THE closure of Debenhams and the appointment of liquidators to other Cork city shops threatens to change our city trading landscape.
With many of us limited to one supermarket trip a week, it’s worth casting our minds back to how our forebears used to shop.
It was so different back in 1950s Ireland. Supermarkets as such just didn’t exist. You went to the specialist establishments in town for particular goods, and otherwise relied on the little corner shop a few steps from home.
Those corner shops sold everything from half a stone of potatoes to a quarter of broken biscuits, and with a ledger recording each household’s weekly purchases.
The elegant 19th century department stores have mostly disappeared too, their memory expunged by the huge frontages of international chains.
For groceries in the city, women did their shopping at wooden counters where you expected to be greeted by name, but also expected to wait while the shopper in front enquired after the quality of the sausages, wondered aloud if another blue bag of sugar should be weighed out, remembered the Barry’s tea, and cast a thoughtful eye over the new delivery of biscuits from Jacob’s in faraway Dublin, each variety in its own big glass-lidded tin.
Finally, the goods were packed into a shopping bag, the total was reckoned up, money paid over, and with a last exchange of courtesies, she went out into the street and you could go up to take your turn.
You went to places like Lipton’s on Patrick Street for all the basics, Levis’ in Castle Street for wafer thin rashers cut exactly to your liking, and the Baltimore Stores on MacCurtain Street for the freshest fish. Any of the Cudmore outlets for imported oranges and bananas, and Madden’s in Bridge Street for the new luxuries like roast chicken turning on a spit right outside the door, wafting incredible scents past peckish homegoers.
In Woodford Bourne’s the coffee roasting machine in the big curved window was a source of fascination to children, while inside the wines, ports, and sherries were displayed on high wooden shelves.
Shopping for clothes and shoes could be a gracious experience back then at the Munster Arcade, Grant’s, Queen’s Old Castle, or Cash’s. Chairs stood invitingly at counters so dowagers could rest while quizzing polite assistants on the hardest-wearing stockings, or leaning forward to murmur discreetly of lingerie. Grant’s would send several pairs of summer sandals to the homes of recognised customers so that children could stand carefully on sheets of the Echo while trying these on for size. Roches Stores stocked anything from cotton prints to knitting wool and everything in between.
Something special for a wedding or christening? Egan’s, where you still might find a piece of rare Cork silver, could find just the thing. A new tennis racquet? Elvery’s, with its wonderful elephant mounted above the door. A grandfather clock needed attention, or a loud alarm clock required? Mangans, just before St Patrick’s Bridge; the shop may have gone, but that iconic clock still stands, meeting place for young people for generations.
The Coal Quay was the place for bargain hunters, not only for fruit and veg but old clothes, secondhand shoes, and occasionally a real find in the Dickensian inner vaults where beshawled dames sat atop piles of old garments, keeping a sharp eye on every incomer.
Here, discarded furniture, household possessions, even antique jewellery or an ancient doctor’s bag, complete with all its drugs (true), could be unearthed if you were keen-eyed enough.
Children were rarely interested in household shopping trips, but had their own Edens to visit if they were lucky. MacCurtain Street had both the HCC and Healy’s selling bicycles and all appurtenances pertaining thereto, like saddlebags, pumps, repair kits, and lamps.
HCC also stocked tiny lead farm animals and toy soldiers, each carefully packed away in its own little cardboard box on a high shelf, to be fetched down for fortunate small customers and wrapped in tissue paper. Further up the street, Woollams sold toy guns and rolls of caps, as well as soft toys from a huge glass case, and, at Christmas, annuals like Roy of the Rovers, Film Fun, Rupert Bear, Bunty or Judy. Across the way, Donaldson’s not only dealt in cameras but had a glass case full of Dinkies for small boys to drool over. Almost next door at Hadji Bey’s, you might be treated to a Turkish delight.
Robert Day’s was the place for those with generous grandparents. Sets of rare stamps for young collectors, splendid train sets, Meccano kits, and upstairs a genuine doll hospital which not only repaired beloved toys but had its own dolls’ shoe department. A penny in the slot produced wonderful music from a huge revolving metal disc.
The Lee Stores on the Grand Parade had a wonderful selection of toys too, as did Kilgrew’s on Merchant’s Quay, where the yo-yo was first revealed to enthralled Cork eyes.
At the other end of the pecuniary scale, Woolworths had something for everyone from bright jewellery to cheap toys and sweets at its high counters. Here was the first place in Cork to introduce freshly-salted peanuts, hot from the machine —such sophistication! It also shared the honour with Kilgrew’s of stocking the first hula hoops.
Up in the back streets, round the North Cathedral on one side of the city, or Douglas Street on the other, you had little shops selling the first of the gimcrack plastic toys from China at low prices.
Who knew that these would soon become the norm, replacing the individual toys in cardboard boxes from charmed glass cases, just as frozen pizzas and takeaways were to replace the careful and lengthy consideration of the shopper for the next week’s family meals?