Around the clock

Sat, Oct 20, 2012, 01:00

SHOP STORIES:Last month the Guiney family lost control of Clerys when it was bought by the US investment firm Gordon Brothers. PATRICK FREYNEvisits a Dublin institution in changing times

EARLY ON A MONDAY morning in Clerys some customers, mainly older women, are mingling around the crisp and modern concessions on the ground floor, overlooked by neo-classical features from another age. Some dawdle, some bustle, a few loudly greet friends and frenemies. “You’re looking very well, Joan, I really mean that!” says one lady to another, who then scowls dramatically at her departing back (I observe this from The Ivy cafe where I’m scoffing a chicken ciabatta). There are also a small number of bored-looking men trailing their wives, and two French-speaking children wandering about looking slightly confused.

Clerys is a Dublin institution, the mention of which causes many to sink into a nostalgic reverie about queuing to see Santy, the eighth of December, and meeting under Clerys’ clock. Recently it struggled into receivership, and a sale to the US investment firm Gordon Brothers took it out of the control of the Guiney family for the first time in 71 years.

The buyout led to the closure of two Clerys home furnishing stores and its sister store, Guineys (there are ongoing negotiations over the treatment of the laid-off workers and the closure of the company pension scheme). The 147 jobs with Clerys itself were, for the time being, saved.

Resplendent in a glamorous coat, Gladys Greene, who has a broad smile and a lovely voice, is about to get a makeover at Shiseido. She has been coming to Clerys for much of her life and glancing around at all the modern brand names, she acknowledges how much it has changed. “I live out in Dublin 5 now but I was an inner-city lass,” she says. “And I think that makes a difference to my attitude to Clerys, because I’ve grown up with it here. I’ve never known anything else.” She can remember how, in the 1960s, the salespeople would put dockets and payment into capsules that were sent up to the accounts department and then “the capsules would come back. They were on wires from the office. That would be your change . . . Coming into Clerys was a big treat even as a kiddler.”

Department stores are an 18th century invention, but they flourished in the 19th and 20th centuries (The BBC is currently running a department store-themed period drama: The Paradise).

The site Clerys occupies was the first ever purpose-built variety, launched by McSwiney, Delany and Co as “The New or Palatial Mart” in 1853, and bought by MJ Clery and renamed in 1883. It was largely destroyed during the 1916 rising, but the façade survived and “new” Clerys was relaunched in 1922. Denis Guiney bought it out of receivership in 1941 and successfully targeted it at middle Ireland. After his death in 1967, his widow, Mary Guiney, took an active interest in the business until she died at the age of 103 in 2004.

“Department stores seem like an old idea now with all the shopping centres,” says retail manager Aidan Barron. “But I view shopping centres as just being big department stores really. Department stores like Clerys offered something that people couldn’t get in the local town or village. Under one roof, from the lower ground floor up to the top floor, you could get everything from your cup of tea to your socks, to your suits to your furniture.”

Barron has been with Clerys for only six years, but collectively his parents, grandparents and siblings have racked up “200 years of service”. His father, Tom, started in the carpets and lino department in 1954. “Mr Guiney was a gruff individual and his office was off the carpet department,” recalls Tom Barron. “If we were sitting on a pile of carpets he’d want to know what the hell you were doing sitting down.” If you didn’t meet your sales targets, says Barron, “you were called before his lordship and castigated.” He recalls “one particular lady and whenever you saw her on the horizon you disappeared. ‘I’m so and so and I want this and I want that’,” she’d say, “but she never bought anything. She’d keep you for hours and you’d be losing money because you weren’t making sales.”

Tom Barron’s memories of his 30 years at Clerys are, on the whole, very happy ones. There was, at the time, an active social club at Clerys and they organised sports days, nights out and even dancing competitions. “I got to the final but then they tried to trip me over,” chuckles Barron. Who did? “The other dancers who hadn’t got through to the final. It was all in fun.”

Anthony Murphy, who works in the gift department on the second floor, is probably the last man to get a celebratory handshake from the old regime. This occurred three weeks ago when he hit 40 years of service. For Murphy, like Barron, working for Clerys is something of a family trade.

“My father worked in Guineys for over 45 years,” he says. “He’s 88 now. My mother also worked there and my wife works here too. When I started it was a recession and I was grateful to have a job, that’s why I’m still here. If you work hard at it, you enjoy it.”

John Finn, who works on the customer service desk, celebrated his 40th anniversary under the new regime. When he started there were around 800 employees. The stock was all owned by Clerys, and sold in much higher volumes than today. They had two extra warehouses in the city. The range of products was largely similar to today, says Finn, but there were a few formerly popular products that are no longer sold (he mentions, in particular, tobacco and wool).

“We had a near monopoly around the city centre then,” he says. “It was only ourselves and Arnotts. The shopping centres were only beginning, so people were coming in to the city centre to shop.

