Superquinn, Xtra-Vision and Roches Stores: The shops we loved so much
Pricewatch: They may be gone, but the once household names are certainly not forgotten
The Xtra-Vision store on the corner of Baggot Street and Waterloo Road in Dublin: Try to explain to a child of the 21st century what a video library was and watch confusion cloud their faces. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Last week, in an idle moment, Pricewatch took to Twitter and asked about the shops which have closed that people missed the most.
The response was enormous and, within minutes, we were swamped by a wave of nostalgia for book shops that are no more and supermarkets which have been eaten whole by rivals.
There were shops that fell victim to an online retailing revolution which opened the world to Irish shoppers while closing the doors of many shops.
There were one-time institutions killed by a sudden and seismic shift in how content is consumed, and others which just disappeared as those behind them aged and retired or died. Here are just some of the shops which are gone but not yet forgotten.
Back in the 1980s, this Galway record shop had three branches in the comparatively small city. Now there are none and there hasn’t been one for a long, long time.
To be honest, we could have named any one of the hundreds of record shops which have shut over the past couple of decades after being swamped by a crushing wave of music in the forms of ones and zeroes and by the online retailing giants that stole their lunch and beat them up in the process.
Alongside the aforementioned, there was the Virgin Megastore on Dublin’s Aston Quay, Dolphin Discs, Road Records on Dublin’s Fade Street, HMVs all over the place as well as countless others, big and small, in virtually every town in Ireland.
There are some that are still standing – notably, perhaps, Golden Discs – and the sale of vinyl has seen something of a resurgence in recent years but, even so, the days of hanging out in record shops, sifting through the stock, listening to the staff picks and making life-changing musical discoveries by chance appear to be gone forever. Mindlessly scrolling through Spotify playlists is not quite the same thing.
Gone forever are the hours people of a certain age wasted hanging round video stores trying to find something a couple or group of friends could agree to watch together.
Try to explain to a child of the 21st century what a video library was and watch confusion cloud their faces. “You mean you had to leave your house in the dead of winter and go to a shop miles away from your home – a shop you had to pay to be a member of – and try to rent a film that you would want to watch, as long as it had not been already borrowed by someone else? You then had to hand over £3 in old money for it and remember to bring it back within 24 hours or else risk being hit with a massive fine?”
Now we have Netflix. For a quarter of a century, video and DVD libraries were the kings of the entertainment world. But video was killed by the streaming stars which were legal, illegal and somewhere in the middle. The biggest casualty in Ireland was Xtra-Vision which closed its shop doors for the last time in January 2016. It had had a rollercoaster ride to be fair and flirted with death more than once.
It was opened in 1981 and could do no wrong in the early days leading to an Irish stock exchange flotation in the late 1980s. It hit stormy waters in 1990 and again in 1993 when it went into examinership. In 1996 it was bought by Blockbuster but sold back to Irish investors in 2009. Then in 2011 it entered examinership again and got into difficulty again two years later before finally closing in 2016.
Pat Quinn opened his first supermarket in Stillorgan in December 1966 after his then employer HW Williams declined to take his advice and open a store there. Its loss was his gain and within five years he had six stores and a turnover of £6 million. He then sold out to Galen Weston’s Associated British Foods (ABF) which expanded the enterprise rapidly across the State. It gave us Yellow Pack groceries, a phrase which quickly became synonymous with poor quality products and low-paid jobs which is why the own brand range was ultimately re-branded KVI.
Quinnsworth’s marketing director, and then chief executive, Maurice Pratt became something of a star in the Ireland of the 1980s with his cheesy grins and cheesier ads. Then, in 1997 Tesco bought the business from ABF (which had the good sense to hang on to the Penneys/Primark brand) and Quinnsworth was soon gone.
The other big supermarket to disappear was, of course, Superquinn, although it wasn’t nationwide. It was brought to life by the irrepressible Feargal Quinn at the start of the 1960s. He focused on quality offerings and excellent customer service throughout his long and stellar career and, with uncannily good timing, the Quinn family sold the business and its property portfolio in 2005.
Within five years, and largely as a result of the crash, the buyers, Select Retail Holdings, were in big trouble. They sold the business to Musgraves for a fraction of what they paid for it and the chain was then re-branded as SuperValu in 2014. The sausages were saved – sort of – although the days when they were made in-store by Superquinn butchers are long since gone.
Like both Quinnsworth and Superquinn, Roches Stores never really closed but was instead swallowed whole by a competitor. Of all the stores mentioned by Twitter users, this was the one that appears to have been missed the most and dozens of people referenced it.
