BEST CRAFT/GIFT SHOP: The Old Mill Stores
On a bend in the road between Roscarbery and Leap is a real sign of the retail times. The Old Mill Stores in Gortnaroe is a thriving independent shop that occupies one half of the building. The other half is derelict. Tom Keane and interior designer Claire Graham opened up shop here 16 years ago. They spotted it while en route to deliver some reconditioned Scandinavian wood-burning stoves to Jeremy Irons at Kilcoe Castle in Ballydehob. The couple, who set up Urbana in Temple Bar in the early 1990s, and had their stoves featured in the Harry Potter films, were looking for a new adventure.
"We saw the derelict property, a former shop, adjoining a former feed mill, and bought the lot on a whim," Keane explains. Belonging to the Maloney family, it had been empty for years. It was one of those millennial decisions that if they had had to write a business plan for the bank, they would have been laughed out of it. But retail runs in the veins of this pair and they have turned this space into a stop-the-car-we-have-to-go-into-this-store destination in its own right. It is situated on the busy N71, and about 50 per cent of their trade comes from impromptu stops by people who are taken by what they see, Graham says.
You enter the original grocers and can wander through to a checkerboard tiled second room, once the kitchen, and cross the front hall of the house to a third space, once a formal parlour. Boasting high ceilings throughout, the rooms are packed with covetable things for the home with gifts starting from as little as €2 and rising to cool enamelled stools that double as a side table, from Pols Potten.
You will get no sense of the range from visiting the shop's website and that is part of the sense of discovery you feel here. "I've never known the shop to disappoint," is how reader Jill Dinsdale put it.
Every centimetre of space contains items you'll want to own, from antique ceiling panels imported from India that customers are using as bedheads, to nautical flags from Japan that have been reimagined as aprons. Local souvenirs include knitted tea cosies, €32, made by a woman down the road, and fragrances by Waters + Wild, a certified organic perfumery, €95 each.
The Old Mill Stores, Connonagh Village, Gortroe, Leap, Co Cork; theoldmillstores.ie
BEST BOOKSHOP: Ulysses Rare Books
You always see people browsing the window of Ulysses Rare Books. It houses a mix of titles, some feted for their rarity, others for their design, with children's books sharing the shelf space with high literature.
You could spend ages looking at the type and covers but to really understand this store you need to cross its threshold and inhale its atmosphere; a mix of yellowing paper and ink that many a luxury candle maker has tried to replicate.
Despite the precious nature of the works for sale you’re encouraged to spend time here, to move from shelf to shelf and peruse some very valuable titles – to feel the weight of each tome, its embossed cloth cover, touch its illustrations and typefaces.
Only a select few are hidden behind glass cases. It's a place to buy memorable gifts to mark special occasions as well as appealing to collectors. Each title is individually priced, in hand-written, fine copperplate in pencil on its inside cover. This is a family-run business, set up by former teacher Enda Cunningham, who first started trading rare books as a hobby and set up Cathach Books in 1986 in the George's Street Arcade before moving two years later to the Victorian-fronted premises on Duke Street.
He brought his son David and daughter Aisling into the business, what Aisling calls an apprenticeship, and counted Brian Friel and John Banville as early customers. Enda died about six years ago and the children renamed the business Ulysses Rare Books.
The service here is deliberately reserved. The owners do not want to interrupt your reading and will wait until you're ready to ask questions to engage with you. It is also blissfully free of a look-but-don't- touch policy.
Ulysses Rare Books Ltd, 10 Duke St, Dublin 2; rarebooks.ie
BEST CAFE: The Phoenix Café
We're in the middle of a coffee revolution, with every third shop on any street serving the brew. Furniture shops, concept shops, fashion shops and even butchers have got in on act, and it made the task of selecting a shortlist very difficult. It also made the judges veer towards cafés that were destinations in their own right, rather than a place you drop into to perch or grab a coffee to go.
