Favorites from home
by Sabine Bickford
From the January, 2019 issue
Despite his lilting accent, his yearly tours to Ireland, and the name of his store--Real Irish--Stuart Marley actually grew up in Wales. His parents left Ireland, he says, and "were going to come to Philadelphia, but the plans changed." One of his aunts developed tuberculosis and was treated on the Wirral Peninsula near Liverpool. The whole family settled in Wales to be near her. Despite that, he says, "I'm all Irish, you know? I've always felt Irish. Home has always been Ireland."
The store on S. Fourth Ave. was last home to Aunt Agatha's bookstore. Marley has kept most of the interior the same, adding a fresh coat of paint and a few shelves to make the space more friendly to apparel. He's also opened up the store's secondary entrance, up a ramp inside the same building, for more accessibility to the elevated back section.
Marley isn't interested in green top hats and "Kiss me, I'm Irish" shirts. "You can get that at Target and Meijer and department stores," he says. Instead, he carries a sizeable selection of woolen apparel, artisan-made gifts, and Irish snacks. Much of the wool is from County Donegal--famous for its high quality and uniquely flecked wool, knit together to make " Donegal tweed." Hand-knit offerings include sweaters, shawls, scarves, hats, socks, and more. "They're all signed by the person who makes them," he says of the Donegal sweaters. "Basically it's women who do this at home in their free time."
He also displays shelves of intricate Celtic wooden sculptures. "Anyone who's a Game of Thrones fan will appreciate this kind of stuff," he laughs. The manuscript-style prints and greeting cards with inspirational sayings framed by "knotwork" are created painstakingly by one of Marley's friends. Other points of interest are the rack of Irish football jerseys, and the miniature fairy-door crafts for children. The store also has a few items from Scotland and Wales.
Marley knows many of the artisans whose work he sells
and his tours often include visits to their workshops. The downside of all the personal connections and painstakingly handmade works is apparent when Marley unboxes a new shipment only to find a shattered hand-painted clay bowl. "This is from our friend Kieran in County Down," he says. "He takes endless hours to make all this and then wrap it, and then sometimes, you know, it just doesn't make it. It's really sad."
The selection of Irish foodstuffs up front features some of his favorites from home, including tiny chocolate Guinness cups and the "iconically Irish" Barry's Tea, and Tayto crisps. "If I was to put one in my mouth right there ... it just takes you right back there," he says.
Marley has run a Real Irish store in Brighton for the last few years, but the original was founded in Ann Arbor, his longtime home. In the early 2000s, he ran a small kiosk inside the 306 S. Main building, and also visited festivals around the state with small selections of his wares, including the authentic Irish tweed newsboy and touring caps he still carries.
He briefly had a spot in Arbor Hills Crossing when it first opened, but lost it to a long-term tenant. That's when he decided to try his luck in Brighton, where he had enough success that he started giving tours to show his customers and friends the places he had been telling them about and bring business directly to some of his friends. He's currently planning his tour for next summer.
Real Irish, 213 S. Fourth Ave. #1A. (734) 846-2025. See website for hours. realirish.com
[Originally published in January, 2019.]
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