MY confirmations shoes were an abomination, a smart oxblood-red shoe forced into hideous union with 1.5 inches of stacked plastic sole. They were ‘platforms’. More stylish were the wedding shoes I bought six years ago: brogues, black, handmade and timeless. Both pairs were bought in O’Connor’s shoe store, a fixture on Cork’s Oliver Plunkett St for 60 years. A few weeks ago, O’Connor’s closed.
As our main streets surrender to the relentless march of the international multiples, they become indistinguishable from any UK high street. We are losing something we will never regain. The UK recognises urban homogenisation: the loss of individuality when chainstores drive out small local retail traders is contributing to urban decay. Last year, the UK appointed a ‘high street czar’, Mary Portas. In Ireland, we have yet to recog nise there is a problem.
Small, often family-run retail businesses are among Ireland’s biggest employers; unlike the international chains, profits are ploughed back into the local economy, yet their rate of attrition is growing year on year. Francis O’Connor and his brother, Finbarr, are the second generation in the shoe shop. O’Connor’s rode out recessions but this one was crippling and support from the banks is a thing of the past. Working with their accountants, solicitors and landlords, O’Connor’s came up with a survival plan.
“We received verbal approval from the bank in 2011,” says O’Connor. “Then, they began stalling, looking for more information. They stopped really responding to phone calls and emails. Trading was very poor this summer, everyone in retail suffered and we finally had to make the decision to close. We just weren’t prepared to go on incurring debt.
“Small businesses only employ a few people, but they are the heart of the city and the first to get hit, because they don’t have the financial backing to survive years of recession. But if they go, you deprive the city of individuality and if you add up all the small businesses, you’re talking about a lot of jobs.”
O’Connor says the local authorities could be doing more to protect local traders. “Every small trader is getting the runaround, rates are as high as they were 10 years ago. What we’re getting back does not reflect value for money. There is a great sense of community in Cork City, but that hasn’t progressed as far as City Hall.”
For traders, parking policy is a failure. “Both bus services and car parks are inadequate to service the city. In Kilkenny and Killarney, you can get parking for about €1 an hour. Here, we have only just abandoned clamping. Oliver Plunkett St is closed to traffic now for most of the working day. When they did that, there were also supposed to be park-and-ride schemes from the four corners of the city. There is only one. There is no meter system, parking discs are hard to find, and the high-rise car parks are expensive. Then, you look at the shopping centres in the suburbs with three hours’ free parking.”
“The disappearance of old stores from our towns and cities is a big concern,” says David Fitzsimons, of Retail Excellence Ireland. “This is bad for society, it diminishes consumer choice, reduces diversity and it is also bad for jobs. When a grocery-anchored superstore sets up in an out-of-town location, replicating most of the town-centre offer under one roof with free car-parking, it is impossible to compete against and leads, first, to the demise of independent retailers and, then, ultimately, the destruction of the town. They also invest less in labour — 5.5% compared to the 14.5% invested by local retailers. The net effect is job losses.”
Pat Twomey’s father opened a convenience store on Sullivan’s Quay 60 years ago and it has served generations of inner-city dwellers and workers. “It’s hard now, different times,” says Twomey. “A lot of the older generation have passed away and you’d miss them. They’d have come in two or three times a day, milk in the morning, potatoes in the afternoon. The youngsters from around still come in for their sweets and jellies. Everything matters, everything counts. There’s not many stores like us left and I’m single, so it’s not going to pass on.”
“North Main St was a well-known shopping street,” says hardware-store proprietor Edward Sheehan. “Not just for city folk, but for country people, as well, on Mondays, Thursdays, church holidays, but now all the country towns have these big outlet stores. But it is especially disastrous now and City Hall don’t care about us, they don’t give two damns, whether it’s parking or rates. If I was paying rent, I wouldn’t have a hope. The retail sector is one of the biggest employers in the country and the Government is doing nothing. Last January, they put up VAT. That’s like saying, ‘business is going badly so I’m going to put up prices’. That’s crazy.”
Bradley’s, a large multi-faceted store further up North Main St, began as a dairy in 1850. Along with stocking familiar brands, Bradley’s have a high-end range of Irish artisan products and one of the finest independent off-licences in the country, including a superb selection of Irish craft beers. It is listed in McKenna’s Irish Food Guide, but proprietor Michael Creedon says it has become a struggle.
“We were the supermarket in Cork City. We would have had a huge country trade. North Main St was really like a village in a town, from an anchor to a needle, anything you needed was here. At Christmas, there’d be a man hired to let people in at the door as others left. Unfortunately, all that has gone. Now, we’re surrounded, literally, by a wall of suburban shopping centres. People have fallen into patterns of convenience and that’s hard to change.
“City Hall is non-existent, the real, frightening thing is, when push comes to shove, the councillors have no power, the city manager makes all decisions. I would love to know the last time the city manager walked around North Main St. I counted 17 empty shop units on the street the other day. These were guys that were paying rates that were paying wages in City Hall. There doesn’t seem to be any vision. There doesn’t seem to be any plan. They don’t seem to know where they’re going.”
In response, Cork city manager Tim Lucey says: “The Cork City Council (CCC) clearly recognises the challenges facing the retail and small business sector, but the daily economic challenges facing the 400,000-plus unemployed, and the majority of those still working, is the primary reason for the downturn in retail spend.
“The CCC’s level of central government funding has dropped by €8.6m (29.2%) since 2008 and it has reduced its payroll bill by €12.8m (16.2%). Significant further savings have, effectively, been absorbed into national government funding, so CCC has been unable to transfer benefits to city ratepayers, yet CCC has continued to fund events and festivals aimed at maintaining and increasing footfall into the city, despite not increasing commercial rates over the last four years. The CCC has a proud record of facilitating supportive payment plans for businesses in genuine difficulty.
“On parking, it should be noted the CCC-owned multi-storey car parks at Paul Street and North Main Street have the lowest charges in the city and, for the second year in succession, CCC have introduced free car-parking and park-and-ride initiatives.”
For all the castigation of City Hall, for all the encroachment of the chainstores, there is another factor in the decline of the small, independent retailer — the consumer.
“At the end of the day,” says Creedon, “it’s the people of Cork, themselves, who can decide whether or not to support these small Cork businesses. I firmly believe Cork people want a vibrant functioning Cork City, but to get that, they need to support it. There are some customers who tell me they come in every Christmas for stuff they can’t get elsewhere. In my head, I’m saying, ‘that’s fantastic, but if you don’t come in the rest of the year round, I might not even be here the following Christmas’. The people themselves have a choice.”