Around the clock
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.”