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End of an era for Newport institution

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END OF AN ERA  Jim Reilly and his son Charles outside Chambers’ Newsagents in Newport which will close after 100 years of business this week. Charles’ great grandfather, Francis Chambers, established the shop in 1903.  Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Feature
Anton McNulty

For over 100 years, Chambers’ Newsagents has been an Newport institution since it was first founded by Francis Chambers and his wife, Alice, in 1903. Chambers’, or ‘the paper shop’ as it was locally referred to, has been part of the fabric of life on Newport’s Main Street ever since.
Its name has been synonymous with all things Newport, but by Friday, over 100 years of tradition will come to an end when the key will be turned on the shop door for the final time.
“It is a serious ‘end of an era’ for this town,” Charles Reilly, Francis’s great-grandson told The Mayo News.
Starting off as a newsagents, the business expanded over the years with Francis’s son, Michael building it up to include a wholesalers, fuel merchants, travelling shop, taxi service, funeral undertakers, newspaper distributors and much more.
The closure has been on the cards for some time. Despite the sadness, Charles, his father Jim, his cousin Frank Mulchrone and Pat Chambers (no relation), gathered together to recall their recollections of the good times in Chambers’ Newsagents.

Lilly’s legendary ice cream
Apart from buying the paper, one of the main reasons for people to stop off in Chambers’ was to sample the delights of their homemade ice cream, a rarity in the post-war era in Mayo.
“It was unique enough for people to make their own ice cream from their own cows’ milk. We always had eight good Friesians and used that milk for making ice cream,” recalled Frank, who remembered his aunt Lilly Chambers was responsible for the sweet frozen treat.
“It was well-known, Chambers’ ice-cream. You would meet people from Westport and Castlebar, and they would say that if they were passing through Newport on a fine day, they would always stop at Chambers’ for an ice cream. People from Achill on their way home would often stop by.
“It was the days before the 99s. It was a couple of scoops of ice cream in a stainless steel bowl … they would pour a bit of raspberry cordial on it, and that was a bit of luxury. Lilly would say she would never give the recipe to anyone.”

Hive of activity
The shop was a hive of activity with one side dedicated to papers and magazines while the other was for groceries and just about anything else.
“Someone would come in for a gallon of paraffin and you’d go out the back, give a small rub to the hands and then cut the rashers. They were the days before health and safety,” Frank smiled.
The bus stop is located right outside the front door of Chambers’, and up until recently, the bus driver on the 20 past six bus would bring the evening papers to Achill. Frank recalled that the stop would give passengers an excuse to get off the bus. It could take a while to get them back on.
“Of course in those days the bus would not stop for half a minute or even a good five minutes. There was a pub beside Chambers’, and some of the lads would get off and go one way … the women and children would go the other way to buy an ice cream,” he laughed.
“The bus driver, Gerry Sweeney and the conductor Mick Lynch would be saying we’re leaving and trying to encourage them out. The boys in the pub would say ‘hold it a minute till we finish this’.”
Jim also recalled the bus stopping outside the shop as Ireland were playing Romania in the 1990 World Cup.
“I remember the penalty shoot out when Ireland were in the World Cup against Romania. We had an old kitchen at the time at the back of the shop and everyone on the bus got off to watch the penalties. There was about 16 or 17 in the back, around a little telly. I will never forget that.”

Busy days
Pat Chambers has worked in Chambers’ for over 30 years as did his father before him. He ‘did a bit of everything’. For years, he delivered the papers around the region and was known by all along his route.
“You miss the craic with the people, going up and down with the papers. It was seven days a week that time. We would start on a Sunday morning at half three. We’d pick up the papers in Swinford and then go down to Achill and back up again to Castlebar at half six to pick up more. If you weren’t down with the papers, there would be people ringing wondering where the papers are.”
Jim and his late wife, Mary Alice, took over the running of the shop in 1982. Mary Alice was President of the Irish Retail Newsagents’ Association during the mid 90s. “She took it in her stride,” Jim recalled.

Small shops’ plight
It was over the past decade or so that Jim noticed how the business changed, with other shops beginning to sell papers and the Lotto. He believes that their shop lost the uniqueness that made it special. While the shop will close, they still plan to continue with the feed store and the undertakers into the future.
As they chat, they list the names of small shops that they delivered papers to but have since closed. It’s a long list, and sadly, this Friday, Chambers’ itself will be added to it. Charles believes more small shops will follow.
“The small shops cannot compete now,” he said, adding that a number of factors, including rising overheads, parking problems in Newport and falling footfall meant the decision to close was inevitable.
“It made sense in the end, when we saw the figures … it was losing so much money. It was probably being thought about since Mum passed away [three years ago]. It just couldn’t keep going the way it’s been going.
“The generation who came into our shop are an older generation, and they are not around anymore. Those who are around, they are getting bussed into Westport … every Friday a load drives past the shop and on to Westport. On a Friday [when things were good], there would be four or five people working in the shop it was that busy on pension day.
“Everyone wonders why we can’t keep it open and is upset to see it closing. People won’t realise what Chambers’ was until it is gone.”

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