The Wizard of Alfalfa

photo: José García Berbe (Pepe), owner of the video rental store Mural. / ANNA SPACK

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The life of José Garcia Berbe has followed a multitude of paths which have led him to explore various countries, make many friends and work in different careers—gathering stories along the way. All these journeys and adventures have carried him to his current location, a small video rental store in Plaza Alfalfa, where people can stop to say hello, exchange news and rent videos, always at a reasonable price.

Start at the large, honeycomb-shaped structure in Plaza de la Encarnación known as “Las setas” or “the mushrooms” and begin to walk. You pass by a large group of children playing soccer in its shadows and then by the bookstore “Rayuela,” which today is full of people buying picture books, puzzles, and other trinkets. The street twists to reveal rows of fashion stores whose display windows show clothing in brightly-colored patterns. The sun sinks down to touch the roofs of buildings and the graffiti-covered doors of bars that populate Pérez Galdos Street, which have recently opened to admit throngs of young people. The street fills with voices and night begins next to Plaza Alfalfa. With the buzz of activity, no one pays much attention to a small video rental store that is about to close for the day, hidden behind an Italian restaurant on the corner of Don Alonso el Sabio Street. While the nighttime belongs to the bars, the daytime is for Mural Video and its owner, who gives soul to a place that appears nondescript only from the outside. 

His birth certificate says José Garcia Berbe, but his neighbors know him as Pepe. He looks out through the doors of his store while shouting children run past and elderly people call out soft greetings. Pepe responds to them all, a constant stream of names flowing from behind the counter. “Emilio, come! Carmen!” His face wrinkles into a smile and his brown eyes shine from behind rectangular-framed glasses that perch on his nose. With three neighbors gathered around his chair, chatting and laughing, Pepe says, “This isn’t a video rental store, it’s a meeting place.”

His fondness for long conversations reveals his roots in Seville, where a cup of coffee with a friend can last hours. Pepe had a happy childhood in the neighborhood of San Bernardo, near the Puerta de la Carne gate of the city’s old walls, but he always knew there was more to the world than his neighborhood and he wanted to experience it. In 1972, when he was 19 years old, Pepe moved to France without knowing a word of French but with a great desire to learn. It was during Francisco Franco’s dictatorhip in Spain, and while his peers went to fulfill their military obligation, Pepe had other ideas. After his time at the Universidad Laboral, where he spent five years studying industrial mastery, he found work as an industrial mechanic in Paris.

“The only thing that differs is the way of communicating. At first I found it difficult, but I read the newspaper every day and little by little I began to assimilate without even realizing it. Where you really learn is at the place,” Pepe explains about his desire to learn French. “The feelings and emotions of the people are the same. When you see something beautiful or you feel sad, it’s the same for everyone.”


Today, you can see Pepe giving directions and offering a bit of familiarity in a foreign country to French tourists that are lucky enough to get lost on his street. He encourages everyone, particularly young people, to travel and learn multiple languages.

“I went to Paris at 19 and returned at 39,” he explains. “I spent the best years of my life there and I have many ties with Paris. I left many friends there, a family to me.”

During his first year in Paris, he found a group of Sevillano friends who were also looking for a new life outside their home country. Among them was Carmen, who would become Pepe’s wife just one year later. Now almost 12 years have passed since the couple returned to Spain, where Carmen became sick and passed away shortly after. Despite the fact, Pepe does not find himself alone in Seville. Every week he sees his daughter, Esperanza, and his grandchildren, David and Sara, who live nearby. He also has a son, José Antonio, who works in Granada as a computer engineer.

While speaking about his friends in France, Pepe can’t say more than a few sentences before someone comes into the store to say hello. An older man with few teeth and even less hair enters with a bag full of videos to return. They exchange some coins and comments about the movies, whose titles fly back and forth across the counter. The man asks about A Distant Trumpet, a 1964 western by director Raoul Walsh, and Pepe immediately goes to search for it on the dusty shelves. He moves around the store, repeating the title and muttering under his breath, “I’m sure it’s here.” Finally, he pulls it from the shelf with a theatrical gesture and delivers it to its new temporary owner.

Clients and friends don’t stop coming and going. Some stay 30 minutes while others just say hello and continue on their way, but there is one person who is constantly at Pepe’s side. Manuel walks to the store every day from his house across the street, aided by a walker. He sits without hesitation next to the counter, as comfortable there as in his own house. The two have matching salt and pepper hair, but they joke around like boys, throwing insults at each other, always with a smile.

Fifteen years have passed since Pepe opened his store, but he and Manuel have been friends for much longer. Manuel was there in 1990 when Pepe opened his first video rental store in the Macarena neighborhood of Seville, where he stayed for 10 years, and again when he opened another store on Candilejo Street, which was operated by Carmen until 2006. The decision to open his first store was preceded by a long series of jobs: owner of an amusement arcade, taxi driver and employee at fish and fruit stores. None of them have much to do with his degree as a mechanic but they all have something in common—the opportunity to talk with people of all kinds.

We return to the video rental store. One minute, Pepe helps an older man rent The X Files and Boiling Point, and the next, a young man with tattoos on his hands and a nose piercing enters to return a bag of videos. “Did you like the movie? I do a lot!” Pepe asks joyfully. A young woman parks her pink bike in front of the door and Pepe instantly greets her, “Always running, no?” She tells him about a recent date she went on and gives him her new cell phone number to add to his. “You’re a dad, Pepe,” she says before leaving.

Although only 784 video rental stores remained in all of Spain at the beginning of 2014, Pepe believes there is still value in continuing his business. “It’s not fair that people watch pirated movies because the writers need to eat; they need to live with their music and their movies,” he says. “It’s intellectual property and if they don’t receive payment, it’s very difficult to survive.”

While more and more people download movies from the internet or write birthday wishes on Facebook, in Pepe’s store you can still rent Titanic on VHS and talk face-to-face with friends. In today’s digital age, it’s refreshing to see people maintain these more natural forms of communication that are now teetering on the edge of extinction.

“Here you learn about human relationships. People trust you and tell you things from their lives. This is the most beautiful thing, when people share their lives with you and ask advice… and afterwards, they rent movies.”