By Blathnaid O’Dea
“My earliest memory is sitting on my mother’s knee and she’s reading to me from Greek classics,” Tom Kenny says fondly recalling the woman who, along with her husband, was responsible for one of Galway’s greatest cultural institutions. Kenny’s Bookshop was founded eighty years ago this year by Tom’s parents, Maureen and Des Kenny.
From the beginning, the business has always been about family and stories, and it’s clear the Kenny family are very proud of their special history. Five of Des and Maureen’s children and three of their grandchildren work in the business, but as Tom explains their involvement was inevitable.
“We were all reading from the earliest possible age and actively encouraged. It was like a system of osmosis. We were constantly being drawn in. None of us siblings growing up had a chance in terms ofbooks because we grew up in the middle of them – my youngest brother’s first bed was actually the bottom drawer of a bookcase.”
Maureen and Des Kenny initially sold books from a two room premises on High Street, where they also lived and raised their young family. About a year after Tom was born the family moved to Salthill where they continued developing the business.
Over the years they added an art gallery, a book bindery, and a special collections division. Tom runs the art gallery and he delights in telling the Kenny story, painting a picture of the business’s early days that’s every bit as colourful as the paintings hanging on the wall behind him.
As with so many good stories it begins with two people falling in love.
“My mother came to college in the thirties from Mohill, Co. Leitrim on a county council scholarship and on her first day in Galway she met my father. ‘And that was that’, as my Dad always said.
They fell in love; they were young, and they were very enthusiastic. There was no money and even less prospects. They weren’t quite sure what to do, so an old teacher of my Dad’s suggested opening a bookshop.”
Even as a very, very early appreciator of the Greek classics, Tom is aware of just how big a risk this was in hindsight.
“It was a bit of madness really when you think of it because books were not really necessary to the normal everyday lives of people. You had to buy food, you had to buy fuel, you had to buy clothing etcetera – but not books,” he remarks.
Had his parents not been natural entrepreneurs the whole venture might have gone terribly wrong. In the early days the couple were given books by friends to sell and for a short time they even sold cigarettes, although they later stopped when Maureen – “the pragmatic part of the partnership” – decided to venture into the art world.
As Tom explains from the business’s current location in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Galway city, Des and Maureen’s bold move to open a gallery in their living room quickly attracted visual artists, thus adding another facet to the operation.
“From the very early fifties we were also selling works of art by Irish artists and we’ve had that combination ever since.”
And if Maureen was a pragmatist, Des was a “visionary,” according to Tom. He was forever looking for new business ideas and while working for Galway Textile Printers to make ends meet, he learned about the export trade.
He worked his way up to become export manager and then manager of the whole factory, all the while taking what he learned home to the bookshop. He believed Kenny’s had the potential to conquer the export market.
Tom’s childhood bedroom became home to a stencil machine, which Des purchased to print book catalogues to send by post to America. The export business was not without its difficulties – it was very time consuming and it often took months to receive payment for orders from America. However, it was invaluable for networking and getting the Kenny name out there.
Over the decades the Kennys have hosted many famous artists and writers including Roald Dahl, John McGahern, Seamus Heaney, and Edna O’Brien.
And in the ‘90s when internet selling was beginning to take off, Kennys was the second bookshop in the world to go online, narrowly missing out on first place to a San Francisco bookshop which is now closed.
“We are the elder lemons now in terms of the internet,” Tom informs me. If there’s a note of satisfaction in his voice it is well deserved; he has worked hard alongside other family members to keep Kennys in competition against the likes of Easons and Waterstones.
Tom is happy with where the business is at today: “Last year we exported books to 130 different countries so it’s a sea change from the small room my parents started in. One of the things they always taught us was never to be afraid of change,” he smiles.