I'm the Co-founder and CEO of The Grommet. We launch undiscovered consumer products. It's also the birthplace of Citizen Commerce. I write about design, cultural anthropology, and start-ups, mostly.

Anachronistic Dublin Retail…take this tour while you can

I wrote this on the eve of our departure from Dublin.  It’s mainly about the Dublin retail scene that formed part of our everyday lives, but it captures a bit of the overall Irish culture too.  I miss it all–a LOT.

Thirty-seventh Dublin Report ( I sent these Dublin Reports home by email every couple of weeks, during our four years living in Dublin.)

30 May 2005

It’s time to leave Dublin.  Starbucks is coming.  Our Irish friends think that we must be really happy about this.  But we know better.[1]

These were the shops closest to our Dublin home. The boys got their hair cut at this Barber.

The pace of change in the Dublin retail scene is suddenly heating up.  For our first couple of years here I marveled at the incredibly charming, maddening, uncompetitive, tiny mom-and-pop scale of Dublin retail.  There is indeed a glitzy pedestrianized street, full of international chain shops along with a small number of sharp Dublin retailers.  And there also is the random mall or two.  Many of these are kind of like quaint early American shopping centers—composed of a few open air “avenues” with a grocery store as the anchor tenant and lots of little shops to cover the basic daily needs and even some decent fashion in between the butcher and the chemist.

But more prominently for me, there are whole long streets in Dublin city centre which are populated with miniscule shops sporting handcrafted wooden signs, haphazard window displays, and inventories of unpredictable nature.  For instance, “Camden Casket” is kind of like a dollar shop, selling soap powder and tablets of paper, gift-wrap and brooms, clothespins and little toys.  My favorite, the tiny “Egg Depot” is only six feet wide.  Its cream colored wooden sign has quaint blocky turquoise and gold lettering, outlined in black.  The name of the shop gives no indication of its actual wares:  plants and flowers.  I always wondered how these shops survived and felt a combination of awe and fatalism about their future.

Camden Street, Dublin

Yet they held on, and some still do, but I have noted a rather rapid steamrolling of their closures in just the last two years.  Before we arrived, several local shops had just been shuttered, leaving empty premises and some sad blight on the road.  But these little storefronts are now steadily turning over.  Keegan’s Fruit and Veg is now the self-consciously hip “Mint” restaurant.

Mint did not make a mint, apparently.

The fishmonger is now “Kelli”, a shop marketing trendy and expensive European fashion.  Those of us who have observed the changes know that the modern Kelli sign is bolted right over the antique tiled cream and brown storefront sign that spelled out “Victualler.”   “Ranelagh Seeds and Plants” has been unused since we got here, but I noticed it is recently getting a slick vanilla colored interior painting job on its new paneled walls, and a nice crisp window display area.  For what?  Another café or shoe shop I suppose.

Des takes his shirts to the most hidden and retro of Dublin establishments—a former Magdalene laundry.  To Ireland’s great shame, thousands of teenage girls were packed off to these terrible institutions for an entire lifetime of indentured servitude, spent in silence and chapped up to their elbows by lye and laundry soap.  The girls’ “crimes” ranged from being too pretty and flirtatious, to being raped, to becoming pregnant.  The last Magdalene laundry closed in the early ‘70’s.  Now, one of its cousins—Des’ destination–is a commercial establishment, tucked deep in a dead end kind of destination, in behind the Donnybrook Garda station, with no parking or signs advertising its existence.

Donnybrook Garda (Police) Station...I have a whole other post about my time spent in this institution.

Only a very large brick steam tower signals its purpose.  To gain service, one approaches on a sort of loading dock entrance and rings a bell at a window with a sliding door.

This is the only photo I could find online, but it looks accurate.

Usually greeted by a 55-ish looking woman with a smile and a modest beard, Des hands over his cleaning order.  I noted on my one visit that Des was the only man in a short queue of well-kept matrons laden down with things like embroidered linen table cloths.  I peeked behind the greeter’s shoulder to see a haphazard array of presumably cleaned items on enormous metal warehouse shelves decorated with leftover Christmas tinsel.  The place was populated with down-at-their-luck-looking Irish men, and some bustling young Asian women.  I think only the bearded lady and a couple of her counterparts may have been former inmates, now working for a paycheck.

Photo of derelict Dublin Magdalene Laundry by 1Soanes, from Flickr. Click to see original stream.