Situated beside the walled garden at the Ashtown Demense, the Phoenix Café is wonderfully located. It is run by Helen Cunningham and Angela Butler, who set up business about 18 years ago. With her husband Peter Cunningham, Helen had cut her teeth running the now shuttered Blazes restaurant on Exchange Street in Temple Bar, a vibrant late-night spot.
As a mother of young children, she was looking for something new, and saw an advertisement in a newspaper for the Office of Public Works, which operates the demense, looking for people to run the café. She teamed up with Butler, her sister-in-law, who had run a catering business in the UK.
The pair use produce from the now restored walled garden in their soups, stews and salads, even selling some of it from a small table outside the cafe’s front door. “Customers ring up to ask what’s for sale,” says Cunningham, “and ask us to hold a head of cauliflower or cabbage.”
It is the café’s scones, light as air, the size of your fist and served straight from the oven with slabs of butter and raspberry jam, that have regulars calling in as soon as they open. “I’m addicted,” reader Ita Coughlan wrote.
Dog walkers detour for a latte, and even priests congregate here to sample the delicious cakes, which included beetroot and chocolate, a fragrantly spiced carrot cake and a stand out lemon curd cake on the day our secret shopper visited. There are plenty of gluten-free options too, as well as hearty soups, salads and stews.
The setting is fantastic. The café has been renovated downstairs but the larger upstairs room has yet to be done. Outside in the courtyard, there are refectory style tables and benches. It is surrounded by mature trees and picnic tables, and on a sunny day you can take your food outdoors. Some mornings, especially in winter, you can hear the lions roaring for their breakfast in nearby Dublin Zoo. Someone should toss them a few scones.
The Phoenix Café, Ashtown Castle, Nunciature Rd, Phoenix Park, Dublin 7; phoenixpark.ie
BEST SPECIALIST SHOP: Musicmaker
When Musicmaker opened its doors in 1980, Dublin's rock scene was booming. U2 had been discovered and record company A&R men thronged the city looking for the next big thing. Every bloke under the age of 25 was in a band. Shop owner Lawrence Kerr had been working in finance. Part of his job was organising loans for musicians so they could buy their instruments. Opening a shop felt like the natural next step, says manager John Paul Prior.
Music trends change and by the time the boom came around, much of the shop’s business was coming from selling drum kits to bankers. It no longer felt like a community centre; had lost track of its loyal customer base.
With bankers’ bonuses a thing of the past, the recession provided the shop with an opportunity to get back to basics, selling strings for guitars and renting backline equipment to bands on tour, Prior explains. And in doing so, it turned its atmosphere back up to 11.
Here you can noodle on a Fender Mustang favoured by Kurt Kobain, or descend into the basement, a space they have christened the drumgeon and give Animal from The Muppet Show a run for his money on one of the drum kits.
Everyone from Donovan to Debbie Harry has been in the premises. The Manic Street Preachers and actor Cillian Murphy are just some of the names that have signed skins that hang on the walls of the ground floor, alongside Fender guitars, while Marshall amps cover much of the floor space. U2 may now be elder statesmen in the business, but The Edge still shops here. So do Hozier and Kodaline. And Lar Kaye of synth duo All Tvvins used to work behind the counter.
At weekends, it’s a magnet for groupies and hangers on and in this kind of company you might expect the expert staff to ignore mere mortals or act too cool for school. But these musos really understand they’re in the retail game and offer the kind of perfect service that is utterly memorable.
The staff are family to Irish musicians, reader James Lovatt writes. "They offer endless support through hosting international events/clinics, endorsements for artists, advice, and also sell some great equipment. They're also known to host impromptu jam sessions for visiting artists such as Justin Timberlake's band. Musicmaker is not just a shop, it's a community at the heart and soul of the Irish music scene."
