Name & Job Title: Tomás Kenny, Bookseller
Bookshop Name: Kennys Bookshop
Tell us about your bookshop.
We’re a family bookshop. My grandparents set it up 81 years ago and they had 6 kids, 5 of whom still work in the business. Now we have third and fourth generations working with us.
We’re a bit different in that we do everything – which can be a good thing and a bad thing! We sell new, second hand and antiquarian books. We do library supply, we have an Art Gallery.
We’re based in a warehouse on the outskirts of Galway. It’s not a traditional bookshop location but its got a combination of everything and anything. People come in not knowing what they’re going to find. We’ve got, give or take, a million books here.
‘Different’ is the way we describe it!
Why did your grandparents decide to start the bookshop?
They met in college in Galway, then graduated and got married. WWII was on; it was 1940 when they opened the shop. They wanted to do something to stay together and to stay in Galway. My grandmother had actually worked over in Glasgow for the war effort, looking through mail for the army. They didn’t want to live in the UK or in Dublin, they wanted to live in Galway. There were no real jobs so they created their own. My grandfather wanted to start a fish and chip shop and my grandmother wanted to start a bookshop, and we joke we’d all be better off if they’d opened the fish shop.
Originally they had a small lending library, then expanded stock. They somehow made it work but I don’t know how to be honest. To have a bookshop is hard enough but with 6 kids, so many mouths to feed, I guess that inspired them to keep expanding out.
One of their sons for example, created a book bindery. He was sent off for training. Then another took over the art gallery. And a daughter became the head of accounts. They found everyone a place by continually expanding and adding new focuses to the business.
We left the bookshop in town about 16 years ago. The focal point of our business has been export for a long time., and we do a lot of business in Japan, China, the USA, UK, and mainland Europe.
Kennys stocks over a million books at their bookshop and gallery in Galway
What is the atmosphere like in the shop?
Every day is different. The atmosphere for the past 15/16 months? Well, there’s been a weird atmosphere as we’ve been closed for the majority of that time, although we were all so delighted to be among the lucky few who were able to come to work (relatively) as normal. We’re open again now though, and it’s really exciting.
We’re always busy, there’s always more to do than time to do it. Everyone is always running around at 100 miles an hour but all the staff like it because every day is different. Anyone can walk through the door, you never know what is coming next. Bookshops attract people with big personalities! It’s an exciting atmosphere. Everyone here likes the arts, whether visual or spoken word, and it’s good to be among creative people.
Favourite memorable customer interaction?
We’re the oldest bookshop online – we set up our website in 1994 – and I remember the following year getting an email (which at the time was very new) from Anchorage in Alaska. They were looking for books on Irish history and I found it so different and amazing! Now we’re used to the world being a small place but then it was extraordinary.
At the same time I got this email we were also cataloguing an archive of a man named Trumbull, a tobacconist in 18th century Dublin. There was a merchant in Castlebar in the who owed Trumbull money for tobacco and he didn’t want to send a cheque to Dublin on a coach. This was a time when the French army were in Mayo, and the British army marching across the country to meet them, so he didn’t want to take the risk of the coach being commandeered. He ripped a cheque in half, sent one half of the cheque on one coach and the other half the next day on another.
Anyway, the people in Alaska paid me over two emails, sending me half the card details on one mail, and half on another. So here I was 200 years after Trumbull – but getting paid in the same way! The more things change, the more they stay the same!
I’ve been lucky to have a lot of wonderful and nice people in, but that one has always stuck in my mind. I love when people are excited about something, or take a recommendation and are sometimes sceptical but come back and say it was just what they were looking for.
What are your customers enjoying at the moment?
The pandemic has really changed what people are reading. People started buying these big classics, titles they had never had time to get around to before – War and Peace, Ulysses, and so on.
But in the second half of the year, sci fi and fantasy started to sell. I think it’s that escapism thing. That has really continued into 2021.
Sinead O’Connor’s memoir is the current bestseller, but more generally, Irish fiction is going through an incredible moment. There is so much fantastic writing being published that the public is genuinely spoiled for choice.
Anything else you want to tell us about the shop?
We love our shop, and our shop is full of people who love books, and even better, full of books – we have over a million books in the shop and we are so excited every day to meet customers – especially after being denied it for so long!
What are you reading at the moment?
I just read The Killing Kind by Jane Casey, a new Irish crime novel, set in London. I think she is seriously underrated – she’s a very fine writer. I’m about to start Colm Tóibíns new novel – which I am really looking forward to!