This anachronism is not exactly charming, but not entirely without appeal either.  Last Saturday the window woman said that the place may be torn down to make apartments.  It seems like half of Dublin is being torn down to make apartments.  It’s the only way to address the impossibly tiny roads and thin traffic infrastructure—if you can’t get the people to the city, then they have to just move in closer themselves.

I reported a couple of summers ago how Carl and I had glided around the aisles of an American Staples superstore like a couple of hicks just in from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  We couldn’t believe the quantity of stuff in the place, the size of the carts, the width of the aisles, and the high tech hand dryer in the customer bathroom.  And that they had a bathroom!

Contrast that with my usual office product purveyor.  Reids of Nassau Street.  (Anyone who ever listens to Dublin radio for more than a day cannot read that shop name without mentally chanting it in kind of a Greek tragedy fashion, just like the ad)  Reids stocks its office supplies in the basement of its shop, hard up against Trinity College.  The shelves are packed, crammed, jammed with a total jumble of products. Things are sideways, falling, upside down and the floor is halfway covered with inventory in the tiny cramped aisles.  I used to be totally annoyed and frustrated by my visits, but now I enter with mixed sentiments.  On one hand, I’m happily optimistic that I may find the exactly right folder/paper clip/adhesive for my project.  On the other hand, I’m prematurely angry that I have to ask the disinterested staff to help me find it.  The thrill of the chase keeps me going, but I did snap at the last guy who helped me, half in French (I’d just come from the Alliance Francaise), about needing his help because who could find anything in this “desordre” of a shop.

Just like the very real Starbucks threat to the scramble of independent coffee shops populating Dublin street corners, this Reids place is going to blow over like a house of cards if Staples ever notices Ireland.

I’m watching “The Irish Yeast Company.”  Its white wooden panel sign, framed in black, with quaint, black hand lettering advertises the only retail holdout in a string of gorgeous but dilapidated Georgian buildings right next to Trinity College.  The other buildings were bought by a developer years ago, but the owners of the yeast shop refuse to sell their multi-million Euro building.  You see, they are two sisters in their ‘80’s or ‘90’s who were given the shop when their former employer, The Irish Yeast Company, sold up.  The current store has dully gleaming silver cake forms stacked up behind the nearly opaque chain-link covered windows, and the Dickensian interior offers a random selection of baking needs.  All very, very old.  No yeast, though.

I do most shopping on city streets.  I’ve never gotten used to the outdated Irish malls and don’t see the point of going to them. Enter Dundrum Town Centre.  Ireland’s first proper mall, by American standards.  Loads of underground parking. Easy access on the beautiful new French-built tram which stops practically at our door.  Reported to be the largest shopping centre in Europe (once two more phases of construction are completed next year).

Carl and I (he is always my retail co-explorer) took a foray in the first weekend of opening.  The little guy’s jaw was on the floor.   “It’s, it’s, it’s so so…. futuristic!  It’s so spotless!  There isn’t a speck of litter on the floor!”  Looking at a nice, but basically normal, sort of small to medium sized American mall, my little Irish boy was mesmerized.

But he wasn’t alone.

We’d been primed to expect the moon, what with the constant wall of media anticipation.  The front page of the newspaper had color photos of chubby girls in school uniform gaily blasting through the doors on the day of the Town Centre opening.  The radio chat lines were abuzz with genuine unbridled excitement.  Dane’s whole class even trooped off to pay a call, as an official school field trip, such was the civic importance of this occasion! I was particularly amazed at the open armed reception of the local community.  Our own two sets of friends who live within sight of the mall were delighted at its arrival.  No grumbles about the traffic, or the architectural blight, or the commercialization of their former village.

The only time I’ve seen normally cool-and-wry-in-public Dubliners look so giddy was when we went to the temporary ice skating rink at Christmas to take a spin.  What could they do but guffaw, as they landed on their posterior in full view of the gawkers who surrounded the rink?

Dundrum Town Centre

Likewise, in the Dundrum Town Centre, strangers were helpfully giving directions, laughing at their own confusion, and generally walking (dare I say waddling) around, slack-jawed, just like every mall-goer in the land that gave us Mrs. Fields and Sears, Roebuck and Company.

