Corner shops are corner stone of societies

As we are planning our new city centres, let’s not forget the importance of the corner shops, says Ciaran Dineen, a journalist and Masters student, studying Urban Planning at UCC
Corner shops are corner stone of societies

Tom and Kaye English at English’s Foodstore in Conna, Co Cork, who featured in The Echo’s Corner Shop series last year.

IN 1998, an interesting article in the Irish Times discussed the importance of the corner shop and the role it played in local urban and rural communities.

It told the story of how Dublin city centre was largely dead after dark in the 1980s as people left the place of work and returned home in their cars to the suburbs.

However, a period of apartment building led to more people both living and working in the city centre, meaning that as the sun went down the streets filled with life as residents spilled out onto the sidewalk to shop, run errands, and socialise.

Fast forward a little under 25 years and one wonders what happened? The pandemic highlighted the lack of residential living in our city centres, with the streets of Cork and Dublin resembling ghost towns as non-essential businesses were forced to close and workers living in the suburbs became accustomed to Zoom.

The Chief Executive for Dublin City Council voiced his concerns over the impact a lack of footfall on the streets of was having on the local economy, stressing the need to encourage people back into the commercial core areas.

It’s clear urban sprawl came back to bite our biggest cities in this period, but despite voices suggesting the pandemic was the death knell for city centres, we can already tell this is not the case, with people returning in part to their offices and being attracted to the fun and life cities bring.

However, we should reflect on the changing nature of the landscape of our high streets over the past few decades and recognise the erosion of shops and businesses that used to form the cornerstone of our communities.

Globalisation has its perks but one can’t deny it has resulted in the creation of repetitive, homogenous city centres filled with superpower franchises that focus on fast-food and coffee. In Cork city, we have unfortunately not escaped this trend, with businesses of significant cultural importance closing their doors, such as Finn’s Corner and Liam Ruiséal, to name but a few.

While world-renowned brands are often going to be attracted to densely populated areas and bustling cities, as commuter towns have grown as a result of urban sprawl, we have seen similar results in the places we live. In part, creative destruction, a term coined by economist Joseph Schumpeter in the 1940s, is inevitable whereby new technology and innovation makes products that were once household names redundant. 

In the early 2000s, I recall the weekly excitement of calling into Chartbusters to pick a video for the weekend. This turned into Xtra-vision and DVDs, stopping into the local sweet shop to find goodies for the family movie sit-in, and now, as has been the case for the last number of years, we watch series on demand, by ourselves in isolation.

The move online has not only impacted our city centres therefore, but the towns and neighbourhoods we live in. The loss of the corner shop on our local streets is quickly becoming a reality yet their importance cannot be understated.

Last year, Chris Dunne travelled around the county in The Echo Cork’s Corner Shop Series. From Killeagh to Crosshaven, she explored some of our most treasured stores that have decades of history and ties with local communities. However, what they provide society goes much further than a pint of milk, a loaf of bread or a lottery card. Instead, what these bedrocks of community life bestow upon society is a sense of trust. The shopkeeper not only keeps the shop, but keeps an eye on the street. They provide security when there may be trouble, shelter when there may be rain and open ears when no one else is listening.

The public characters that make up these institutions are vital for spreading news, passing on information and letting everyone else know what is going on.

They help introduce new people to one another, provide sponsorship to the local GAA team, and can perhaps even be the local tourist office for folk passing through. Corner shops are destinations where the shopkeeper understands the needs and nuances of the community they are embedded in. It is this natural everyday social capital that keeps our streets safe, through interactions, life and conversations. Without this ‘trust’, city streets and town centres are a “disaster”, as argued by Jane Jacobs, the late U.S journalist and activist on urban studies,

More than anything though, corner shops provide a unique community function, which came to the fore in the pandemic. With social contacts forced to be reduced completely, the only form of interaction many people in lockdown was with their local shop.

In 2019, a Trinity College Dublin study revealed almost a third of people aged 50 or over in Ireland experienced emotional loneliness some of the time, and nearly 10% reported feeling lonely often. However, as our suburbs grow and larger retailers arrive, the corner shop may be forced to close, leaving a massive void for many who use it as a form of socialisation.

Retail chains elsewhere are trying to combat this, with an initiative in Holland last year where a retailer introduced ‘talking checkouts’. 

The so-called ‘Kletskassas’ are for customers who aren’t in a rush and are looking for a chat when shopping. It followed Holland’s own loneliness statistics, revealing 33% of people over 75 felt at least moderately lonely.

Similar initiatives would be welcome in Ireland, but we should not use them as a solution in place of the traditional corner shop. The importance of these stores has become pronounced. As the bigger supermarkets are stripped bare, small shops managed to keep pantries full and communities connected.

Whether you are in the dizzying heights of a busy city centre or a quiet suburb, the corner shop and their shopkeepers have as much of an impact on our social fabric as anything else, and we must hold onto them for dear life.

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