"We'll have a cuppa before the Mass crowd come in and it gets very busy," says Sharon Mohan, the general manager of Boyers Department Store, ushering me into the restaurant. If anything encapsulates the difference between the North Earl Street Dublin institution and other city stores, it is this. In the shiny, happy, lacquered shopping centres and concept stores, consumerism is the religion. At Boyers, the faithful customers balance their religion with their shopping, spilling out from the Pro Cathedral on Marlborough Street and into the adjoining shop where they are assured of familiar welcoming faces and a strong pot of tea.
Boyers, one of Ireland's oldest department stores targets what Mohan describes as 'the more mature customer'. "A lot of the stores out there are very contemporary and with the closure of Roches Stores, there's a huge market there.
Then there's the social aspect too, which is oh-so-important. "They come in after Mass and have their teas and their coffees and they meet on a Sunday for their dinner – we do a full roast – and you can see the age profile if you look around the restaurant. There's no where else in Dublin for that customer to go. They come in to browse; they come to talk to staff and to see what's new and what's going on."
There's poignancy to all of this because the threat of closure has been hanging above Boyers for some time now. Part of the Arnotts group, it was due to close its doors on 22 June of this year, as part of the company's overall €700m redevelopment. Now, it appears that the company is going to keep the store open for as long as possible, with 2010 being touted as a possible date for closure. "When they heard about the imminent closure, a lot of the customers were shocked because, really, there is nowhere else in Dublin that offers what we offer," says Mohan.
You can see what she means when you check out the ladies fashion. If, for example, you were a lady of a certain age and you wanted a nice blouse, where would you go? Ever since Marks and Spencer decided to go down the high fashion/Lizzie Jagger route, it's no longer a dependable source of such separates. But you'll find them in Boyers with their solid, dependable labels like Michael H, Libre, Steilmann and Eastex. Then again, you'll also find more youthful labels like Esprit, and in the men's department Ben Sherman and Wrangler. Up in lingerie, there are knitted bed jackets to be found but they're alongside Wonderbras. It's a fascinating juxtaposition.
Arnotts initially took over Boyers in 1961 but in its previous existence, it had been a hotel and also a department store where people would come up from the country to be trained in haberdashery and other retail skills. There were living quarters on the top floor, which now serve as the shop's stockrooms and you can still see some of the old fireplaces and old wiring systems from that time.
Another retail idiosyncrasy of the store is how long serving the staff is. Clive Paul, who works in the men's department, has been in Boyers for 37 years. "The business has changed a lot now over the last few years, there's a lot more competition out there and a lot of new stores in the city," he says. "But this is a personal kind of shop whereas a lot of the new stores on O'Connell Street or Henry Street, they're like any store you'd have on any high street in England. They're like clones of each other. They just cater for certain age groups and certain sizes."
Jacinta O'Donohue, who is department sales manager for lingerie and ladies fashion, can't remember how long she's been here but she thinks about 27 years. She used to shop in here with her mother as a child and was even fitted for her first bra here ("I was mortified!"). For her, the family atmosphere and the good social aspect form are a major benefit to working here. There was a department do the previous week where all the staff went to Mamma Mia. Many of the retirees still keep in contact and often pop in for a cup of tea, and of course, there is a great rapport with the customers. "I have two children – my daughter is 19 and my son is nearly 17 – and I still have customers coming into me saying 'I remember when you were pregnant'. They still can't get over how old my children are," she says, laughing.
Arguably the heart of Boyers is its restaurant. It is not exclusively older customers – there's a young lad with tats having a fry up – but in general it's a sea of very elegant ladies in blouses, pearls, brooches and well cut coats. The staff here say they can set their clock by Michael Cole who has been coming in here every day for eight years. "There's a great atmosphere in the place. I come for the healthy breakfast – cornflakes and brown bread. I was going into Kylemore there on the corner for nearly nine years but all my friends died so I had to find somewhere else to kill time. It's all about killing time because I'm retired from my job and I have to find somewhere to go. I come in here, relax, have my breakfast and read the paper."
Maureen Creaner and Joan Creaner have been meeting up at least once a week for 54 years. "I knew Joan before she was married, she's my husband's cousin," Maureen explains. "I enjoy it because it's very central and they're a friendly crowd. It suits us and our age group and it hasn't changed all that much."
"We'll take a snack first of all and then we'll do a little bit of window shopping, we nearly always buy something," Joan says. "We've been buying here for years. As you get older, you frequent the same place, don't you?"