By Nita Lelyveld, Los Angeles Times
8:25 PM EST, February 14, 2013
When the luck of the Irish holds, the lovers buy Claddagh rings for their valentines, frat boys gearing up for St. Paddy's Day go for Guinness caps with built-in bottle openers — and come Christmas, there's a run on plum pudding and St. Nicks in Kelly green.
But holidays alone don't explain how a small Irish store survives year after year in a Hollywood mini-mall.
The plain brown shopping complex set back from Vine Street houses the usual suspects: a pawnshop, check cashing, Thai massage, tattoos. You see them without really seeing them — which makes the one surprise easy to miss.
The Irish Import Shop, which opened 50 years ago, is wedged between a dry cleaner and a nail salon. It has a neon shamrock in the window, and the blinds stay partly drawn to save the tapestries and woolens from fading.
Open the door and you might well sniff the scent of an Irish hearth — which, granted, is really a thumbnail tab of peat in a ceramic, cottage-shaped incense burner. Still, there's real Irish music playing (if the stereo's not on the fritz). And the lady behind the counter has a brogue, if slightly faded by years in California.
The phone rings, and Anne Colburn answers with a lilt. And here you discover the shop's secret, even today where on the Internet you can get anything without talking to anyone.
"It certainly is, and I know who this is," Colburn says. "Yeh, now, wait a minute here now — how much tea will you be wanting?"
Longing for home when you're far from it can take many forms.
You might yearn for familiar sounds, the hills and valleys of your people's speech.
You might miss the easy shorthand of shared experience.
You might desperately crave particular tastes, especially the comfort foods of childhood.
Throughout the store are many balms for the far-from-Ireland blues: Celtic crosses, Kerry capes, socks from Connemara, embroidered "ABCs of Ireland" baby books (P as in potatoes), hangings with the Irish blessing that starts, "May the road rise up to meet you…"
In the import shop's northernmost aisle, however, are more international cures.
Here are Irish and British teas shipped straight (and so not modified for American tastes), Cadbury Curly Wurly bars, Rowntree's Fruit Pastilles, McVitie's Jaffa Cakes and tall bottles of Ribena, a drink syrup made with black currants. A freezer holds Irish sausage, thick slabs of Irish-style bacon, tubes of black pudding and white pudding. And then there is the stack of canned Heinz baked beans — British style, in tomato sauce.
Into this aisle each day come the Brits and the Australians, people from the Caribbean, Canada, South Africa — many linked by lifelong habits of eating said beans on toast.
When Kessa Taylor, pregnant and homesick, walked in a few months ago, "I stood in the aisle and cried," she said.
"It's stuff that you were raised on. It runs so deep," said the 33-year-old who grew up in Wales and London.
Annie Jones started the shop with her husband, Richard, known as Jonesy, back when the Irish emigrated in large numbers and Jonesy still drove a bus. On Sundays, he had an Irish radio show, and people wanted to buy the music he played.
But it was the shop's food offerings that really took off.
"The English and the Irish," Annie Jones said when she stopped by recently for a visit. "They definitely agree on the tea and the biscuits and the bacon."
And as they stand together in the aisle, admiring the tins of custard and the digestive biscuits and the marmalades and the Marmite, they invariably agree on other things too — not least of which that in this little shop, they find themselves wonderfully at home.
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