Friday 18 January 2019

Home truths: The time has come for living in the shop

The Irish Yeast Company is among the latest wave of traditional shops to close its doors
The Irish Yeast Company is among the latest wave of traditional shops to close its doors
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

As everywhere else on the planet, the piper is playing a lament for old style retailing here in Ireland. This week we learned that the landmark Waltons music shop in South Great George's Street is shutting its doors. This space is where every pimply southside teen who wanted to be in a band sat around moodily pawing Wes Pauls, Gretschs and Stratocasters. Where they tried to prod Doors-like Hammond meows from more ordinary organs. It's where they later dragged their own teenagers for "are you really, really serious about saxaphone?" conversations or grabbed up tin whistles and recorders for school-going reluctants. Where hipster parents brought their Suzuki darlings for miniature violins, where pub session bores got bodhraned up to the gills and where buskers spilled shrapnel for Hohner.

The shutdown follows the closure of the North Frederick Street store just a few years ago - where northsiders did the very same. Both shops allowed band teens and musicians who couldn't afford the goods to practice on the premises with the real deal, as famously portrayed in the film Once. Both stores have now been incorporated into the Waltons at Blanchardstown.

But when he closed North Frederick Street, Niall Walton told me about Dublin City Council - with its inexplicable boom-era rates for retailers on city streets and its secondary rounds of canvassing for BIDs - Business Improvement District Scheme fees which seem, essentially, to be more rates.

"Not so long ago, absolutely everybody came into the city centre to do their shopping. These days half of consumers will actually refuse to go because they can't get parking, because they have two or three kids to bring with them, because it takes too long, it costs too much and it's too much hassle," he said. This week Walton spoke about the big chunk of business that online sales have taken out of the retail sector. It was shrouded by the economic downturn but is now becoming starkly apparent. This week we heard Retail Excellence, the retailers' representative organisation, demand that the Government clamp down in the Budget on overseas internet sites which are killing its business and it claims, hurting the economy. Of the €5bn spent by Irish consumers online in 2017, €3bn (60pc) went to online retailers abroad, it said.

As pimply 80s teens we knew John Corcoran as "The Shoemeister", with his finger on the pulse of youth footwear fashion. We bought his oxblood Doc Martens, winkle pickers and his blue suede shoes. Recently the man himself tapped me on the shoulder as I was buying more understated boots at his Henry Street Korky's store.

He told me about the progress (or lack of) in his long-running campaign to address the upwards-only rent clauses that are closing down chains like his. Shops whose landlords sometimes demand millions per annum in rent. That's a lot of shoes/banjos/dresses/perfume. It doesn't add up. Korky is still hanging in there and the teens (and some winsome adults) still come from all over to buy his shoes. But how much fight do veteran front-line retailers like Corcoran have left in the tank?

This week we saw the Irish Yeast Company building in Dublin - for generations the go-to for cake-making paraphenalia - going up for sale. The custodian of 60 years, John Moreland, had passed on and no one saw sense in taking the business over - despite the massive recent TV-generated surge in baking.

This week we saw the touting of Ireland's 'Biggest Ever Interiors Auction' at the Heritage Hotel, Killenard, Co Laois on March 5 and 6. Among the lots advertised is "paraphenalia from Clerys" including the original cheque written by Denis Guiney to takeover in 1941. The monster landmark department store closed its doors unceremoniously three years ago as part of a cynical property play that saw hundreds of employees and dozens of franchise retailers turfed out into the street.

The imminent closure of Forever 21 in Dublin's Jervis Centre proves the rot isn't just confined to "mom and pop" retailing but choking global chains too.

It's the same story for retail in every Irish city and town where empty outlets and pubs line secondary streets. Mainstreets in cities and some towns will find shop occupants for some time ahead in the face of the internet assault, but in secondary streets that battle is forever lost.

These have gone to the birds - literally. Last week in an outlet off Mary Street in a four floor building, I could clearly hear a cacophony of pigeons happily in occupation of the next floor over ground! But when Irish women in their fifties click a dress online for €20 one day and it arrives to their door the next, there's no more use for that first floor and indeed, the ground floor.

Last week Project Ireland, the new National Planning Framework declared that declining rural towns need to repurpose and reinvigorate obsolete buildings. Yet we have long been attempting to reinvigorate disused upper floors above shops in our cities with a succession of nonsense "living over the shop" initiatives which are far too convaluted and impractical to make sense.

The difference is the rot that has long worked its way down floor by floor, through four storey retail buildings, has just been met by a new rot at street level. So we need one fell swoop of real change across planning, zoning and regulations to transform these building - ground floor shops and all, into housing. Living over the shop would be just dang tootin, but the unstoppable rise of online shopping alongside residential rents means the time has now come for living in the shop.

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