Thursday 5 December 2019

David McWilliams: Hometown fightback: it's time to get the ball rolling

David McWilliams

I walked by the barbers in Dalkey yesterday and for a split second I was back in the mid-1970s. I was once again the little boy with the flaming red hair, short pants and freckles looking up at the kind barber. The boy had a dilemma and the barber was the only person in the whole world who could solve it.

My earliest memories of Castle Street, Dalkey, were Saturday mornings in Dom McClure's barber shop with my father. Dom cut my grandad's hair, my dad's hair and now he was shearing mine.

Most importantly, everyone in Dalkey knew that Dom McClure understood hair and his magic hair oil could turn my red hair black so that no one in school would ever call me rusty, redser or jaffahead again. Dom was not just a barber, he was my saviour and through Dom I would be redeemed. He promised that by the time I was 10, I'd be jet black. I believed him.

As usual, when I peeked into the shop on a Saturday morning, Dom put on his best Scottish accent which he called "Scotch", gently mocking my grandfather who came from Scotland to Dalkey in the 1920s. According to Dom, both my grandparents had "shocking Scotch accents".

Back then, Dom had a plank that he'd place carefully across the arms of the barber's chair so a young fella could sit up and see himself in the yellowed mirror. I loved the barber, the smell of the hair oil, the wireless in the corner, the copies of the Irish Independent and the football talk. I felt like this was my entree into the world of men. And Dom conferred status on me by handing over the huge brush to sweep up the hair.

The barber, like the grocer, the draper and pub were part of the community and this was where people came to chat and keep up-to-date with what was going on in the town. A few doors up from the barber -- which is still thriving -- my grandfather had a sign-writing shop but he had one fatal flaw as a businessman: he didn't like asking people for money. He went bust in the 1950s, bequeathing me a life-long affinity with struggling traders.

The spectre of the 1950s is once again haunting the businesses of the town. If any small town loses its shops and businesses, it loses what makes the place special. Over the years, people have moved into Dalkey because of its special atmosphere, because it is a living and working town with a community at its core. This could be lost in this recession.

To see how one closure leads to another, you only have to look at the many English villages and towns where there are actually no shops with the exception of one or two chainstores on the outskirts. It is essential to a town's life, atmosphere and community that it survives as a trading hub with its own ecosystem. And for that ecosystem to survive, it needs cobblers and chippers as much as it does boutiques and bars.

The 'Dalkey dilemma' is valid in any town in Ireland. If the heart of the town is thriving or at least surviving, the community can flourish. But, like many towns in Ireland now, the town and the traders of Dalkey are not thriving. In fact, many are barely staying open. In the past 12 months, 10 local businesses have closed down and some traders are saying they are only months away from closure. In fact, the post office on dole day is the only shop with a queue in it. Last Tuesday, the queue was out the door.

This is what the credit crunch means in reality. Small businesses which are the backbone of our economy are being hammered by the banks tightening credit while costs remain stubbornly high. All the while, we the customers -- aware of the dole queues -- are keeping our hands in our pockets and postponing spending because, as prices fall, there are better bargains to be had.

But when a small business closes it doesn't open again in a hurry and something is lost. The lifeblood of any town -- whether it is Dalkey or Drogheda, Listowel or Lahinch -- is the vibrancy of the local shops. If this goes, the town dies. And towns do die. This happens slowly but the pattern is as follows. One or two businesses go bust and then their premises come up for rent. The empty premises decline, become shoddy and this puts off new players who are worried about passing trade. Rents mightn't move because the landlords are in trouble and don't want to admit that they have to mark down the value of their portfolio. The banks get worried and cut back credit. People sense this and a little bit of the town's spark ebbs away. Unless someone shouts stop, this process can become self-fulfilling.

Last night the traders of Dalkey shouted stop and they held an extraordinary meeting in the town hall of small businesses, shopkeepers, hairdressers, pub owners, restaur- ateurs, butchers, the local guards, the hotelier and even the local bank manager. The organisers expected about a dozen people to turn up -- close to a hundred came.

The local traders have decided that there is little point waiting for the recovery; you have to make it happen. If you are concerned about your town and your locality, you have to do something for yourself.

The most exciting aspect of last night's meeting was the pride everyone had in the place and the absolute intention of not letting one more business go to the wall.

The first part of the local fightback is to try to get a few more locals to spend a bit more in the town rather than spend it elsewhere. It is not about huge gestures, just small things -- like maybe a loyalty card for shopping locally. The traders told me that the town was packed during the January snow when local people couldn't drive to the bigger shops out of the town.

If every day we could get one of these local people who normally head out to one of the big supermarkets to stay and shop locally, the difference would be incremental but enormous. All over Ireland, traders are facing the same problem. How do they stay open first and secondly how do they expand? Most of us realise these dilemmas exist but usually we expect someone else will do something and we wait. Then a shop closes and we comment on its passing but do nothing and don't see that it is our spending power, however modest, that is the key. Then the next goes to the wall but we don't act and on it goes until one day the knock comes to your door, the reality comes home to you and you are made redundant and guess what, no one comes to your aid.

To prevent this from happening, it is essential that communities in Ireland come together in the recession. So many towns in our country have so much to offer in terms of festivals, tourism or one-off events. This is the way communities are re-built. I saw the energy in my own home town last night. This can be repeated everywhere all over the country. This is the opportunity in this crisis, the opportunity to come together. Let's get the ball rolling.

By the way, the hair of the young fella in Dom McClure's barber never did go black!

www.davidmcwilliams.ie Small business, big problem: email David McWilliams at david@davidmcwilliams.ie with your business query

Irish Independent

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