Kenny's book shop embraced online selling earlier than most. Next week it closes its bricks-and-mortar store to concentrate on the internet. Rosita Boland pays a final visit to the Galway institution.
The lights are already on in Kenny's Bookshop & Art Gallery, on High Street in Galway. The photographer and I slip through the door with Michelle O'Grady, who will be on the till today. The doors were opened five minutes ago by Anne Marie Murphy, a manager. Time is counting down for one of Ireland's most famous book shops, which has been trading in one form or another since Desmond and Maureen Kenny established it, in 1940. Next Saturday the doors will close forever. The gallery will move to Galway's docks, and the books will continue to be sold online, but the landmark shop will be gone.
9.15am Tom and Conor Kenny arrive. In 1940 their parents, Desmond and Maureen, rented two rooms on High Street. They lived in one and set up the book shop in the other. Over time, as the Kennys bought a house out of town, the shop expanded. For a period in the 1950s it sold crafts, too, and so attracted artists, who began to show work here. The gallery moved around, to the Kennys' home in Salthill - where Seán Keating was the first artist to be formally exhibited - and, eventually, back to High Street.
In 1980 a building at the back of the High Street shop came on the market. The Kennys bought both it and the premises they had been renting for 40 years. By this time five of their six children - Des, Gerry and Monica are the others - also worked in the business. Jane, the only one not to do so, teaches at a local school.
Tom runs the art gallery; Des looks after the Kenny's book club, which has 1,500 members in 45 countries; Gerry works in the book bindery, in Líosbán; Monica is the company secretary; and Conor looks after the antiquarian and book- collection end of things.
Conor takes us on a tour of the building. Some of the beams date back to 1432. There is also a medieval stone fireplace on the first floor, as well as a stained-glass window that was mentioned in Ulysses. In 1996 the bookshop closed temporarily for renovations. The result, a three-storey top-lit atrium, won its architects, Simon J Kelly & Partners, an award from the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland. The shop houses 30,000 books, including some beautiful antiquarian and rare volumes. In the antiquarian room, Conor shows us a signed copy of Poems, by Oscar Wilde. It's number 47 of an edition of 200, and it's presale price (the sale is ongoing) was €6,000.
All these books, plus those in Kenny's export warehouse, in Líosbán, from where books are shipped to customers who have ordered via the web, are on sale. "The public will pay us to move as many books out of here as possible," quips Tom, looking around the shop.
Mícheál Ó Cionna, who runs cruises on Killary harbour and is also behind Dublin's new Liffey Voyage service, is looking at a 1693 chart, Seacoasts of Ireland from Dublin to Londonderry. "The coastline is so different now to what it was. I thought I might find out a bit more about the history of Dublin for our Liffey tours through the chart."
Michelle has made the first sale of the day. It's In the Tracks of the Ten Thousand: a Journey on Foot through Turkey, Syria and Iraq, by the Galway man Shane Brennan.
Eddie Griffin, who has had Kenny's on his beat for years, delivers the day's post. "I'll miss the shop terribly. I love seeing the mix of customers in here."
Rose Gaisford is putting out new stock on the ground floor - all Dan Brown titles. "He keeps me busy!"
Pat McGrath of Oughterard is looking through A History of County Galway. "I'm doing up a house, and I'm looking for some information about period properties," he explains.
The novelist Orfhlaith Foyle has come in for a browse. "Galway is changing so much, becoming homogenised," she says sadly. "We should be keeping something from our past. Even Griffin's, the bakery, is closing. But I'm looking at the closing of Kenny's from a romantic rather than a business viewpoint."
Kenny's insists that its business is thriving and that it is merely changing with the times. But you access an online book shop via a computer rather than through a front door, and you can't see the other customers. A visit to a web-based store is solitary and functional. It lacks the physical activity of browsing through real books. There's no possibility of running into someone you know. You can't attend a book launch in cyberspace. It lacks, in short, the pleasure of exploring a landmark book shop, in real time and real space.
"The business is much more important than the building," Tom Kenny says firmly, looking round the gallery.
Darryl Fuhrman, an American, has been browsing the politics and non-fiction section, and he is unhappy. "You guys in Europe have no idea what us Americans have been going through since we were attacked. No idea at all. You wouldn't write those things about us if you knew," he yelps, gripping my shoulder rather hard to emphasise his point. He has been looking through books on Iraq and is astonished at what he perceives to be their anti-American stance.
Kieran Joyce arrives through the Middle Street door to deliver 2,500 bookmarks. These have been stuck into every book the shop has sold since its closing-down sale began. On one side is the Kenny's web address, www.kennys.ie, on the other an unashamedly over-the-top quotation from the poet Theo Dorgan. "I heard last night that Borges up in Heaven was asked by God to recommend a read. 'Why don't you e-mail Kenny's,' was his answer, 'and while you're at it, say hello from me.' (To the tune of Galway Bay.)"
Michelle is paused at the till, listening to two buskers, with fiddle and guitar, on the street outside. "All the buskers fight for that spot," she says. Peter Akerstrom and Werner Gladh are Swedish. "Kenny's is our favourite place to play in Galway," they say. "People stop to look in the window, and then they might stop to listen to us, too. Books and art and music go together."
Séan and Máire Stafford, stalwarts of An Taibhearc in acting, directing and costume design - and parents of the actor and director Maeliosa Stafford - have been coming to Kenny's for 55 years. "Mrs Kenny used to have a small craft shop at the front, for a while, and 50 years ago I made baínín table mats for her," Máire says. "She used to sell rugs, sweaters, pampooties, crois'. It attracted the artists." They will miss the shop terribly. "We're old fashioned. We like to come in and see the books."