It was founded in Cork 1901 by William Roche, a farmer’s son who had started out in Cash’s of Cork. His business grew slowly but steadily until its expansion was stopped in its tracks by drunken British soldiers who destroyed Roche’s swanky new Patrick Street store in late 1920. He kept going, moving to a smaller premises before eventually getting compensation from the British state and returning to Patrick Street.
He opened a second branch on Dublin’s Henry Street in 1927 and another in Limerick a decade later. Then came the shop in Galway and one in Wilton in Cork and Blackrock in Dublin. In 2006 all nine Roches Stores outlets were sold to the Debenhams department store chain.
Ireland’s first FW Woolworth store opened in April 1914 on Grafton Street with the US retailing giant opening more stores across Ireland in the years that followed. In the 1930s the American division merged it with the UK chain and dozens more shops opened in locations including Galway, Limerick, Waterford, Carlow and Tipperary. Some shops thrived, some struggled. In 1984 the company closed all 18 of it remaining shops and left the Republic.
This shop, so beloved of Dubliners for its elaborate Christmas windows and, by all accounts, wonderful Santa Claus, opened its doors for the first time in 1838, a full 11 years before its neighbour and long-standing rival Brown Thomas was born. Both stores thrived and were largely responsible for Grafton Street becoming the pre-eminent shopping street in Ireland.
Fast forward to the late 1980s and Switzers was seriously struggling. In 1989, Brown Thomas tried to buy the Switzer Group, which by then included the Grafton Street shop, Cash’s of Cork, Moons of Galway and Todds of Limerick, from the House of Fraser, which, as it happened, was owned by the Al Fayed brothers who also famously owned Harrods. However, Brown Thomas was outbid.
But, as the saying goes, what’s meant for you doesn’t pass you by and that sale collapsed allowing Brown Thomas to take control of its neighbour in 1991 after paying less than €10 million. In 1994, Brown Thomas sold its store across the road to Marks & Spencer for £20 million and Switzers and Brown Thomas became one on Valentine’s Day 1995, under the name Brown Thomas. Cash’s, Moons and Todds continued to trade under their original names until 1998 after which they were all rebranded Brown Thomas.
Peats World of Electronics
When Peats of Parnell Street opened its doors in 1934 it was a world away from fancy electronics and sub woofers and the like. It sold batteries, bikes, beds and buggies. But over time the shop, owned by Brigit and William Peat, grew its line of wirelesses and televisions and, as the years passed, it became the place keen eared Dubliners went to buy high-end hi-fi systems, speakers and other electronic wizardry.
In 2012, it announced it was closing, blaming the recession and the impact of online retailers. What followed was an outpouring of apparently genuine goodwill from the public. It prompted the Peat family to reopen the Parnell Street store. The goodwill might have been genuine but it did not appear to be backed by any real commitment on the part of consumers to actually spend money in the shop they claimed to love. A year later that Parnell Street shop closed for good.
Boyers & Co
While it traded on Dublin’s North Earl Street for more than 100 years and had many loyal customers, Boyers often struggled with an image problem and in latter years was almost universally described as the “unfashionable older sister” in the Arnotts group. In truth, it was always a bit bargain basement.
“High class dressmaking, moderate charges,” started one of its front page ads in this newspaper in 1899. Fast forward five years and it opened its “new boot and shoe department for reliable and serviceable footwear for ladies, gentlemen and children”. While it may have been reliable, it was never glamorous or on the cutting edge of fashion. It trundled on for many decades before eventually closing its doors in early 2016. It is now a SportsDirect outlet.
Clerys & Co
Clerys was at Dublin’s heart on O’Connell Street and had a history dating back to May 1853, when McSwiney, Delany and Co opened what they called “Palatial Mart” or the “New Mart”.
“Housed in a purpose-built building, the department store was designed to eclipse European outlets of the time. The shop was renamed 30 years later when it was taken over by Michael J Clery of Limerick. From 1883 to the present day, Clery and Co has hung over the doors,” author Joseph EA Connell wrote in a book focusing on Dublin in 1916 which was published ahead of the centenary of the Easter Rising.
Clerys had the dubious honour of being one of the first buildings to be set on fire. “I had the extraordinary experience of seeing the plate-glass windows of Clerys run molten into the channel from the terrific heat,” Oscar Traynor wrote. The shop moved for a spell to Lower Abbey Street but returned to its rebuilt home in the 1920s.
It oddly became one of the most romantic sites in Dublin. “The scene of many a romantic evening, the ballroom at Clerys saw dances hosted every night of the week with a full-time orchestra,” the Clerys website used to read.