“The 8th of December was a big thing . . . at one point they’d even subsidise train fare. If you came up from Kerry and bought a rake of bed linen and showed your train ticket, they’d give you the money for it . . . When there was a sale, there’d be bedlam.”

In the back offices there’s a wall full of archive pictures, including one of an elderly Mary Guiney waving a walking stick out of a top window of the building at the returning Irish soccer team in 1988. “Ah, she was a great character,” says Finn. “She was a very quiet and nice lady. She might come in for a half day or whatever. She’d ramble around. Had a wee office. She was hands-on.” Finn shows me where Clerys’ Ballroom used to be, on the second floor, and where Tommy O’Brien’s band were set up, although, he adds, that was before his time. “I’m just a baby compared to some people in this place,” he says and laughs.

Willie Rock met his wife at Clery’s Ballroom in 1962. A former Sunday Press journalist, he recently retraced his steps to the second floor. “Me and my pals usually went to the more trendy ballrooms,” Rock explains. “Clerys had the aura of being a country man’s place. It didn’t have the Dublin thing like the Crystal or the Ballerina or the Four Provinces. Myself and a pal had planned to go to one of those ballrooms but he couldn’t make it and I decided to go into Clerys because there was always a lot of people there on their own. I went there and met Phyllis.”

What impressed his wife so much? “I was a good dancer, I was easy to talk to and my breath didn’t smell of drink!”

The notion that Clerys wasn’t a hip place to be has been a recurring problem. It’s tried to keep pace. It’s been extended and refurbished (most recently from 1998 to 2004) and modern brands have taken up more floor space. It has over time lost its Harrods-like canopies, the moulded wooden entrance and, less controversially, the old fashioned fluorescent tube lights. It also lost, on the 50th anniversary of Denis Guiney’s ownership in 1990, its original art deco clock (Tom Barron maintains that in his day people met, not at the clock, but at the Metropole Hotel across the road).

Nigel Blow, chief executive at Arnotts, believes department stores have a future, but isn’t sure about Clerys. “I think in recent years they’ve lost their way a bit and it hasn’t been clear what they’ve stood for . . . I think it will be very difficult for them to reinvent themselves as a competitor to any of us.” Which is a shame, because with its sweeping rear staircase, neo-classical touches and general friendliness, it’s a nice place to while away a few hours.

“We haven’t been here for years and I’m not sure why, because it’s really lovely,” says Debbie Maddy from Swords. She’s here with her husband Declan. “He has his eye out for a particular brand of coat. He Googled it and the only place stocking them was Clerys. I won’t tell you the brand because they’ll all stock them then and Clerys won’t get the business.” She adds, however, in a whisper, “We’re the youngest people here.” There are other young people. Anne-Marie Last (31) is about to get a makeover at Clarins before heading to work at the Ben Dunne Gym in Blanchardstown. “They’ve modernised Clerys a lot,” she says, “but it’s also nice to see the same faces that have worked here for years.” She explains what she’s about to get done. “Of course you wouldn’t understand because men don’t wear make-up,” she says, before adding, “Although some of them do, don’t they?”

The challenge for Clerys is to attract younger customers without alienating the old. Sisters Nuala Gann, Evelyn Fitzgibbon and Doreen Nelson like the relatively youth-free status. They’ve just had breakfast in the rooftop cafe.

“I’ll tell you one thing about upstairs here, it suits the older ages,” says Evelyn. “Excuse me, speak for yourself,” says Nuala, clearly feeling a bit younger than her sister. “Ah Nuala! We do like the clothes don’t we?” says Evelyn. “The jumpers! It suits our age. You wouldn’t see teenagers running around.” “And you don’t hear loud music,” says Doreen. “You go to other shops and think ‘this isn’t my shop’, but Clerys is.”

The new owners seem interested in embracing tradition. They’ve put up a wall of historical photos near the hairdresser’s on the second floor. Clerys old-fashioned nature didn’t hinder it much during the boom and it had healthy profits until January 2008.

In January 2011, however, it reported a €2m loss and this year the receiver was called in. Long-time staff say the past two years have been the most worrying time in memory. Gordon Brothers declined to comment, but their track record would suggest that they might invest, revamp the business and then re-sell. Despite the ongoing union negotiations the most common response to the takeover from staff appears to be relief.

“When I started six years ago the shop was flying, but then the decline set in,” says Aidan Barron. “In the last two years, with what’s been going on with the takeover, the atmosphere hasn’t been great. Staff were really worried. Since the changeover I think people are a lot more confident . . . I mean you couldn’t close Clerys. It would be a national disaster.”

Indeed, many couldn’t imagine their shopping trips without it. I bump into Gladys Greene again in the first floor tea rooms. I ask her if she’s had her makeover and she scolds me.

“You’re just meant to quietly notice something like that, not ask about it,” she says, before expressing her happiness that Clerys still survives. Her plan for the rest of the day, she says, is to “float around town feeling good”.

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