Musicmaker, 29 Exchequer St, Dublin 2; musicmaker.ie
Highly commended: Parfumarija – Macedonian-born Marija Aslimoska is a classically trained perfumer who in her first few months of training used mnemonics to help her recall the hundreds of ingredients used. Hearing her describe fragrances will open your senses to a completely new way of thinking. She set up shop in 2013, selling mostly exclusive scents. Spending time here will inform and educate you. Parfumarija, Westbury Mall, Dublin 2; parfumarija.com
BEST FOOD & DRINK SHOP: Cavistons Food Emporium
Cavistons, a business that has been a mainstay of Glasthule village for 67 years, nearly didn't come into being. Brothers Jim and John Caviston bought the premises in a transaction that took place in the Eagle House pub across the road. The morning after Jim was having second thoughts and tried to cancel the cheque but couldn't and so set up a fish shop at number 59 in the then sleepy village of Glasthule in 1949.
From the outside, it isn’t immediately apparent what makes this shop great. There are many shops that have more kerb appeal. Equally the first counter looks almost average – its lasagne, quiche and pate contents positively pedestrian by modern standards. But bear with us as we delve deeper into the shop to where the fish counter looks like its various specimens were literally washed ashore that very morning. They glisten with freshness.
Dublin Bay prawns are piled pyramidically high and you can buy cooked Irish lobster that the fishmongers will crack and shell for you. There's squid that are still pale grey in colour – the shade it should be rather than the opaque white meat you see at many other fishmongers. In another corner vegetables from organic farms – Kilpeddar and Marc Michel in Wicklow – beg you to buy them. The produce here is first-rate.
While fish remains a mainstay of the business, the surrounding space is packed to the roof with every condiment, spice and delicacy from the four corners of the world. There are teams of assistants to help in every area, with special plaudits for Ian Walker who, according to one regular shopper, "would go out in a blizzard to fetch you a fresh scone from the [Caviston]bakery across the road."
Co-founder John’s son Peter, now 65, is still very much a core part of the Caviston experience. He and his sons David and Mark know all their customers’ names and their likes and dislikes.
“Customers tell us what they want,” David explains. “Every day we get asked for special goods and three out of four times we can put our hands on it. When we can’t, we ask for their number and will get it in the next day, or as soon as it is available. If customers can rely on you, then they don’t need to go to three or four shops to get what they want.”
Patrick Daly is one of many readers who talked about the great atmosphere in the store. Catherine Morris loves the banter. "It's a pleasure to shop there," she writes, saying her husband calls in to their bakery, situated across the road, sometimes as early as 5am and gets his choice of beautiful freshly baked bread, and pays in the shop at the end of each week.
The staff are up-to-date on the trials and tribulations of all their customers and every purchase is served with a slice of fun that makes you want to linger.
Cavistons Food Emporium, 58/59 Glasthule Rd, Glenageary, Glasthule, Co Dublin; cavistons.com
BEST VISUAL MERCHANDISING: Optica
Boutique eyewear business Optica is run by husband and wife team Donal and Deirdre McNally and opened its doors 23 years ago, putting a fashion focus on eyewear – something that mainland Europeans have been doing for decades but that in the early 1990s in Ireland was pretty revolutionary.
They’ve sustained their niche business, recently emerging, chrysalis-like, from their lovely pop-up shop on the corner of Dublin’s Duke Street and Dawson Street and into a permanent space across the road.
While the Luas works are still disrupting business on Dawson Street for now, stepping into Optica feels worth the journey.
The new space has been designed by the couple and features a select number of Victorian-style display cabinets, ambient lighting that makes you look good and in pride of place and hung from the ceiling, are two works by Dublin light sculptor Niamh Barry.
Made using mirror-polished hand-formed solid bronze, they are the room's centrepiece. But there's more. Stay looking up and you'll see wonderful Georgian plasterwork discovered during the renovation. A Victorian display cabinet, restored and reworked to house trays of glasses' frames, stands against one wall.
Ryan Connolly of Connolly & Company made the furniture and shop fittings. They include small stools with Donegal tweed seats and leather-lined trays for stock. There are lucite tables from Mid-Century Online and sign writing by Tom Collins Signs. Everywhere you look there is another thing of beauty to admire. It is, as reader James O'Neill writes, "simply stunning".
