Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Conor Kenny

Conor Kenny

The person you should be interviewing is my mother, Maureen, who is 84 years of age and still works six days a week in the bookshop. My parents met as students on their first day at University College, Galway. My father, Desmond, was the son of a newspaperman who helped to found the Irish Tourist Board. In 1940 my parents rented two rooms in the High Street, Galway. They started a bookshop in the front room, and lived at the back. Their first stock was mainly donated by friends and family, emptying attics and delivering trunks of books to the shop by horse-drawn cart.

They were hard times and my parents had to be innovative and adventurous to survive. During the 1950s my father took a job in a local textile factory, eventually becoming general manager. It was in those years that he gained valuable experience of marketing. Kennys has always been good at publicity. My father liked to say that he wished our bank balance was as good as our marketing.

When the textile factory moved to Manchester in the early ’60s, my father went back into the book business. Although he had been buying the books and cataloguing them, my mother had been running the shop on her own. My father died in 1991, but you will still find my mother behind the counter.

I am one of six children, and we all grew up with books. At the ripe old age of fourteen I was somewhat of a rebel and wanted to go to London to be a bricklayer. My father managed to keep me in school for another couple of years, when I went straight into the business. Richard Booth was a regular visitor to our house, and it was part of my training to observe him going through books. Sucking whisky and smoking cigars, Richard would say to my father, ‘I’ll give you £100 for that wall’, to which Des would joke, ‘Sure you will, Richard. But when will you pay us?’ It was also a training to go with my father to see libraries up and down the country. In those days Kennys was the only bookseller that bought entire libraries.

When I was a young man I used to go to Dublin regularly to visit the bookshops. You could buy interesting pamphlets for as little as 10p a time. I would take them back to Galway, catalogue them and sell them to the National Library of Ireland. One day I was walking past a demonstration outside the Irish Parliament with the Keeper of Rare Books from the National Library. One of the protesters handed him a leaflet which he carefully put in his pocket, saying to me, ‘That’s so Kennys won’t charge me a fiver for it in a few years’ time’.

My father issued Kennys’ first catalogue in 1959. It was limited to 100 copies – all that we could manage on the stencil machine in my brother Tom’s bedroom. The sheets were assembled by all the family around the kitchen table. From the beginning Kennys specialised in Irish literature and books of Irish interest. The first catalogue was sent to American universities, their addresses acquired from the American Embassy in Dublin. To my parents’ great surprise substantial orders were received from local collectors.

By the mid-’90s we were producing fifteen catalogues of Irish interest a year. Then came the Internet, and we launched our home page on the Web in 1994, making Kennys only the second bookshop in the world to do so. The first bookshop on the Web was, suitably, a science fiction store in California. By 1996 we had 30,000 books on our website. I was surprised to read recently that at the same date ABE had 5,000 books on their website.

We no longer assemble catalogues in the kitchen; we use new technology to identify and supply clients’ specific needs. Most of our selling now results from controlled mailing lists. We have noticed in recent years that it’s possible to buy from specialist dealers and still sell at a profit – by using technology to find new markets. As my mother taught us, for every book there’s a customer.

In the last six months, I have been on trips to Australia, Japan and China. We have always gone to faraway places in search of new buyers. When we meet librarians, we don’t bring books – we bring ourselves. By sitting down with them, we can show what we are about simply by logging on to our websites, www.kennys. ie for the bookshop and art galleries, for our subject collections.

In the early days we used to exhibit at the American Library Association’s conferences. It was very hard work shipping the books and setting up the booth. On one occasion we arrived on the first morning, five minutes to opening time, and were surprised to find an empty booth opposite us. Then we saw Mr Casalini, Italy’s leading supplier of new books to American libraries, walking calmly down the aisle to the empty booth. He opened his briefcase, took out a banner with the firm’s name and hung it up. My brother turned to me and said, ‘Some day we’re going to do that’.

Kennys is the main supplier of new books of Irish interest to over 70 US libraries, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Boston Public Library. It began in 1980 when my father was appointed supplier of Irish books to the Library of Congress. A Congressman had been receiving complaints from his constituents about the Library of Congress’s holdings of Irish books. This led to a telephone call from the American Embassy in Dublin. My father was in the States at the time and flew to Washington where he was interviewed by eight people. At the end of the meeting, he was asked why they should appoint him as their supplier. My father had a large business card which listed the names of all the members of the family engaged in the business. He handed them the card, saying, ‘Guaranteed continuity of service’. That was the start of our new book business in the States.

