Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Thirty years in menswear: Clarkes

When Clarkes Menswear in Newbridge reached its 30th anniversary on 31 August, it wasn't open, because the day was a Sunday, writes Brian Byrne. But the enterprise established three decades ago by Kilcullen brothers Vivian and Brian Clarke is one of the landmark shops on the main street of mid-Kildare's busiest town.

Even if they're not in to buy on any given day, customers from over the years will always stop for a chat with Vivian (Brian retired two years ago) when on their way up or down the street. It's a social centre as much as a retail mens clothing emporium, and whether the subject is amateur drama, football, or whatever ... even, or especially, clothing ... there's always an excuse to do what now seems so difficult in a frenetic world, pass the time of day with a friend.

When he and Brian decided to set up on their own, Vivian had already worked for more than 14 years in retail with Denis Melia, first when Denis managed a MACE store and later when he had set up his own mens outfitters. Brian had worked with him for eight years. "In those days, you started as an apprentice for three years, then you had four more years as an improver, with the wages going up as you went on. Eventually, I said to Brian, will we try on our own? His very practical first question was, 'where will we get the money?'."

It was in the days when you could still talk to a bank manager at a local level, and with some money raised by a helpful Bank of Ireland, and 'a bit of cash put in my hand as a loan' by Vivian's late mother in law, Alice Coleman, they got the shop off the ground. "I think in total, we had £6,000 in capital to start us off."

The Clarke brothers were young, so it made sense that their target customers should also be young, and it was a period when young men about town were quite prepared to spend their spare money on good quality trendy stuff. "Levis were big at the time, and I remember talking to a rep from Arnotts, when I had just brought in about three dozen pairs of Levi 501s, and telling him that they were 'gold dust on the floor'."

They were also doing suits and slacks, smart knitwear, and even some footwear for a while, though they dropped that latter because of the sheer scale of stocks required. "As the business developed, we went into high quality stuff in shirts, and knitwear like Tricot Marine from Blarney Woollen Mills. We grew then with our customers as they grew older, and stayed with top brands although the brands themselves changed."

The top brands, such as Andre shirts, and eventually knitwear, were a deliberate choice, as Vivian and Brian were faced with competition from cheap imports in the bigger shops coming on-stream. "I wasn't prepared to stock the cheap stuff, as we couldn't compete there, and our customers knew that with us they were getting quality."

Over 30 years on the street, Vivian can recall a lot of changes even on his own stretch of frontage, a dry cleaners not there now, a record shop now gone under the might of the likes of HMV and later iTunes, and more. "There's a lot that's different, the kind of shops, the kind of customer, the competition from the likes of Whitewater and Penneys."

The Clarkes were fortunate in their choice of location, as further towards the bridge the retail footfall has all but disappeared. It was a process that started only a few years after the brothers had set up, when Dunnes Stores arrived in town. "There's now constant traffic between Penneys and Whitewater, and we're in the middle as people go by, so we'll often get new customers that way. But I can see the effects of the recession on people's ability to spend. The customers are still there, and they want to buy the quality, but they can't do as much of it."

It's a very personal business too, which means that Vivian is pretty well always there, six days a week, especially now that his brother has retired. "Brian always looked after the buying, and I looked after the shop and the window-dressing. He would go to Dublin every week to visit the wholesalers and see what was going on, and we were very much a complementary team. It's a bit harder without him, but that's the way of life." Still, looking back over the three decades, Vivian muses that their business choice gave them great freedom. "It allowed us to do things the way we wanted, a way we wouldn't have been able to do if we were employed by someone else."

While we're talking, a couple come in wondering if he sells men's footwear. Vivian apologises, and gives them very clear directions to a nearby store that will have what they want. He comes back and reaches into a briefcase, pulls out a faded copy of a feature article written when they opened the shop first. It began with the words 'For the Clarke brothers, Vivian and Brian, business is all about customer service'.

That's the ethic which keeps you in business for 30 years, through thick and thin. But you wonder whether there's a generation out there today willing to take such a long view for a small business career? "I don't know if I'd advise anyone to do it now. You have to serve your time in this business, you have to know it, and I don't know if there's any way for someone to learn the trade that way now."

This article was first published in the Kildare Nationalist.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Jimmy's cancer fundraisers upcoming

It's that time of year again folks, for our Irish Cancer Society annual events, writes Jimmy Aspell.

A big congratulations to Michael Dillon and crew who have already completed the parachute jump, and next up on Saturday 6 September is our Music and Casino Night in The Spout, tickets on sale at €5 and these can be exchanged for chips on the night. The music lineup is Leinster Award winner 2014, the brilliant Bernie Heaney; Reg Plunkett; Kevin Barnes; Kevin Swayne; Tommy Lawle; yours truly; my daughter Leah; and the band for the night are the brilliant 'Last Chance'. This is shaping up to be a very interesting night, please, please support us.

And to finish off our events for 2014 we have a Barbecue Morning and pitch and putt competition on Sunday 14 september, this is courtesy of Derek Courtney and friends. This is a great fun day for all the family. Registration at 9.30am and donations can be made on the day or through sponsorship cards available in The Spout.

Prizes will be presented in The Spout at approximately 12.30pm.

So we have a busy few weeks ahead — looking forward to seeing you all there. Thank you.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Community Soccer Tournament mooted

A soccer tournament between Kilcullen estates is being planned for September/October, and every estate, or even street, is invited to field a team, writes Brian Byrne.

The 7-a-side competition is being organised by Ruairi Brown, who playes with Kilcullen AFC. He says it could be a one-day event or may be run off over a few days, depending on response.

Each estate or street will organise its own manager and coach, and each team panel is limited to 10 players.

Ruairi says he'll try and fit in individuals who have no team to play with.

If you're interested in taking part in this cross-community tournament, contact Riairi on 086 1037721 or Ray on 087 2636375.

Bowls back for season

Kilcullen Bowls resumes next Tuesday 22 September in the GAA Hall at 8pm.

New members are welcome, and coaching is available, so go along and give it a try.

Contact Syl at 045 481152.