Online shopping and the international chains are a big threat to the shops that mark us out from every other city and town in Europe. They’ll only remain if we support them writes Ailin Quinlan
When Olive Finn was a child, being sent to do the shopping, meant becoming a kind of Postman Pat – she visited everyone.
“I grew up in a pub on the main street of Clonakilty, so I was involved in local family business all my life.
“When we were sent out for the messages we had to go to different shops for different things because my mother wanted to support the shops that supported our pub, so the shopping was spread around.
“There was that feeling of being family with people, and the local-shopkeepers were a huge part of my childhood.
“The family business is part of everything – the small business is a kind of mini-community - and you’re involved with people much more than in taking their money and giving them their purchase and change.”
It was a culture in which the small business flourished – and this spirit of mutual support continues in the West Cork town today, says Finn, now co-owner of the Olive Branch, a thriving Wholefood shop in Clonakilty’s picturesque Spiller’s Lane.
“Clonakilty stands out today, because it has so many independent shops and because everyone is so involved with one another.”
Support for small local shops is really what keeps a town alive and vibrant, believes Finn, co-owner of The Oliver Branch for 12 years, who describes Spiller’s Lane as “an interesting wee place, tucked away in a corner surrounded by small interesting businesses – a music shop, a hair-dresser, a cobbler, an Asian food shop, a sweater shop, a cafe, a yoga studio, a surf shop and more.
“It’s a pedestrianised lane, so it has a very laid-back, easy-going sense of community about it!”
“Every decent town up and down the country has an independent wholefood shop that‘s a centre of excellence run by people that are passionate about what they do. We live the life we endorse!
Olive Finn at her West Cork shop, ‘The Olive Branch’.
“These shops are about decent ethics, local communities, engaging with people and steering them towards looking after themselves, enjoying life, and preventing ill-health, supporting people with ill-health, while also providing an area for people to chat, engage and promote local community activities,” she says.
But small independent businesses aren’t just the heart and soul of thriving communities - they also play a crucial role in attracting shoppers, believes Breda Casey, owner of Miss Daisy Blue, a popular quirky vintage clothing shop at the Patrick Street entrance to Cork city’s English Market.
“It’s important for towns and cities to have locally owned independent shops. It’s good for the local economy and for tourism, because when people visit, they want to see independent shops, not the same big chain stores.” “If you’ve a lot of small local shops closing down, it affects the appearance of the town and makes it less attractive for tourists.
“If people don’t support their small local retailers their towns will suffer long-term - this can end in a street of vacant premises which could otherwise have been alive and bustling and really attractive.”
But small shops are under threat from parking charges and competition from the suburbs where free customer parking is provided by big shopping centres, she warns.
Life is being “suctioned” out of the hearts of towns to their peripheries agrees Finn.
“It’s killing our small towns. If you look at any of the main streets of English towns, what is left are cafes – the big multiples have killed off the town centres “
Another destructive trend is buying online, Finn believes.
“A customer recently walked into my shop with some cook-books she’d bought online,” says Finn who observes that such a purchase by a customer would have been welcomed by any small local independent bookshop. I can’t understand why people sit at their computers buying things online instead of coming into the local town, interacting with the shopkeepers and keeping the small colourful shops in our towns alive. It all has a big knock-on effect,” she warns.
People in towns around the country should look to busy, bustling, colourful Clonakilty, she urges – main street survived the recession, says Finn, primarily because of “the sheer loyalty of customers who made a point of buying locally.”
If this doesn’t happen elsewhere, Finn warns, towns will gradually lose character, and soul until, she warns, “you’ve a street of boarded-up shops nobody wants to walk down.” It’s an appalling vista, she warns – but one that’s already happening.
However, community is not just a concept for small-town shopkeepers - independent retailers in the city centre should a make a point of promoting their streets as an intimate shopping neighbourhood, believes Breda Casey.
She points to the shopkeepers of Amsterdam who came together to form the hugely successful website The Nine Small Streets in Amsterdam Old Town, creating an intimate sense of community in their now-trendy old-town area of the big city:
“We have an even more intimate city centre in Cork - and it would benefit from a similar website which celebrates the city and its independent retailers and provides maps and advice about parking, food and shopping.”
“It seems to be what society wants - everything at our fingertips (in) huge centres on the edge of towns, but if independent shops start disappearing from town centres, the essence and personality of that town disappears too.”
However, small retailers should get involved in helping to organise community events she believe.
From September 14 to 21 next, for example, The Olive Branch will participate in national Nutritional Therapy Awareness Week, which features a range of events, talks and demonstrations hosted by most Wholefood shops in Ireland. “
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