The corner shop is a vestige of community within the city and much more than a place for just milk and teabags. We visit some of the corner shops still holding their own against the franchises with their unique offerings and personalities.
Dun Leary’s Last Corner Shop
“Customers are very appreciative when they get something that they can’t get anywhere else”
Unlike New York, Dublin is a city that likes to get its sleep. By 11pm, the majority of its businesses have closed their shutters, and if it can’t be found in a bar or a greasy takeaway, you have no choice but to wait till the morning.
Unless of course, you visit the corner of Upper Georges Street in Dún Laoghaire. There, amongst the stacks of obscure papers and knitting magazines, you’ll find John Hyland, owner of Dun Leary’s Last Corner Shop and a local legend.
To the outsider, a near 24/7 corner shop that sells every newspaper under the Western hemisphere might seem eccentric. But for John, it all boils down to one simple thing. “It’s about customer satisfaction. Customers are very appreciative when they get something that they can’t get anywhere else.”
A veteran of the newspaper business for 47 years, John learned his trade from his father, who ran his own newsagents in Kilmainham. “He taught me a good lot, how to deal with customers, the importance of treating all customers equal and not allowing any prejudices to get into things.”
It’s a philosophy that John carries with him to this day. The shop carries periodicals of all shapes and sizes, from The Farmer’s Journal, to Der Spiegel, to at least one local newspaper from every county in the Republic. In addition, John tries to keep issues of most papers on sale for a week after publication. “When someone comes in, no matter what they want, you have to have it or come as close to having it as possible. Every customer that comes in should come away happy.”
Despite John’s dedication to his customers and a recent inflow of money in the area, the last few years have been trying for Dun Leary’s Last Corner Shop. More and more people are shifting from print media to online news outlets, something that John laments.
“A huge amount of people aren’t buying newspapers any more. When you read the newspaper, you don’t say ‘oh I love golf so I’ll just read the golf section.’ You read the whole newspaper. So you’re reading about things you’re not interested in, as well as things you are. That’s a good thing, you’re getting a different view. Whereas if you’re online, you might only be reading the things you’re interested in.” It’s a pertinent point in a time when Google and Youtube algorithms are getting more adept at suggesting related content to users.
A modest man, John struggles when asked what the Last Corner Shop’s place is in the community. It’s at this stage that two lads, popping in to get late night fags, step in. “Give us the pen! It’s the best shop in the country, hands down! John’s a legend!” His friend gives a more considered response. “It’s a staple of the Dún Laoghaire community. The staff here are brilliant, I’ve been coming here since I was 14.”
After they leave, John simply smiles. “We do what the customer wants. Banks never do what the customers want, but we do!”
46a Georges Street, Upper Dún Laoghaire
“Sometimes if people are in a very bad situation, I give them essentials on tic. But only if you’re from Bride Street!”
Though it’s said that home is where you hang your hat, most of us need a little more. A sense of belonging, or community. That’s something that Manmohan Kollipara, manager of Pat’s Corner on Bride Street, has found.
Originating from Andhra Pradesh, India, Manmohan came to Ireland to earn his masters in business management. Initially, he worked in Pat’s Corner to earn a couple of bob and help his Uncle Siva, who owns the shop. Four and a half years later, Manmohan is now the manager, and shares strong ties to the area. “I feel closely related to this community. I know each person individually. We share our days with each other, have a bit of craic, and go out as well. They don’t just treat me as a shop keeper.”
This close-knit feeling is very much by design. Manmohan’s uncle Siva always wanted the place to have a genuine connection to the customers, turning down numerous offers to become a franchise shop in the process. That independence has allowed Pat’s Corner to help the locals in a way a Spar can’t.
“Some people are quite old and their children now live away from home. So they come here in the day time and share their life experience They know they can express their feelings here. They talk about their sons and daughters, who they really miss.”
It’s obvious that Manmohan cares deeply for the people in the surrounding area. Much of his days are spent making deliveries and house calls to the elderly on Bride Street. Beside the till he has a notepad, filled with hundreds of entries. It looks like the workings of a mathematician trying to crack a particularly long and arduous equation. “This is my tic book. I fill one of these out every six months. Sometimes if people are in a very bad situation, I give them essentials on tic. But only if you’re from Bride Street!”
In turn, the locals often bring him cooked meals and gifts from their holidays. It’s a sterling example of community that often seems out of reach in modern times. It isn’t always idyllic however. Three months ago, Manmohan was attacked by a racist addict in the neighbourhood. Did the experience change the way he perceived the area?
“Oh no, no. The feeling I’ve gotten here is unbelievable. It’s rare for a foreigner to be welcomed in another country like this. I might tell some bad instances because life is full of good and bad, but I have a great love and affection for this corner shop. This is my family because I don’t have any relations here. I’m a proper Dubliner.”
Nonetheless, there are some Irish traditions that Manmohan will never fully understand. “One day I asked a customer why he was buying so many crisps and he said he was going to make sandwiches. I’d never heard of this! They actually brought me a crisp sandwich and it killed me! I said, ‘Oh my God, is this what you eat every day!?’”
Bride Street, Dublin 8
“What is for one person a completely normal price to pay for artisan butter has another going ‘are you kidding me?”
