Roslyn Dee: 'Buying online not a patch on old-style sensory shopping experience'
I can still picture so many of them - Mona, and Jimmy, and Benny, and Vera, and Jerry, and Lila, and Tommy, and Mrs Bellingham (no first-name terms for the rather matriarchal Mrs Bellingham). And Jim, of course - my father.
Most of them are gone now and simply ghosts from my past, but they remain, frozen in time in my mind's eye, not just as individuals who worked there, but as part and parcel of the very fabric that defined the 'Dixons of Coleraine' of my childhood.
Dixons. The swankiest shop in town. The place where beautiful clothes, delicate lingerie, sumptuous household linens and gorgeous leather bags were the order of the day. The place where the customer was the absolute priority, where the staff always went the extra mile, and the place where people came to shop from as far away as Derry and even Belfast. A family business - passed down through four generations since its establishment in 1895 - it still stands on the main street in Coleraine, Co Derry. But not for much longer.
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A few days ago, a text pinged into my phone. It was my cousin, Una, bringing the sad news from home that Dixons would be closing in the new year. "So many happy memories of your dad there," she wrote. "Changing world."
Changing world, indeed.
Dixons was old-fashioned shopping at its best. But Dixons was never - even 50 years ago - an old-fashioned shop. Rather it was to the very forefront of modernity in terms of labels and layout. It was where my father ran what was then called the 'gentlemen's outfitting department', flying abroad to the trade shows with the boss (the courteous, quietly spoken Harold Dixon) a couple of times a year to select the very best in menswear and to place orders for the season ahead.
My father's repeat customers were legendary, some of them coming to him for decades, always safe in the knowledge that he knew exactly what was best for them.
Quality fabrics and 'a good cut' were grist to his mill, and when it came to the finest of suits he felt that nothing - even the Italian labels - bettered Magees of Donegal.
I worked there myself in my school and university holidays, largely in 'Accessories' - tights, gloves, wallets, handbags and the like. It was there that the diminutive and terrier-like Mona ruled the roost. "Never, ever say 'plastic' to a customer," she instructed me when I was about 16. "Handbags, if not leather, are always 'vinyl'."
I remember vividly the Saturday night in 1976 when terrorist fire-bombs laid waste to the place. I was home from university and witnessed my mother's anxiety because my father, a keyholder, attempted to crawl in to quell the flames before the firemen turned up. Luckily they arrived and hauled him out before his foolhardy courage led him into serious trouble.
And now this place that defined my growing-up years is shutting up shop for good.
Retail has changed. And online shopping is now the easy option. And yet, is there really anything like the genuine article? Running a silk scarf through your fingers before you buy, or opening a bottle of perfume and inhaling deeply. When did you last have that kind of sensory shopping experience in front of your laptop? Despite its quality reputation, Dixons was never about the fast buck. Rather it was about quality and service, an ethos upheld throughout the years by the Monas, and Jimmys, and Bennys, and Veras. By people like my father. People who cared about their customers.
Just think about that the next time you hit 'click and collect'.