A Cat with Many Lifes

photo: Jesús Barrera, founder of “Un Gato en Bicicleta” outside his bookstore. / MEAGHAN WALSH

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THE RISING SUN OVER the giant honeycomb structure of the Metropol Parasol, or “the Mushrooms” as everyone calls it, marks the beginning of another workday for the men and women of Seville. A father hurries by, dressed in suit and tie, held back by the delicate hands of two children. A mellow German shepherd greets passers-by outside the little café on the corner while his owner grumbles over his usual piece of toast about the national soccer team’s loss to Germany the night before. Shops have just opened their doors. Carolina readjusts the placement of a soft burgundy pullover in the front window of Verde Moscú before the first sale of the day is made, while Leslie advises a woman on what skin lotion will best complement her complexion in Bien y Bio. The heavenly aroma of fresh chocolate chip cookies wafts through the streets, tickling the noses and watering the mouths of the still half-asleep commuters. Outside La Coqueta, the steady sound of hay scratching pavement echoes from Sole’s broom. At the top of the street, with coffee and cigarette in hand, Jesús shares one last laugh with friends before the time comes to unlock the gates to his bookstore.

STEPPING THROUGH THE DOOR you immediately leave behind the hustle and bustle of the city and are whisked away into Jesús’ exceptional world. The basic white and black walls are brought to life by the vibrant paintings and delicately painted superhero plates that line them. Intricate handmade ceramics of all shapes and sizes and striking one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry and fairtrade clothes fill the room.

SHELVES FILLED WITH BOOKS continue all the way to the back of the store, but neither a Best Sellers nor a Mesa de Novedades table can be found. Instead, you find a freshly-stacked pile of Jesús’ current favorite book, No habrá mas sol tras la lluvia, a novel written by Miguel Cisneros Perales, a student at the local Pablo de Olavide University.

CUSTOMERS WANDER IN AND OUT, moving their headsto the upbeat music that reverberates off the walls, marveling at the various handmade trinkets and stopping to admire a floor-to-ceiling shelf consisting of books with only red covers. Immersed in a world of art and literature, it’s easy to forget that you’re just around the corner from one of Seville’s main commercial areas.

IT HAS BEEN ALMOST FOUR YEARS since Jesús and his partner, Raquel Eidem, opened Un Gato en Bicicleta—a name that has no real meaning besides the desire to be remembered. The dream of opening up a store as versatile as “El Gato,” as they casually refer to it, was something that the pair had thought about for years. Not having finished his degree in Publicity at the University of Seville, Jesús started working in communications and publicity while Raquel kept working as a graphic designer for the city council of Morón de la Frontera as well as teaching artistic and visual expression at one of the high schools in the town, which, located an hour north of Seville, is also Jesús’ birthplace. Raquel explains that it didn’t take long for them to realize how much happier they were with their life change. “I’d spent 15 years in an office setting, with a laptop and everything, but once Jesús and I started “El Gato,” I compared the two and realized that this is so much better.. Doing what you love is truly rewarding,” she says while showing off the unfinished work of her students in her quaint pottery workshop above the store. It all started with the search for something different in Seville, and when the two discovered that most bookstores lacked literature about art and design, they decided to open their own.

WHEN JESÚS AND RAQUEL were first settling into their new life on calle Regina, the street was still in the midst of reconstruction. People had very little reason to go out of their way to visit the area; most of the stores were closed down and Metropol Parasol, now one of the biggest tourist attractions in Seville, was in its final stages of construction.

TODAY, what calle Regina lacks in size and recognition it makes up for with its sense of community. Neighbors keep eyes on each other’s stores while they run down the street to the local bazaar for a snack break; music and laughter fills the streets at night during concerts and celebrations. To Jesús, it is their little bubble within Seville; a place where shopkeepers and regular customers share the same point of view and dedication to their careers. “If you go away from calle Regina – and I hardly ever leave here –you see that there exist other types of people,” he says. “This is a ghetto – a small community –and everyone who comes thinks the same and has the same point of view. And for me that’s the biggest difference between calle Regina and the rest of Seville.”

ANOTHER UNIQUE FEATURE OF “EL GATO” is its many lives. While other stores close down early on weekend nights, its lights continue to shine and its doors stay open. Looking in, you won’t see many people browsing around the main floor, yet you can hear voices and music radiating throughout the store. Directly ahead of the front entrance lies a small baby blue staircase that, at first glance, looks like it leads to a storage area. But when you look up at the ceiling to see the bicycles and tires hanging by pieces of thread, you suddenly discovere a new world.

AT THE TOP OF THE CREAKY STEPS lie three different doors to three completely different rooms. The first is the studio of Pepa Barrera, who teaches a workshop on vintage decoration. Towards the far right is a wide-open room with pitch-black walls and soft lighting and a line of chairs set up to the side. It is a hidden room where stories, poems and plays of 15 minutes or less come alive during sessions called “Teatro Mínimo.” Finally there is Raquel’s studio, where she teaches individual pottery classes. It’s a room not fit for more than 10 people, but it holds all of the materials needed to pursue her passion: two pottery wheels, fat slabs of clay waiting to be molded, a window that overlooks calle Regina and a small bed on the ground where her dog lays and watches her create.

WITH A LAUGH AND HINT OF IRONY in his voice, Jesús says that if you go out into the center of the city and ask people if they’ve been to calle Regina or Un Gato en Bicicleta, most will say they’ve never even heard of them. Un Gato en Bicicleta has been mentioned in The New York Times article “36 Hours in Seville,” as well as in The Guardian’s piece “Seville city guide: a day in Alameda and Macarena.” And yet, in spite of this publicity and its proximity to a main city attraction, “El Gato” is easily overlooked by both tourists and residents. Not that Jesús minds:

“Are we invisible? Yes, very! If you go to the town hall and ask, they won’t know who we are,” he says. “But luckily we’re visible to an outside group: young people who live outside of the main area, or young people who move to Seville. That is our crowd.”

YET THOSE WHO DO KNOW of this culture hub don’t always know the full story behind it. “I would walk by Un Gato en Bicicleta on my way to work every day and for months I never went in,” says Julio Fernández, a resident of nearby calle Feria who studied Architecture and Design for many years before the economic crash. “One day I finally decided to check it out and was pleasantly surprised by the unique selection of books and incredible art pieces. It wasn’t until my fifth or sixth visit that I realized it was so much more than what meets the eye.”

GRAPHIC DESIGNER AND FRIEND OF JESÚS, Alberto Carnero, enters the store to catch up. In the blink of an eye, Jesús is in his usual post outside the store. Leaning against his motorcycle with his friend, smoking a cigarette and watching neighbors stroll by, Jesús continues his day while “El Gato” continues to live its many lives. •