|Boston Sunday Globe: An Irish haven for book lovers|
© Suzanne Gordon
Here in Ireland's west country, visitors may find a treasure that seems to have been especially designed for those seeking entertainment on one of the area's desolate, rainy days. No, it is not a guided tour of the prehistoric Ailwee Caves in Ballyvaughan, a peek 'round the small shops on the Aran Islands, or a pint of Guinness in one of County Clare or Galway's quaint pubs. The treasure we found on a typical soggy day one summer was lodged in the heart of Galway City: one of the most remarkable bookstores in the world.
London may have Charing Cross Road, and Dublin, Fred Hanna's, but Galway has Kenny's Bookshop and Art Gallery. Located on High Street, Kenny's is far more than an old fashioned bookstore; it's an Irish literary shrine.
In the front room, wooden shelves are filled with Irish literature. In an alcove, piles of ageing Irish novels and short stories threaten to tumble when you reach for a tome by Elizabeth Bowen or an out of print collection of Mary Lavin's short stories. There are rows of Irish politics and history from early medieval Ireland, through the Troubles, and titles on local history such as "Women of Mayo" and "Old and New Galway".
Children can linger for hours in a section devoted to children's books in both English and Gaelic. There's a collection of directories for those seeking ancestors who emigrated during the potato famines and after. Volumes thick as telephone books include "The Directory of Dublin 1917", "Thom's Directory of Ireland 1947" a faded, rose coloured" 1908 Kelly's Handbook to the Titles, Landed and Official Classes," a bright blue "Whitaker's Peerage" and, finally, "The County Families of the United Kingdom, 1860/95."
Upstairs, room after room is filled with sections on business, law, religion and so many used titles it would take weeks to go through even a quarter of them.
Throughout the store are water-colours and oils done by famous painters of Ireland, including Kenneth Webb, an Englishman who immigrated and founded the Irish School of Landscape painting in Ballywater, County Down. Kenny's Art Gallery, a three storey series of chambers, has exhibited many famous Irish artists and foreigners such as German painter Gertrude Degenhardt, whose Irish sketches and paintings are advertised on posters all over the west country.
At the shop's front desk, Mrs. Maureen Kenny, matriarch of the clan who founded the bookstore with her late husband Desmond Sr., advises customers, while Des Kenny her son, chatters away in French with a woman who is looking for tapes of Irish folksongs. Mrs. Kenny is joined not only by Des but by four other of the family's six children. "Not one of us felt a compulsion to come into the business, Des Kenny later tells me as we sit having a pint in The Bunch of Grapes, a nearby pub that has become known as the meeting place for Kenny's board of directors. "But throughout our childhood, all we saw in the family was books, and some of it was bound to rub off".
They are all in the business with the exception of Jane, a sister who is a psychologist and, according to Des, thinks her siblings are all mad. Conor is managing director of the bookshop and gallery, Gerry runs a bookbindery located 2 miles away in Salthill, Monica is in charge of accounts, Thomas directs the gallery, and Des is involved in retailing and the buying of secondhand and new materials.
The Kennys trace their interest in the printed word to their paternal grandfather, a famous newspaper man and one of the founders of Bord Failte, the Irish Tourist Board. When Mr. and Mrs. Kenny Sr. married, the two rented a small room on High Street and started the bookstore. The business, however was slow to take off. "People just weren't used to the idea of buying books," Des Kenny explains, so the elder Kenny's temporarily changed tactics and decided to operate a lending library.
"My father would go off in a station wagon, selling books to county libraries." Difficult as those times were, Des recalls that his fondest memories are of days when his father would return from a journey with a carload of books and the children would sit in the living room sifting through the piles.
Mrs. Kenny kept the shop, but her husband had to find work elsewhere, as a personnel manager in a local textile factory. During the '50s, the small store began selling paintings by Irish artists, and when Thomas finished university in the 60s, his father rejoined the business. Thomas developed the art gallery and began selling maps and prints. During this era, the Kenny family also got to know librarians from the United States and discovered a new market: institutional libraries hungry for recently published Irish works.
These days, Des and Conor Kenny follow the same road their father travelled in the '40s, purchasing old collections from schools, libraries, churches and estates. The store now furnishes Irish books to the United States Library of Congress, Boston College, Boston Public Library, Yale University and more than a hundred other institutional collections.
"They want anything published in the The Republic and Northern Ireland," he explains. "We catch the books for them before many of their small printings - in the thousands rather than hundreds of thousands - disappear. This way, libraries get them just after they are published."
Kenny's not only distributes Irish books to libraries throughout the world but has helped build a growing publishing industry at home. "Per capita, we are the biggest book buying public in the world. Ordinary people in Ireland read poetry and good fiction," Des Kennys says proudly, and to prove it launches into a yarn about Irish poet Seamus Heaney.
"One day Seamus was with us in a pub across the street. A gentleman, a dustman (garbage collector), came up to him and said, 'Are you Seamus Heaney, the poet?' When Seamus answered in the affirmative, he said, 'Would you do me a favour and shake my hand. I think you're great.'"
Although most Irish authors used to publish their books with firms based in London, today many publish at home. "Now," says Des Kenny, "we can fill the shop with books published in Ireland, written by Irish people." Some of the growth in Irish publishing, he adds, has been fuelled by interest in local Irish history. "When people started writing local history," Kenny observes, "the quality was very poor, the retired local schoolteacher had nothing to do and wrote a slim volume." Today, the quality has much improved.
Similarly, there has been a surge in production from Irish women writers. People abroad, he says, used to recognise the big names -- Edna O'Brien, Elizabeth Bowen, or Maeve Binchy. Now, there are dozens more -- novelists such as Clare Boylan, and Conlon or poets such as Sara Berkeley and Eavan Boland.
Kenny's not only purchases these books but is also an active participant in promoting Irish works through book launch parties, individual promotions and books it publishes itself. One of its most recent publications is a celebration of its first 50 years in business, a collection of Irish literary portraits -- "friends of the shop painted by friends of the shop," Des quips -- called "Faces in a Bookshop."
When a visitor leaves a bookstore like Kennys loaded, as we were, with the best literature the country has to offer, the parting is always bittersweet. What happens, you worry, when you've exhausted the supply? With Kenny's that is not a relevant concern. Des Kenny and his family have designed a unique book club. Any Kenny customer can sign up with the shop, leave a credit card number, note their desired area -- local history, women's fiction, Irish politics, labour relations, secondhand or antiquarian works -- and, at assigned intervals during the year, Kennyis will send a selection of material. All books are sent fully on approval, and the customer can return or exchange anything he or she does not find appealing. "It's a customer-friendly book club," Des describes it. "You can cancel or change topic areas without prior notice."
When we left Kenny's that rainy day, I willingly signed up, and have been receiving Irish literary care packages ever since. Des Kenny occasionally includes a note, and I write back every once in a while to tell him how much I appreciate his keen judgement: I have yet to receive a title I did not find of interest. We have not been back to Ireland in two years. But I feel a bit like Helen Hunt wedded to 84 Charing Cross Road. Des Kenny says his mother has always argued that "for every book, there's a customer". The only problem is to find them." Kenny's seems to have succeeded in doing just that.
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