The Store that Molded the Man

Pepín Lirola cooks paella for friends and family at his home in El Rocío / WILLIAM GLENN

Pepin Lirola and his family owned Vilima, the first major department store in Seville. Located in the heart of the city, it is unmistakable but now abandoned. Pepin and his family sold Vilima 16 years ago and signaled the changing landscape of the Andalusian city.

The man in his late fifties grasps his electronic cigarette as he strolls down calle Lineros slowly. He knows what is at the end of the road as he takes a puff. While walking, he only points to surrounding stores and mutters an option of two words, addressing each one: “old, new, old, old, new.” In this moment, Pepin resembles a tour guide identifying how the city has transformed. Eventually, the guide makes it to the end of the street. He stops, takes another puff, and sighs, “here we are.” The dense smoke obscures the name of the sign. It clears momentarily to reveal the word “Vilima.”

Located at the intersection of streets Lagar and Puente y Pellón, near Plaza del Salvador, Vilima stands out immediately when walking through the central shopping area of Seville. The building is one of few with multiple floors and is significantly bigger than any of the businesses nearby. Pepin’s grandfather opened the store in 1963 as the first main department store in the city. “Not only was it unique because it had three floors, but it also had all the articles of clothing that you could imagine. It was special for its time,” Pepin explains. “My father, my uncle Paco, and my uncle Manolo maintained the store and always tried to improve it, as if they were raising a child.”

Vilima underwent many changes throughout its 38 years of existence. After a fire on July 27, 1968, that left two firefighters dead, the store required six months to reopen its doors. However, when they reopened, the store was a totally different one, filled with women’s beauty products, sporting goods, and even a tobacco shop. Vilima had transformed into the hit store of Seville.

Back at his home, Pepin meanders as he shows it to the visitor; heads of wild boars and bulls line the mint colored walls. His passion for hunting is evident as there is not a space in sight where a picture can hang or a light could fit. The jam-packed walls are consistent with those in Pepin’s other house in El Rocío, a small town near the Atlantic Ocean, in the province of Huelva, which every May hosts the largest religious and festive pilgrimage in all Europe. Pepin laughs at one of the boars’ heads and exhales, “that one was not fun.” All of these skulls detail a pride and leisure that very few people have. Yet, Pepin never lets this overshadow how he has arrived to this fortunate place. The graying man notes, “my first job when I was 15 was at Vilima when my father owned it. I showed up every day, proud to work at Vilima, and it was truly the best first job ever.”

Pepin’s eyes light up talking about the department store and his early years working there. He recalls the daily work for 26 years from 15 years old all the way until he was 41. For Pepin, Vilima was not simply a job, it was a second home. He spent his entire life in Seville surrounded by the same buildings, living in the same area, and working at the same place. Seville is home for Pepin and Vilima gave him the opportunity to make it the best home possible.

The storefront of Vilima seen from calle Lineros / WILLIAM GLENN

The store, however, was not only a great place to work with family but also allowed Pepin to become friendly with everyone. When you ask him how many people he knows, he confidently responds, “Oh, the entire world.” He smirks as if to say ‘I can prove it is true to you if you want?’ If there is one statement Pepin does not need to justify, it is this. Walking the streets of Seville, he needs to stop every 10 meters to greet a friend or to ask about someone’s mother. Pepin’s status is not one of a celebrity but simply of someone who is friendly with the entire world. “When you start working at 15 years old in the heart of the city and at a popular store, it is easy to make friends, especially for a handsome guy like me.” This sly comment prompts a wink towards his girlfiend, Sara, and they chuckle at the light banter.

At his house in El Rocío he spends hours cooking marvelously golden and crispy paella. The table applauds as he shows it off like one of his trophy kills. Pepin beams and serves everyone at the table succulent chicken, sausage, rice, and artichokes. The entire table lauds the delicious plate of food before Pepin can even serve the friends he has invited over from surrounding houses. “Vilima allowed me to engage with people, understand people, and recognize the amazing job I had,” he scoffs at a question about his own impact on Vilima. The humility continues, “the friends and food at the table in this house are because of my family and the great store they raised.”

Whereas for the city, Vilima was a groundbreaking development, for Pepin, it was just where he grew up and made friends. He refuses to glorify it and could not fathom a story written about it. Thus, even though the 2004 movie Crimen Ferpecto was filmed in the abandoned Vilima, Pepin barely acknowledges its existence. “They shot a movie in the store, it was nothing special since it was closed.”

Over drinks and paella at his house in El Rocío, his friend María praises how kind and unselfish he is because of his hard work at the store, “He never wanted to disappoint, only to impress everybody, when surrounded by a store like Vilima growing up, it instilled this passion in him.” She smiles at Pepin, who remains unaware of the compliment. María’s smile fades as the next words pour out like a funeral eulogy, “I just wish Vilima were still here to continue to fuel that passion; it meant the world to him.”

The story of Vilima creates an appreciation for those families who own businesses, like the Lirola family. You feel a connection to their story, work, and commitment. But what happens when that story ends? For Pepin, “it was an absolute pity that Vilima shut its doors that way. I still walk by it and wonder how it happened?” Pepin prefers to not go into the details. He cites a family decision but admits it was very political and not one he wishes to rehash.

He refuses to talk about the sale of the space, however, he will discuss the reasons why Vilima folded. While overlooking the city from the roof of his home, he identifies a tall, illuminated, white building in the distance, totally windowless, “that killed Vilima.” It is El Corte Inglés: today, the largest chain of department stores in Spain, which first opened its doors in Madrid in 1940, eventually spreading all over the country and absorbing its rival chain, Galerías Preciados, in 1995. The development of similar stores, expansion of El Corte Ingles, and changing social structure of Seville eventually pushed Vilima to the brink. The older population that once lived in the heart of the city began to move to the outskirts, while the younger generation simply did not buy from Vilima.

As Pepin stares at the abandoned store, buried by posters announcing flamenco shows and food festivals, he sighs. Some of those signs date back to 2014, magnifying the sad reality of what the store has now become. Pepin cracks a smile and quietly jokes, “hey, I will always be the most handsome guy to work in the store.” He takes another puff of his electronic cigarette and blows a cloud that blankets the massive store. Pepin takes a step away and notices a seemingly anonymous woman’s clothing store: “old,” he points. •