The Eclectic Background Story of Sanborns


It’s hard to spend some time in a large or medium sized city in Mexico and not come across one of the Sanborns chain of stores. The Sanborns restaurants—there’s one in every store—are quite popular for breakfasts and casual dining, or even just for coffee.

The stores, however, are rather unique. They sell books, magazines, cakes, toys, tobacco, gifts of all kinds (watches, pens, backgammon sets, even telescopes…), some clothing, confectionery, music, electronic goods, jewelry and pharmaceuticals. The shops are all of those things and yet none of them.

Sanborns is owned by Carlos Slim, the telecoms magnate who bought it from the US drugstore chain Walgreens in 1985. But the original business was set up by the American brothers Frank and Walter Sanborn early in the 20th century; first as a drugstore to which a soda fountain was added.

The concept became so popular that dictator Porfirio Díaz used to stop by at one of the Sanborns soda fountains. Revolutionaries Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa took refreshments at Sanborns when they marched into the capital a century ago.

Walter Sanborn returned to California, tired of the political turmoil in Mexico at the time, while Frank and his two sons—represented by the three owls on the Sanborns logo—continued to run the business until 1946, when they sold it to Walgreens.

If asked about a bookstore in Mexico, you’d be more likely to think Gandhi, Porrúa, or Casa del Libro. If a drugstore, Farmacias del Ahorro or even Dr. Simi if you’re into generics. El Globo springs to mind when cakes are needed, and one of the big three department stores (Liverpool, Palacio de Hierro, Sears) might be where you’d go if shopping for a gift. But if you don’t really know what you want, or just feel like browsing before or after lunch, you might well end up at Sanborns.

Eclectic might be the best way to describe Sanborns, which just about everyone in Mexico has heard of, and most urbanites visit at one time or another. Most states and virtually all the main cities have at least one—and some several—Sanborns stores. The list of stores can be found here online.

Many of the stores—there are about 170 and several dozen stand-alone Sanborns Café coffee shops—are located in shopping malls or at commercial plazas, although a number of them are situated inside elegant buildings in historic districts of Mexico’s more picturesque cities. A prime example of this is the Casa de Los Azulejos on Madero Ave. in downtown Mexico City. The building houses one of the original Sanborns stores and a large restaurant which operates on several floors.

Sanborns is known for its generously-stocked magazine stands, which carry a wide selection of contemporary titles published in Spanish and English. These stands are also used by some people as a meeting point, helpful in a country where punctuality isn’t exactly a national trait. The store also stocks a wide range of books, including the 10 top U.S. best sellers of the moment, and a selection of greetings cards—the sending of which isn’t a particular habit in Mexico.

Mexicans tend to have mixed feelings about Sanborns, a store that is an established institution of the Mexican retail terrain and which at the same time commentators say is struggling to convey a clear identity in today’s rapidly-changing retail landscape. Critics argue that Sanborns looks tired, charges premium prices for products that can be found elsewhere, and that it needs to reinvent itself for the 21st Century.

How this century-old business might evolve over the coming years remains to be seen. For now, Sanborns continues to be one of the most recognized brands in Mexico, and its food remains among the best served up by the principal food diners in Mexico.

Landon, a full time resident for over 6 years, works with local commerce in a variety of groups and activities to promote and aid in the overall prosperity of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle. He is "...not afraid of pretty women in bikinis or handsome dudes who only speak Spanish."

26 November 2014
Landon Hollander
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