Shutters come down on 220-year-old family retailer in Antrim
It survived world wars and famine but McAlisters couldn’t compete with online shopping
McAlister’s supermarket is to close after 220 years in business
In the small County Antrim village of Cushendall wakes are both a “bereavement and a celebration’ and business owner Andrew McAlister is hoping that his one will not be any different as he brings to an end 220 years of family activity in retail.
The family business was established eight generations ago, surviving two world wars and famine but not the arrival of online shopping or bank branch closures.
It was more than 220 years ago when a McAlister – in this case Archibald – first opened a general merchant store on Shore Street in Cushendall.
On Friday night, the latest generation locked up what was a Mace store for the last time, on the exact same site of Archibald’s original outlet.
It the end of the road for one of the North’s oldest family-owned retail businesses and a heart-breaking decision for Andrew McAlister.
Over the past couple of weeks, since word got that it was shutting down, he has had a steady procession of regulars, coming into the store in tears about the closure. And he has been inundated with cards from well wishers and for the “odd mass or two”.
Back in the late 1700s when his predecessor Archibald first set up his in business, Cushendall was a small, isolated village in the Glens of Antrim with closer connections to Scotland than the rest of Northern Ireland.
Local people mainly grew all of their own food so Archibald’s store would have focused on hardware – family records show it sold everything from dynamite to ploughs and coal.
By the time the next generation of McAlister’s took over, the business had expanded to carry a much more diverse range of goods, including drapery, porter and animal meal.
“My family really were very entrepreneurial in the late 1800s,” McAlister claims “not only had they the merchant store but they had begun trading in spirits and porter and even wines, account books from 1897 show they delivered all over county Derry and county Antrim – we could have been the Diageo of today if it had continued and then we wouldn’t have these problems.”
Alongside their flourishing import business the McAlister’s also operated as funeral directors – a service which Andrew carries on to this day.
Archibald’s fledgling business continued to expand, carrying an even greater range of stock as diverse as ammunition to tickets for the major passenger liners of the day.
“It was at the heart of everything because people back then came in with their baskets and a list and handed it over for their orders to be made up and when that was being done it gave them a chance to talk, to find out what was happening in the community and to catch up and then when their order was finished it was written up in the ‘big book’ until the next time,” McAlister says.
“Back then, nobody handed over money every time they came to the shop, everything was sold on ‘tick’ or credit as it was called, until they made their money, usually at the next big sheep sale and then they settled up.”
In 1910, the store was handed over to Andrew’s grandfather Arthur and his brother Dan and against the backdrop of the World War I and the family’s own tragedies – a brother was killed in Flanders and another, Charles, was never heard from again after he ran away from home and travelled to Australia with boat tickets from the store.
The family came up with the idea of a mobile milk cart which went around the village selling fresh milk from the family cows that were kept at the back of the store.
But by the late 1920s life was becoming more difficult for everyone and by the time of the “hungry thirties” the community of Cushendall were really struggling.
“My father Danny once told me that in the late 1920s, early 1930s we very nearly went bankrupt – because there was no money in the country and people couldn’t pay us .”
As World War II raged, the McAlister’s played their role in keeping the community going - they continued to extend credit to customers and engaged in bartering where customers paid with produce they grew on their farms in return for sought-after items like sugar.
They even operated their own early version of home deliveries, with the McAlister general merchant van bringing groceries and supplies to people who couldn’t come to them, while also buying local produce to sell in the store.
Andrew was born above the shop and had no hesitation in taking over the business. In 2000, he carried out a major refurbishment project. “The business has been my life, I am 61 on Saturday and I didn’t want to be the one that pulled the pin on it all.
“I feel as if there are seven or eight generations up there looking down on me saying ‘Jesus boy we kept it going through the famine, through two world wars and what have you done now’ but I know, deep down, that I couldn’t have done anymore to keep it going. Life has just changed. Is it progress? I don’t know,” he says.
There are two key factors that contributed to the closure of McAlister’s Mace in Cushendall.
“The first is the demand for online shopping in these parts - if you could see the number of Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Asda vans that make deliveries around here all day, every day, then you would understand what’s happening on the ground and also there was a definite knock-on effect on the store when the last bank pulled out of the village,” he says.
“When Danske Bank left I lost 15 per cent of my turnover - there was no variable to explain it - it happened all because the bank left us.”
Andrew is now worried that what has happened to his family’s 220-year-old retail business will be repeated in other small villages across the North.
He believes Northern Ireland needs a “rural plan”, one that will put the heart back into communities and make them where visitors will also want to spend time and money in.
“We need to re-invest in communities in Northern Ireland, we need to appreciate what small businesses bring to local, rural communities and how they keep them alive. We need to reinvent our rural communities and create more appreciation for them,” he says.
Otherwise, other long-established, family businesses could end up planning their own wakes.