The Kenny Bookshop was founded in 1940 by Des and Maureen Kenny in the family home in High Street but nobody envisaged that 70 years later the family business would still be going stong and be a recognised ‘brand name’ across the globe.
“In my parents day it was a fierce struggle and it was all about survival,” Tom Kenny tells me as we sit for the interview in the gallery of the Kennys’ new premises in the Liosbán Industrial Estate, “but the shop and the little exhibitions which were also run in it were all about trying to bring a bit of colour into Galway life.”
When Tom discusses the family business and how it has survived over the last 70 years, the constant refrains are ‘the need to keep coming up with ideas’, ‘presenting your ideas’, and ‘getting the word out there’.
Des Kenny snr’s time in the Galway Textile Printers Company taught him a lot about how to run a business as did walks in Salthill.
“Dad brought energy and vision to the place and mum was the practical one,” says Tom. “My mother and father liked to take a walk along the prom and all the time they would discuss ideas for the shop, ‘Could we do this?’. ‘Could we try that?’
“Later when any of us had ideas our parents would be open to hearing it. We would have to explain it and defend it, and if they didn’t like it they would not be slow to tell us, but if they thought it was good, they were behind us 110 per cent.”
Books were bought for the shop from libraries, second hand books from schools, and publishers. In the late 1950s, the family began cataloguing all the stock and hand printing it using a Roneo machine located in Tom’s bedroom. This would then be sent out to customers, professors, and interested parties, thereby spreading the name of the company in Ireland and abroad and opening up new markets.
The family opened an art gallery - the first in the west of Ireland - in 1968 in the family home in Salthill, moving it to the bookshop in 1984 when they were able to expand the premises.
“Kenneth Webb first exhibited with us in 1957 and has been exhibiting with us every since, John Behan has shown here for the last 40 years,” recalls Tom. “It is great to work with creative people and have the chance to watch them grow and develop, and to realise we’re helping in some way in that.”
In the late 1990s, the company became the second bookshop in the world to develop its own website which further expanded the company’s customer base and took it into the modern era.
“The technology may have changed,” says Tom, “but a lot of the old ideas are the same. A shop window has to be ‘sexy’ to attract the customers’ interest and get them to explore further. A website is the same. Once the customer ‘gets in the door’, it’s up to you after that and it’s the same in the internet age, and we are currently in the process of expanding our website and giving it an overhaul.”
A number of years ago The Kenny Bookshop and Gallery moved from its High Street/Middle Street location to the Liosbán Industrial Estate. It was the end of an era in Galway commercial and cultural life, but the Kennys’ have always been determined to move with the times.
“It was very emotional, that was the house I was born in,” says Tom, “but from a business point of view it made sense. It makes us work harder to get people out here, but there is a lot of traffic in the estate every day and customers who have been with us for years still come, and the export trade is good. I’m glad to say it’s working very well.”
Five of Des and Maureen’s six children and three of their grandchildren now work in the family business and Tom is confident this will ensure the Kenny business continues for ages to come.
That Kenny’s is a popular Galway institution is beyond doubt, but the bookshop and gallery have also been integral to spreading awareness of Galway around the world and building goodwill towards the city.
The bookshop has been visited by numerous great Irish writers and a host of internationally famous and acclaimed authors, many of whom subsequently developed a great fondness for Galway. One such example was the legendary Welsh children’s writer Roald Dahl.
Dahl visited Kenny’s in the mid-1980s. Like many other children that weekend I happily queued to get him to sign copies of his books for me. Dahl however left with a lot more than just some good memories.
“For years our mother was saying he should come but we through there wasn’t a chance,” recalls Tom, “but to keep her quiet we drafted a letter and by return of post he said it was the nicest invitation he ever received in his life and he would be delighted to come.
“When he came he had a few rules, most were just procedural matters, but the main one was that ‘no child is to be disappointed’. The queues went all the way out of the shop and past The King’s Head. For two days he signed books and had a cramp in his hand from doing so and he was happy to have his photograph taken with the children. What he loved hearing though was the opinions of the children.
