Seven days on Grafton Street

 

Two years ago, Dublin’s Grafton Street was ranked among the world’s five most expensive shopping streets. Now retailers struggle to stay afloat, while, outside their doors, a new reality takes shape

FRIDAY

4.30pm

Here’s how people on Grafton Street celebrate the first signs of summer: by standing in the middle of the street and feeling that friendly sun kiss their face; by peeling the wrapper off the first Cornetto of the year; by dawdling in front of the stomping Latin funk of Captain Magic and feeling the beat in the pavement, until gardaí move them along (in the politest way possible); by meeting friends for a pint on the pavement outside Kehoe’s after work; by saying – yes! – the kids can take their jackets off; by holding hands with a lover; by forgetting about the recession and the uncertainly that accompanies it, for a while at least; by humming the line from the old Noel Purcell favourite, “Grafton Street’s a wonderland,/ There’s magic in the air,/ There’s diamonds in the lady’s eyes/ And gold-dust in her hair”; by wondering if there has ever been an afternoon so precious, and concluding that maybe there hasn’t, and almost being afraid to stop (or begin a new paragraph) for fear winter will return, leaving Friday afternoon as nothing more than a sweet and too-brief dream . . .

SATURDAY

1.55AM

Throngs of people are emptying out of the pubs and milling around. Outside the Nirvana head shop on South William Street, just off Grafton Street, there’s a queue. Mostly it’s made up of students and well-dressed young professionals, waiting politely in line.

A grille at the front of the door slides open.

“Do you have any mephedrone?” asks a punter. “No, we don’t sell that,” comes the firm reply from behind the grille. “Or whatever it’s called, the equivalent,” he asks again. “Yeah, plant feeder. It’s €20 for half a gram,” comes the response.

Shane, 28, is an entrepreneur by profession and stops to talk. He has a brightly coloured packet with a flower on the front. It says “magic plant feeder” and – on the back in smaller print – “not for human consumption”.

“I know there’s controversy over this, but look, we’re all adults,” Shane says. “It’s a free world. It’s just a more synthetic form of MDMA. It’s no different to buying alcohol.”

He unlocks his bike and gets ready to cycle home. “I’ve a christening in the morning, so I’d better be off.”

2.15AM

Martin, 32, from London, is sitting on his bright yellow pedi-cab and waiting for business at the top of Grafton Street. Demand is slow.

“We’re the classic throw-away money, so things are tough” he says. “You know, I’ve only been doing this since September, but the others tell me their earnings are way, way down. What you would have earned on a Wednesday, say, you’re lucky to get on a weekend night.”

The job is okay, he adds. The worst thing isn’t so much the money (which can be miserable), but the abuse.

“We’re basically getting drunk people down the road, so the guards kind of like us. But it can get mad here,” he says. “You know, people say things here which you’d get stabbed for in London. The D4 guys are the worst. The other night I had three of them in the back. One of them shouts at a girl on the street: ‘Oi, you fat bitch!’ Then her boyfriend runs up and decks the guy in the face.”

That said, Martin likes Dublin (despite the casual violence, drunkenness and poor earnings).

“It’s a romantic city, man,” he says. “I used to live in LA, which was a soulless shell. Dublin’s got more soul than Motown. The music scene is great, there’s a lot of creative people around . . . I’ll give you one bit of advice, though: close down RTÉ. All that doom and gloom. It’s depressing the country, man!”

3.25PM

“Awful!” says Marie, a flower-seller at the junction of Grafton Street and Duke Street, when I ask how she’s coping in the teeth of the recession. “You’re just getting by really. Where people would have spent €20 or €30 on flowers, now it might be just a tenner. Everyone’s looking for bargains, but our margins are down to the bone.”

An elegantly dressed lady approaches and points to a bunch of creamy white roses and asks how much they cost.

“That’ll be €15,” Marie says.

“Right. Can you give them to me for less?”

“What?” says Marie, glaring at her. “Do you want them for free?”

The lady takes the flowers and heads off.

“That’s what we’re dealing with. See what I mean?” Marie says. “Them roses are best quality. Avalanche roses. To buy just one stem of those in a florist would be €5.”

4PM

Statuesque sign-holders are everywhere along the crowded street, advertising everything imaginable. There are the clothes (“Closing down sale – suitable clothing”); the make-up shop (“Glamour to go – free consultation!”); restaurants (“All-u-can-eat buffet, €12.50!”); and teeth-whitening (“50 per cent off laser whitening”).

