We Sell Books: ‘We are the oldest bookshop website in the world’

Tomás Kenny at Kenny’s Bookshop in Galway. Picture: Dean Kelly

Marjorie Brennan meets Kenny's Bookshop owner Tomás. 

Tomás Kenny is the third generation of his family to work at Kenny’s Bookshop in Galway. The show was originally situated on High St in the city centre. 

It is now based at Liosbán industrial estate on the Tuam Rd, just outside the city, where it also has an art gallery. 

It has a wide range of services beyond selling books on site and online, including library supply, bookbinding, the handling of archives and book valuation. It also supplies books of Irish interest to the US Library of Congress.

Kenny’s has been in business for nearly 80 years, What is your connection to the original owners?

Des and Maureen Kenny started the business in 1940. They had six children, of whom five are still in the business — one became a teacher. 

They all lived in Galway, which was also unusual at the time, in terms of emigration and so on. The eldest, Tom, is my father, and he runs the art gallery we have here. Myself, my sister and a cousin are the third generation who work here. My dad, and his brother Des, they read more than anyone I know, probably three or four books a week. Dad is 75 and still here five days a week.

Is it true you were the second bookshop in the world to go online?

Yes, the first was in San Francisco and that has gone out of business so we are the oldest surviving bookshop website in the world, as it were. 

It was pretty basic for the first few years and we didn’t put a huge amount of effort into it but by the time we closed the bookshop in town, we were selling more books online than we were in the shop. Not only that, but in the shop in November, you might not sell a book until midday, while it is remarkably consistent online.

You come into work here in the morning, there will be a few hundred orders and emails to answer. It is a lot easier from a staff point of view to plan. 

While the shop we had in the city was fabulous, there was something like 20 rooms there and it was a 15th century building. The overheads to run it were savage. We miss it but we are happy where we are now.

Was the move difficult for the family?

I spent more of my life in that shop than in my home so it was difficult. But we work with family and staff who have been here a long time and it is the people that make the place. 

We are very lucky that we have a shop that is bigger than it used to be. We can stock more books and we have very specialised shelving that takes in enormous amounts of material. It has brought opportunities to us.

How do you compete with Amazon?

We could never hope to compete with them in terms of the most popular bestsellers, which they are selling for less than we can buy them for, never mind shipping and everything else. 

But once you go beyond that, we would be cheaper than Amazon for the vast bulk of things, especially second-hand books, slightly older books or what publishers would call long-tail books, those that were published three or four years ago. We also sell on Amazon as a third-party seller. 

It is expensive to sell on Amazon, as they take a huge cut. If we sell on our website, we don’t have to pay that percentage to Amazon and so we just take it off the price, so it’s cheaper. 

We have around 100,000 second-hand books that can be delivered anywhere around the world for less than €5.

Do you see any particular trends in Irish books?

Tramp Press sent me out a proof of the Emilie Pine book Notes to Self and I thought it was the best book I had read in years. 

I’m sure many were in the pipeline already but it seems to have kickstarted a significant trend in memoir/commentary. When I started working, there were a number of very prominent Irish writers, all of whom were mostly male and already well-established. 

It is brilliant to see the amount of Irish writing by women in every field now. Also the number of books being published indigenously. 

If you were an Irish literary fiction writer in the past, you had to go to the UK, Faber and Faber, Picador or wherever. Tramp and other independent presses have done such a good job of creating an indigenous market and selling that on.

Many famous writers have passed through Kenny’s bookshop, who had the greatest impact on you?

We were lucky as Galway is a popular destination and we had a fairly constant parade of people. 

Walter Macken was our uncle and Kate O’Brien would come into the shop a lot too. Brendan Behan also used to drop in. 

He came in once half-cut, or fully cut, and said to my granny: “Mrs Kenny, there are two places I can’t pass, a pub and a bookshop,” and she said: “For God’s sake, come to the bookshop first.” 

Two of those three died young in a very short space of time and we realised we had no mementoes of them, so we started taking pictures of authors who came in — we have thousands of them now.

When I was younger I’d walk around and look at them and think: “He was here, she was here.” 

Two stand out for me — Edna O’Brien, because she was just amazing and really lovely. The other is John McGahern. My granny started the shop and she was from Mohill in Leitrim, near to where John was from. 

He’d say very little, was very gentle, but was very obliging and a lovely man.

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