As businesses across the county continue to take the strain of the economic down turn, for many of those in the arts and craft business it will be a make-or-break year depending tourism numbers this summer.
One craft shop owner explains frankly the difficulties facing those in the sector.
Brenda Hewitt, who lives in Gortahork and run’s ‘Sparan na Siog’, or Mermaid’s Purse, a gift, craft and supplies shop on Falcaragh’s Main Street, says that after six years of running her popular shop, she will be forced to close its doors if the forthcoming summer season does not fair better than last year.
Brenda is also a well-known hand weaver and she creates her individually woven scarves, shawls and blankets in tandem with running her full-time shop.
After spending six years behind the counter at the Mermaid’s Purse she says there is a very real possibility it may close after the summer if trade does not improve and the result will be yet another business closing its doors as the towns main street edges toward the appearance of a “ghost town”.
As the owner of a small community based business, Brenda says they need the support of the local people as a cornerstone to keeping them trading during such difficult times.
“It’s what it needs to stop the main street dying. I just say to people to try and shop local and see if they can get what they are looking for locally in their small and rural businesses before they go looking at the big multinationals so the streets in our wee rural community stay alive and not end up looking like ghost towns. That’s what will happen if people don’t see the importance of spending some money locally in small individually run family businesses,” Brenda says.
Originally from Hollywood in Co. Down, she has been living in the Falcaragh area for over 12 years where she established her base as a weaver. She graduated with from Belfast College of Art in 1992 after studying textile and fashion design and has been weaving ever since. Six years ago The Mermaids Purse, a colourful and distinctive shop, was opened in the premises where Sean Meehan ran his book shop for many years.
It stocks local arts and crafts, musician supplies, fair trade and certified sustainable goods from around the world, books and more essential items like ‘ecover’ household cleaning products.
“I try to stock things that are made in Donegal or are Irish, as well as fair trade, eco-friendly or sustainable. It is mainly crafts and gifts but we carry items like ‘ecover’, cleaning products which are essentials. We sell the cleaning products here and you come back with the same bottle when you want it re-filled. It an a example of some of the things we can sell cheaper than anyone else. We also stock supplies for local musicians and books and we also can order in books. I’ve been here six years now and I’m thinking of closing it in September if the summer doesn’t pick up.”
She is also involved with Donegal Gaeltacht arts and crafts collective, Cuisle, that includes photographers, painters, basket makers and potters among others, and admits that “everybody is finding it tough”.
The group describe themselves as “fusion of Artists and Crafts-people, living and working in the Donegal Gaeltacht”. Their backgrounds and cultures bringing a diverse mix of the exotic and traditional in this unique group.
Brenda says the knock-on effect of the close of small businesses like hers means local suppliers are affected and employment suffers. She hires a part-time employee two days a week to make time for her weaving.
She says the rising cost of trading has placed shops like hers under massive strain and where profit margins are reduced to “very little” and at times with her products she is “practically giving it away” to keep cash flow generated.
Rent, water rates, commercial rates all have to be kept up-to-date and Brenda says this is one area they could get more help.
She receives “practically nothing” for her commercial rates payments, she claims, saying it doesn’t include her water use or rubbish collection.
“We get nothing for our rates. I’ve been told by the Council ‘we get the privilege of running a business’. We get no rubbish collected, no good roads or footpaths out the front. In other countries they get water or their rubbish collected but here you get nothing,” she stated.
In an effort at her own sustainability she grows her own vegetables, rears her own pigs and says she doesn’t demand a high wage from her businesses.
“I don’t drive a fancy car and I fill it up once a month. I’m even trying to free wheel home tonight because we’re still in June,” she laughed.
“Since January it has been tough, worse than last year. I’ve had to reinvest in it to get it stocked fully and the tourism has to happen this summer. If that happens I’ll reinvest in it again.”
As we move into summer, she is ready to make the best of what lays ahead and says she will not compromise the quality of her produce or stock so her customers, both local and tourist, will receive quality items at all times and she wilfully claims she will not let her business go “without a fight”.
“After being here for six years I’m not letting go without a fight. I’m trying my best to keep it going. I’ve got us up on Facebook, just look for Mermaid’s Purse. The place is also well stocked for the summer and were going to keep it open and work hard. I won’t give up without a fight,” she says.
To see some of Brenda’s work visit www.handweaver.net