Talbot Street on a Tuesday morning is already a busy place. At the top where it turns into O’Connell Street, the most central thoroughfare of the city, tourists buzz around with roller suitcases while staff from open-top buses stand in colourful rain jackets, leaflets fanned out in their hands. Clerys department store sits in darkness after its abrupt closure. Pigeons determinedly peck for crumbs at the feet of a bronze James Joyce, while a man plays a slowed-down version of Hotel California on an electric guitar. It’s 9:30 am.
Further down the street, many if not all of the shops are already open and there’s a steady stream of people making their way along the narrow footpaths. The area, like much of Dublin, has undergone many changes in the last few years, and Jim Hall knows all about it.
“Unfortunately, the street in recent years, during the recession, has had its ups and downs and consequently there were a lot of vacant shop units, [but] thankfully they're starting to fill up again.”
The current proprietor of Hall Cameras on Talbot Street, which has been in operation there for over 55 years, Jim Hall has more knowledge than most on how the street has evolved through the decades.
Jim first started working with the family business during the summer holidays “… in 1962 or 1963. My uncle said if I wanted I could stay on. I wanted to finish my studies but things change and I stayed. I have worked continuously since 1962.”
Founded by his uncles, William (Bill) and Jack, they first had a small unit on the nearby Marlborough Street before getting a lease for the Talbot Street premises. Initially, their main trade was in photographic services rather than selling cameras.
“My uncles came from the theatre and would've started by going out on the road and doing film shows in school halls, convents and such like. And cameras was very much a side-line at that time because people couldn't afford them.”
One of the brothers, Bill, was a projectionist in the Metropole Cinema. “In his time off he did these film shows and he went around with the projectors, 16mm projectors, which were used in the schools for showing the films.”
Bill and Jack started showing films in schools at the time, which, Jim tells us, then expanded into commercial business where the Hall brothers would set up equipment for trade shows. They were involved in doing the projection for events across the country such as The Spring Show in Cork.
Today, the store is mainly a retail business selling cameras, equipment, and accessories, although they also offer printing services and some repair work. Jim operates the shop alongside co-director Phil Maree (who has been with the company since 1970), and sales assistant Marcus Connolly.
As Jim talks, the shop is already busy with people browsing the glass cabinets that line the walls or chatting to Phil and Marcus. Outside, there's a constant din of traffic going by and the occasional groan as a double-decker bus trundles down the street that doesn't look able to accommodate it.
There is a wide mix of businesses from butchers, cafes, wallpaper stores, phone shops, discount shops, internet cafes, travel agents, offices, and pubs on the street. Jim talks with authority and ease about how it used to be, which shops were located where, when they changed hands, and how different it all was.
He estimates that they’re one of the oldest businesses on the street, alongside the Singer Shop, Gerry Keane Wallpaper and of course Guiney’s, of which there were several at one time. What Jim would like to see on the street now is one of the well-known high street clothing stores move in.
“A H&M or a Forever 21. One of the businesses that the teenagers [will go to], we want more teenagers in the street, and the twenty-somethings.”
At one time, the street was predominantly known for footwear and Jim tells us about his own forays into the fashions of the time.
“Power and Moores were another popular destination for youth clothing, denim jeans and trendy shirts. There was also the Fennessy's Shoe Shop and I bought my first pair of winkle pickers in Fennessy's Shoe Shop and I bought my first pair of jeans in Power and Moores, when I was a teenager.”
Today, Jim is dressed in smart business attire of a dark blue pinstripe shirt, and a tie. As he peers out from his rimless glasses, it’s hard to imagine him sporting a pair of winkle pickers but then, it’s hard to imagine Talbot Street as it once was.
Jim remembers a photography studio a few doors down, Cameo Studios, which was involved in street photography. It was run by two brothers, the Keanes (who are also uncles to the footballer Robbie Keane). Arthur Fields too, more commonly known as The Man on The Bridge, who photographed passers-by on O’Connell Bridge was a familiar face in Hall Cameras, where he used to buy film. Jim recalls him often asking his uncle for the best prices they had.
Alongside these memories, are ones of more testing times for the business. In 1991, a fire in a restaurant a few doors down spread to Halls (and four other shops), destroying the contents of the store. Halls then temporarily moved to The Irish Life Mall but while there a dissident incendiary device caused a fire in one of the shops in the mall, which in turn set off the sprinklers and flooded them.
The Troubles have cast a shadow over the history of Talbot Street, and Jim recounts the day in May of 1974 when three car bombs exploded without warning in the city, one of them on the street itself. Both before and after the incident, there were frequent bomb scares.
“Personally, I had a very lucky escape during the bombing. One of my uncles was away on holiday at the time and I had to go out on the deliveries and my car was actually parked where the bomb went off. I had just left fifteen minutes before the bomb went off in Talbot Street. I went up to Nassau Street, and I passed Nassau Street when the bomb there went off.”
The shop windows were blown in and Phil also remembers the day vividly - the shock of the noise, the glass crashing into the store. When a fourth bomb was detonated in Monaghan over an hour later, that brought the death toll to 34 and the number of injured to over 300. With the street as bustling as it is today, as it must have been then, at rush hour during a bus strike, it’s hard to comprehend the immense violence, the devastation that erupted onto the street that day. Both men are reluctant to talk about it.
It’s also about the only time during our time in the shop where Jim’s speech isn’t peppered with laughter. Even as he recounts the flooding of the store, not long after the fire, he laughs as he tells us the fire had taught them not to keep any stock on the floor, which meant their loss to water damage during the second misfortune was minimal.
He also speaks with great fondness and admiration for the two uncles who took the leap to create the business they were passionate about. Bill passed away in 1989 while Jack died last December in his mid-eighties. He was still involved in the business up until around four years previously.
When they opened the business in the sixties, it seemed they were at the vanguard in many ways.
"My uncle Jack, he negotiated with a new company who were introducing Japanese cameras into the Irish market through the UK so they came to an arrangement where he would supply [them] and from there it snowballed. So it was was one of the early dedicated camera shops and of course business spread from there through the 60s and 70s."
Jim, too, seems to have a similar mentality and along with wanting more young people frequenting the street, he maintains they were one of the first stores in the country to stock the now hugely popular GoPro camera, and recalls with joviality his scepticism about first stocking a selfie stick several years ago.
“You’ve always got to think of what the future holds.”
Today, he emphasizes the knowledge they have in the store. “We come in to the picture to help, advise, and guide them [the customer] towards where the best value can be had to whatever budget they're operating to.”
High above the glass cabinets sits a collection of old film cameras that were previously stocked in the store. Beginning from bellows and box cameras that were popular in the 20s, 30, and 40s, right through to the Pentax and Zeiss models of the 60s and beyond. To see them is to track the development of photography and cameras in the last sixty years. Hall Cameras have been there to see the trends flare and fade, to endure, or to sometimes even come back around. There’s not much room up there now but perhaps they’ll need to make space for whatever innovation comes next as they continue operating on Talbot Street into their sixth decade.
Written by Sinead Fox / Photos by Adam O'Keeffe / ©2015 Project Bowes