“Here we don’t sell, here we serve.” Honoring this motto of her father, María Jesús Sanvicente has spent much of her 77 years serving behind the marble counter of La Confianza, the oldest active grocery store in Spain. Founded in 1871, this historic grocery store boasts of never having closed, not even during times of war or pandemic, and now perfectly combines its long-standing role as a commerce with that of a tourist reference in the heart of Huesca. “Let people come in, enjoy the store and be calm, and if they need something, we will provide it,” says this petite woman with enviable grace.

A foray into their store is pure pleasure for the senses. The nose is intoxicated with the smell of coffee, the mixture of spices or cod, one of the house’s specialties, with whose salt the blade used to cut it has been kept sharp since the establishment was inaugurated a century and a half ago. “One of my dreams is to travel to the places where they capture him,” says María Jesús, who from her watchtower also informs, advises and promotes all the quality products she sells, especially if they are from Huesca.

Behind it, the view is lost in the shiny shelves full of preserves, oils, cheeses, wines and other quality products. There are also many display cases and glass containers overflowing with legumes, nuts, honey, candies and other sweets that are sold in bulk and are always served facing the public and without turning your back.

But it is not only the walls that demand the visitor’s attention. On the ceiling shine the recently restored paintings alluding to the business – including the figure of Mercury, god of commerce – by the Huesca painter León Abadías, an inveterate Carlist who was the drawing teacher of future Nobel Prize winner Santiago Ramón y Cajal. Also noteworthy is the shiny hydraulic tile floor that María Jesús has scrubbed so many times, first on her knees and then later with her mocho. “In all these years we have only incorporated three new features: the cold chamber, the cash register and the dataphone. Everything else is original,” she proudly assures.

Located in one of the arcades of Plaza López Allué, the establishment was inaugurated 152 years ago by Hilario Vallier, a Frenchman from a wealthy family. Although at first it offered haberdashery, silk and beads products, it soon incorporated others that were imported from overseas, such as coffee, spices, liqueurs and chocolates.

The business then passed through several hands until it fell at the end of the 1920s to those of Víctor Sanvicente, father of María Jesús, and his then partner Francisco Urroz, who later left him to open a tobacconist. “Dad spent the war here as a bachelor and supplied the national headquarters, which was on the front porch,” says the veteran shopkeeper, who misses being told more about that time. “He said that when he heard planes or sirens, he would turn the doors and stay inside, and some neighbors would go down to the cellar,” she adds.

Already married, the couple had four daughters. María Jesús, the oldest of them all, fondly remembers her childhood in the store – “the family headquarters”, as her mother called it -, the scene of games, pranks and the occasional reprimand. “On Sundays we helped clean and watched the door in case the inspector came, because my father provided service even though it was prohibited,” she says. When she grew up, she studied teaching and even did internships, but she left when her father asked her to stay and help him. “Blessed was the moment, because I liked the store and not teaching,” she laughs.

It was her husband, the now deceased Antonio Villacampa, who in the seventies decided to recover the basement that was disused, without light and flooded by water from the well located behind the walls that separate the store from the adjacent Church of San Pedro. Over time, the space, presided over by a long wooden table and richly decorated, became a bar-restaurant in which to celebrate private events, although after the pandemic it lost that use to be more focused on tourism. To visit it, you only need a purchase receipt, although there is no minimum expense. “There are people who buy a loose candy and go down,” she says.

In this space you can also see the automata that Antonio began to build, a creative talent that was inherited by his son Víctor, now running the business with his mother. It is also in his hands and those of other family members to set up the shop windows, meticulous works of art that are renewed every two or three weeks.

María Jesús assures that the business is going well, but that she has never been especially concerned about the economic part beyond providing enough to live on. She acknowledges that she had a hard time during the pandemic, a period in which they remained open to sell essential products. She also notices the effects of the war in Ukraine and inflation, which has reduced her clients’ spending. “Consumption habits have changed, it is evident, especially among young people. The other day a package arrived for my grandson Víctor and I scolded him for buying online and not in the stores in Huesca,” says the veteran shopkeeper. Her business does not sell directly online, although she participates in a sales platform made up of more businesses in the city.

The history of La Confianza has crossed borders. The trade appears in numerous travel guides, and was even on the cover of the American newspaper The New York Times years ago. Through its doors there is a constant flow of visitors, both from different parts of Spain and from the rest of the world. And over the years, they have been honored with numerous awards, such as the Entrepreneurial Woman of Europe awarded to María Jesús in 2011.

Looking to the future, María Jesús believes that she will continue on the path of strengthening the grocery store as a tourist attraction, even with a small museum of automata and other period pieces, without ever giving up its commercial aspect. She plans to continue going to the pit as long as her health allows – “it gives me a lot of strength and desire to live every day,” she says – and, if all goes well, her son Víctor will continue to run the business, with his eye already on the next generation. “There is a 12-year-old grandson who is already involved. My father said that he is born to sell, and he has sweetness and empathy, you can tell that he is a beast.”