“The romance spread and it wasn’t long before gentlemen would ask their ladies to meet them ‘under Clerys clock’. The phrase soon became equally, if not more, famous than the store itself, and meeting under Clerys clock cemented the store as an institutional part of Dublin culture.”
All that was true but not even the clock could stop what happened next. The company, which had been in decline for many years, was bought in 2012 for €13.6 million by a US-based private equity group, in a bank receivership sale. It was sold again to Irish property groups D2 Private and UK-based Cheyney Capital three years later and, within hours, the new owners had applied to the High Court to have a liquidator appointed on the grounds that Clerys’ operating company was unable to pay its debts. This meant that minimum statutory redundancy would be paid to the 460 workers who received just hours of notice before the locks were changed and the shop closed for good.
It is not hard to imagine what James Larkin, who once addressed a rally from its balcony, would have made of that.
Guineys & Co
This shop was once a retailing colossus and business was so good during the war years that its owner, Denis Guiney, was able to rescue Clerys by buying it out of receivership for £250,000. At that time, Guineys had the bigger turnover and it was thanks to Denis Guiney that Clerys became a retail star in Dublin again.
He set it up as an affordable and dependable supplier of clothes for the middle classes which is what Guineys & Co had been too. He died in 1967 and his widow, Mary, remained chairwoman of Clery & Co until her death, aged 103, in 2004.
Guineys & Co’s sorry end came when its by then much bigger relation closed suddenly in 2015. Confusingly, there is an entirely different Guineys on the same street that remains open.
Not the only bookseller to fall by the wayside; giants such as Waterstones and Hughes & Hughes and old favourites like Fred Hanna’s also disappeared as have hundreds of other small bookshops as well as countless second-hand shops.
But Greene’s on Dublin’s Clare Street – just across from the old Finn’s Hotel which had a special place in James Joyce’s heart because it was where Nora Barnacle worked – was old old school.
There was the book-lined staircase, leading up to rooms crammed with old tomes. And the glass canopy and the tables of books left outside come rain or shine in summer and winter.
It started out as a book shop and lending library in 1843 and given its name by the then owner John Greene. Herbert H Pembrey took over in 1912 and his family owned it until the end came in 2007 with much of the business moving online and operating out of a premises in the less evocative surroundings of Sandyford.
The Irish Yeast Company
With a history stretching back to the 1750, this small building with a most memorable facade was one of the oldest shops in Dublin before being sold to the pub next door on College Street in 2018.
It sold yeast – obviously – and all manner of cake-decorating paraphernalia and stepping through its doors was as close to time travel as anyone lucky enough to visit before the doors closed for the last time was likely to get.
The business first opened in 1894 in what had been the foyer of the George Hotel, which later became a bank and later still the Westin Hotel.
The Moreland family took over the business in the 1930s and John Moreland started work there when he left school at 16 in the early 1940s. He was still behind the counter, aged 91, in 2015. After he died, the shop closed and the building was eventually sold and is currently being redeveloped.
Here are just some of the memories received by our readers over recent days.
Greene’s bookshop, with all of its nooks and crannies, was such a sad loss. I think there was even a post office within the bookshop. – Frank McDonald
Roches Stores. Iconic for service and had everything! – Michael Mc Carthy
Roches was like walking onto the set of Are you being Served! – Lorraine Healy
Switzers – the memories of the window displays! Thought it was like something from a movie scene and visiting Santa’s grotto every year! – Miss Irene
Had my first experience of kangaroo, ostrich and crocodile courtesy of Superquinn. And its choice and freshness of fruit and veg was superb. – Gráinne Meara
Definitely miss Superquinn – coffee slices and sausages just aren’t the same any more, plus no more lovely Feargal Quinn Verona – Serena Hanlon
Clerys – terrible loss to the city – Margaret O’Gorman
Tony Wards sports shop. Loved getting a trip in there. A dark dingy side street off O’Connell street. An oasis of sporting goods awaited. – Richard Lanigan
Quinnsworth and Crazy Prices . . . ya gotta miss those KVI brands – Caroline Hennessy
I loved The Irish Yeast Company. It was like walking into a time capsule from the 1960s – Eimhear O Dalaigh
My mum’s tiny newsagents on the main street in a small town in Leitrim. Closed because a massive SuperValu opened down the road. We knew all our customers by name, chatted to them, and was the last family owned shop in the town’s main street – Conor J Bredin
Taaffes in Galway. Una Taaffe was an extraordinary woman! Also McDonagh’s hardware on Merchants Road. I loved the old-fashioned overhead money transit system – Oonagh Monahan