To many, the humble corner shop seems like a quaint relic of the past, something unsustainable in a time where more and more shops are becoming franchised outlets. And yet Marlowe and Co., a new artisan corner shop, café and bakery located in the Tenters, shows that there’s life in the old dog just yet.
From the beginning of their relationship, Tessa Doevenspeck and Janette Valente dreamt of creating a business that involved food. Tessa had become weary of the “soul destroying” work that Digital Marketing entailed, whilst Janette was looking for something that re-ignited her creativity after the grind of working Dublin food markets. “I started doing it in 1999. I never thought I’d see myself there 18 years later.”
The catalyst for Marlowe and Co. came last June. The couple were walking their dog when they noticed a to let sign outside one of the old retail units in their neighbourhood. “We’d walked past it for years, thinking it would be a great little corner shop, and then when it came up for rent, we jumped at it.”
On familiar terms with the real estate agent after a previous lease, the two were offered a remarkable offer. “He said listen, if you can get the deposit in the next half hour, it’s yours. Had we more time to think about it, we probably would have said no.” Janette admits.
The ease in which they secured the unit stands in stark relief to the trials faced when renovating it. Plumbing, electrics, even the ceilings had fallen into complete disrepair. After a series of astronomical quotes and false starts, the couple decided they’d had enough; armed with an array of Youtube tutorials and a determination to realize their vision, the two set about fixing the place up. “We decided ‘Yeah feck it, let’s just get in there and do it ourselves.’” Tessa says.
All the while, they continued to work full time, using their weekends to work on Marlowe and Co. It wasn’t until the closing of the Green Door Market last winter that they decided to double their efforts. This February gone, Tessa resigned from her office job and on April 20th, Marlowe and Co. finally opened.
Over the last few months, the challenge has been in catering to the area, whilst maintaining their mission of supplying artisan food. “The Tenters is a very mixed neighbourhood,” Tessa notes. “It’s a very old, traditional Dublin residential area, but there’s an influx of newer families and more established couples. It’s about trying to find the balance between both, of understanding the neighbourhood and its history while not trying to alienate anyone. What is for one person a completely normal price to pay for artisan butter has another going ‘are you kidding me?’”
In a short period of time, Marlowe and Co. has not just proven itself profitable for its owners; it’s also become a hub for the community. It’s something of a happy accident Janette says. “You can’t force it. I just think people feel comfortable here. Sometimes the kids will come after school and have a confab in the shop for a half hour.”
Marlowe and Co. is still very much a work in progress, but the future looks bright, with an onsite bakery, deli counter and perhaps even another location on the horizon. Amongst all these exciting developments, Tessa throws out another suggestion, almost as an afterthought. “We should probably also get staff at some stage.” Janette briefly agrees that it would be nice not to work seven days a week, but it’s not long before they’re discussing their plans expand into Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine. Truly some people just don’t rest.
9-11 Sandford Gardens, The Tenters, Dublin 8
“We always had our own way of doing things”
As redevelopment continues along the quays, it often feels like the city is losing touch with its history. It’s that sensation which makes businesses like Reynolds Newsagents on Abbey Street all the more reassuring.
Opened in 1955 by Rory Joseph Reynolds, the newsagent finds itself on the frontlines of a rapidly changing city center. How exactly has the shop managed to keep the lights on in an area that’s becoming increasingly franchised?
Karl Reynolds, who runs his father’s shop with his sister Ann, believes that their success is because of their independence, not despite it. “We always had our own way of doing things. We’ve always had a niche customer base, and we’ve stuck with these guys and what they wanted. They’re people who like something individual. That’s why we sell everything from huge teddy bears to cactus.”
Ah yes, the cacti. In addition to selling newsagent staples such as sweets and tobacco, the shop has gained a reputation for its oddities, such as 80-year-old cactuses. It’s just one of many peculiar services the shop provides. “One dinosaur we still have is our fax machine. Even our suppliers from Xerox ask us if we really want one. People say why bother, but we have a steady round of customers for which that’s all they know. “
Their selection of fax machines services and imported cactuses seems like a potent metaphor for the store as a whole, offering something old and something decidedly new. The stop is littered with antiques and decorations that tether the place to the past. During the summer holidays, Karl’s nieces and nephews run around the floor, reminding you of the family tradition that is the core of the business.
And yet the shop is eager to embrace the radically shifting circumstances in the city, especially the growing immigrant population. As Karl himself says “The very fact that there is now so many nationalities here really enhances the whole dynamic.” Ever the savvy entrepreneurs, the family has even begun leasing space upstairs to film productions.
This new-found vitality as Karl describes it is a long time coming for the area. “The 70s and 80s were dark years around here. You have to remember, in 1974, we had the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. They destroyed the city center, so it was in recovery for years. There was never much investment in the area because there was this sense of tragedy.”
Walking down Abbey Street, Karl is keen to point out the various buildings and their historical minutiae. Clearly, he and his family have a huge affection for the area. So is he worried about the city center becoming gentrified? “I think the core of the Dublin spirit is well and truly alive down here. There are businesses around here that are quintessentially Dublin like ourselves. You still have a big proportion of real Dubliners around the area, still very local. We’re just going to continue to evolve with our customers.”
6 Lower Abbey Street, Dublin 1
Words: Jack O’Higgins
Photo: Aoife Herrity