Lexington, KY – As Kennedy Book Store marks its 60th anniversary this year, the same family that opened the doors in 1950 still oversees every aspect of the store’s operations today. And still very much a part of it all is Joe Kennedy, the family patriarch, and his daughter, Carol Behr, who manages the store.
Although the shop has changed locations, it has never ventured far from its original space at 541 South Limestone – a glass-fronted building of roughly 900 square feet that was once a grocery. These days the business is positioned securely at 405 South Limestone and incorporates the ArtPart, which was purchased in 1995.
And in addition to being part of the South Limestone landscape for six decades, Kennedy Book Store’s commitment to the University of Kentucky community also extends to scholarships, with $10,000 in Joseph P. Kennedy scholarships being distributed each year to 10 UK students who are outstanding in academics and community involvement.
Kennedy and Behr agreed to sit down with Business Lexington and divulge the secrets to their lengthy success.
BL: What was your motivation in opening a bookstore?
JK: After the Army, 1946, I worked at Indiana University’s bookstore in Bloomington, Indiana. Of course, I learned a lot there and got good advice from my boss. I was married and wanted my own business. Lexington offered the right competitive situation Ö the (University of Kentucky) bookstore in a college town. My wife and I worked all the time, and we were blessed with having the time to do it. We lived and breathed the business. She was my partner; we’ll be 65 years married in December this year. Work was it – and church. Carol came along later, and even then, she was at the store with us all the time.
BL: Where did your funding come from?
JK: A thousand dollars from my father – my brother, actually. With it we bought school supplies – notebooks, paper, pencils and pens – to the penny. The original order came to $1200, and I cut it back to $1,000. We started by buying used books in May and June of 1950 before fall semester. It was a pretty good measure of what we were going to be able to do.
BL: What’s been the most rewarding aspect of owning your own business?
JK: The freedom to make my own decisions – right or wrong – and live and die with it. We bought books for a dime in the beginning, just let them know we’d do it. And then we paid in silver dollars. And $2 bills. The other merchants didn’t have the slots in their cash register drawers to hold them, but they got a lot of them, and they knew where they came from. You learn to love the business with the successes you have.
BL: What have been your survival tactics when things got tough, and through our recent financial situation?
JK: Continue to do the right thing. Treat people like family and exercise good business practices. Stay with the basic premise, which for us is more used books. It’s not just Lexington anymore. With online, it’s worldwide.
CB: Treat employees well and they stay around. And we have very good employees. We have employees who are the kids of past employees. People who used to work here stop in all the time and introduce us to their kids who are going to UK. It’s people – so many relationships. And it’s service. Make people happy.
BL: And how many employees do you have?
CB: Full time, (we have) 18. Part time, (we have) 40 to 100, depending on the time. We all bleed blue and go to the games – big supporters. We definitely know the pulse of the fans – we are fans.
JK: It’s kept me young, working with 18- to 24-year-olds.
BL: Your most famous shoppers?
JK: Henry Faulkner. He came in barefoot. Wendell Berry, Ashley Judd. So many players.
BL: Any lessons learned to pass on?
JK: Get personally involved. Spend time and energy, and work hard. Have a positive attitude – and you’d better love it.
BL: What does the future hold?
CB: We will have success, changing with technology. It’s a new business, and we will learn to exercise the principles to adapt.