Photos by Mark Duggan.
He had me. After a long day of knocking in to businesses and stopping passers-by on the street, I had my spiel down: “We’re doing a feature of Camden Street and I was wondering if you’d be interested in answering a few questions about doing business here?” I asked John Gunn, proprietor of the institution that is Gunn’s Camera Shop. Without missing a beat, he shoots back. “That sounds wonderful, but this is Wexford Street.”
I glance at Mark. He seems okay with this. “We’re comfortable with that,” I say. “Fire away, then,” he responds. The road from the corner of Dame Street to the bridge over the Grand Canal to Rathmines goes through an almost silly amount of name changes, from (South Great) Georges Street to Aungier Street to Redmond’s Hill to Wexford Street to Camden Street to Richmond Street, but we’re going off feeling here. It’s Dublin’s city village we’re visiting, a high street that’s just far enough away from the ‘central shopping district’ to have its own identity. The charity shop mile. The place you go to eat well for cheap and then drink pints. Camden Street featuring Wexford Street seems acceptable for our purposes.
John’s been here since 1980. He opened the shop on the afternoon of December 14th, the day John Lennon was shot, an omen that doesn’t seem to have affected the business all that much, 33 years on. How does he feel about the stretch as a place to do business, with that kind of experience? “I love it. I really love it. It’s a narrow enough street, which breeds a type of intimacy with people that you don’t get elsewhere.”
Things have changed to an extent, he says. “Lots of places come and go, but there are some places that have been here a long time. It’s quieter now, but it was ludicrously busy during the boom. We still get very good footfall.” And what of the other businesses? “You should talk to Paul Flynn in Go West,” he says. “He’s a very colourful character. He spends the day in the doorway looking out – we call him the Peninsula, the long neck out to see. I once asked him how business was and he said, ‘It’s very quiet, John. The way my luck is going, if I was reincarnated, I’d come back as myself.’ I thought that was very clever.”
A few doors down in Go West, a menswear shop, Paul Flynn is affronted. “That Peninsula line is mine, I made that up,” he says. He’s been here 30 years as well, and he thinks things are as good now as they’ve ever been. “There are more people living in the area, it’s busier. There are people living over the buildings. You get a village atmosphere, the street’s like being in the middle of a big residential area.”
There are a number of hostels for homeless people in the area, and some of the shop owners express concerns about those – as well as the number of charity shops. On the subject of the former, Flynn sees no issue. “That’s bullshit. Homeless people have to live. They wouldn’t be in the hostels if they had somewhere to live. I get no major hassle, although there might be a bit of predominance of them at the moment alright.” And the charity shops? “Charity shops don’t bring in the type of client you want. Leave it at that.”
Across the street in the Irish Cancer Society, some of those clients are browsing the wares. Margaret Brennan, the retail manager, is working in the back room. She likes Camden Street, but admits that things can get hairy in the shop’s particular line of trade. “There’s lot of robbery and people can be very abusive. They say they should be able to get things cheaper because of how we get it. People robbing do target us because they know they can steal. We don’t have security like a big shop.”
It’s not just the thieves and unpleasant customers that Brennan has to contend with, however – charity shops are fertile ground for cheap, vintage clothing, and that brings profiteers as well as the hipsters you might expect. “We do get dealers in. You have to be one step ahead. They try to get bargains, but I check everything out and charge them twice as much if they’re trying to get it cheap. It’s a business.
At the till out the front, Luiso Mattana from Argentina is in the process of sliding a particularly slinky top back onto a coathanger and stone-facedly assuring a woman that she is not entitled to a further discount on a pair of €5 shoes. “I came here to go to school and decided to work here in my free time,” he says. “It’s nice to help. In my country we don’t do this, so it’s good.” And does he take advantage of Camden Street’s attractions after hours? “Yes, I like it. You can go for a drink, or go to Neon for food. It’s very good.”
Not far from the Irish Cancer Society, Jas Rait and Tanya Comber stand in a Right Click premises 95% of the way into a serious renovation. With arcade-game sprites painted on the wall and a whole array of Macbooks behind the counter waiting to be fixed, it’s probably fair to say that the place attracts the more agreeable type of client Paul Flynn in Go West was talking about. Rait says, “We don’t want to be seen as a back-street repair shop.”
Comber explains. “The shop’s been here since 2001 and the building basically crumbled around us until we had the opportunity to buy it last year. We’ve been chipping away at it and it’s nearly done now.” Born out of the tech crash of the turn of the millennium into the uncertainty of the post-September 11th world, Rait has a sort of quiet pride in the shop’s success. “We opened up on Dawson Street in 2008 as well. No one would lend to us, so we did it the hard way,” he says. “People come back to us. If a computer’s fucked, it’s fucked, we won’t mess you around.”
Other business owners on the street are quick to mention Right Click as a business they use often, and Comber is very enthusiastic about the sense of community. “I love it, it’s like the Dublin version of growing up in a small town. We all scratch each other’s backs. And the people, you get everyone from the fashionistas to the homeless people. “ Rait agrees, but he sees things that could be improved. “It has a shabby chic sort of appeal, but there are a lot of empty units and I think they need to open up for the street to really get going. People used to come down in their Mercs to the flower ladies, you know.”
New restaurants and bars might come and go, but it’s heartening to realise that many of the businesses on the street have been here for more than just one boom-and-bust. This is perhaps what gives the place its genuinely friendly character. These are people you can know. Jim Bourke in Jack Carvill & Sons off-licence, complete with its general-store wood fittings, has been here since 1999, but he ran a television shop on the street from 1978 to 1999 as well. Frances O’Donoghue in Tommy Moore Jewellers tells us: “You can find three generations in here on a Saturday, although my son doesn’t work here as much as he used to. He’s a photographer, he has his studio upstairs.”
