downtown St. John’s

a cultural landmark of the past and present

Everyone who lives in and around St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador is familiar with downtown. It’s our cultural hub, our night out, our let’s-do-brunch spot, where we shop ‘til we drop or just sit down on a blanket by the War Memorial and watch the world go by. Perhaps nobody knows downtown better than Irene and Wanda Murphy, the mother and daughter duo who own and operate Irene’s Gifts and Souvenirs, the oldest souvenir shop in the city.

Irene’s has been operating under that name since the 90’s, when Irene Murphy, a longtime store employee, purchased the business from its previous owners, but the store itself has existed for over 160 years. Then, like now, it sold a variety of trinkets and collectables. Throughout its long history, the shop has sold everything from brush-and-comb sets, to Royal Family collectables, to wedding decorations, to extremely lifelike plush cats. These days, it carries everything from Newfoundland merchandise to porcelain dolls to lovely matching china sets. One of their products that mean the most to the family are the coasters printed with artwork by George Murphy, Irene’s late husband.

Irene’s Gifts and Souvenirs has seen a lot of change in downtown over the years!
Coasters featuring the artwork of George Murphy, Irene’s late husband.

Wanda and Irene are true downtownies, having worked out of the shop for almost 25 years, since the days when the shops were closed on Sundays. They have seen many changes in downtown – Wanda fondly remembers a time when the Constabulary would patrol the streets on horseback – but some things will always stay the same, such as the friendships that blossom between fellow downtown business owners over a long period. Wanda knows all the people in her area, especially those who run the other souvenir stores, and they support each other. If a customer is looking for an item that Wanda does not have in stock, she will call the other stores to see who has it and send the customer their way. In downtown especially, the importance of local businesses helping each other out and working together cannot be overstated. Wanda loves being part of the downtown community that celebrates our local business and culture.

These days, Wanda takes care of most of the day-to-day operations and management, although Irene still loves to chat with customers. In fact, there are people who come in the store to have a chat with both of them. They meet the tourists who come from all over the world to visit the iconic streets and row houses of downtown – Wanda has noticed a boom in tourism over the past decade, which she attributes to the increasing number of cruise ships that make port in St. John’s, and the popularity of television shows like Republic of Doyle (in fact, people still ask how to get to the Duke of Duckworth!). Wanda loves to chat with tourists and hear their stories.

This store has always been known for gifts – like these lovely china sets and mugs,

Visitors and locals alike visit downtown for the colours, the unique dining experiences, the quirky retailers, and of course, the people. One thing that has not changed about downtown is its status as the cultural centre of St. John’s. “That will never change, because we are a cultural people,” Wanda says. Locals love to bring visitors downtown – there is a downtown pride in St. John’s, we love to show it off!

this article is republished from a previous version of Guide to the Good.

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Katherine Saunders

Katherine is the assistant editor for Downhome and was the previous publication specialist for guide to the good. she holds a master’s degree in environmental history from Memorial University of Newfoundland.