I went on my first American trip in 1986 when Ireland was in serious recession. The moment we landed in Boston, we were signing up new clients. There’s nothing like walking in the door, presenting yourself and offering a service. I remember my first visit to Heritage Book Shop in Los Angeles. I introduced myself and said, ‘My father tells me you are one of the best bookshops in the world, and also the most expensive’. Back came the reply, ‘You’re right on both counts, Mr Kenny, and you’re very welcome’. New York is still the best place in the world to buy Irish books. I love visiting the Strand Book Store – not least for the wonderful staff. I first went there with my father who knew Fred Bass very well. When we were offered coffee, the assistant said, ‘Jeez! You must be important’. An hour later Fred took us out for lunch and the assistant said, ‘You must be really important, Mr Kenny. Take him for everything he has’.

We all have to adapt to changing markets. When I came into the trade America was the major market for the Irish book trade. But it has since shifted to the north of Ireland, to Germany, back to the States, Australia, and now China and Japan are coming on. I was terrified by the prospect of my first trip to Japan in 1995 – ten years too late, incidentally. When I got there, I found that it was easy to connect with the Japanese. We are both island people on the fringe of a great continent, and we share an ancient history and a long tradition of music and folklore. Two members of our staff recently went on EU scholarships to Japan. Jimmy Shaughnessy was placed with two Japanese booksellers, and spent three months each with Far Eastern and Kinokuniya. They both learnt to speak Japanese and gained valuable experience. Anne-Marie Gleeson now looks after our new accounts, and Jimmy is general manager of the export business.

Our end-clients in Japan are university libraries, and we deal with them exclusively through Japanese booksellers. The coming of the Internet inevitably increased market awareness amongst book buyers in Japan. Some Japanese dealers began to find that their profit margins were no longer sustainable in the light of information on the Web. We wait to see how certain aspects of the traditional Japanese book trade will react to this significant change.

We have been to China twice and I believe that in a few years they will emerge as a major market. One of my tasks was to discover if they had the money and interest for buying western books, and how much they would pay for a typical new academic book. The results of my inquiries were positive, and led to a substantial order for a collection of 1,200 titles by and about Nobel Prize winners for Literature. As a young bookseller from the west of Ireland, I never thought that one day I would be supplying the National Library of China with books on China.

According to Richard Booth, bookselling is all about logistics. When we bought Hammersmith Books and spent two years shipping 250,000 books to Galway, I discovered how right he was. It was our advertisement in the Bookdealer for books on Africa that resulted in our buying Ronald Gray’s entire stock. He had responded with a one-line fax saying, ‘We can supply anything you want on Africa’. And one thing led to another.

We have also recently acquired 50,000 British parliamentary papers from the 1830s to the 1960s. By combining these with other material already in stock, we can create hundreds of interesting catalogues. Our problem now is to find the time. There is a huge amount of bibliographical description available on the Web, and we’re trying to develop a system for retrieving records for each item as we catalogue them. Of course there is more to making a good catalogue. You must be consistent in how you describe material, and how you flavour it. I learnt to catalogue from my father, with whom I shared an office for almost twenty years. He had a background in journalism, and would sometimes savage what I had written.

My father never expected that we would all go into the business. But my sister Jane is the only one who got away. Tom runs the art gallery, Monica does the accounts, Gerry is in charge of the bindery, and Des looks after the Book Parcels – essentially a specialised book club for books of Irish interest. Des has 1,600 clients worldwide, for whom he makes up parcels of books every few weeks. He has built up a highly lucrative business for new books, more valuable nowadays than the American library service.
 My niece Karen is the first member of the third generation to enter the business. She’s now general manager of Kennys Bookshop – her father’s boss, as I see it. There are twenty-one members of the third generation, including my three children, and I’m sure more will follow Karen’s example.

Kennys is now the largest exporter of books from Ireland according to the Irish Trade Board. Our staff of nearly forty manage a stock in excess of 600,000 books and pamphlets and deal with librarians, booksellers and private collectors throughout the world. We enjoy what we do and like to welcome people to Galway – not just to see our books, but because we are proud of our city. This is a beautiful part of the world, and only a thirty-minute flight from Dublin. Despite the coming of the Internet and all the change that has been going on, the book trade still operates best the way it always did – by catalogue and by booksellers and book lovers visiting each other.

Interviewed for The Bookdealer in March 2002


Since the interview, Kennys has signed the Bibliographic Data Provision contracts with OCLC, a non-profit organisation serving over 45,000 libraries in forty-six countries which holds over 80 million records with a new record added every fifteen seconds. We are now in a position to catalogue over 5,000 antiquarian and out-of-print academic items per week, all to the highest international library cataloguing standards.

Despite or perhaps because of these developments, we remain firmly committed to a fundamental tenet of antiquarian bookselling; namely, the production of frequent and interesting catalogues.

Afterword added in 2004

Conor Kenny

A Poland & Steery Co-production