A young woman from Co. Leitrim came to Galway to study at what was then University College Galway (now NUIG). On her first day in College as she made her way up St. Mary’s Road a young man came rushing out of Raleigh Row. He too was heading to class at UCG. According to Des Kenny of Kenny’s Bookshop and Gallery from that day “That was That!” Des says that four years later the couple married and at the time the war was in full flight so times were tough.
Des remarks that despite work being in short supply his parents did not want to leave Galway so his father went to a former teacher and asked what suggestions he would have that would allow him to make ends meet. The establishment of a second hand book shop would be a winner he was told.
On 29th November 1940 the Kennys opend their used book shop in a little room in a building on High Street in Galway. There was very little traffic or foot fall on High Street in those days Des remarks but people came to the shop to see what it was all about. Money was scarce but Des Kenny Snr had a gift of being able to source books and managed to gather stock from friends, family and wherever he could find them. The bookshop was not hugely profitable and with a growing family Des Snr took a job with a local cotton factory. As part of his work he would travel across Ireland and every time he returned to Galway the car was packed with more books. The Kenny children and their mother would sort these, catalogue them and stock them. This gave the next generation of booksellers a huge education and understanding of the business.
There came a time when Des Kenny Snr had to decide to leave the cotton factory but when he left he brought with him great knowledge of marketing and he set about putting this knowledge to work in Kenny’s Bookshop. The first move into marketing was a two pronged approach. Catalogues were developed and a postcard campaign was started. The catalogues were printed in Tom Kenny’s bedroom in the family home in Salthill, collated on the kitchen table where they were also stapled, packed and later brought to the post office to be sent across the world to libraries and others that the Kenny family knew were interested in books from Ireland. The postcard campaign was started by Mrs. Kenny who, according to Des had a beautiful writing hand. She wrote these postcards “What to do on a Rainy Day – Visit Kenny’s Bookshop” which the Kenny Children brought to local Bed & Breakfast establishments in the area. As the Kenny’s were known across the city the B&B owners were happy to take the postcards from them and place them in the guests’ rooms.
In the Mid Sixties there was a good feeling in the air and there was a lot of interest from abroad on Irish affairs and Irish literature. There was a lessening of censorship restrictions and that allowed new publishers and writers to appear. The Kenny family knew these publishers and writers and were able, through their catalogues and contacts, to introduce them to their global customers. The orders started to come in.
Through the seventies and eighties Kenny’s Bookshop continued to grow in size and in reputation and with the onset of the internet they were introduced to the new technological age almost by accident.
The Digital plant in Galway closed in the late 80’s and many educated talented people with technological expertise found themselves not wanting to leave Galway so a number of small enterprises sprung up in the area. One of these former Digital employees approached Kennys about his new website “Ireland.ie” and was looking for a well known reputable business to be the lead client on the site. The Kenny family jumped at the opportunity and soon after became on the second bookshop in the world to have a website.
With the website came a new market and within a very short time Des Kenny says they were processing a huge number of orders from customers who came to know of Kenny’s Bookshop through the website. This resulted in a global book club starting where, according to Des his book club membership grew and grew.
Along with the bookshop the Kenny parents saw the potential of promoting West of Ireland artists so the idea of opening a gallery came to fruition as far back as the 1950’s. This gallery was opened in a room in the family home in Salthill but later it joined the bookstore in High Street. Over the years both businesses flourished and with the additional books and increasing number of art pieces space was at a premium. Des recalls that between receiving and sending books alone there were about five trucks arriving at the premises on High Street on a daily basis. This was problematic but so too was the interior of the shop and gallery as space was at a premium. There just was not enough room to move in the place. Also, with the worldwide reputation of Kenny’s the number of visitors to the store was increasing year on year and a large number of these visitors did not buy books.
The decision was made to move to a new location. As Des says leaving High Street was like a death in the family but their new facility on the Tuam Road in Galway houses 275,000 books and there is an extensive art gallery. There is significant room to browse and enjoy investigating the shelves and while the new facility is not as romantic as the High Street store it is certainly much more practical and offers a more enjoyable experience to customers.
As Kenny’s Bookshop heads towards its 80th birthday in 2020 five of the six Kenny “children” are working in the business. There are three of the third generation working there too.
Hear Des Kenny tell the Kenny’s story here.