Best shops in Ireland
We asked you to tell us about your favourite shops and you responded in your thousands. Sorting through the emails, letters and online messages, it became clear that Irish Times readers love their local shops and realise how important a part they play in the community. A team of secret shoppers worked throughout the summer, visiting the most nominated shops across a dozen different categories. It soon emerged that these shops had a lot in common, namely friendly staff and excellent service.
Nice stock too. Readers really valued the sense of belonging created by shops where the owners know their customers and always give that bit extra. Someone remembering your name or carrying your bags, impromptu home deliveries, even an unscheduled opening on Christmas Day, were just some of the acts of kindness you mentioned. Choosing a long list of 50 wasn’t easy – whittling that down to the final 12 created plenty of debate and the odd downright row. So, without further ado, here they are – the best shops in Ireland, writes REBECCA LYONS
ARDMORE POTTERY AND GALLERY
GALLERIES & DESIGN
“There’s this idea that Irish crafts are expensive, and it’s wrong,” says Mary Lincoln, owner of the Ardmore Pottery and Craft Store in Co Waterford. She would know – Mary is a potter herself – when she’s not too busy running the store with husband Dick Lincoln and long-time partner Ann McCarthy, that is. Specialising in the production of hand-painted pots, sugar holders, milk jugs and teacups, Mary sells some of her pieces for as low as €10. She “manufactures on the premises” too, offering anyone that’s the least bit curious a rare glimpse into the workshop, and life, of an artist-in-residence.
“Whenever I want to buy something a bit different but Irish, I go to Ardmore Pottery,” says Derna Dywer, and, as a result, Mary’s shop has never been busier. “People in a recession are much more inclined to buy Irish,” she says, but continues “they are also much more careful where they spend their money.”
So, is she feeling the strain? “When I started this business over 30 years ago,” she explains, “there was a craft shop on every corner.” Now, she says, “they’re gone.” It is good riddance to them, Mary says, singling out those craft shops that import their stock as cowboys. “I don’t understand it,” she says, puzzled. “I could fill a space four times this [the shop] with domestic crafts.” And, she reasons, “every crossroads in Ireland has an artist.” But that’s where things get tricky. The store, clinging as it does to the cliffside of Ardmore Bay, can only contain so much. Having grown from a “tiny workshop” in her great-grandmother’s house to a well respected and flourishing craft store, Mary has a full-time job maintaining the “careful mix” of crafts she stocks.
The quality, and the quantity, with the sheer volume of crafts on offer — bags, tapestries, paintings, notebooks, art prints, gloves and scarves — pointing towards an army’s worth of upkeep, not an individual’s.
In reality, there are three of them. “It’s a team effort,” says Lincoln, claiming the whole thing would be impossible without the help of her husband and “brilliant, ruthless” criticism of her friend Ann. “If she sees something she doesn’t like in the store, she just says, ‘Out! Out!’” REBECCA LYONS
Ardmore Pottery and Gallery, Ardmore, Co Waterford, tel: 024-94152 ardmorepottery.com
THE CONSTANT KNITTER
HOBBY & CRAFT
Rosemary Murphy set up The Constant Knitter on Francis Street, Dublin three years ago, having been made redundant from Waterford Wedgewood in 2008. A life-long knitter, she had always wanted to open “either a book shop or a yarn shop”.
A fan of The Gutter Bookshop, she felt they had done a fabulous job and had cornered the market. So knitting and stitching it was and word soon grew. These days the shop’s Monday night Stitch and Bitch classes are legendary.
Joanne Duffy describes the shop as having “a calm and cosy atmosphere. As a new knitter I always feel included. Tea is always on offer, which I think is great.”
At the monthly Sew In, where devotees gather to make and raise funds for charity, there is also cake and wine on offer
“Rosemary has a passion for her craft,” says Catherine Hastings “and is very knowledgeable and welcoming. The location of the shop in the Antiques Quarter rings a lovely change from yarn shops in shopping centres or hustley-bustley main streets.”
Anne Barnes echoes that sentiment, adding: “The Constant Knitter is more than a store, it’s more like a community resource for crafters and knitters to gather and talk about all things woolly.”
Barbara Wood is one such member. “This shop has become so much more to me than a place to buy yarn. Rosemary’s shop has made me feel part of a community. On Monday evenings Rosemary hosts a knitting group where we can drop in and hang out, drink tea, eat biscuits and share our love of knitting and all things yarn. I have laughed and cried in this shop.”
It is not surprising that Elzbieta Rzechula describes Rosemary as “an excellent host” who “runs many interesting courses”. These include classes in knitting, sewing, crochet and wet felting, all of which take place upstairs, above the shop, in a bright airy space.
“Rosemary really knows her stuff and is always willing to offer advice, be it to old hands or nervous beginners,” Helen Crawford concludes. “She stocks an amazing range of products, and seems to be adding more all the time – I rarely leave empty-handed.”
