Of Dinosaurs and Bras

I have a little obsession here in Madrid.

There are these peculiar stores that are like nothing else in the US and they’ve taken my attention for awhile. This is mostly because I came to discover that what I thought was one type of store is actually more nuanced than I realized.  So, after chatting with a few owners who gave me the lowdown, there seems to be three inconsistent, unenforced, and somewhat overlapping categories:  “mercerías” (haberdashery), and “lencerías” (lingerie and sleepwear), and “corseterías” (bras and girdles).

Big bras
Big bras, bibs, and buttons.

The first one I went into was Mercería Lolita that has been around for 56 years. I was greeted by the owners Elia and Pedro who told me all about their family business.  It’s a cozy, clean shop with tons of small boxes of t-shirts, pajamas, and underwear stacked in cabinets and on shelves. She’ll happily guide you through your shopping experience.  She’ll climb up her trusty stepladder, find your underwear, unbox it, unwrap it, unfold, present & discuss, and then put it all back if it’s not what you’re looking for. As an American “solitary shopper” I just can’t imagine having to tell someone over and over again that the underwear they’re showing me isn’t big enough.  “Lo siento Señora, pero mi culo requiere más tela.”

No Quickbooks here.
No Quickbooks here.

They’re quite aware that the business is a dying breed so they make it very clear that all of their products are hecho en España: their main selling point.  They’re not as in the dark ages as you might think though. Astonishingly, they whatsapped me a youtube video and an article about their business.  Really nice folks. And there’s a warm, comforting feeling about just buying a simple t-shirt or pair of underpants.  No sexy brands or photoshopping. No red and white bull’s eye distracting you with aggression.

Lydia...the tattooed lady.
Lidya…the tattooed lady.

I moved on to a lencería called Lidya’s (can we acknowledge the names for a second?! Love them!) down the block but you’ll quickly notice that it also has “mercería” on the awning but this is just for the ladies. No matter, I was so high from how nice the Lolita owners were and how well we communicated that I was determined to see every beige bra in the city.  Unfortunately, I was a little overconfident and pulled a rookie blogger move when I walked in and forgot to ask if I could take pictures. It will probably take me ten years to get over how she glared at me and bluntly said, “Dime” (talk to me).  I nervously apologized and told her my lame story and then she warmed up.

Let me get that for you.
Let me get that for you.

They’ve been around for 44 years.  That’s just about as long as Zara has been in business. Both operations started similarly but clearly had devastatingly different trajectories and levels of ambition.  Perhaps Amancio Ortega wanted a little bit more control of the product. 😉

I have to admit I was shocked at the price for a “made in China” polyester nightgown: 71 euros. But they had some fancy, lacy hosiery on sale.  I was looking for something white because it’s Spring but La Señora would have none of it.  She made it clear to me that white was for children and first communion.  My American fashion individuality conflicts with such a homogenous country.

Dancing Lady Underpants.

On to Berta’s (mercería and corsetería) who has been around for 26 years and, lo and behold, has a website. Again, lots of boxes, lots of service, and lots of unique merchandising:

Magnificent merchandising
This contraption can only hold socks called “El Ejecutivo.”

So this one had kids stuff too. And I thought these socks were darling.

Someone special back home is getting these.
Someone special back home is getting these.

Finally, we get to round this out with the well-known, very old, Almacén Pontejos (Warehouse on Pontejos). It’s under construction right so I couldn’t go but it’s existence raises some questions. I’m no retail historian but traditionally a haberdashery = sewing supplies, and a mercery = textiles.  These guys sell sewing supplies, not apparel, but they also call themselves a mercería. Go figure and I’m tired now. So for your viewing pleasure, I’ve created a (by no means exhaustive) visual explanation:


By no means exhaustive.

I’m probably making too much of a deal about this but I have a special place in my heart for them now. I hope these beautiful, analog, institutions of historic merchandising stick around a little while longer. It’s important to get to know the person who sells you your underpants.