And that's before you lift a pair of their eyewear to try on – all delightfully unfettered freeing you to browse at length. Entry-level frames cost upwards of €200 but the right pair of glasses not only frames the face but draws attention to your best features.
Optica, 6 Dawson Street, Dublin 2; Optica.ie
Highly commended: The Best of Buds – Carole Horgan was a high flying recruitment executive travelling all over the world to find people at director level for the tech industry and had a premises on Cork's South Mall when in 2010 the bottom fell out of the market and she decided to follow a dream she had held since she played shop as a little girl – to open a flower shop. She trained with Jenny Packer in the UK and moved to the beguilingly beautiful art deco premises in Winthorp Arcade last year. The Best of Buds, Winthrop Arcade, Winthrop St, Cork; thebestofbuds.ie
BEST FASHION SHOP: Samui
Samui, a haven of high fashion set over three levels, is secreted off Cork's main drag. The shopfront is unassuming and looks on to a side street.
You don’t expect much, walking through the front door. Even the ground floor, which has pale wood floors and rails on three sides set around a central Aesop counter, feels rather average at first glance.
What's the big deal, you might ask. But give yourself time to peruse the rails. Silk pussycat bow blouses by Paule Ka, dresses by Marni, and architectural one-offs by Osman are just some of the chic pieces that will grab your attention.
No one follows you round the shop tidying up the rails after you. Rather your presence is noted with a low-key hello that asks if you’d like some help. The very gentle welcome warms you up to the idea of investing in one of these expensive pieces. This is an unapologetically niche market and Clodagh Shorten, who has run the shop for almost 30 years, has stuck to her guns and not diluted the offering.
There is very little here in the less than €150 category, but even if it is out of your reach, you will jump through mental hoops to see how you might come by the money to buy, for example, a marshmallow pink striped Mongolian lamb jacket by MGSM, €780, because you just won’t see it anywhere else in the country. Given the price tags, it is refreshing that the staff don’t do that awful thing of looking you up and down, as if mentally calculating whether or not it might be worth their while saying hello. It’s an outmoded approach and one that is utterly absent in this Cork shop.
Whether you’re wearing mumsy jeans, and not in a fashion way, or sporting the latest catwalk creations, you will be made to feel equally welcome here.
And that is this boutique's singular point of difference; your custom feels valued – even if you are only browsing – and that means that when you do have the funds, you will want to give your hard-earned money to Shorten.
Samui, 17 Drawbridge St, Mahon, Cork; samuifashions.com
BEST HOME & DESIGN SHOP: MRCB
MRCB, which is based in Cornmarket in Dublin, first opened on Lord Edward Street in 1936 and takes its name from the initials of its two founding French men, Marcel Regent and Charlie Bigoud, MR and CB.
What the pair were doing in Dublin is unknown. Dublin's MRCB is now run by Kevin Coughlan, whose parents bought the business in 1989. They previously had a premises on Meath Street.
Growing up, Kevin worked every weekend and holiday. He left school at 16 to join the firm, a decision his school principal at the time, Sean O'Beachain at Coolemine Community College, gave his blessing to. "That put mam and dad's minds at ease," Kevin recalls.
Coughlan snr was well regarded and had drilled into his son the need to always pay the suppliers, who returned the favour when the shop opened by extending him credit and rowing in behind the enterprise.
They were the first shop in Ireland to stock Farrow & Ball paints and extended the shop in 1998 to incorporate a warehouse out the back.
What makes this premises outstrip its competitors is not the way it looks – it has great windows, but inside it is practical rather than prettily laid out. No, it is the top-class service offered by staff, as reader Siobhan Lavery sees it.
