In Drumcondra, a Shop Holds a Trove of Old-School Cash Registers

The Tuesday morning sunlight hits Padraic Bolger’s shopfront, brightening the big gold letters “Botanic Office Equipment LTD” as they stripe across the corner building on Botanic Avenue in Drumcondra.

“People can misunderstand the shop,” Padraic says, behind the counter inside as he takes a cigarette from behind his ear. He’s in his 50s and wears a purple pinstripe shirt with the sleeves rolled up.

“You get some people coming in thinking we sell printer ink and stuff like that,” he says.

Padraic flicks a metal Zippo lighter and sparks the cigarette. He takes three puffs and rests the smoke in a faded red plastic ashtray.

Padraic’s dad, Gerry Bolger set up shop in 1970 and they don’t sell printer ink or notepads or Bic biros by the dozen.

They have mostly specialised, in fact, in cash registers.

From inside, Botanic Office Equipment could be mistaken for a cash-register museum, with its small brass vintage machines, large silver cash registers and matt black touch screens. More than 100 years of cash registers, arranged chronologically.

In the past 20 years, Botanic Office Equipment has dwindled from eight members of staff to just two, Padraic and his brother Ciarán Bolger. It’s still a family business, as it was when it started.

The Path to Drumcondra

“My father serviced lighthouses,” said Gerry Bolger, the shop’s founder, on the phone last Friday. He’s in his 80s and has a cheery voice.

“You’d only live at a lighthouse for a couple of years before you moved onto the next one,” he says.

The family had a stint at Fanad Lighthouse in Donegal. “The storms you’d see from there were unbelievable,” says Gerry.

At times, tragic too. “And then of course you would sometimes see the bodies washing up of the people that drowned,” he says.

They lived in the Old Head Lighthouse in Kinsale and at St John’s Point in Donegal, and at the St John’s Point lighthouse in Co Down.

There was a prisoner-of-war camp beside there, says Gerry. “I remember seeing the lads from Germany.”

The last place his dad worked at was Blackhead Lighthouse in Antrim.

Gerry was seven years old when his dad died of a heart attack, he says.

After that, the family moved to Botanic Avenue in Drumcondra, and Gerry went to O’Connell School.

Setting Up Shop

“I was never very studious,” Gerry says. “When I was 16, I saw an ad in the paper about an apprenticeship at Underwood.”

The Underwood Typewriter Company was a global supplier of the machines.

Gerry travelled to England, Italy and Switzerland as an apprentice, learning how to service and repair typewriters.

“Then with decimalisation, I saw a gap in the market,” he says. In 1971, the pound changed from being worth 240 pence to being worth 100 pence.

“It was to make everything more rounded,” Gerry says. “Like when ounces went to kilos.”

Businesses would need new cash registers. “And I hopped on the bandwagon,” he says.

In 1970, ahead of the changeover, he opened his own shop on Botanic Avenue.

In The Shop

A picture of Gerry hangs in the shop today. He stands by an open cash register in the photo. He has a wrinkled, welcoming smile.

Gerry looks like his son Padraic. Padraic says that they still have customers because of his father’s reputation.

Says Gerry: “It was my good looks and personality.”

Says Padraic: “He’s a real people person. He would come in to someone and learn something about their life, and he’d always remember it.”

In the shop, Padraic leans against the shop counter. A small fan whirs, rotating from left to right and back again beside his face. A ceiling fan chops above him.

His brother, Ciarán works away in the back of the shop.

“Ninety percent of our business comes from pubs,” Padraic says. They have been in business so long that they are now dealing with the children of some pub owners, Padraic says.

Botanic Office Equipment used to regularly repair machines for customers.

“We mainly sell machines now,” Padraic says.

Machine parts don’t wear down as much and a lot of the electrical components are hard to replace, he says. “Especially in this throwaway culture.”

Padraic will also call out to pubs to replace till rolls or service machines, he says.

A charity shop in Northern Ireland left Botanic Office Equipment for a larger cash register company, Padraic says, but came back. “They want the personal touch.”

“People like that they can call us up and know the person on the other end of the phone,” he says.

Staying in the Business

More and more businesses are signing up to big cash-register companies, Padraic says.

But he never thought of leaving the business or changing the shop into something else. “It’s what you know,” he says, leaning against the counter.

“And we don’t live beyond our means either,” Padraic says. “But it would be nice to win the lotto.”

Gerry says he just wanted to provide for his family. “That’s all I ever wanted.”

Padraic is his own boss at Botanic Office Equipment, which comes with its ups and downs, he says.“It’d be nice to have a nine-to-five job to come home from.”

“When you’re your own boss you can be your own worst enemy,” he says. “You feel guilty taking days off. You just can’t say no to somebody.”

Padraic had been at a funeral the day before. “My phone just kept hopping in my pocket. People asking me to do different things,” he says.

A Special Display

Padraic picks up the cigarette. He walks out from behind the counter to the front of the shop where the display shelf is, five shelves of cash registers.

Five enormous rose-gold brass cash registers line the middle shelf.

Padraic presses the 10 shilling button on the biggest register. Mechanisms click inside it. A “10/-” sign, the abbreviation for 10 shillings, springs up on the display.

“You’d press a button for whatever money is going into the machine and then –”, Padraic flips open a brass lid, “– the counter will tell you how much money you should have in the till by the end of the day.” He points at a smaller glass screen on the inside of the machine.

He pulls out the bottom of the till of the oldest cash register. Underneath is a certificate. The black ink is faded on the tea-stain coloured paper.

“This one is from America. From 1882,” Padraic says, reading the certificate with his eyes squinted.

Nine typewriters are scattered on the shelves above and below the cash registers.

They’re remnants from the days that Gerry used to fix the machines.

Some keys are stained brown. Rust is flecked on metal parts of other typewriters. Most machines show their age, bar one.

Padraic taps his fingers on some of this machine’s keys. The typewriters clack in response as the slim metal letter arms sling up and hit the top of the machine.

“This one’s called the noiseless typewriter,” he says.

The jet black paint on the Remington typewriter is not infringed by time. It sits neatly in a leather suitcase. Only for the dust on the machine, it would look brand new.

“If you had 20 admin staff working in an office, all banging away on typewriters, you would have wanted it to be on noiseless machines,” Padraic says.

He taps on these keys. Only muffled clacks sound.

Among the shelves are a scattering of other trinkets. A kerosene bike lantern, four vintage cigarette boxes, a candelabra, ceramic jugs and a rotary phone.

“Bin men used to come in to my dad if they found something they thought might be of interest to him,” Padraic says.

So over the years they have accumulated a wide selection of trinkets.

For some, this could be a museum of analogue machinery. “I don’t really notice it myself anymore,” says Padraic.

He has no interest in appearing on the Antiques Roadshow, Padraic says. “You’d only be drawing attention to yourself.”

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killian callender
at 22 September at 20:39

Botanic Avenue is in Glasnevin.

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