The Constant Knitter, 88 Francis Street, Dublin 8, tel: 087-996 7197, theconstantknitter.ie
Lilliput Stores on Rosemount Terrace, Arbour Hill in Dublin 7 is described by one nominee as “a gem in the urban village of Stoneybatter” that “embodies the notion of community living”.
The “compact yet complete” shop is run by Brendan O’Mahony, owner of the Dublin branch of the Real Olive Company, whose produce you can see at markets up and down the country. When Lilliput Stores opened its doors in May 2007, it breathed new life into a small terrace that was once full of shops but had stood idle and empty since Donlon’s, an old-fashioned corner shop situated at the opposite end of the terrace, closed some years before.
The tiny shop maintains the corner shop sense of community. It opens at eight every morning and remains open to catch people again on their way home from work.
“It provides a service for the people living in the area,” O’Mahony explains. He is a paid-up member of said neighbourhood, living around the corner from the business. The shop name is a reference to the nearby Lilliput Press, synonymous with the area since it moved there in 1989. It stocks a couple of hundred products, all crammed into the tiny space.
Painted a chichi grey, with blackboards listing some of the goodies on offer inside bookend either extremity of the premises creating a lovely balanced look to the facade. The addition of a bench underneath the window means you can eat a takeaway while sitting down. Inside, it is standing room only.
For reader Niamh Collins, it is a place where “staff know their customers by name and are ever-helpful”. For her, it is the go-to place for “news of street parties, community clean-ups and start-up enterprises that adorn the notice board, a location where neighbours can linger over their cappuccinos and take their time reading and re-reading the small ads”. It is a shop where, she adds “fairly-traded, fairly-made or fairly-grown food is the order of the day”.
“These stores are disappearing and I feel very lucky to have one just around the corner, in a neighbourhood where people are still great to each other.” says Joana Messias. “ When you leave the house and someone says ‘good morning’ or ‘how are you?’ it can change your day,” she says.
Cormac Craven loves the fact that there is “a lovely friendly welcome from the people that work in the shop, which seems to rub off on many of the customers as people seem very relaxed and open when there”. He also likes the fact that they make “sandwiches with interesting and varied fillings made from products available in the shop, using the breads also sold in the shop.”
“All communities would do well to have a Lilliput Stores,” says Collins. “When I leave there, I feel part of a community, contributing to sustainability and helping the little person in a cut-throat world. I buy what I want and what I need and not what the multi-national retailer drives me to buy,” she says.
5 Rosemount Terrace, Arbour Hill, Dublin 7, tel: 01-672 9516. Lilliputstores.com
THE GUTTER BOOKSHOP
“This book store offers what others are lacking: service,” says Yvonne Reilly. It’s something owner Bob Johnston of The Gutter Bookshop understands completely. He has more than 20 years experience in the book trade and has worked with multiples such as Waterstones in Ireland and in the UK. As a store manager at Hughes Hughes’ St Stephen’s Green shop he communicated directly with readers. He took this knowledge with him when he went to work for the chain in their buying office.
Frustrated by working for big companies, he longed to open an independent bookshop. In 2009 he opened The Gutter on the former site of a “Celtic Tiger kitchen shop”.
“It is the complete opposite of how you expect an independent bookshop to look and feel,” says Johnston. Rather than being dark and cluttered, The Gutter feels bright, airy and spacious.
“To survive, you have to be better than the chains,” Johnston believes.“You’ve also got to give knowledge and enthusiasm. Even in this age of internet shopping, readers revel in a sense of discovery.” Readers also love a word-of-mouth recommendation and his staff’s picks top the shop’s best-seller lists every month. On top of that, the shop runs poetry nights, book readings and book groups – the latter are completely booked out, with would-be joiners on waiting lists.
The Gutter is also a great place to people watch. Originally Johnston had planned to offer books and coffee, but finding himself sandwiched between a plethora of cracking cafes, he decided “to stick to books”, suggesting to shoppers that they buy their coffee at any of the local cafes, bring it in and slump into a comfortable armchair with one of his good book recommendations.
The Gutter has become an integral part of Temple Bar’s local community. “The staff are amazing,” says Yvonne Reilly. “They spend time with regulars and newcomers alike and know what I like to read better than I know myself.”
“Prices are competitive and usually cheaper than you’d expect and all come with a new book smell you just don’t get with Kindle,” she says.
The small but enthusiastic staff includes Sinead Boyne, sister of author John Boyne. Seamus Heaney and John Banville are both fans. The place even drew Pulitzer-prize winning writer Jennifer Egan in while on holidays in Ireland last summer. Unbidden she offered to sign some of her books for them.
The Gutter, Cow’s Lane Dublin 8, tel: 01-679 9206 gutterbookshop.com