RETAIL BUZZ Shoppers out and about on he Hopkins Road and Link Road area in Castlebar last Friday afternoon.
Slowly, but surely, normality is returning to the county town
A generation ago it was a soulless place searching for its own identity, but today it’s the busiest shopping district in Mayo. The Hopkins Road and Link Road area in Castlebar is the best barometer of mood one can find in these unprecedented days.
At times during the first lockdown 12 months ago, one could almost sleep out on the street in downtown Castlebar, such was the absence of humanity, but this week it was buzzing. The Covid restrictions are easing and people are becoming less fearful. Castlebar is beginning to hum again and the business owners are hopeful of a brighter future.
Mayo’s capital has always been a town where businesses welcomed patrons from near and far. Now, more than ever, that custom is needed to rebuild an economy reeling from lockdowns.
On Friday afternoon, the rain which had poured from the heavens the previous day, had eased somewhat and there was a growing excitement around the place.
In Padraic McHale’s Menswear the man himself was resplendent as always. A lifetime in the trade had thrown up many challenges, but the past 12 months have been the maddest of all.
“I never thought I’d see anything like it,” he told The Mayo News. “You see a lot of different things in this trade, but there are no words for the past year. To be honest, there’s no point in talking too much about it. What’s gone is gone and we all have to move on now and do the best we can.
“Sitting at home for months has been tough for so many people. I was so accustomed to meeting people every day and suddenly that was gone, so I’m delighted to be back,” Padraic added.
“We had a very busy day last Monday when we opened the doors and while it has eased off a bit since, trade has been steady. People tell me they were running out of clothes and were delighted to get the chance to come in and buy a few things again.
“We’re carrying a lot of stock because of the lockdowns and even after Christmas there was no chance of having a sale or anything like that, so it will take a while to sort everything out again, but we’ll get there,” the well-known trader continued before looking to the future with hope.
“This is a great town and we’re lucky to have such good customers. We’re all looking forward now to getting everything back to normal and as long as there’s not another lockdown we’ll drive on.”
Nearby, Liam Cannon could be found behind the counter of his busy fruit and veg shop. Liam has been in the business all his life, starting out Val Donegan in 1977 on Market Square, moving to work with Sean Langan in Linenhall Street in 1979 before starting his own stall beside the new Dunnes Stores in 1987. The site of his current shop came up for sale in 1994, so he bought and started to build. In November 1995 he opened the doors and they’ve stayed open ever since, even during lockdown.
“We had a great trade during the first lockdown when supermarkets couldn’t sell plants or anything like that. That changed, but we continued to have a really solid trade. People had to eat and they knew they’d get top quality here – that’s the secret.
“This is a great shopping street. Dunnes and Tesco are our lifeline. They draw the people into the area and then it’s up to the rest of us to get some of them through our doors. I have a great custom built up over the years between locals and people from across the county and I’m very grateful for that.
“In recent weeks, I’ve noticed more older people coming in because they have the vaccine now and they’re more confident. They’re in no hurry and enjoy the chat and that’s great too because many of them were lonely in the house for months and that’s not good.
“I think we’re going to drive on now. We have to. There’s no other choice. We have to get the economy moving again and I think there’s good times ahead.”
Up the street, the Brewery Cup, a family-owned restaurant in the heart of the town is operating a take-away business. This is a totally alien concept from the pre-Covid days when the place would be jammed with those enjoying bespoke teas and coffees, home cooked breakfasts, lunches and baked goods.
On Friday, it was doing a steady take-away trade, but the takings are far removed from the days when finding a table near the window was an added bonus for patrons.
“It’s either do something or do nothing. Sitting at home waiting for word of a return to indoor dining isn’t a way of life. We decided to keep going because we need to keep our name out there and also retain our core staff in order to be ready for a return, but our takings are down 80 or 90 percent,” Paudy O’Malley explained.
“Takeaway is a very uneven trade, some days are good, others are not so good. This type of business is so inconsistent. We might do four lunches or we might do 40. There’s no way of knowing. Monday was a fantastic day, while Tuesday was only half as busy.
“The weekend trade has been the lifesaver for us. We’re open ‘til 8 o’clock on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and we’ve found that to be good. Friday evening is our busiest time. Most people are finished for the week and want to treat themselves. I can’t see that working for us when normal dining comes back but I know of a few businesses in Castlebar and Westport who will definitely service that market,” Paudy added before turning his attention to the future.
“Business through the country, throughout the world have been hit by the pandemic, so we just have to drive on. We’re just taking it day by day and pushing forward. It’s the only way to approach things at the moment.”