The loss of independent businesses in Dublin City

As businesses close down across the city, is Dublin losing its soul?

Independent businesses in Dublin have been closing at a staggering rate. Simon’s Place, a café located in Georges Street Arcade, was in business for over 25 years before closing in December of last year.  It was a refuge in a busy city, where you could enjoy a fresh cinnamon bun and sit with friends as long as you liked. Vegan Sandwich Co., an award-winning vegan restaurant, was as much a centre of community in Rathmines as it was a delicious sandwich shop before closing in October of 2022. All My Friends, a queer-owned and run bar in the Liberties, showcased young queer artists in exhibitions, as well as having a student deal for an affordable pint.  It closed in January of this year.  Losing independent businesses like these is evidence of a wider issue at play in Dublin. It is a creeping rot plaguing the heart of our city, the ramifications of which go beyond those felt by the struggling owners of these businesses.  The replacement  of these institutions, some of which have been in business for decades, by large multinational chains is leaving our city increasingly commercialised and robbing it of authenticity.

These café chains and bars, owned by impersonal, almost identical private companies, have become something of an extension of  the corporate world.  How often do you walk into a café that is part of a chain, and feel like you have stepped into an office? These premises are, more often than not, full of people working on laptops, sipping €5 coffees, and sending emails with Wi-Fi they had to pay to use. Gimmicky cocktail bars mimicking authenticity serve as places for work-drinks and ‘casual’ venues for a meeting. These places are not welcoming to students, or indeed, anyone who happens to be outside of the small, affluent, sect of young ‘professionals’.

In modern cities like Dublin, American sociologist Ray Oldenburg argues for the necessity of what he terms ‘third places.’ These ‘third places’ are defined by Oldenburg as spaces which exist outside of home and work environments which offer a place for ‘social interaction’. They must be affordable and open to people of every class.  He cites coffee shops, pubs, local shops, etc., as examples of these places.  These are exactly the type of local businesses that have been shutting their doors around Dublin.  

It is no coincidence that these businesses integral to socialisation have been struggling after the pandemic, which has had lasting effects on our ability to socialise freely.  Students are one sector of the population that has been feeling the loss of such social spaces most acutely. This is reflected by the fact that 9.7% of the 16-29 age group in the UK report feeling lonely.  This is the highest percentage of loneliness compared to any other age group, according to the U.K’s Office for National Statistics.  For students, the closure of an independent business goes beyond the loss of a place to get a sweet-treat or a pint.  When a ‘third place’ closes, so too does a place to find human connection in the city.

45% of respondents agreed that Dublin City is not welcoming to students”

When asked by Trinity News, the majority of students identified pubs and coffee shops as their go-tos when it comes to finding ‘third places.’ One interviewee told Trinity News that finding these places is becoming harder: “Before it was coffee shops and pubs, but in the city those places are getting more and more expensive and some places are actively discouraging students, purely because we can’t afford to buy a lot.” Trinity News conducted an informal survey amongst 36 students across a variety of Dublin universities, including Trinity, National College of Art and Design (NCAD), Dun Laoghaire Institute Of Art Design + Technology (IADT), and Dublin City University (DCU), to assess whether the opinion of this interviewee is a common one. 45% of respondents agreed that Dublin City is not welcoming to students.

Ideally, the city should offer third spaces free of charge – think social centres like the ‘Complex Dublin’ or public parks like St Stephen’s Green. However, due to the current neo-liberal government’s unwillingness to invest in the city, access to public spaces is increasingly limited. For example, the absence of public toilets in Dublin City Centre acts as a deterrent to avail of public spaces which lack basic hygiene facilities. This deficiency is justified by the government as arising from a fear of ‘anti-social behaviour’.  In reality, this means that many people only have access to a third place in the city if it is a private business. Thus, it comes as little surprise that when asked whether  they felt money affected their ability to socialise, most of the 36 respondents from the Trinity News survey answered “definitely.”

With this in mind, it is telling that the businesses which have actively worked to reduce their prices in the face of the cost of living crisis have generally been independent. Heartbreak Social Club and the Silk Purse cafés both offer coffees for €2 to €2.50 respectively, a rarity near campus these days. The owners of these cafés both cite the cost of living crisis as their reason for reducing their prices. This attitude is in stark contrast to chains like Insomnia and Starbucks, which, despite the financial security provided by their colossal customer base in Ireland and beyond, have only increased their prices in recent years.

“People have forgotten [it] since returning to the workplace, and we’re back trying to compete on a global market”

Trinity News spoke to local business owner Elaine Fallon of ‘Brookwood Pottery,’ located in Fairview, about how businesses are responding to the cost of living crisis. When asked if she felt supported by the government in the wake of Covid-19 and recent inflation, she responded: “No, not until recently … it’s really been a case of just hoping for the best.” Elaine recalls the ‘shop local’ slogan that developed during Covid. In her opinion, “people have forgotten [it] since returning to the workplace, and we’re back trying to compete on a global market.”  

When asked why she feels it is important to shop local, Elaine explained that “it maintains the ecosystem of the social climate on the street.” She describes the symbiotic relationship between people living in an area and the local business, stating: “When a customer buys something from our shop, they usually have been sent down by the local cafe owners, where they’ve bought a coffee on their walk, then come down to us. That’s a social connection between friends and owners, between the public and business.”

To get a perspective on how students connect to businesses that serve as third places, Trinity News interviewed a former Events Officer of a Trinity society about their experience interacting with local businesses. “Generally speaking, coffee shops are much more accommodating than bars and pubs … Personally, I’ve had a good experience with KC Peaches and Cloudpicker, the smaller [cafes] are generally more accommodating.” When asked why the bars and pubs are more difficult to work with, they responded that they “tend to assume the worst in students” and “don’t understand when things are student-led”. Notably, the bars and pubs which the interviewee referred to, such as Lost Lane and Farrier and Draper, are not strictly independent; independent pubs are increasingly rare in the city centre.

The difference between independent and corporate businesses’ relationship to students was summed up by Elaine, who stated: “When a student buys something from us, it means just that much more.  The fact they have a limited budget and still choose to support our small business means the world, it really touches me.”  In a city that is becoming increasingly gentrified and alienated from its own inhabitants, the spaces that independent businesses provide are integral to maintaining a sense of humanity.  The student community and the feeling of community provided by these third spaces are inherently linked, and depend on each other’s well being. When small businesses thrive, so do students.