Gone shopping – An Irishman’s Diary on Dublin’s old grocery shops
The revolution in grocery retailing has been one of the most profound changes in Irish life over the past 50 years
What I miss most about the old- style corner grocery shops, which have now all but disappeared, is having a chat with the person behind the counter, someone inevitably well-tuned into local gossip.
Modern supermarkets are all very convenient, but you don’t get into discourses on neighbourhood foibles and follies at the checkout or in the bagging area.
Most social and commercial trends, good and bad, that have come to Ireland over the years have originated in the US. After the first supermarket opened, in New York, in 1930, it took nearly 30 years for the idea to cross the Atlantic.
A long-vanished supermarket chain, H Williams, opened Ireland’ s first supermarket, in Henry Street, Dublin, in 1959.
Supermarkets then swept the country during the 1960s.
Until then, refrigeration and convenience foods did not exist, so housewives had to shop daily in their local grocery store, giving their orders to the person behind the counter. Most items were sold loose; the deluge of packaging that bedevils present-day supermarket shopping did not exist. Tins full of biscuits, sides of bacon, weighing scales and big old- fashioned cash registers were usual sights.
Practically every item on sale was grown or produced locally, here in Ireland. Nothing had chalked up countless air miles to reach a supermarket shelf. No- one had ever heard of a ready meal or avocados.
Orders could be delivered, by bicycle or van, and long before the advent of credit and debit cards, customers could buy groceries on tick and pay at the end of the month.
With better-off houses, maids would go to the grocers or the shop would send a messenger boy to make a note of what was wanted.
Two chains of grocery shops dominated the retail scene, Findlaters and Leverett & Frye; Findlater’s had shops all over the greater Dublin area, from Crumlin Cross to Foxrock, while Leverett & Frye shops were spread across the country, far beyond Dublin.
Customers discussed endlessly which chain was the more high falutin’ .
On one infamous occasion in 1923, the Christmas windows of Findlater’s shop in Upper Baggot Street, Dublin, which is now a Tesco branch, were broken by six DMP policemen, who helped themselves to the festive turkeys and ham.
The manager was too drunk to do anything and merely locked up the shop at its usual time that evening and went home.
Findlater’s shops, trading for close on 90 years, were late in turning to self-service, although by the late 1960s, it had 10 self-service outlets. At the end of the 1960s, it made a disastrous decision to concentrate on a home delivery service, which failed within a year. The last of the Findlater’s shops closed down in 1969.
Leverett & Frye’s general manager, Michael Wogan, had a son called Terry, who became a renowned broadcaster. Michael Wogan had progressed from being manager of the chain’ s Limerick shop to the man in charge of all its shops in Ireland.
Another renowned store chain was Lipton’s, which at the beginning of the 1960s, had 60 shops in Ireland, including one in Grafton Street, Dublin.
But by 1970, all its shops had closed down, such was the speed with which supermarkets were advancing.
Another long-forgotten chain, Blanchardstown Mills, sold most groceries in loose form.
The mid-1960s also saw the demise of the Monument Creameries, started in 1919, and which grew to 33 outlets in Dublin.
It was famed for its fresh dairy and bakery products, long before products were refrigerated or chilled.
Many customers were fascinated by the sight of assistants in its shops cutting one-pound chunks from huge blocks of butter, using wooden paddles.
Among countless small grocery shops that did well until the 1960s was the Wee Stores in Pembroke Lane, just off Upper Baggot Street, Dublin, taken over in 1941 by John Harrison and his wife Mary Catherine. They sold every conceivable kind of grocery item and much of it was locally produced. The tomatoes came from a neighbour’s greenhouse just across the lane.
Mary Catherine was from from Co Monaghan and one of the regulars in the shop, who often came in for a chat, was a certain Patrick Kavanagh, who lived nearby.
Today, that shop is still in the same family, but is now the First Editions antiquarian bookshop.
The revolution in grocery retailing, instore and online, has been one of the most profound changes in Irish life over the past 50 years, in the process banishing the chit- chat at the counter.