Tuesday 23 October 2018

Farewell iconic music shop Waltons, latest in a line of Dublin retail casualties

As iconic music shop Waltons is forced to forsake Dublin's city centre, Damian Corless mourns the passing of a host of memorable outlets from a city whose character was once defined by them

Switzers on Grafton Street in 1972
Switzers on Grafton Street in 1972
Clerys clock on O'Connell Street
Roches on Henry Street, Dublin in 1999
Woolworth on Henry Street in 1972
Waltons in Dublin

'If you do feel like singing, sing an Irish song."

For many, those words have the power to bring memories of Saturday lunchtimes in a bygone Ireland flooding back. Spoken by Leo Maguire, they signed off The Walton's Programme on Radio Éireann for three decades, ahead of the afternoon's sports coverage. Waltons music store facing the Garden of Remembrance was one of the capital's landmark shopfronts from the foundation of the State in 1922. Following a move across town to George's Street in 1990, even the new store achieved an iconic status.

This week, Waltons closed its doors in the city centre for the last time, citing the challenges of a changed retail world. A new shop will open in Blanchardstown, but it won't be the same. Waltons passing is being mourned even by those who had little truck with its Irish Ireland values. As music stores went, it was the head prefect, the teacher's pet. If you wanted the latest swell hit by Bing Crosby, or later by Elvis or The Beatles, best go somewhere else. For pop kids of more than one era, the sound of The Walton's Programme jingle - a patriotic marching tune - was far from music to the ears. If truth be told, it was the ultimate vindication of the old adage that the definition of a gentleman is someone who can play the accordion, but doesn't.

The general sadness to see Waltons go disproves another old adage, that nostalgia ain't what it used to be. It is.

Clerys clock on O'Connell Street
Clerys clock on O'Connell Street

Waltons is just the latest in a long line of much-loved stores to be waved off with a touch of regret. Many of those whose loss has been most deeply mourned have been the big department stores, where you could go in for a quarter-pound of loose sweets and come out with a new hat, a toaster, a box of matches, a cuddly toy and a fondue set, all shelved side-by-side.

One of the best loved of these disappeared department stores was McBirney's on Aston Quay. McBirney's thrived through most of the 20th Century but didn't make it to the 21st. A single advert from the 1920s, for instance, featured kids' scooters, hall mirrors, prams, teapots, cake stands and a newfangled floor washer.

Roches Stores on Henry Street operated with great success along the same lines for decades. In 1963, Roches got the jump on its rivals when it unveiled Ireland's first escalator, reversing the normal situation where mothers drag their mewling brats from store to store. For kids, the escalator was the next best thing to a funfair ride, making Roches Stores the place to drag your mam.

The place to go for kids of several generations was Woolworths just across the road. An American interloper using an imported sales model, Woolworths sold a bewildering variety of goods from clothes, to records to toys to sweets, all at rock bottom prices.

Rival stores hated Woolworths, which arrived in 1914 and began throwing around its weight to buy in bulk and undercut the opposition. One report of the Irish Confectioners' Association from the 1930s noted: "The mention of the word Woolworth at an Association meeting brings forth an aggressive attitude from at least 90pc of the members present."

Apart from cheap sweets and pop records, the great attraction of Woolworths for kids, and many parents, was its ice-cream kiosk. In the early 1930s, when refrigeration was still a novelty in many parts of the country, Woolworths had all the US-supplied equipment necessary to become the biggest seller of ice cream in Ireland. Queues formed in both of their Dublin stores from morning opening to evening closing to buy their famously creamy cones. Hughes Brothers (HB) won the contract to supply all of Woolworths' ice cream in the late 1920s and the chain remained HB's biggest customer until the late 1960s.

Roches on Henry Street, Dublin in 1999
Roches on Henry Street, Dublin in 1999

While Woolworths were undercutting the big stores, their next-door neighbour Hector Grey, was undercutting even Woolworths. A familiar sight standing outside his shop on Liffey Street, attempting to entice passers-by into his Aladdin's cave of bric-a-brac, Hector Grey was, in fact, a Scotsman called Alexander Scott. He borrowed the Hector Grey alias from a top Australian jockey while he was working on Irish racecourses and decided to stick with it. His shelves were packed, impossibly tightly and right up to the ceilings, with a wild array of colourful thingamajigs. Hector Grey's proto-pound shop model made him a millionaire.

At the polar opposite end of the scale stood Switzers of Grafton Street, which was left pretty much unchanged after its takeover by Brown Thomas. Switzers got into hot water in 1986 when it featured Finance Minister Alan Dukes in an ill-judged advert for its in-store credit card. The slogan - "It's Time He Gave You One Mrs Dukes" - caused widespread outrage and a demand from the Minister that the store apologise to himself, his wife and the women of Ireland.

The biggest of the capital's big stores shut up shop in 2015, after over 160 hugely successful years in various guises. In 1852, five drapers' stores standing in a row on Sackville Street, as it was then known, were knocked down to make way for Dublin's much-hyped new tourist attraction, the Palatial Mart, or New Mart. The Palatial Mart, which opened its doors in May 1853, was built to impress. Not only was it one of the first purpose-built department stores in the world, it was so huge - and its massive plate-glass windows so dazzling - that foreign newspapers ran gushing reports of the spectacle. The store was not for the hoi polloi. It catered exclusively to the upper classes, and most customers would order goods for home delivery and settle their accounts on a monthly basis.

The Palatial Mart was renamed Clerys in 1883 when it was bought by MJ Clery of Limerick. During the 1916 Rising, rebel Oscar Traynor saw the building go up in flames that were intensified by vats of turpentine exploding in the hardware store next door. He wrote: "I had the extraordinary experience of seeing the huge plate-glass windows run molten into the channel from the terrific heat."

The store rose from the ashes in 1922, emerging into a cash-strapped Ireland and a changed retail world. Clerys went to the wall in 1941 and arch-rival Denis Guiney bought it from receivership, pitching it resolutely at rural Middle Ireland. The bywords of the new Clerys were affordability and durability.

Early on, Guiney came up with the brainwave of offering to refund shoppers their train fare if they spent more than £5 in the store. It was an inspired ploy, and by the dawn of the 1960s Clerys clock was arguably the country's best-known landmark after Nelson's Pillar, which towered just outside its front door until felled by an IRA freelance bomber in 1966.

Woolworth on Henry Street in 1972
Woolworth on Henry Street in 1972

The Spire which now stands in place of Nelson, was completed in 2003. The event moved some inspired but unheralded Dublin wit to rejoice: "I can see Clerys now the cranes have gone."

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