|Six Weeks in a Booklover's Heaven Is Really
Dream Come True
By Marilyn McKnight
I once read a commentary about myself that said, "You enjoy books more
than reading". Now, for someone who prides myself as being a reader, this
seemed to be a bit derogatory. Over the years, however, I have come to
realize that there is a certain element of truth to that comment. I love
books. I have no plan to buy an electronic book and no inclination to listen
to books on tape. I want to hold the book, turn the pages, fold down the
page (yes I admit to this oft-criticized method of marking an important
passage in a book), look at it on my bookshelf and simply know that it
is my book.
The initial inspiration for an ongoing reading project, A Lifetime
of Reading, came after reading the book, The Man Who Loved Books
Too Much. As I finished the book I came to wonder why someone would
have an extravagant love of books. Why would someone collect books and
pay large sums of money for books? Why would anyone feel a compulsion to
steal books? My book project is something of a journey to answer these
The realization that I really do love books recently led me on a different
type of journey to Galway, Ireland to undertake an internship at a magnificent
cultural icon known as Kennys Bookshop and Art Gallery. Early in October,
2010, I left for a six-week adventure in one of Ireland's most delightful
cities working as an unassuming intern in a business that has been the
heart and soul of an extended family for seventy years.
I realize now that in spite of all that I learned during my time at
Kennys, I hardly touched the surface of all the fascinating aspects of
the business and just barely came to understand the passion of all of the
Kennys who work there and the team of workers that keep the business moving
My journey to Kennys began in the summer of 2009 when I attended the
Milwaukee Irish Fest "hedge school" session given by Des Kenny, one of
the Kenny family members who owns and operates Kennys Bookshop and Art
Gallery in Galway. Des was relating the history of the bookshop and how
the family started the business in 1940 and has been selling new, used,
out of print, rare and antiquarian books ever since. I was fascinated by
the story of how his parents established the bookshop and began their mission
of sharing their love of literature, particularly Irish literature and
all things Irish. After his presentation, I asked Des if Kennys ever involved
interns in their operation. I was somewhat surprised when he said they
had an intern program and suggested I contact their Intern Coordinator
- Rosemary Gallagher. Thus began my pursuit of what I lovingly refer to
as my "Six Weeks in a Booklover's Heaven."
Rosemary Gallagher is a busy lady at Kennys. Her somewhat unofficial
title is "Administrative Coordinator In Charge of Everything That No One
Else is In Charge Of". Rosemary was receptive to the idea of my doing an
internship, but was a bit apprehensive that I might find it to be somewhat
mundane and not terribly exciting. My response to that thought was " I
love books, I love Irish people and I love Ireland - what more could I
want?" Through phone calls and e-mail correspondence we established the
dates and general plan for my involvement as an official Kennys Bookshop
Intern. I was off and running and I was absolutely thrilled!
There are countless aspects to the ever-growing, ever-evolving operations
at the expansive operation simply referred to as Kennys. It is a bookstore.
They sell books - lots of books, lots of titles, books for children, books
for students, books for booklovers of all ages in Ireland and, through
their web site Kennys.ie, quite literally all around the world.
Kennys is also an art gallery. They sell fine art, including oils, watercolors,
sculpture, stained glass, ceramics, photography and graphics. The gallery
specializes in contemporary Irish art, exhibiting the work of 19th and
20th century artists, and frequently hosts exhibitions by visiting artists
from Europe and the United States. Kennys curators organize solo and group
exhibitions each year, and they actively promote the work of emerging
Irish artists. Because the art gallery adjoins the bookshop and Kennys
warehouse, the feeling of culture and beauty surround the workers wherever
they are working. I was thrilled and amazed at how uplifting and inspiring
even the most "mundane" tasks would be when surrounded by magnificent art.
Again I felt this job was close to perfect.
The term antiquarian had little meaning nor interest for me until I
spent days and weeks working amidst stacks and stacks of books with copyright
dates like 1869 and 1748 or even 1695 or earlier. These are the books that
give meaning to the term "antiquarian" and give some understanding and
answer to the question of why people would spend huge sums of money on
books. There is a feeling of importance and of being a part of history
that somewhat overcomes you when you look through these rare books. It
may not be like touching the pyramids, but it is sobering.
One aspect to this division of Kennys Bookshop is the enormous number
of books that must be discovered, purchased, evaluated and catalogued before
they are of any use to the booksellers. Inquiries and requests come, quite
literally, from all around the world. In order to succeed in the extremely
competitive world of bookselling, the Kennys need to have a thorough, shrewd
knowledge of what is considered valuable, exceptional and outstanding -
not simply old. Out of a thousand books that are in a library that is purchased,
there may be one or two or maybe none that is of outstanding quality. This
is a hard business.
The fourth official division of Kennys Bookshop and Art Gallery is the
bindery. This may be the least known, least dramatic division to anyone
who views Kennys as a cultural icon. This bindery will prepare and bind
university theses for students who want and need this formal, professional
work done quickly. Kennys bindery, however, also offers a remarkable service
to anyone, near or far, who has a special, one-of-a-kind self-published
or personalized book, scrapbook, photo album, or diary they want formally
and memorably preserved.
I had never thought of or even seen some of the delightful examples
of these one-of-a-kind texts that could be so personally and beautifully
prepared. It made me think of some of my own writings that are important
enough to me that I might choose to preserve.
There is a fifth, somewhat informal division to Kennys that is quite
real, but undefined. It is that aspect of Kennys that has allowed it to
survive and thrive for 70 years through a lot of hard economic times in
a trade and industry that is unforgiving. It is an unnamed division that
has brought Kennys to the point of being what I referred to earlier as
a cultural icon. In Ireland and around the world, Kennys Bookshop and Art
Gallery has provided services, events and experiences that are unforgettable
for tens of thousands of people over the shop’s 70 years.
Some of the events that occurred while I was there that I will always
remember are the launch for the Babaró International Festival of
Arts for Children, the exquisite painting demonstration by local oil painter
Grace Cunningham in aid of the Cancer Care Center; the "Human Writes" -
Round table with Prof. William A. Schabas, director of the Irish Centre
for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland, Galway; and a magnificent
afternoon concert by a local Galway string quartet.
It is difficult to know what additional cultural events could be provided
for the Galway community, but I am certain that if any members of the Kenny
family or the extended Kenny social network can think of new, exciting,
enlightening events to present to their cultural consumers they will do
I for one will make every effort to return to Galway and to the amazing
community that is Kennys Bookshop and Art Gallery. The people, the place
and the experience will stay with me for a very long time as a warm, fond
For more information on Kennys Bookshop & Art Gallery, contact www.kennys.ie.