Danesh, 31, stands here most days between midday and 7pm. He holds a sign advertising “80 per cent off laser hair removal”. His job is to sway the sign from side to side, in the direction of the office on Wicklow Street. He makes around €350 a week.

“I have to keep moving the sign, or I lose my job,” he says. “It can get cold. I’m from Malaysia, so I’m not used to this. I take three Nurofen a day to keep out the cold. It’s probably bad for me. I’m also wearing three layers of clothes.”

Danesh used to work in the hotel industry, earning very decent wages, until a year and a half ago. He’s happy enough with his current job and says his boss is generous to him. Mostly, he observes people to pass the time. He sees people carrying shopping bags for designer stores, with nothing in them; others rushing off to work, or dawdling along on a day off; pickpockets working their way through the crowd; beggars looking for money.

“I notice that people are very generous to the people looking for money. Too generous. Maybe three out of 10 give money. And maybe one will give something like a €50 note,” he says. “For me, I’ve had enough of Ireland. There are too many foreigners. Any Tom, Dick and Harry can pay €5,000 to ‘study’ English. It’s all a big scam. The immigration people don’t seem to be doing anything.”

SUNDAY

1.30AM

It’s a quiet night for a Saturday. A few knots of people are heading in the direction of Lillie’s Bordello, “Dublin’s most prestigious nightclub”. Standing at the alleyway entrance, swathed in blue light, are the doormen, Kevin and Jonathan.

Inside, amid the white leather couches and chandeliers, the club is about half-full. A few recognisable faces are among the crowd, from the worlds of TV, media and entertainment. The downturn is taking its toll here, too. The price of “gold” membership, which gives access to the members’ bar, has been reduced from €1,000 to €500.

“Things are okay, but it’s not what it was a few years ago,” says Kevin. “There used to be queues going up the street. We’d have two cash registers at the door, instead of the one. It’s hit others harder. Renard’s has closed, and a few others are struggling.”

2.15AM

Standing at the top of Grafton Street, close to the hum of the burger-van generator, is Shane, 53, a born-again Christian dressed in an overcoat. He’s here with seven others holding large black and yellow signs which say: “John 3:7.”

“We’re doing this for the past four years,” he says. “Every Friday and Saturday from 11pm till 3am. We emphasise what Jesus says – you must be born again. There’s a lot of depression out there, a lot of despair. People looking for satisfaction in drugs and drink. And there’s a multitude of kids out there who don’t have a clue. We want to spark conversation. People approach and ask, ‘what does it mean?’. They’re curious.”

Do they get much trouble or abuse? “I used to work in the army and on building sites, so there isn’t a swear word I don’t know,” Shane says. “I’m immune now. It’s like water off a duck’s back.”

Seconds later a group of lads stumbling down the street stop for a moment.

“What’s that?” shouts one.

“It’s a message from God,” one of the born-again Christians responds.

The guy grabs the sign and runs down the street. The sign-holders race after him. His friends, meanwhile, collapse with laughter.

MONDAY

10.30AM

It’s a sad, grey Monday morning. A mixture of sleet and rain is falling cold and hard. John, 26, is making his way up the street with an empty takeaway coffee cup and asking people for money. He’s carrying a black plastic bag containing clothes and socks.

John has slept on Grafton Street for a year and a half, but has moved to Moore Street in more recent times.

“I was in a hostel last night, so it was okay. I kept out of the rain,” he says. “Grafton Street is okay, but it’s noisy. People are nice most of the time, but others are ignorant. I get money for a sandwich and a cup of tea. I’ll just try to keep out of the rain. I take a few tablets as well. They get my head in the right space. If you’re no good at this life, it puts you in the third world. It’s a matter of looking after yourself.”

John heads off, rain dribbling down his nose.

Further along the street is Alan, 49, a Dublin Corporation street cleaner. He’s one of the Dublin City Business Improvement District corps of cleaners.

“The businesses pay extra on top of their normal rates for the service,” he says. “It’s wet, sticky and messy. But this is a job, so I’m thankful for that. The wages could be better. It’s not always nice work. The alleyways can be full of human waste, fluid, vomit, needles.

“I’ve three kids, so they’re the priority. And they’re expensive – not to mind the wife.”

TUESDAY

2.30PM

Business is as strong as ever at Barnardo’s furriers, a supplier of fur coats for more than 200 years. “This is a family business. We give a very personal service, we’re very specialised, and we have loyal customers,” says Caroline Barnardo.

The building, on the lower end of Grafton Street, has hardly changed in 150 years: the original solid mahogany display cabinet and counters are in situ, as well as intricate stucco plasterwork on the ceiling.