Unlike the multiples, where a member of staff will look at his or her feet hoping you'll just disappear when you ask a difficult question, at MRCB they listen to what you're asking for and offer the right advice, while never pushing you to purchase. As a professional courtesy, the shop is open from 7.30am six days a week, which facilitates contractors in stocking up the morning of a job. The shop also sells premier wallpaper brands, has a very strong wood care section and still makes its own French polishes. MRCB Paints and Papers, 10-13 Cornmarket, Dublin 8. mrcb.ie
BEST FAMILY-RUN SHOP: CH Chemists
Brother and sister Peter and Claire Harty run CH Chemists on The Mall in Tralee, one of about 15 pharmacies in this thriving market town. The shop is hidden behind a rather nondescript exterior that, in contrast to the many traditional shop fronts in the town, has a flat, modern, beige facade that belies what lies inside.
Their grandparents had a chemist on this spot and when their father also qualified as a pharmacist, he opened a shop on Market Street. Their mother was a beautician when she met their dad and this goes some way to explaining why this shop in Co Kerry has such an impressive beauty offering. The siblings went into business together, taking over the shop on The Mall when their parents retired.
The sizeable shop is an estimated 9,500sq feet (882sq m) and is set over two floors. Beauty accounts for 40 per cent of the business. Premium beauty brands Chanel, Shiseido, Estée Lauder, Clarins and Lâncome all have concessions within it and there is an impressive fashion fragrance area,with staff that know the difference between woody and floral notes. "The staff are friendly and knowledgeable," writes Aine O'Mahony. One helpfully pointed out to this writer that she had unwittingly picked up two skin serums and was advised on which was the better buy.
It stocks Irish brands Mortar & Pestle and Kinvara, as well as the usual pharmacy brands and affordable cosmetics names. To the left is a really big opticians, run by Claire, which accounts for another 30 per cent of trade. There is a pharmacy counter to the rear, as well as photo printing machines and a usefully positioned ATM – handy for customers who don't need to go out into the elements when waiting for a prescription.
Upstairs there is a beauty salon where you can have a treatment using Yon-Ka, Image or Dermalogica products, as well as makeovers using Irish beauty brand Fushia. At just 12 years of age, Claire's twin boys are still too young to know whether they'll join the family business, but chances are the bookies would give you very short odds on them turning their back on tradition.
CH Chemists, 31 The Mall, Tralee, Co Kerry; chtralee.com
BEST SALON: Edvard & Pink
The salon category attracted a huge number of votes, with readers listing everyone from Mary down the road to practitioners that compete on a world stage. This year's winner is a bit of a surprise hit.
On paper, a salon in a suburban shopping centre sounds neither glamorous nor efficacious and yet Edvard & Pink, recently awarded a Best Beauty Salon accolade at the World Luxury Spa Awards, ticks both those boxes.
Run by beauty therapist Anita Murray and her husband Garreth Bertels, the company started as Pink Beauty Emporium in Dundrum village, but moved to the shopping centre about five years ago. As the business expanded to include men's grooming, they changed the name to one that was more unisex.
“It was not a great name for male clients,” Murray concedes. The salon offers an up-to-the-minute list of spa and cosmetic treatments, as well as manicure and pedicure stations and a brow and lash bar. It has grown in size too, now occupying three floors and a mezzanine and employing 30 staff.
Retail design firm 21 Spaces, which also did Parfumarija in the Westbury Mall and Optica’s pop-up shop on the corner of Dawson Street and Duke Street, created the luxurious interior.
The therapists are first class too. One told our secret shopper that while she has spent her career in five-star hotels and is still on call by celebrities when they visit Dublin, she prefers to work in the salon because of its "progressive approach".
Edvard & Pink, Dundrum Town Centre, Dundrum; pinkbeautyemporium.ie
Highly commended: Hair by Mane – Such is the reputation of Andrew Dunne and his team of stylists and colourists at Hair By Mane at The Grooming Rooms on Dublin's South William Street that he is booked up until October. His talent is colour that he paints on, to highlight flattering features and camouflage the ones you don't want to shout about, to create lustrous, natural looking hair. His colours take three to four hours to create. The salon has a 80:20 female to male clientele. Hair By Mane, 16 William St South, Dublin 2; hairbymane.ie