New project focuses on Chilean capital’s business history

‘Little shops with history’ catalogues and tells the stories of Santiago’s small businesses, charting their link to the city’s social fabric.

A new project aims to document a part of urban history we pass by everyday but all too often take for granted: neighborhood shops.

Away from the towering glass skyscrapers of the capital’s business district, Santiago’s center is sprinkled with small, locally-run shops brimming with character and history. These stores seem like a welcome a throwback to a near-forgotten era now that we are accustomed to the dull monotony of homogenous, chain-store dominated high streets throughout much of the developed world.

Throughout the Chilean capital, though, shops dedicated to one speciality product and run by the same families for decades cluster together, finding refuge in numbers from the tide of globalization. There is a street in downtown Santiago dedicated entirely to parts for washing machines. Another sells little but watches. A few blocks down and you appear to have crossed an invisible border: On this street there is no sign of the watch-vendors instead shoe-repairers are doing a roaring trade and leave little room for any other business.

Sadly, the all too familiar mile-wide supermarkets and monolithic malls threaten business for the humble corner shops here in Santiago as they do all over the world.

Responding to this, recently launched website, Commercio de Barrio, is embarking on a quest to record the history of shops between 20 and 80 years old. The site hopes to help establish them as a recognized part of the city’s heritage.

“This small-scale, traditional economic model retains links to an area and forms part of a collective identity and a cultural landscape of urban centers,” explains the site in its mission statement. “[These shops] communicate a specific way of doing business and, in their day to day role, help strengthen the social fabric. More than the products they sell, they offer an ‘intangible’ extra, playing a role that is at once social, commercial and cultural in each neighborhood.”

The project “Boliches con historia,” or “little shops with history,” catalogues shops, photographing them, telling their story and creating a virtual guide allowing anyone to take their own tour of this window into Santiago’s history.

Behind the initiative is María José, herself deeply steeped in the history of the city’s “boliches” from a young age.

“This project is born out of my personal history,” she explained to El Mostrador. “My dad has a business which is still around today after 59 years in San Bernando.”

Now she hopes the project will help promote the value of these stores and the role they play in the lives of many in the community.

Visit these little slices of history online here.