On Friday November 29 1940, a tiny new bookshop opened its doors for the first time on High Street in Galway city. Little could its proprietors, Des and Maureen Kenny, have then envisaged that this modest business start-up – embarked upon when Ireland was in the early stages of World War II rationing - would go on to be one of Ireland’s foremost bookshops and art galleries and, over its six decades, a valued friend to many of the country’s most eminent writers and artists.
Kenny’s celebrated its diamond jubilee with the opening of an absorbing commemorative exhibition, curated by Dean Kelly, which charts its 75 years through 75 objects. The exhibition includes a range of artworks, photographs, and books relating to some of the feted writers who have passed through Kenny’s, such as Seamus Heaney, John McGahern, Edna O’Brien, Roald Dahl, Nadine Gordimer, and Allen Ginsberg.
It also features works by artists who have exhibited in Kenny’s including Seán Keating, Gertrude Degenhardt, George Campbell, John Behan, and Kenneth Webb. Other notable exhibits include a pair of stained glass windows mentioned in Joyce’s Ulysses, collected issues of The Bell magazine, a 1950s Kenny’s catalogue – harbinger of the family’s flourishing export business - and Mrs Kenny’s chair, which for many years enjoyed pride of place in the High Street premises. Many of the captions accompanying these exhibits offer colourful anecdotes that bring the past 75 years vividly to life.
Tom Kenny sat down with me over a coffee to talk about the long and eventful journey that has brought Kenny’s to this notable milestone, beginning with his account of those first years.
“My parents’ friends all told them they were mad when they said they were going to open a bookshop,” Tom tells me. “The shop was tiny, it was just the front room of our High Street home. The back room was the living quarters – that’s where I was born - that was their bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and sitting room. When they started a lot of friends gave them books and the bank gave them a couple of quid. At the start they were also doing things like selling tobacco and running a lending library; that had its own difficulties – someone had to be sent out around town looking either to get the books back or to get paid for their rental.
“They did anything to sell at the time but there simply wasn’t enough turnover to keep them going so my dad went out to work. He worked for a while with Silkes and then he was employed as personnel manager by Galway Textile Printers. He’d be travelling round the country with work but he’d always stop off in county libraries to see could he sell them books.”
In 1965, Galway Textile Printers was taken over and Des Kenny sr declined the new owners’ invitation that he relocate to Manchester, a decision that heralded a significant change in the bookshop’s fortunes.
“My dad began doing interviews for other jobs, and I had just left college and was doing interviews as well,” Tom recalls. “One day both he and I were between interviews in the bookshop and he suddenly said ‘I’ve just had an idea, would you like to work in the shop fulltime?’ I said I would. He said he would as well and that changed everything. He brought an extraordinary energy and vision to the business. My mother had already built up an extraordinary knowledge of books, particularly of Irish interest which has been our forte ever since. She had also introduced crafts to the business in an attempt to increase the turnover and add some colour which in turn attracted visual artists, the first major one being Kenneth Webb in 1953.”
The family’s investment in visual arts saw them open a gallery in Salthill in 1968, with the first exhibition being by Sean Keating. “Ours was the first commercial gallery in the west of Ireland, so my parents were pioneering in that respect,” Tom notes. “We didn’t know a lot about the art business at that stage but we learned very quickly. I remember coming back from a trip to Dublin and saying to my parents all the galleries there are close to Stephen’s Green and here we are opening one in Salthill and my dad said ‘That’s why you’ll have to work very hard on publicity!’”
‘Seamus Heaney always talked about my mother’
Quite apart from the family’s business acumen, a mainstay of Kennys’ enduring success has been their passion for literature and personal friendships with writers. “That goes back to my parents,” Tom says. “They both read a lot of the books and for them books weren’t simply a commodity. One day this man came into the shop and asked my mother who was the best short story writer in Ireland, she replied ‘How could you pick one from Liam O’Flaherty, Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain?’ Your man left in a huff, the next day my mother opened the paper and there was Frank O’Connor’s photograph and it had been him who’d asked her!
“From early days she was friendly with the likes of Sean O’Faolain, Eric Cross and Kate O’Brien. Then later our uncle Walter Macken would come in from Oughterard once a week to borrow two or three books, but the wonderful thing was he’d give us a critique on all the books and all of that was seeping into us. Kate O’Brien used to do that as well. All these photographs of writers on the walls here are old friends. Seamus Heaney always talked about how my mother was promoting his work when hardly anyone knew him. For us it doesn’t matter if a writer is a Booker or Nobel winner, or someone who has written a book about the history or flora and fauna of their own locality – they’re just as important.”
The 1960s saw Kennys making their first forays into the US market; “In 1959 we started producing catalogues and got contact details for various American libraries,” Tom explains. “We started corresponding with them and not only were they buying books from our catalogue they’d be asking us for more books by certain authors or on subjects; they were changing the way we were thinking. That all started happening at a greater speed when we began going to the US ourselves so these libraries were educating us into ways of bookselling.”
Another landmark change in the company’s trading practice was going online in 1994. “Barry Flanagan walked into us one day and said he had an idea he wanted to talk to us about which was getting us on the internet – we’d scarcely heard of it at the time. So he set up a webpage and when we saw it there was a real wow factor. Another bookshop in San Fransisco set up a website two days before ours but we were the second bookshop in the world to go on the web, and that SF shop has closed since so we are now the ‘elder lemons’ when it comes to online book selling! Putting up a website is like having a shop window, you have to dress the window and change it regularly, we learned that very quickly and we often update our website on a daily basis For instance, we often have writers doing brief readings in the shop and we upload those.”
No longer located in High Street, for the past decade the Kennys’ Bookshop & Gallery has been situated in the Liosban Industrial Estate – not forgetting its strong presence on the worldwide web. The third, and even fourth, generation of the Kenny clan are already to be found working in the family business so one can see many a long year yet beckoning ahead in the remarkable Kennys’ story.