I love bookshops. I love all kinds of bookshops but I have a special liking for stores that sell secondhand books. I do buy a lot of new books, from both physical and online stores, but for me the market in books that have been owned by others before me is, for some reason I would find hard to explain, the truly authentic one.
Every secondhand bookshop I have ever visited has had its own character. Usually interesting. Occasionally less so. Some take their character from their setting. Some from the range of books they stock. But the best bookstores take their character from the people who own and manage them, and in these stores the books on offer tend to reflect the passions and proclivities of their owners.
(Come to think of it, the worst bookstores I have visited also took their character, or lack of it, from their owners.)
I visited a bookstore yesterday – Kennys Bookshop, in Galway, Ireland – that undoubtedly falls into the best and most characterful category, and one that I have wanted to visit ever since I read about the death of Maureen Kenny on John Naughton’s blog, Memex, in 2008. Maureen and her husband Des founded the original shop in Galway’s High Street back in 1940, and the store has been not just a Galway phenomenon but an Irish, and an international, phenomenon ever since (the quotation in the title, an apt description of any good bookshop (or library), is taken from the linked article in the Irish Times by Tom Kenny).
On my first ever visit to Galway I knew I had to find this special bookstore. I am happy to report that I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and, of course, I spent more money than I had intended to when I walked in. I bought a number of books, but the gem is a 4-volume 1892 edition of “The History of Civilization in Scotland” which, when the title was mentioned out loud by Des Kenny (Jr), elicited the cheery and lighthearted comment from a nearby book-browser that “Scotland has never had any civilization”. It was said with a smile and a knowing glance that the Scots and the Irish are able to throw at each other without any offence ever being taken. We give as good as we get – in both directions.
However, on arrival at the till to pay for my chosen titles, the young man serving me noticed that my 4-volume set only had three volumes. As I was browsing the shelves I had been in the habit of resting the books I had already chosen on any available nearby space while I glanced at other titles, and of course, in picking the pile up at some point, I had left the fourth volume resting on a random shelf somewhere. For the next 5 minutes, I and a couple of staff members scoured the shelves until someone spotted the missing volume and completed my set.
Like all good secondhand bookstores, more than 80% of Kennys Bookstore’s trade is now carried out online – but the physical store, for all that it is no longer set in the old medieval streets of Galway City, is still a great space to wander. It is a store that, for good and obvious reason, has always focused heavily on Irish writing, in Irish and English, Irish history and Irish culture generally. I was able to pick up a lovely re-writing by Seumas Heaney of The Testament of Cresseid, by the 15th Century Scots makar, Robert Henryson. Written in Middle Scots by Henryson, I look forward to reading Heaney’s no-doubt-pellucid English translation.
I hope to be back in Galway one day so that I can visit this cultural institution once again.