After 40 years in the family business, she notes that “the street always dies and come back”, but has a note of nostalgia in her voice when she recalls that “the English tourists used to stay in Kingstown, in Dun Laoghaire, and they’d get the train into the old Harcourt Street station and come shopping on the street.” Bernadette Mulholland, outside selling fruit and flowers, also retains a level of yearning for the past. “Business is down about 40%,” she says. People are going to the supermarkets for their fruit and flowers. “I’m alright with flowers, they come to me for flowers. Lidl and Tesco get their flowers from the same place, and they die off very quickly. But my regulars are still with me because I get top quality stuff. I’m down at the Corporation fruit market every morning buying my fruit off Derek Leonard,” she says.
Being on the street itself day-in day-out rather than inside a shop premises, she perhaps notices the downsides more than some of the others we spoke to. “Something has to be done,” she says. “There’s three homeless hostels that I know about, maybe there’s more. It’s not the robbing, but with the alcohol or the drugs, they come and hassle your customers.” And, more to do with infrastructure: “I’d like to meet whoever designed the street. The path’s too wide and there’s nowhere to park. They did it backwards.”
The other remaining street vendor on the street, also selling fruit, had declined the golden opportunity to speak to Totally Dublin moments earlier. Does she know why? “Ah that’s just Marie. She’s my sister,” she says.
If you’re at all familiar with Camden Street and Wexford Street, you’ll be aware of Décor, the furniture and art gallery that you might have noticed because of the giant robots or strange religious statues that stand sentry outside during the day. This is Darren Robinson’s shop, and he doesn’t just stock it. “See that there? That’s a 15,000 year old fossilised whale skull. I put a tonne and a half of stainless steel and two kilos of silver into it.” He makes art as Dr Dublin, as the inscription on his carved gun says, and the shop is full of his artwork: a Hindu figure in a gas mask and an extremely large metal crocodile are highlights. Is there much of a market for that? “I don’t know if there is, but I have to do it,” he says. “I can’t sleep if I don’t do it.”
If you happen to be in the market for a 15,000 year old fossilised whale skull with a tonne and a half of stainless steel and two kilos of silver in it, you can drop in, but Décor also fits out bars and restaurants. “We did 37 Dawson Street and the Fade Street Social up the road has one of my dolls on the roof.” He’s a fan of the changes in his 19 years in business. “It’s gentrified a good bit, it’s a bit of a place to come,” he says, “and that’s good for me with the stuff that I’m selling.”
If you’re not local, you’re likely to be visiting Camden Street for the variety of bars and pubs on the stretch that have largely managed to avoid Dublin’s twin terrors of tourism targeting and schmaltzy pretentiousness. Colin Dickson, top of the beard hierarchy in Green Nineteen, has been working on the street for fifteen years, first in Solas, a bar, and now here. “We thought there was a lack of value in the city. It’s supposed to be like eating with your friends. We want to be welcoming, and we want it to be good value.”
Why is Camden Street such a good place to be? “It’s got good places for music, good bars, neighbourhood shops and delis and butchers. The drinking scene can be a bit heavy at times, which isn’t nice for the community, but I really like it in general,” he says. Nick Temple, the Australian manning the bar in Against The Grain, agrees. “It’s a great street. We get along with everybody, Solas and Whelans and all of those places,” he says.
It’s one thing to get a perspective from a person with a vested interest, though, and another to just stop people on the street, so we set up shop for a bit of the latter. What sort of person comes here? Well, they’re a varied bunch. The first person who stops for us turns out to be Madelaine, a tall German woman who loves the diversity and the vegetables, but bemoans the lack of a “really nice, smart nightclub for people my age”. The second turns out to be Podge from Ham Sandwich, who appreciates the “fancy beers” in Carvills and the 50c cans of Coke in the Camden Casket.
Moments later we encounter Robin, a resident of nearby Grantham Street for his whole life. “Camden Street’s better now, it’s much livelier. It’s handy, everything’s there,” he says before driving away in his vintage Rover. Brian, coming out of O’Sullivan Graphic Supplies, turns out to be an architect with a studio nearby. “It’s a lively place,” he agrees. “Any time there’s people drunk you’ll get antisocial behaviour, but generally it’s nice.”
Annette, who used to live down the road on Redmond’s Hill in a place that’s now gone, feels comfortable here, and likes the atmosphere. “There are more people now, more multinationals. There’s great diversity, I love it. Although it can be a bit dirty at times, they could clean it up.” Finally, we find Patrick and Ciara, a barista and a TEFL teacher respectively, who are headed back to Sligo where they’re from. “It’s actually really nice,” Ciara says. “There are loads of great shops and cafes and really nice charity shops.”
It’s hard to imagine that they’re the undesirable clients the shop owners have flagged, but let’s check. What have they bought? “Coffee.” Typical.
There is no single narrative to Camden Street, but it’s fair to say that the sense of community is real. The people here are not just invested in their own patch but in their immediate environment, in making the street as good as it can be so that people will come here to spend money, but also because this is where they spend their time, in each other’s shops and restaurants and businesses. There are homeless people, sure, but this is Dublin in 2013: you come to your own peace with that. It’s hard to imagine a better advertisement than just going, which is a very reassuring concept. Try it sober in the daytime some time.