‘The tenants are our talent’: Meet the Dublin landlord putting the traders first

George’s Street Arcade owner Gwen Layden is more like a curator, nurturing a mix of businesses to ensure the Victorian shopping centre remains diverse

Gwen Layden, the landlord of George's Street Arcade: 'When we bought it, we respected the lives of those who were there before us.' Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times

There isn’t anywhere in Dublin like the George’s Street Arcade. It is unique for the sheer diversity of its retail offer, the amazing longevity of so many of its traders and the exceptional care of a great landlord, Gwen Layden, who knows each and every one of them.

It’s been a family affair since 1992 when Gwen’s father, Joe Layden (79) bought the South City Markets complex – occupying an entire city block – and then sold vacant upper floors as “would-be apartments” to raise funds for the then run-down arcade’s restoration.

The building once contained both east-west and north-south arcades, but the latter didn’t survive. Dunnes Stores occupies the arcade that opened on to Exchequer Street, while the arcade that faced Fade Street is now the Market Bar, having been Byrne’s sausage factory.

An oval plaque at the entrance on South Great George’s Street records that the Victorian gothic extravaganza was Dublin’s first purpose-built shopping centre, originally opened in 1881, but badly damaged by fire 11 years later and rebuilt in its current form in 1894.


Walking through the nearly always bustling arcade on a recent afternoon, it was clear that Layden has a close personal relationship with all of its traders

The present owners, The Layden Group, acquired the property in late 1992, and have continued to maintain the integrity of this beautiful building in sympathy with the original Victorian style.

As Gwen says, “each brick cost us, we would never have demolished it”.

She’s not only passionate about the arcade’s heritage, but also committed to protecting those who make their living there.

“When we bought it, we respected the lives of those who were there before us,” she says. This includes Stokes Books, which has been in the arcade for 40 years.

And when Covid meant having to close it all down in 2020, not a single cent in rent was charged to the tenants until the pandemic was over and they got back on to their feet again. “The tenants are our talent,” she says. “Without them, we wouldn’t be here at all.”

Gwen Layden is a “curator”, although she wouldn’t use such a pompous term. To maintain the arcade’s diversity, no trader is permitted to compete directly with others by stocking similar merchandise. “That would be a race to the bottom, where nobody wins”, she says.

Walking through the nearly always bustling arcade with her on a recent afternoon, it was clear that she has a close personal relationship with all of its traders, greeting everyone by their first names and chatting amiably with them about how their businesses are doing.

Larger units include Umi Falafel, run by Adnan, who came to Ireland from Palestine 20 years ago; he also operates Za’atar, which specialises in Middle Eastern flatbread pizzas. Between them is Allways Travel, an agency that says: “We do the work so you can relax”.

Unique Crafts and Design is run by Magdalena from Krakow, who’s been in the arcade for 14 years, and thinks it’s a “gorgeous place”, while Sugar Daddy Barbers is a “modern tonsorium” that offers “the pleasures of old-school barbering”, with hot-towel shaves.

Spindizzy, one of Dublin’s longest-established indie record stores, has seen vinyl come and go and then come back again, with its shelves now groaning under the weight of “LPs”, as we always called them, because its customers want something more tangible than Spotify.

Gwen Layden (centre) with some of the business owners who operate out of George's Street Arcade. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times

Geany Locatelli from Brazil, who recently arrived in Ireland, set up her stall just two months ago and is delighted with herself. Trading as My Lily, she’s selling O Boticário cosmetics, as well as silk scarves handmade by her mother Sophie back home in Santa Catherina.

“They’re from all over the world,” Gwen says of around 40 per cent of her tenants. Often, they would have started out by getting some free wall space to display merchandise and, if it goes down well with customers, they’d get a stall – if there was one available.

Adding to the multicultural ambience are outlets such as Bombay Banshee, for Asian-inspired accessories; Carnaval, for Brazilian fashion; Maharani, for Indian saris; Rare, for clothes inspired by Asian comic book stars, and Siam Su, for products from Thailand.

There’s also space for artists to exhibit paintings in an informal art gallery just inside the George’s Street entrance as well as a stall run by Natasha from Venezuela selling mystic crystals to help relieve stress. “She’s so knowledgeable about it all,” Gwen tells me.

Like the traders themselves, she’s delighted that George’s Street Arcade is bustling once again after the “eerie silence” that descended upon it during the Covid pandemic, and determined to continue nurturing what makes it such a special place in Dublin.

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former environment editor