For 25 years, the Kenny Bookshop and Gallery in High Street/Middle Street was not just the city’s leading bookshop and gallery, it was an iconic structure. It was a place of good business and good shopping, a meeting point for writers and artists, and a venue that brought the arts directly to Galwegians.
When the bookshop moved out of High Street a couple of years ago it seemed to be the end of an era, but thankfully the shop is back in Kenny’s new location of the Liosbán Industrial Estate. Now The Kenny Gallery is to join it by moving lock, stock, and barrel to Liosbán.
While the reuniting of the bookshop and gallery is welcome the fact that there will be no Kenny’s shop or gallery in High Street/Middle Street is still a sad day for the city. A symbol of the city centre and its commercial and cultural life is gone and something is now missing which cannot be replaced.
Yet, the bookshop’s move to Liosbán has proved successful and the gallery relocating there should reignite that mix of books among artworks and artworks among books and poets, painters, commerce, and championing the arts, that is the unique appeal of Kenny’s.
The gallery’s move to Liosbán has been promoted by issues of space and the recession.
“This is a very big building with a lot of rooms and spaces and requirements, and requires a lot of staffing,” Tom Kenny tells me as we sit in The Kenny Gallery for the interview on a Tuesday afternoon. Around us are artworks catalogued and in packaging, awaiting to be moved to their new home.
“It’s a big beast. It was becoming more difficult to manage,” Tom continues. “Loading and unloading was a nightmare on these narrow streets and the recession affected us. Since May 2007 we noticed a significant drop in sales of artworks and it got worse from mid-Summer 2008.”
Although Tom is sad to be leaving High Street/Middle Street, he does not allow himself to get too sentimental about the situation.
“I will greatly miss the place,” he says. “I was born here. It’s an iconic building and has sections that date from 1472, but your heart must be overruled by your head in this kind of decision. Moving to Liosbán will be a benefit to the gallery as it will link up the books with the artwork and that was a unique partnership.”
The Kenny Gallery and Kenny’s Bookshop will soon be under the one roof in Liosbán. The Liosbán building Kenny’s now occupies has a 7,000sq foot bookshop housing some half a million volumes and more than 1,500sq feet of exhibition space for artwork.
“Books and paintings make a terrific combination,” says Tom. “People who like paintings are generally well read and vice versa. One of the things that was so exciting about the gallery and bookshop together here - and can be again now in Liosbán - is the meeting of poet and painter.
“Often we’ve had poets open exhibitions and they would see something in an artist’s work that the artist didn’t see themselves. It could lead to dialogue and an exchange of ideas and from that have come artists illustrating poets’ work or exhibitions inspired by what a writer was working on.”
The Kenny’s have been planning for the last number of years to bring all of their operations back under the one roof. The current move will significantly reduce operating costs. In the current economic climate, art sales have fallen nationally and internationally.
“By moving the gallery to Liosbán to join our new bookshop, we can benefit from significant cost savings while continuing to promote and showcase our artists,” says Tom. “Exhibitions in Liosbán will be different and a different experience. There won’t be the same footfall but it’s up to us to create that footfall.
“When my father started up the gallery in 1968 in Salthill - the first in the west of Ireland - I said but all the galleries in Dublin are a stone’s throw from St Stephen’s Green. He told me then that the hardest thing I had to work on was publicity and today I know what he means.”
The High Street/Middle Street building will be put up for lease, but Tom has no idea what the future holds for it, in terms of new use, as yet.
Tom has many fond memories of his time in High Street/Middle Street and true to form has stories to share about the people who have been here.
“I remember Brendan Behan being here,” says Tom. “Behan didn’t drive so he always came to Galway by train or by bus. Between us and the station there was the Old Malt Pub which was a very Republican pub in that time, so Behan would always arrive at the shop ‘maith go leor’.
“Yet, as soon as he would handle a book, you would swear he wasn’t drunk because of the respect and tenderness you could see in the way he would hold, handle, and look through a book.
“There was another occasion when a man came into the shop one day and asked my mother who was the best Irish short story writer. My mother said it was a hard question to answer but that if forced to choose she would pick Seán Ó Faoláin, Liam O’Flaherty, and Frank O’Connor.
“The man gave a ‘harrumph’ and walked out of the shop. Later we found out that man was Frank O’Connor! My mother never forgave him for that so when she was asked for the best short story writers in Irish after that she only said Seán Ó Faoláin and Liam O’Flaherty!”