“People say fur is expensive, but it’s not necessarily,” Barnardo says. “We start at €200 and upwards. Divide that by 20 years, the typical lifespan of a garment, and it’s very cheap.”

On most Saturdays, animal rights activists assemble and protest outside. Barnardo insists it doesn’t put customers off. “They weren’t here last Saturday,” she says. “They were down at the Green Party convention in Waterford. So that’s what you get when you vote for the Greens. The protests just irritate people. People are more determined to come in – they say they won’t be dictated to by a group of foreigners. Most of them are foreign.”

Over at Paul Sheeran Jewellers, on Johnsons Court, the front window is a sparkling vista of diamond-studded pendants, bracelets, rings and earrings. “Business has changed; we’re in different times,” says Sheeran. “You might sell a lot less in the €40,000 to €50,000 bracket, but there’s also more appreciation of jewellery and the value of it now. When people buy something special, then it’s very special. People still feel like treating themselves. After two or three years of this, people deserve a pat on the back. We see things as half dull rather than half-empty. People need to lighten up, pull themselves together and get on with things.”

It’s a different story at Dubray Books, an independent bookseller on Grafton Street for the past 20 years. Sales are down, margins are tight. To make matters worse, a bargain store has opened next door, selling books from €2 as well as everything from Jedward Easter eggs to plastic framed posters of Wayne Rooney and Fernando Torres.

“It’s been pretty savage,” says Dubray’s co-owner, Kevin Barry. “Compared to 2007, we’re down 25 to 35 per cent, a phenomenal decline.”

The attitude of customers has changed, too. “They can be more demanding and questioning. They’ll query price . . . they’ll say things to staff like: ‘I’ll see you in the dole queue.’ I assume it’s frustration with their own position, more than anything else.”

WEDNESDAY MORNING

There are around 10 empty premises along Grafton Street. West jewellers is one of the more recent casualties. Dunnes Stores’s double-fronted premises has been vacant for a year and a half. So has the old Mortgage Store premises at the junction of Nassau Street.

For John Corcoran, owner of Korky’s footwear shop, it’s a depressing sight.

“This should be our Bond Street, but the place feels utterly degraded,” he says. “You have too many convenience stores, fast-food outlets, mobile phone shops. This is in the middle of Georgian Dublin. It should be our most elegant street, but its lost its lustre,” he says. “With the rent, its very hard to make money. Virtually everyone is on an upwards-only rent review, We pay €445,000 in rent. It’s crazy rent. And we’ve another €50,000 in rates on top of that. This street is an example of how the economy went bust. We got so disconnected from the real world. We thought the street was up there with Fifth Avenue. We believed the hype.”

2pm

In the quiet sanctuary of Clarendon Street Church, just off Grafton Street, there are people queuing up for confession.

There are all-day confessions because it’s Spy Wednesday. Fr Michael has just finished a draining two hours stint in the confession box.

The pews are filled with mostly well-dressed older people, as well as middle-aged office workers and shoppers.

“It’s exhausting, but it is very rewarding,” says Fr Michael quietly. He’s dressed in a brown cassock. “You know, we’re flat out. The downturn means there has been a bit of a resurgence. It’s mostly senior people but there are young people – Europeans mostly.

“People have more time. Many people are looking for meaning in their life, that something is missing.”

THURSDAY

11.15am


For all the gloom of the recession, it feels a world away in the shiny marble interior of Brown Thomas’s luxury hall on the ground floor. There’s an 18-carat gold-plated Nokia phone for €1,600 in a display cabinet. Over in the corner there are boxes of multi-coloured macaroons by Ladurée, flown in from France, selling for just under €40.

“I suppose the learning for us has been that even though trading is definitely more challenging, if we stay focused on what we do best – bringing in the best products and giving the best customer service – we will weather this storm,” says Brown Thomas’s managing director, Stephen Sealey. “After all, Brown Thomas has already survived two World Wars.”

Outside, just up the street, the latin, bluesy sounds of Captain Fantastic (or the Super Fantastic Adventures of Captain Fantastic, to give them their full name) are gathering a crowd. “Sure, it looks fine. There are lot of people about. But from the people I talk to, things are desperate,” says Duncan, the band’s lead singer.

“These past three weeks, four separate business have all asked us to play outside their shops to attract customers in.

“They tell us ‘retail is dead but you guys pull a crowd’. It’s kind of ludicrous. This is the busiest retail street in the country. And they’re asking us to save Ireland from recession. It’s flattering – but if that’s the case, what hope is there for the rest of the country?”