An air of hope among Galway’s retailers

Standing beside Mary Bennett, we looked down at Shop Street from the vantage point of her office in Treasure Chest. While the street seemed lively and joyful under a blanket of much-awaited sunshine, Mary quietly pointed out how only a handful of shopping bags were to be seen. An abundance of people strolled down the street, laughing, enjoying the music emanating from buskers, but hardly anybody had a shopping bag in hand. The name “shop street” certainly seemed ironic. The city centre, although brought to life once again, was nowhere near as busy as it had once been, pre-pandemic.

Like with many other shops, Mary shared that Treasure Chest had suffered its fair amount of hardship over the last two years. It was extremely difficult to obtain merchandise for the shop, since there were no shows, no travel, no exhibitions. Mary has been in business for nearly 56 years, never experiencing anything close to the turbulence and uncertainty brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. She remarked that purchasing stock online was never satisfactory, emphasising the importance of seeing the products “in person”. The “finishing”, “hemlines”, “quality”, and “colours” of clothing need to be physically analysed. Mary mentioned, however, that Treasure Chest was “very fortunate” to be affiliated with such “reliable” Irish suppliers like Galway Crystal, Newbridge, and Foxford, to name but a few.

Newsagents in the city centre were more fortunate than other retail outlets, since they were classed as essential services. Paul O’Brien commented that his business was closed for exactly eighty-four days, only during the first lockdown. Brendan Holland told me that his newsagents was only closed for a duration of two weeks over the entire course of the pandemic. The shop was closed for the “first time in about a hundred years”, he added with a laugh. While many shops complained about their struggles to find staff due to covid, Brendan blamed his newsagent’s lack of staff on the exceptionally high cost of housing and rent. Staff are just “too expensive to employ”, hiring new employees just “isn’t justifiable”, he said.

While some retail owners seemed grateful for the government’s assistance during this time, asserting that the state had been “very generous”, many were disappointed in the amount of support given. Paul Joyce of Hanley and Co. related that the government assistance is “never enough, but it kept us going”. Similarly, Ger O’Maille added that the support certainly helped, but it was “nowhere near sufficient”.

Many shops like Charlie Byrnes Bookshop are still stuck in a state of “post-Christmas blues”, but I’d been assured that this is a common occurrence that happens every January and February. According to Vinny Browne, these “traditionally quiet months” are always slow, but the pleasant weather this year has thankfully driven a steady flow of sales. Although this beloved bookshop was closed for an eight-and-a-half-month period, they were still selling books online. Portwest’s Ciaran Caffrey noted that there was a real “bounce” since restrictions were lifted on January 21. Ger told me that he has heard some whispers of a St. Patrick’s Day parade to be held in the city centre, hoping that this will “stir things up a bit, bring back a bit of confidence”.

The general atmosphere amongst Galway’s retail owners is one of tentative optimism. Brendan Holland said that “peoples’ guards are down”, but that “doesn’t mean” that the virus has disappeared. Indeed, “anything that makes business uncertain” will always be feared by shop owners. The virus is “still there”, and its threat still looms over Galway’s stores. But, many of those working in retail like Vinny, believe that people are no longer as “scared or concerned”, instead they are slowly “learning to live with the new circumstances”.

The summer ahead looks highly promising for Galway’s retail businesses, though. With the impending return of tourists expected in late March, things seem to be looking up for the city. With the promise of the Galway Races and Arts Festival taking place in the summer, Ciaran Caffrey expects business to return to normal later on in the year. Patricia Connelly of Claddagh Jewellers is also looking forward to the summer months, mentioning that a “lot of American tourists are due to come”. With so many retailers almost “completely dependent” on tourism, Mary Bennett emphasised the importance of the city’s traders working together in harmony to give a “real cead mile failte” to visitors. She represents the optimistic attitudes of Galway’s shops, who wish for nothing more than for visitors to “stay, shop, and enjoy our lovely city”.

 

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