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Bookselling in a pandemic: Kennys Bookshop celebrates 80 years in business

Sarah Kenny describes running the bookshop her grandparents founded and the challenges they faced in 2020.

Sarah Kenny

IF THERE IS a positive story to come from the Covid-19 crisis, it is that people are reading more books and shopping locally. Books have proven to be a great way to help people through the crisis and have provided solace, escapism and a way to pass the extra hours at home. 

I work in Kennys Bookshop in Galway, and for us, bookselling during the pandemic has been as exciting as it has challenging. From the first days, the demand for books hugely increased and there has been a welcome eagerness from customers to support Irish and independent businesses at such a time.

This ‘Shop Irish’, ‘Shop Local’ sentiment has become something of a movement this year and it is very encouraging. 

Sales of books have increased in 2020 along with online sales in general, and this has placed great pressure on the supply chain and its members, who all come together to make it happen.

Suppliers and reps have been invaluable in getting stock to us and in meeting increased demand. We have been working closely with publishers on promoting and selling their books. Authors have actively been promoting Kennys and other Irish bookshops on their channels.

The shift to online

We hosted several author events online, including an interview with Doireann ní Ghríofa on her 2020 bestseller and our book of the year, ‘A Ghost in the Throat’, and a conversation between Tomás Kenny and Sebastian Barry which provided people with an uplifting hour of time-out.

It has also been a fabulous year for publishing in Ireland which has made our job much easier. There is constant excitement here in the bookshop on seeing new books being delivered. 

Browsers at Kennys

An Post has continued to provide an excellent service throughout the pandemic and staff are working around the clock. Our wonderful staff here have been working really hard to get orders fulfilled and none of what we do would be possible without them, they make the place what it is.

Our social media channels have been hopping with more conversations, messages and interactions about books. We are sent pictures daily of customer’s book parcels arriving and have been giving personal recommendations and hosting conversations with followers about what they are reading.

People have really missed browsing in bookshops this year – they are places of discovery and conversation that bring joy and comfort to people – and social media has provided a way for us to bring this world to them during the lockdown and as they spend more time at home.

Indeed, the creativity of bookshops has come to the fore during the last eight months – booksellers are tailoring book packages, personally delivering parcels and getting inventory online to facilitate people during the lockdown.

They are finding ways to survive against the might of Amazon and provide a better, and crucially, different service. Their originality and knowledge are part of what makes bookshops so unique and universally loved. 

A place with character

We are celebrating 80 years in business at Kennys Bookshop this year. My grandparents Maureen and Des Kenny first opened the shop on 29 November 1940 in Galway, having both just graduated from University College Galway and with no jobs. They got a bank loan of £100 and began with a small, one-room shop selling school books and books given to them by their friends.

The business has grown ever since and is now in the third generation. My Grandad was a visionary and risk-taker, my Granny the pragmatic one, and together they made a great team.

They were very innovative and began to expand the business by selling arts and crafts and antiques, creating book catalogues, and travelling overseas to buy and sell. They had six children and five went into the business full-time.

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They opened an art gallery in their living room in Salthill, the first commercial art gallery in the west of Ireland which continues to sell original works of Irish art, and in 1974 they opened a book bindery which produces high quality, hand-crafted leather bindings and thesis bindings, and is one of the few traditional book binderies now left in the country.

Some of the team at Kennys 2019 Source: Kennys Bookshop

So many artists, writers and friends visited the bookshop over the years, amongst them Roald Dahl, Seamus Heaney, Margaret Atwood, John McGahern, Brendan Behan, Walter Macken, Mary Robinson, Allen Ginsberg, Edna O’Brien and Sebastian Barry.

Maeve Binchy was a regular visitor and one day when I was a child, she was in the gallery and I was lying on the floor in front of the armchair in which she sat colouring. A photograph was taken that day which I have hanging at home and which she inscribed to me with, ‘Sarah, may you go on drawing forever. Love Maeve Binchy.’ 

In the 1980s, Kennys began to travel overseas regularly to Japan and the US, and international markets then took on a whole new meaning in 1994, when we became the first business in Ireland and the second bookshop globally to go online. We are now the longest-running online bookshop in the world and ship books to over 160 countries every year. 

We have been overwhelmed since Covid-19 began with the ongoing messages of support from people in Ireland who have made the effort to shop with us instead of the larger conglomerates – there is nearly always a local alternative that is competitive and will often provide a better service and better value. The difference this support makes to us and to small businesses like ours is huge. 

My Granny Kenny used to always say, ‘There is a book for every customer’ and after 80 years in business, we are still trying to marry the book to the customer, whether over the counter or online.

Sarah Kenny is the Marketing Manager for Kennys Bookshop in Galway.

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