It's Jason Hartley's first visit to Kenny's. He has come from Athenry to buy The Game Cookbook, by Clarissa Dickson Wright and Johnny Scott. "I shot two teal ducks yesterday, and I need a recipe for them," he explains briskly.
We're in a taxi with Conor, who's taking us to see the online part of the business. Kenny's was, in 1994, the second bookshop in the world to go online, so, in retrospect, it's clear it always had an eye towards selling books in an alternative way. Three years later, Kenny's opened an export centre at Líosbán, in Galway's business-park area. This was to service the increasing number of orders from libraries in the US and to allow for expansion of stock, which included several major collections. It's Líosbán where the new online-only business of Kenny's will be based, once the bookshop doors close.
Conor starts to show us around the vast warehouse. In one part of it is the bindery, where about 650 books a year, usually rare, are finely bound for customers. The bindery also binds many less valuable books. Gerry Kenny is currently binding a copy of Grose's Antiquities of Ireland.
We go through to the guts of the building, which house an overwhelming number of books. They are shelved to the ceiling and stacked in boxes on the floor, and they appear to be multiplying as I watch. There are 200,000 books on the shelves and 30,000 inboxes. At another holding warehouse, in Oranmore, are some 300,000 books and pamphlets.
"Everything on the shelves here is online at www.kennys.ie," Conor explains. The books at Líosbán are organised by a library system of cataloguing, which makes it easy for people to find them on the shelves when they receive an order online. As many of the books are either second-hand or predate ISBN numbers, they have each had to be allocated a Kenny's barcode, so they can be priced and shelved correctly.
We go upstairs to the area where the books are shipped to customers. Today, 154 book parcels are going out, to addresses all over the world. These are yesterday's orders. "The book club parcels go out once a week," says John O'Neill, the operations supervisor. They also supply the libraries of many US universities with Irish-interest books - a prestigious and lucrative business.
By close of business 197 online orders have been placed. "Where do you think Amazon and all the other book websites get their books from?" says Conor. I have always assumed that they had vast warehouses somewhere, with people running round, hauling books off the shelves to fill orders. It's not like that. Book-selling sites do have warehouses, but many of their orders are supplied by doing deals with local bookshops. Today Kenny's has received orders from five other big book-selling websites. It is selling, on average, three times as many books online as it is on High Street, with all its overheads. This is why it is ceasing to trade there: economics, pure and simple.
"We're working towards offering books at a cheaper rate than Amazon. In five years time we want www.kennys.ie to be as big a book-selling site as Amazon," Conor declares confidently.
We're back in High Street. What is Kenny's going to do with the 2,000-plus signed photographs of writers that it has accumulated over the years? "We're not sure yet," says Tom. "Everyone is asking us that. They'll be kept together, anyway, whatever eventually happens to them; I promise you that."
"Businesswise, the closure of Kenny's is bad news for us," says Charlie Byrne, who has had his own much-loved book shop across the road, on Middle Street, for 10 years. His shelves contain 45,000 books, but he has no online element to his business. "Book shops thrive when they are together. People will go into them all when they're browsing," he says.
The current asking rent for the High Street shop is €400,000 a year. There are mutterings about high-street fashion chains being the new tenants. Whoever it is, it is very unlikely to be a book seller.
"Kenny's is one of my homes in Galway," says Mary O'Malley, the poet, who is in looking for a gift. "I've launched all my books here, and I'm an orphan now for the next one. It's been much more than a bookshop to me. It's been my post office, where I'd leave messages for people and where my kids left messages for me over the years. If I had writers visiting me, they'd leave their luggage here until their train was leaving. It's a Galway landmark, just as much as the bridges are."
Tom and Conor discuss what they might put in the window of Kenny's to mark the fact that it will be their final display. The Kenny's window has become a Galway tradition, marking news both glad and sad from the world of literature and arts. When Seamus Heaney won the Nobel, his signed photograph was placed in the window, along with a laurel wreath. When authors die, their photographs - and they are bound to be in the Kenny's collection - are placed in the window with red roses and sometimes one of their books. "Mary O'Malley was giving out to me there," reports Tom. "She said her obituary is never going to appear in the window now."
"Kenny's is the first place in Galway I ever bought a book," says Mike McCormack, the novelist. "It was 1984, and the book was Hermann Hesse's Strange News from Another Star. I love mooching round bookshops. I've never bought a book online in my life."
Moya Cannon, another poet, is in signing books: she was one of the contributors to Walter Pfeiffer's Connemara and Beyond. "I just expected Kenny's to always be here," she says. "I have bought books on Amazon, but going into a real bookshop is like going into a bakery and smelling the cakes."
Aodhagán Ó Rodaighe buys the last book of the day: The Annals of Connacht.
Margaret Horan runs through the door. She wants to know if there are any posters or memorabilia to mark the closure of the shop. There aren't, but there are general Kenny's bags and posters. She wants something for each of her three grown children, as souvenirs, as they were always bought books from Kenny's when they were small.
Conor, Tom and Michelle leave the building. Tomás, Tom's son, switches out the lights and puts on the alarm. I wait to let him pass, then step out after them. Undoubtedly, www.kennys.ie will be successful, but in a week the doors will close for good on what many people will always consider to be the real Kenny's. And I, for one, am sad.