Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Neck of a Bull: Kenny's Bookshop & Art Galleries

For most of us, the small bookstore where you could lose yourself in browsing is as rare as Thurber’s unicorn in the garden. For Des Kenny, however, this particular unicorn happens to be the family business. Kenny’s Bookshop &Art Galleries, Ltd. in Galway, Ireland, has been selling new, used, and out-of-print books since 1940.

“I’m not sure that it’s a thing of the past,” Kenny says. Granted, in the last 20 years, some small bookstores have gone under, he admits: “The world was much colder than they [the owners] expected, and they didn’t have the stamina, the knowledge to weather it.” But since he started in the business in the mid-‘70s, “the number went from four to 20. Only bookstores were selling books then. Now supermarkets, gas stations, discount stores, and Amazon all have encroached on small bookshops.” To stay on top it all, “you have to be mad and have a great sense of humor and the neck of a bull.”

Kenny’s Bookshop has weathered the changes, though, and it has done so by, in a sense, frequently re-inventing itself. The original store on High Street in the center of Galway offered, as one writer, Michael Kennedy put it, “the comfortably cluttered ambience of a home that prized the importance of written language….Kenny’s was where one might expect to find John Huston perusing an obscure title when he lived outside Galway in the 1950s, or John Ford stopping in while filming The Quiet Man in nearby County Mayo, or J. P. Donleavy browsing on leave from Dublin, as he wrote The Ginger Man.”

The art gallery -- the first commercially built one outside of Dublin -- came later in 1968. In 1993, Kenny’s went online, becoming the second bookstore in the world to have its own website. The idea, says Des Kenny, “ was to allow us to develop our online business while maintaining a retail presence.” Thirteen years later, Kenny’s moved to the Liosbaun Retail Estate on Tuam Road in Galway, the Gallery following in January 2009.

Today, is Ireland’s largest online bookshop, offering nearly a million titles. They are also getting ready to “launch a new website which has 6.5 million books on offer with free postage world-wide and prices that seriously challenge Amazon as well as other major book websites,” Kenny explains. “The site will also be noted for the fact that it will maintain the same personal service that has been our hallmark, continuing our parents’ legacy.”

So, that’s the shop’s past, both distant and not-so-distant. In the present, Des Kenny admits to “wavering between pessimism and optimism….I always think that the worst thing to happen to the book world is the Harry Potter books. Too much media hype. With all this push, all this drive, people tend not to make up their own minds. The whole idea of an individual imagination has not been encouraged, has not been fostered.”

E-books? “They’re fine in their place [and] will find their place,” he says, adding quickly, “It wouldn’t be my cup of tea.” Then he throws out an observation you don’t expect from a bookseller – an entirely accurate observation but an unexpected one, nonetheless. “Books never, never were a major form of entertainment, even in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They would’ve been for a small percentage [of the population] because they were the most articulate.”

That doesn’t mean he sees books as being an endangered species. “With every new technology and invention since the radio,” he comments, “the amount of books published per annum has increased dramatically. In 1980, 300 books were published -- between 2008 and 2009, 2,000 books were published. There has been at least a five – to ten-fold growth in Ireland, a small country.” And while these figures are “specific to Ireland,” he imagines that “it is much the same world-wide, probably even more so in countries where literacy has experienced a dramatic growth.”

And there’s still a solid interest in rare and out-of-print books, which the shop deals in…books that “wouldn’t be on the front desk, but they are accessible to the public.” Book lovers come for them “in waves. Sometimes we have loads, and sometimes we have none…. [For] the person who likes the feel of the book, the way it smells, it’s a tactile thing that can’t be replicated for now, at least. There are still things you can’t get on the Web.”

It’s a business that Kenny loves everything about. “When I open the door in the morning with the key, I never know what to expect,” he says. “It’s a constant flow of customers, new books, and interesting people. A bookshop is the most democratic of stores. It is both the genesis and the flowering of books, it is a place where ideas and imagination are welcome, it is the Mecca of the Imagination.”

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