Thursday, 10 September 2015

Bargaintown: 'only famous'

"Hurry on down to Bargaintown
Where the prices are only famous..."

What or where is Bargaintown?

Bargaintown is a brand, a logo, a notorious jingle. Bargaintown is a chain of furniture and floor stores, a part of Dublin, a state of mind.

Sweden gave the world Ikea; only Dublin could give Dublin Bargaintown.

Bargaintown is a local legend. Half a century ago its shops started springing up around the city. Not just anywhere but in some of the most depressed, depressing parts of town.

The kinds of places, in other words, where retail space was cheap and where working-class families were on the lookout for a bargain. Low-cost tables and chairs, beds, mattresses, carpets, you name it. Room after room and roll after roll of it. The stuff to furnish an entire apartment from floor to ceiling, when an apartment was still called a flat (or even a bedsit).

Hence if you were to draw a map of the Bargaintown universe, you'd find only one store on the southside, in Bray. All the rest are either in the west (Belgard Road, the Naas Road), on the northside (Glasnevin, Finglas, Coolock) or in the city centre - on Queen Street, on the border between Smithfield and Stoneybatter. You couldn't imagine a Bargaintown in the middle of, say, Foxrock.

I'm not sure if the Queen Street store was the first, but it was the first one I knew. Or rather, the first ones (plural). You see, over the years various bits of Bargaintown shopfront would sprout here and there, like military outposts giving covering fire.

Note the graffiti (near top left). Somebody had to climb up there to do that.

They became a warren of showrooms and storerooms that may or may not have been interconnected, and nobody knew where this warren began or ended.

The shops on either side of Queen Street - a sort of canyon of them, facing each other - seemed to sneak around the corner to their counterparts on Benburb Street (the first of Bargaintown's shopfronts there is next door to what is now the Dice Bar), then more stores and depots in a higgledy-piggledy fashion, and that's not counting the Bargaintown outlets along the Liffey at Arran Quay and Ellis Quay.

To confuse things further, some Bargaintown shops are next to Kings and Queens shopfronts. More furniture in more windows. And sometimes the main signs on some of the shops send different messages. "First for Floors". Or simply "Mattresses" - though still in the distinctive Bargaintown colours.

"Hurry on down to Bargaintown
Where the prices are only famous..."

Bargaintown is owned by brothers Alan and Norman Prendergast. As Irish family businesses go, this one has done well just to hang on in there. Its fortunes are intimately tied up with the state of the property market.

For example, new homes need new furniture (they could get by on recycled old furniture of course, but Dublin isn't great on this front). At the height of the boom, fit-out services like the one run by Bargaintown were getting orders from builders and investors to furnish entire apartment blocks. With around 40 units in each block, and a budget of around €4,000 for a one-bed apartment and €5,000 for a two-bed unit, well, just do the sums...

Then when the property crash came, as crashes inevitably do, Bargaintown had to let go of nearly a third of its staff. Yet seven years later the business is still there, surviving, turning the corner.

It seems to have shrugged off the latest foreign competition too; mind you, if you know anything about Stoneybatter's history you'll know that the area is well used to dealing with Viking longboats from Sweden with their marauding hordes and flatpack furniture...

Yet compared with the Ikeas of this world, with their global branding and central marketing departments, there's a distinctly old-fashioned vibe about the Queen Street empire, from its shop window clutter to the mixed signage and price tags in myriad fonts. It reminds me of an independent furniture store in smalltown Ireland. In the good sense.

The Bargaintown buildings around Stoneybatter may be loud, yet it's not the kind of sleek, anonymous ultra-brash loudness of its multinational rivals in the out-of-town shopping parks.

Take the main Bargaintown logo: primary colours, simple, no-nonsense, old-fashioned perhaps, yet memorable, unmistakable. While the blue-and-yellow palettes of this world have been grabbed by Lidl and Aldi and Ryanair, the red-white-and-blue combo was already taken by Bargaintown and, er, Ulster Unionist bunting.

"Hurry on down to Bargaintown.
Hurry on down to Bargaintown!"

As for that long-running radio commercial from the 1840s or 1850s, it too is brash and unforgettable in a primary colours kind of way. It is quite possibly Ireland's most famous radio jingle, quite probably its most annoying one too, after at least 25 or 30 years of daily repetition on nationwide radio, not counting "Go, Harvey (Norman), go!"

In the funny old world of advertising, where washing machines live longer on Calgon; where a Mars helps you work, rest and play; where you do the Shake and Vac to put the freshness back; where you look up and it's Aer Lingus, and where only the crumbliest flakiest chocolate tastes like chocolate never tasted before, and a finger of fudge is just enough to give yourself a treat; and where Fleetwood would would Fleetwood, and the Vorsprung durch Technik slogan will last for a thousand years, in a world like that there's one more thing that you can be utterly and absolutely sure of: Bargaintown is the place to hurry on down to. Why? Because it's where - as the Terry Wogan soundalike used to remind us at the end of the radio ad - the prices are only famous.

"Hurry on down to Bargaintown
Where the prices are only famous..."

Yes, that adverb "only" in Bargaintown's tagline is what it's all about. That's its biggest secret. It's where you take a common enough word or phrase and give it one of those peculiar Hiberno-English twists that are sure to have an outsider flummoxed and discombobulated.

Normally, for that same outsider, "only" could only mean "solely", "exclusively", "entirely" or "no longer ago than". Or you might come across it in the construction "only to" [+ verb] (as in "I stepped outside, only to realise I forgot my keys").

Only this time the word is completely different. In the Bargaintown universe, "only" means "very", "really", "exceptionally". Or as the scholar Terence Dolan would put it, here it's being:
"Used loosely as an intensive. 'The music was only famous' (was really good); 'You're only gorgeous' (Dublin)..."
For more examples of how Hiberno-English takes a word or phrase that means one thing and makes it mean another, Terence Dolan is your only man.

Pure mule

Mind you, my 1999 edition of Mr Dolan's excellent Dictionary of Hiberno-English has no entry for "pure mule". "Pure mule" is an equally elusive phrase from Offaly that can mean "really good" or "lousy":
Went out, long queue, shite beer, no craic, walked home in the rain on me own, it was pure mule.
Went out, straight in, no kissin', loadsa drink and scored big time, it was pure mule.
Positive or negative, see? It all depends on the intonation.

Bargaintown: the movie

Update, November 2015: German photographer David Jazay's documentary with Judith Klinger from 1989 about his Dublin project, is being screened by the Irish Film Institute next month.

(RTÉ please wake up and take note for a change, you dozy pillocks.)