Filling the windows of Retrosaria Bijou’s faint blue Art Nouveau facade on Lisbon’s Rua da Conceição is an eclectic array of colorful threads, buttons, lace, and other examples of haberdashery – signifying the location of one of Lisbon’s historic shops. Along with twin store Arqui Chique, belonging to the same owner and located a few short paces away, Retrosaria Bijou offers a glimpse into Lisbon’s “old world”. The Culture Trip chatted with owner, José Vilar de Almeida, to find out what it’s like running one of the city’s centennial shops.
Retrosaria Bijou first opened 1915 and was purchased by the current owner’s grandfather in 1921. At 62 years old, Mr. de Almeida has been running the family store for 43 years.
“It’s a family business. It started with my grandfather, and before that there was another business from 1915. My grandfather took it over in 1921. So the shop has belonged to my family since 1921. My grandfather named it Retrosaria Bijou – Augusto de Almeida, which was his name. The daughter of my grandmother worked here, she was my aunty. And after my grandfather died in 1969, until 1975 my aunty ran it. Now it is just me and my sister helps out,” de Almeida told The Culture Trip.
The name “Retrosaria” means haberdashery and “bijou” comes from French, meaning “small but elegant”. A peek inside shows this name is a perfect description of the lovely craft shop that exists today.
According to de Almeida, being family-run may be the reason for the familiar environment inside. Upon entering Retrosaria Bijou, customers get the impression they’ve stepped inside an antique seamstress shop. A rainbow assortment of yarns fill multiple shelves behind the counter, ranging from cotton to acrylic and wool, and more shelves in addition to drawers are filled with a myriad of sewing tools and accessories from pins to buttons, fine threads to jeweled pins and more buttons.
Unfortunately, family-run businesses can be difficult to maintain and especially in the midst of Lisbon’s current revival after economic hardship, the future can’t be guaranteed.
De Almeida says, “Family businesses can go well or they can go badly. History tells us that until the third generation they (family businesses) are possible to maintain. And after that it is more difficult to maintain them in the family, so we are in that situation because we are in the third generation. I am not afraid. Reality sometimes surpasses our desires and so if reality changes, it will.”
Perhaps the biggest challenges for shops like Retrosaria Bijou are the same independent factors that would affect bigger commercial shops, like the state of the local economy.
“I wouldn’t differentiate between family businesses and normal ones, I would differentiate between a society with healthy commerce and societies with difficulties, transitioning to better conditions. And the reality is that we are in a particularly hard situation economically and for us, it has been particularly difficult but we have survived. History gives us good and bad examples. This shop has already lived through two World Wars, so whoever has survived a great war can survive an economic crisis.”
Retrosaria Bijou has withstood the test of time and sparkled from its spot in Lisbon’s Baixa for 102 years, but it has seen many other historic shops come and go. In this way, the Retrosaria Bijou, along with Arqui Chique, still acts like a window into the city’s past, sharing a unique image of what Lisbon once was.
“The roots of a country come from its culture, its language, the image they gave in the past and what we want to be in the future. And historic shops are a bit of that: what we were, and what we can be. But it is good not to forget that in Baixa, in this old part of the city, there are many names of roads that have names of artisans and commerce that no longer exist. You just have to read the name of the streets and you will realize the name doesn’t correspond to the type of commerce and it shows that the world and time changes,” says de Almeida.
Beautiful haberdashery shops like these are unique in Europe due to a shift in perception, but according to de Almeida, there is still a demand due to interest in novelties and special products.
It appears that Retrosaria Bijou and Arqui Chique will continue on as they always have, selling beautiful sewing, crocheting and knitting fabrics and accessories to Lisbon’s residents and interested visitors. De Almeida describes his role as transitory and plans to pass the business on to the next generation.
“Economic realities sometimes surpass cultural interests. And you have to know how to conjugate them. My desire has always been to continue this line and then leave it for someone else to continue. That’s my role. And my role here is transitory of course. I could turn this into a souvenir shop but I don’t want to be the same as everyone else. Following everyone else might not be the right path. As our poet said, ‘I don’t know where I am going but I am not going that way.’ We have a lot of choices but we have to know what we want to choose for ourselves. If others like it, great. And by the looks of it, they do.”
Arqui Chique can be found just a few doors down the road.