Kennedy’s Wildcat Den, the textbook and fan merchandise store that has been a fixture beside the University of Kentucky campus since 1950, will close after the semester ends.
“Sales have gone down, down, down,” said Carol Kennedy Behr, the general manager and daughter of founder Joe Kennedy, who at age 92 remains involved in the business. “This is just the time.”
Kennedy’s announced its closing in an email to customers Sunday night, just before final-exam week. Merchandise in the store except textbooks will be marked 40 percent off, Behr said. Rented books must be returned by Dec. 16 and gift cards used by Dec. 22, when the store’s doors close for good. Kennedy’s will continue selling fan merchandise online for a while at Wildcatden.com.
Internet merchants have been taking an increasingly bigger bite out of the new, used and rental textbook market. Kennedy’s other mainstay, UK logo apparel and merchandise, is now widely available online and in other stores.
UK’s new product licensing contract put Kennedy’s at a bigger disadvantage, Behr said. And its main bricks-and-mortar competitor, the University Bookstore, will reopen across the street in April when a $175 million renovation of UK’s Student Center is finished. For two years, the store has been in a temporary building two blocks away.
The Kennedy family decided in April to sell its prime real estate at the south corner of South Limestone and Winslow streets to Core Campus Investment Partners, which planned to build apartments there. But in June, Core swapped the property and a former Fazoli’s restaurant site next door with UK for a nearby parcel, where the apartments will go instead.
UK had been trying to acquire the Kennedy’s property for years, Behr said. Plans for the site are unclear, although expansion of UK’s adjacent parking garage seems likely.
The land swap came as a surprise, but Behr said she had already told her 12 full-time employees, many of whom had been with Kennedy’s for years, about plans to close. “It’s tough, because it’s family,” she said.
A family affair
After fighting in Italy during World War II, Joe Kennedy returned home to Bloomington, Ind., and married his sweetheart, Peggy. “She hasn't given up on me yet,” he said.
Kennedy said he attended classes at Indiana University, “but college life wasn’t my thing.” He went to work for a cousin with an off-campus store and learned the textbook business.
“He liked selling and buying books,” Behr said. “He just didn’t like reading them.”
The Kennedys moved to Lexington in 1950 and opened a small store in an old corner grocery building at 541 South Limestone Street.
“I wanted to be as close as I could to the competitor,” he said.
UK then leased space in McVey Hall to the Campus Book Store, run by James E. Morris, son-in-law of former UK President Frank McVey.
By 1953, Kennedy’s had moved to its present corner, which it shared with a bowling alley, barbershop, pool hall, gas station and snack shop. As the bookstore grew and prospered, Kennedy gradually acquired all of the property.
“It’s really a bunch of buildings all hooked together,” Behr said of the store.
Kennedy always looked for gimmicks to attract students: buying books with silver dollars, using colorful polka dot bags and advertising with slogans such as “More dough from Joe.”
In 1964, UK took over operation of the Campus Book Store, which moved to the Student Center across from Kennedy’s and was renamed the University Bookstore. Since 1984, UK has outsourced the store to several companies, including Kennedy’s from 2001-2006. It currently is run by Barnes & Noble.
Kennedy’s Book Store changed its name to Kennedy’s Wildcat Den in 2013 to emphasize that it sold much more than books.
At the height of Kennedy’s success, the family owned a half-dozen college stores and fan shops in Kentucky and nearby states and ran Transylvania University’s book store. Kennedy’s now has one other business, a UK fan merchandise store in London, which will continue operating for the near-future.
As Internet competition grew, Kennedy’s sales and margins slipped. Behr added online sales, too, but business has gotten more competitive each year.
“When Amazon first came out, I vividly remember telling people, ‘Yea, we’re OK,’ but knowing that it might come,” she said. “We’re probably the only people you’ll meet who haven’t bought anything off Amazon.”
Family of entrepreneurs
Joe and Peggy Kennedy were married more than a decade before Behr, their only child, was born in 1957, so they focused their energies on their business and their church, Second Presbyterian.
As a girl, Behr went to the store with her father on Saturdays. In junior high, she rode her bike there after school. As an older teen, she worked in the store for $1 an hour.
“You were overpaid,” Kennedy said.
“Yea, he’s always said that,” replied Behr, who has been vice president and general manager since 1991.
“I saw him work hard,” she said. “If the trash needed taking out, he took out the trash. The focus wasn’t the money; it was the pride in a job well done. So that’s what I learned. That’s what our sons learned, too.”
Behr and her husband, Tom, who owns Pazzo’s Pizza Pub, have two entrepreneurial sons. Brian owns The Village Idiot gastropub. Brett owns The Beer Trappe craft beer store. The brothers also recently opened Bear & the Butcher restaurant.
“We always knew where our bread was buttered and gave back to the UK community,” Behr said.
In addition to donating items for campus group fundraisers, the company gives 10 $1,000 Joseph P. Kennedy Scholarships each year through UK to students who show outstanding community leadership and service.
Kennedy and Behr said they take pride in the many longtime employees they had over the years. Several people worked there for decades, as did some of their children. Two current employees are second-generation. And hundreds of student workers came and went over the years.
“My father says he never felt like he aged much because the employees didn’t — the student workers were always 18-22 years old!” Behr said. “That’s a huge thing I’ll miss.”
A personal note: I hadn’t met Kennedy until I interviewed him recently, but I had heard about him all my life. My late father, Bill Eblen, managed the University Bookstore from 1964-1984, when it was staffed by UK employees. He and Kennedy were friendly rivals, and they shared a dislike for a third competitor, Wallace Wilkinson, who owned Wallace’s Book Store from 1962 until Kennedy bought it in 1977. Wilkinson’s business practices would become well-known after he served as Kentucky’s governor, 1987-1991. He died in 2002.