Inside Destination Athlone: Rosie Boles, Burgess of Athlone and The Village at Burgess

The next in the series – a glimpse of the people and personalities behind Destination Athlone businesses. Rosie Boles tells us about developing her business at the heart of Ireland – Burgess of Athlone and The Village at Burgess.

Some towns boast an iconic store, one that is utterly synonymous with it, and that is certainly the case with Burgess of Athlone. It holds the honour of being the oldest department store in Ireland and indeed there has been trading on the site since the 1600s. Thomas Burgess bought it at the age of 21 back in 1839 and began what is now the thriving shop. It’s an incredible history and an incredible store.

What makes Burgess even more remarkable is its ability to reinvent itself when necessary, and that’s exactly what happened during the enforced closure of lockdown. That incubation period gave birth to The Village at Burgess, a new indoor avenue of eight independent retailers with access from both shop and street. It’s brought new energy and life to the time-honoured retailer.

At the helm of Burgess is Rosie Boles whose family has been in the retail business for generations. The family store, Boles of Boyle in County Roscommon, isn’t quite as old as Burgess of Athlone, who started trading in 1886. Rosie’s grandfather was an entrepreneurial retailer and always had his eye on expansion, eventually purchasing the store from the Burgess family in the 1950s. Rosie’s father Ian, who had followed him into the business, took over at Burgess a few years later. He always had a genuine love for retail which he retains to this day. In his mid-80s he was still actively working and although now officially retired, takes an avid interest in Burgess.

Rosie didn’t see herself as the retailing type and instead followed a rather different career path, studying first environmental studies and then design, which is where she found her true vocation. Her first job literally came out of a hat – when employers asked for candidates from her course at the College of Marketing and Design, the student names were put into a top hat and a draw was made. Rosie’s name came out of the hat and she was taken on by Weirs the legendary jewellers of Grafton Street Dublin where she worked in window display for the next four years.

She has fond and nostalgic memories of the old school systems still in place there. She recalls the packing room where a team of four would carefully wrap each purchase for customers. Another memory is of the clockmaker’s room, perched high over the Wicklow Street/Grafton Street corner, exploding into a cacophony of sound at 12 noon when every single clock chimed simultaneously – perhaps that’s why the attic room was his destiny.

However, Rosie had restless feet and wanted to challenge herself further. An interesting job came up in Cottonbox, an interior design company in Galway and Rosie landed it. That took her right out of her comfort zone, into a new and demanding environment – and one in which she thrived. Her next move was back to Dublin, to be with her college boyfriend Alastair Gray. She gained more experience in other interior design businesses before setting up on her own as Rosie Boles Interiors. She and Alastair married, began a family, and were well settled in Dublin with no intention of returning to the midlands.

Fate however had other ideas. Rosie’s father began talking about succession planning for Burgess of Athlone. If neither of his children were interested, he contemplated selling the business. The thoughts of someone else running Burgess, combined with increasing traffic in Dublin and a very busy, demanding life there, gave Rosie and Alastair plenty of food for thought. In the heel of the hunt, they moved to Athlone and Rosie brought her business with her. Rosie Boles Interiors operated within Burgess of Athlone for a few years and eventually, very quietly, melded into it.

The turning point was probably when one of the buyers had health problems and Rosie volunteered to take a buying trip in her place. Another tough learning curve ensued. “We didn’t sell much of the first clothing range I bought”, Rosie smiles ruefully. That was the beginning and bit by bit Rosie began to take the reins, working closely with her father for many years before taking over herself.

Together she and Alastair, are fearless performers, utterly unafraid of change and confidently steering the midland store through the choppy waters of the last few years. The Village at Burgess is the latest of their innovations and it is abundantly clear that it will not be their last.

This interview series was funded by Westmeath & Roscommon LEADER programme.