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Sweets in big glass jars and Paris buns: Lost shops of Belfast

Ahead of a new photography exhibition opening in Belfast tomorrow, Ivan Little takes a look at the stories behind the pictures

Published 05/08/2015

Street life: shop owners and butchers pose for the camera while going about their work in images taken from Bill Kirk’s exhibition
Street life: shop owners and butchers pose for the camera while going about their work in images taken from Bill Kirk’s exhibition
Street life: shop owners and butchers pose for the camera while going about their work in images taken from Bill Kirk’s exhibition
Street life: shop owners and butchers pose for the camera while going about their work in images taken from Bill Kirk’s exhibition
Street life: shop owners and butchers pose for the camera while going about their work in images taken from Bill Kirk’s exhibition
Street life: shop owners and butchers pose for the camera while going about their work in images taken from Bill Kirk’s exhibition
Mirror image: two women chat on Sandy Row wearing identical clothes and striking similar poses
Street life: shop owners and butchers pose for the camera while going about their work in images taken from Bill Kirk’s exhibition
Bill Kirk

They're the magical little shops that stood on virtually every street corner in Belfast, selling everything from humbugs to hammers and from Winklepicker shoes to Woodbine cigarettes. Now, decades later, memories of them are something special that money just can't buy.

But the tiny businesses, which were part of the very fabric of Belfast and were immortalised in song by Van Morrison, are being celebrated this week in a photographic exhibition in the city centre. Forty black-and-white pictures taken by former Tourist Board photographer Bill Kirk, from Newtownards, perfectly capture a long lost era in the Seventies, before megastores and supermarkets came along to sound the death knell for many of the open-all-hours corner stores which had previously been the only shopping show in town.

Bill says: "I took lots of pictures of the shops because I knew they wouldn't be there forever. And I was right."

Frankie Quinn from the Red Barn Gallery in Rosemary Street - itself housed in what was once an iconic Belfast pub - has a huge archive of Bill's photos and stumbled on the idea for the exhibition almost by accident.

"I got a request for a picture of Marguerite's confectioner's shop in Waring Street on the corner of Hill Street, and it took me five hours of going through 15,000 of Bill's negatives before I found it on the last strip," he says. "It suddenly dawned on me that there were enough pictures of corner shops in there - 400 of them - to warrant an exhibition of their own. They are photographs which will strike a chord with everyone of a certain age."

Like thousands of people, Frankie, who is from Belfast's Short Strand area, remembers the boyhood thrill of spending his pocket money in corner shops which stored their sweets in big glass jars.

The names trip off his tongue - Davy Bell's, Donnelly's, Mrs Murray's, Burns' and Maggie Keeny's - where they used to sell their confectionery in pokes made out of newspapers.

"If there wasn't a shop on the corner, there was a pub," says Frankie. "But they all vanished with the arrival of the big supermarkets, though they can't take the memories away.

"The shops were the life and soul of every community, providing employment and a meeting place for locals. They were independent, family-run businesses, and since the advent of out-of-town shopping centres and re-development, the corner shop has all but disappeared from our landscape. But they live on in Bill's pictures."

One of the photographs in the Red Barn was first seen in another Bill Kirk exhibition several years ago. It shows two men delivering meat to a butcher's shop in Sandy Row, owned by James Johnston, the acclaimed tenor who turned his back on the opera world in London to come home to Belfast. After the photograph went up in the Red Barn, a man came into the gallery to say he was one of the delivery team.

Bill says: "The man was only a teenager at the time and was helping a relative with deliveries. He was able to tell me about James Johnston and how he'd had a row with Maria Callas."

Another favourite picture of Bill's was again taken outside a shop in Sandy Row. "It shows two women talking - they're like mirror images of one another with similar hairstyles, glasses and hands on their chins in the same position," he says. In the shop window behind them, posters advertise the price of a jar of coffee at 35p, chocolate biscuits at just 19p and 72 teabags for 24p.

Bill says: "Another photograph that I particularly like is the one of the Regal confectionery shop on the corner of Princes Street, beside the Albert Clock where McHugh's pub is."

Bill's grandfather, Hugh Kirk, owned two adjoining small shops in Newtownards. "He had one shop selling tobacco and confectionery and next door he had antiques," Bill says. "I used to wander among the old weapons, flintlock pistols, African clubs and first editions of books. It was Dickensian, but I loved it."

Van Morrison sang about a corner shop in his classic song Cleaning Windows, which is about growing up and finding one of his first jobs as a window cleaner in east Belfast.

In the song, Morrison sings about "buying five Woodbines at the shop at the corner", before going back to work and later returning for lemonade and Paris buns.

In another song, A Sense of Wonder, Morrison makes a chip shop near his old home on the Beersbridge Road famous too. He sings about buying pastie suppers at Davey's chipper and finishes the song with references to other Belfast delicacies such as gravy rings, barmbracks, Wagon Wheels and snowballs.

  • Bill Kirk's exhibition Corner Shop opens in the Red Barn Gallery, 43B Rosemary Street, Belfast tomorrow night

How dad gave me an insight into the city's counter culture

It's not only a story which has two sides to it. A shop counter is a very different experience depending on whether you're in front of it or behind it.

Growing up in east Belfast, shops like Sinclair's, Marie's and Gaston's on Connsbrook Avenue were dream palaces where I'd buy sweets or comics.

And in Bell's grocery shop, where the Alliance Party now has its offices, a free biscuit was always guaranteed because the owner was a family friend.

But working on the other side of the counter of a shop - well, that was more than I'd bargained for.

My father took over a newsagents/confectionery shop on the Cliftonville Road after selling up his milk business. I helped him on school holidays.

And if the early morning milk deliveries were tough, then the 12-hour days in the shop were excruciating.

There was the morning newspapers to sort out, and on the days that the delivery boys didn't turn up, I had to fill in for them. I could have found my way round the Cliftonville Road and parts of Ardoyne in my sleep. Which frequently I did.

In the early days of the Troubles, my father taught me the customers were always right - with their politics.

Agreeing with them was fine if they subscribed to the News Letter or the Irish News, but not so easy with the Daily Mirror readers.

However, they weren't all bad times.

Yes, the odd inventive shoplifter kept us shopkeepers on our toes, but most of the customers were able to shorten the long hours with their humour, or their odd requests to buy everything but the kitchen sink.

Eamonn Holmes, who lived nearby, used to shop in our place, but I don't remember him. Or him me.

Our most famous customer was Sir Douglas Bader, the legendary RAF flying ace who landed in one day to buy pipe tobacco, though what he was doing on the Cliftonville Road is still up in the air.

What was also strange - happily for my father - was that no one ever robbed him.

Most other corner shops in the city were plagued by opportunistic gangsters. And even worse.

Belfast Telegraph

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