistible to many shoppers. There the similarities end: the market conserves its status as a public market, the stalls are still small family businesses, and the inventory they stock is dazzling.