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Tracings Wealth of Celtic treasures at Hollywood Irish Import Shop

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Olivia Tracey

After almost four years in L.A., I have at last paid a visit to the much-talked-about Irish Import Shop, nestled neatly in a corner shopping mall in the heart of Hollywood, just a stone’s throw from Paramount Pictures. Owned by Irish couple, Richard and Annie Jones, the 37-year-old store seems to be as well known in Hollywood circles as it would be in a remote midland village.

Rumor was that the well-stocked store also doubled as a sort of unofficial casting center for the many neighboring filmakers in search of Irish talent. The rumor is true. There, on the wall beside the counter, hang two bulletin boards, one larger than the other, both densely decorated with business cards, all in the good cause of promoting the West Coast Irish. They run the gamut from real estate agents, actors and musicians to martial arts and massage therapists. In fact, the smaller of the boards is dedicated solely to musical talent. Richard recalled steering the "Titanic" crew to the Irish Fair to find an Irish band for the movie, and there Gaelic Storm were discovered. Also, actress Angela Lansbury borrowed the bulletin boards for use as props in an Irish movie scene.

Of course, Lansbury is no stranger to the store. Living in the neighborhood, and being a lover of Irish brown bread, she comes by regularly for her supply of Odlums wheaten flour to do her own baking. Not surprisingly, the shop attracts many a famous face, and/or their assistants, from Angelica Huston and Fionnula Flanagan to Colm Meaney and Gabriel Byrne. Spielberg sends in for Irish music while Pierce Brosnan’s request is Barry’s tea. Also among the stellar clientele are Irish restaurateurs Jimmy and Annie Murphy ,Sinead O’Connor, Elton John and Mick Jagger himself, who goes straight for those Irish sausages and HP sauce.

While most of the stock is Irish, the foodstuff’s are also British, and thereby attract both an Irish and English clientele. Just as Richard was telling me about their numerous English customers, many of whom are first- and second-generation Irish, we heard an eager knock at the door. A good half hour past closing time, Richard happily welcomed a most appreciative English lad who needed to stock up on Twinings tea and Kimberly biscuits for his nearby film crew. It turned out the young guy’s sister worked as a personal assistant to Liam Neeson during the shooting of "Star Wars." Well, this is Hollywood, Irish-style.

Mind you, it is far from Hollywood stars either Richard or Annie were reared. Annie (nee Keenan) grew up outside of Omagh, Co. Tyrone, in true farm country called Aughabui, sometimes spelled Aughaboy, meaning yellow hills. At 20, she took off for Los Angeles, intending to stay only a few years. "But then I met himself," she said, smiling, "so that took care of that."

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"Himself" meanwhile had grown up on the Cork/Kerry border in Ballydesmond before meandering his way through various ports of call to sunny California. He started off closer to home in Cork City, where, post-World War II in the late ’40s, he was fortunate enough to get a job with the ESB because his uncle had a connection. From there he went to Birmingham where he worked for ICI and where he still clearly recalls the beans on toast food rations. Next stop was Toronto, to which he made his way from Southampton by ship, all 14 days of seasickness. While there he worked for the renowned Timothy Eaton department store, where no job-seeking Irishman was ever turned away. Finally, during the ’50s, he made his way to California, where he spent the first 30 years working for the Rapid Transit District. During this time, he also started his own radio show, not just playing Irish music but selling it by mail order.

It was at this time, in 1962, that he met Annie. I joked that she must have found this self-made Irish radio host/entrepreneur quite a sick dude. "Oh, I thought he was a slick dude alright," she said, laughing, then added, "I’ve thought a lot of other things since."

Being an incurable romantic, I was eager to get the details of their first date — what she wore, what he said, how they gazed into each other’s eyes. No information forthcoming there, I’m afraid. Sure, they couldn’t even remember where they went. "Probably dinner and a movie," suggested Annie vaguely, adding that it was a blind date, that they were both from a farming background, were very down to earth and weren’t really concerned with romantic trivia. And there a match was made in 1962, followed by the wedding a year later. Well, all I can say is that for a couple who profess not to be romantic, there’s a fierce amount of chemistry between them, even after 37 years of marriage and four children. They have three sons and a daughter: John, 35, Matthew, 33, Richard, 28, and Maura, 29, who has married an Irish American, Brian Kneafsey, a Donegal name but with roots in County Mayo.

The year of their wedding also saw the birth of their store. After 10 years with the radio show, Richard eliminated that pressure, concentrating on the mail ordering and retailing of the Irish music while maintaining his job at RTD. For the first two years, they lived behind their store on Melrose Avenue. From there they graduated to a store on Beverly Boulevard, where they stayed for 23 years before moving to their current location on Vine Street. Their merchandise has developed into a mine of Celtic treasures — Aran sweaters, Patrick after-shave, Inis and Connemara perfumes, Galway and Waterford crystal, Mullingar pewter, Belleek china, Cre handmade porcelain, Celtic sculptures made from bog, pub glasses, Tara brooches, Claddagh rings and wedding bands (very popular with Buffy the Vampire Slayer!), tin whistles, bodhrans, books, videos, T-shirts, fluffy leprechaun slippers, blacktorn sticks, silk Guinness ties, and a limitless supply of Irish and English edibles from Bisto gravy and Birds custard to Ballymaloe Cucumber Pickle, Flahavans Progress Oatlets, Irish Whiskey Fruit Cake, every brand of tea from Bewleys to Barry’s and their ever-delicious Cadbury’s flake. And, of course, the delightful Mr. and Mrs. Jones are an added attraction.

The Irish Import Shop is open seven days, and is at 738 North Vine St., Hollywood, CA. 90038. For information, call (323) 467-6714 or mail order (323) 467-6792.

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