Open three months, I hear mixed reports on the impact on city centre shops.  Personally, I think this city is so under-supplied for its retail demand that it can absorb this mall without causing even a hiccup among the main city centre shops.  At least Euro wise.

It’s the quieter hiccup that worries me.  What about those tiny mom and pop shops that have done nothing to combat competition, but continue to survive on their foot traffic and charm, despite their often crazy prices and even crazier unpredictable stock?  What about the guy just a stone’s throw from us who sells bizarre architectural relics, mostly recovered from churches?  (I’ve got my eye on a four foot high statue of a bearded saint holding a model of a Gothic cathedral.  Just the ticket for Des’ Father’s Day gift.)  What place will this salvage man have in a totally Ikea-crazy nation?

We’re not quite talking catastrophe on a Wal-Mart scale, and Ireland has laws against big box stores, but I still worry.

Image copyright: Kate Horgan

And I noticed last month that my favorite little Egg Depot is going out of business.  So did “The Plant Store”, a strange ‘70’s anachronism—it just sold potted plants in a huge and airy prime retail space, located in one of the best buildings in town.  In four years I had never seen a single person come in or out of the place, despite passing it weekly.  But I loved that it existed and now it’s bitten the dust.

Like I said, time to go.  But I hardly dare return to Dublin for fear of what we might find.


[1] Didn’t you love the scene in Shrek 2 when the little townspeople were being menaced by the giant Gingerbread Boy?  The one where they ran from their corner Starbucks, with clutched takeaway cups, to the other Starbucks just across the street.

June 29, 2010 Post Script

Clodagh O’Connor, one of my Dublin buddies (a techie who also takes French classes regularly) sent me this very kind update. Next best thing to being there:

Dear Jules,

I took the pictures on a bright Sunday afternoon, so things look a bit deserted. A lovely excuse for a cycle (I always need a purpose; exercise alone is not enough of a reason).

Ranelagh looks the same, as you can see from the Barber picture, however,  just beside this is a new Ranelagh Market (open weekends). It has organic produce, baking, Italian and other specialities as well as craft stalls and coffee places. The Mint is well and truly gone – now Dillinger’s. I think there was a re-incarnation of Mint, but it went under financially (as have lots of places recently). Kelli’s is still hiding that Victualler sign.

The Camden Casket is going strong and seems to have a sister shop (also the Camden Casket) just across the street. Liston’s food hall is still on one side of it. The Enable charity shop has just moved across the road – you can see it in the other Camden Street picture (with the PAN TV sign).

I have no news of the bearded lady at the laundry (I’d love to know what you were doing in Donnybrook Garda Station?).
I’ll try to get to the Egg Depot and the Irish Yeast Company (is it still there? I got my wedding cake bases there, about 17 years ago) another day.

Dundrum shopping centre is still an altar to Mammon. Shops have come and gone rapidly – one outdoor row is completely empty at present. I suspect most of the people there are meeting up rather than buying anything.

Reids of Nassau street still has its annoying ad on the radio and is still jumbled and squashed and a treasure trove of stationery stuff that I really don’t need.

We are very much getting over our Celtic Tiger now. Job losses a-plenty (I’m OK for now) and “ghost-estates” where only a few houses have sold and no more will be occupied for the foreseeable future. I think the community spirit that we lost is coming back a bit now and there are lots of more modest establishments opening up – bistros, tiny bakeries and markets, rather than Starbucks (it’s still here though).

Hope this finds you well, I’m enjoying your Grommet bits, blogs and Tweets. Just at the moment my network card has given up on me so my internet access will have to be grabbed during breaks at work. Communications may be somewhat erratic as a result.,
Regards,

Clodagh

August 4, 2010

Another update from my friend in Dublin, Clodagh:

“The former Egg Depot. Now, rather unromantically, Inkplus – an ink cartridge shop. There’s still a fruit and veg store next door. I’ll check out the Yeast Co. when I come back from holidays.”  She kindly included a photo of the unfortunate new shop;

And, again from Clodagh, my local friend:   “Finally got into town to take these. The shop is still in operation – there were customers inside when I took the photos. The opening hours are still “we-please-ourselves” – 10:30am to 1:30pm, Monday to Friday. “

2 Responses to “Anachronistic Dublin Retail…take this tour while you can”

  1. iamagnat

    Jules,

    Love this post. If I get a chance I’ll update it for you – retake some of the pictures, perhaps.

    Reply

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