Ever since the Roman times, the road that is now Knez Mihailova street used to be the main commercial area of Belgrade. Starting from the old castrum (whose walls are buried below the new Rajićeva shopping mall and the Belgrade Public Library), the street, which was paved with stone and had sewerage, went past all the key Roman institutions , such as the forum located around the present day National Bank of Serbia in Kralja Petra, and the baths, which were at the site of the Faculty of Philosophy.
After a lull during the middle ages, the street regained its importance in the Ottoman times, but it finally blossomed into the main commercial street after it was straightened and modernised by Emilijan Joksimović 150 years ago. Since then, the richest merchants of Belgrade started building their palaces and shops on the street, abandoning the previously more hectic bazaars of Dorćol and the main city market at the present-day Akademski park.
In the beginning of the 20th century, the new class of Serbian merchant/capitalists invested their money in opening Belgrade’s first department stores, modelled on the likes of Harrods in London and Au Bon Marche in Paris. Ahead of the opening of the new shopping centre in Rajićeva, I decided to look into the stories of the three most prominent department stores in the area and their owners.
1907: Robni magazin (Kralja Petra 16)
The first of those was a beautiful, airy Art-Nouveau shop in Kralja Petra, owned by the prominent Belgrade Jewish financier Becion Buli, and opened in the middle of Serbia’s trade war with Austro-Hungarian Empire. The architect behind the project was Viktor Azriel, a scion of a Sephardic merchant family, who studied in Vienna where he got the taste for the new style. Buli became very famous after the opening of the shop so much that he became the first Jewish MP in the Serbian parliament in 1912. Azriel, went to oversee the construction of the neo-moorish Sephardic synagogue in Cara Uroša Street, which was finished in 1908. Unfortunately, Azriel, shared the fate of the majority of Belgrade’s Jewish community and was shot in 1942, one year after the Sephardic synagogue was destroyed.
After the war, Buli’s department store was temporarily used as student halls in 1950s, but reverted to its original purpose shortly after. Unfortunately it never reached the glamour of its first years, and was even shut for several years, after its former tenant, Benetton, left. In the beginning of 2017 it was turned into a coffee shop, so you can now enjoy its bright interior.
1920s: Mitić (Knez Mihailova 41)
Unlike, Robni Magazin, another Knez Mihjalova is now shuttered with little hope of opening. Named after a rich Merchant from Užice, Mitić was the apex of luxury in pre-WWII Belgrade. Belgrade’s socialites went there to buy jewellery and furs, while the gentlemen bough their motorcycles and top hats. Sprawled between three old merchant houses, Mitić was just a temporary solution for its ambitious owner. In the 1920s he acquired a large piece of land at the corner of Beogradska and Slavija, where he planned to build a skyscraper which would house the largest department store in the Balkans. His plans never got past the foundations, but Mitić’s name is still associated with this plot of land, colloquially known as “Mitićeva rupa” (Mitićs hole).
After the WWII, Mitić suffered the fate of many Belgrade’s capitalists. His property was seized after being tried for treason and collaboration with the occupiers. He died at the forced work camp, but was recently rehabilitated. His most famous shop, after being turned into a socialist department store chain, Robna Kuca Beograd, has been closed after a failed privatisation by a controversial businessman. Its re-opening is further complicated by the claims of Mitić’s descendants.
1935: Ta-ta (Knez Mihailova 5)
Located in a modernist building, best known for its protruding warning siren, Ta-ta, across the road from Cafe Ruski Car (Russian Tzar), started off as an ambitious project by brothers Milorad and Đorđe Radojlović. They inherited this plot of land and a lot of wealth from their uncle, and after studying in Vienna and London, decided to bring more Western glamour to booming Belgrade. They opened Ta-ta (the origins of the bizarre name are unknown), the most modern department store in Belgrade, however the timing proved disastrous.
In 1941, Đorđe was jailed by the Nazis and then sent to a concentration camp. After returning, he found his whole property nationalised and was then shot, without trial in 1945., allegedly by the Yugoslav secret police. Milorad was luckier, and lived until 1966. After the war, their department store was given to the Croatian chain “Nama” and thenm in 1990s, to Robne Kuće Beograd. After a stint as an exhibition space, it is now occupied by the Belgrade Tourist Info point and sellers of Serbian handicrafts.