“I remember one child came up to him and said ‘Mr Dahl, I love that part in your book where the bomb explodes out of the woman’s knickers.’ Dahl was a very tall man and he bent right down to the level of this small child, looked right at him and engaged in a three/four minute conversation. Seeing that, I realised that this is where he was getting his ideas from. He had a wonderful ability with children.
“While Dahl was signing the books we brought his wife around town and showed her Sonny Molloys [now The Front Door bar] where there were Aran sweaters and wool products. She said Dahl never wore a coat, only cardigans, and she wanted to get something for him. Sonny said ‘I have just the thing!’ and produced this red báinín.
“Years later I saw Dahl being interviewed on a number of TV programmes wearing the cardigan and after the interview finished, Dahl would always say ‘Aren’t you going to ask me about my cardigan?’ The presenter would and then Dahl would launch into this story about how he got it in Galway and what a wonderful city it was...”
Sometimes the shop had surprising visitors such as the American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who wanted a book on Irish history and whose recommendations to friends brought much business Kenny’s way, or the former German president Richard von Weizsäcker, who was a keen admirer of Irish writer and Bohemians FC footballer Oliver St John Gogarty, and called into the store unannounced one day to see if it had any of his books for sale.
Other times Kenny’s (and the Galway Advertiser ) played a role in trying to shape the Irish politics!
“It was after John Bruton’s budget when he tried to put tax on children’s shoes but there was also a proposal in there for VAT on books,” recalls Tom. “The Government fell and an election was called. One day Ronnie O’Gorman [Galway Advertiser chairman] called me and said Charlie Haughey is coming into O’Gorman’s Bookshop, let’s meet him and tackle him over the VAT on books in case they’re still thinking of bringing it in.
“Charlie and his entourage came into the offices of the Galway Advertiser. There were plates of tea and sandwiches left out but they were gone almost instantly once Charlie’s men got at them. Ronnie and I sat down and asked Charlie about the VAT on books. It threw him as he wasn’t expecting it. Olivia O’Leary was among the journalists there and she said to Haughey: ‘Are you going to answer the question or not?’
“I will never know what happened next but Olivia and I were left shaking hands and Haughey was out the door. Years later I was talking to a man and he started talking about the ‘Galway Memo’. I asked him what was he on about. He said ‘You should know, you were involved in it’.
“Then he explained to me that Haughey would not introduce the VAT on books following the meeting he had in Galway. We thought he wasn’t paying attention to us, but Haughey had a secretary making notes on everything that was said to him that day.”
Celebrating 70 years
Given this rich history, it’s no surprise that the family is celebrating 70 years. To mark the occasion the gallery is hosting Generations, including artworks from six artists (Kenneth Webb, Pauline Bewick, Thelma Mansfield, etc, ) and their children, all of whom have exhibited previously with Kenny’s.
Other highlight include 70-70-70 featuring 70 artworks from artist Gertrude Degenhardt. Padraic Reaney will present a major exhibition on the theme of the Famine, opening on April 24.
For the Galway Arts Festival Kenny’s will present a major group exhibition of contemporary Irish sculpture, opening on July 10. There will also be exhibitions from Barry Herniman (opens March 6 ); Paul Guilfoyle (March 27 ); Jane Reeves and Mike Flannery (June 19 ); fine art prints from the Graphic Studio in Dublin (October 9 ); and a selection of Ireland’s finest craftwork in association with the Crafts Council of Ireland (August 14 ).
In association with Cancer Care West, Kenny’s has also planned a programme of art demonstrations at the Liosbán Gallery with Marja Van Kampen, Jerry Marjoram, Ben Maile, Grace Cunningham, and Jim McKee. There will be a limit of 110 tickets for each demonstration at €15 each. All proceeds will go directly to Cancer Care West.
Kenny’s is also planning a series of signings and readings by poets, and sports writers (June 26 ), business writers, authors, children’s writer, and politicians who have penned their memoirs throughout the year.
Kenny’s will also host a number of concerts throughout, including one for artist and folk singer-songwriter Jim McKee, and recitals from ConTempo on April 17, November 16, and December 18.
For more information (and for tickets to the painting demonstrations ) contact Kenny’s on 091 - 709350 or email [email protected]