In a virtual awards ceremony held the afternoon of May 24, Publishers Weekly editorial director Jim Milliot named The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kans., PW Bookstore of the Year. Seattle-based commission rep Kurtis Lowe of Book Travelers West is PW's Sales Rep of the Year.
Authors, booksellers, and publishing professionals have testified how, with creativity and panache, the Raven and Lowe supported authors and books during the pandemic—and that their actions, in fact, sustained the indie bookstore industry itself.
The Raven co-owner Danny Caine accepted the award from Bayfield, Wisc., where he is attending the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association’s spring gathering of booksellers. Sharing a split screen with several of The Raven's co-owners, Caine tried to deflect attention from himself by giving his colleagues several shout outs. "This is a team win," he said. "Everything we've accomplished is 100% thanks to the truly wonderful Raven team."
He added that he wanted to introduce his colleagues because he believes "the future of bookselling is booksellers" and that "the best way to ensure that bookstores have a seat at the table is to foster a new generation of talented and enthusiastic booksellers. The best way to do that is to make sure that bookstores are welcoming and equitable places to do dignified work. Places where people can earn a living wage and build a career if they want to."
Lowe thanked numerous industry colleagues in accepting the award, from his fellow reps at Book Travelers West, to Nancy Suib, the head of an eponymous commission rep group who launched his career by hiring him back in 1997.
“And thanks to all the booksellers,” Lowe concluded, “who commit an act of courage every day by opening their doors to show us that we all belong to universe of ideas, stories and experiences that entertain and challenge us.”
Quoth the Raven: Amazon, Nevermore
The Raven, founded by Pat Kehde and Mary Lou Wright in 1987 as a mystery bookstore with a small selection of local interest titles, has become a general bookstore and a beloved community hub in Lawrence, a university town with a population of 97,000 residents and 28,000 University of Kansas students. Caine bought the store in 2017; in January, he sold 49% of his shares in the business to seven of his employees.
After Caine self-published How to Resist Amazon and Why in 2019, which was subsequently issued by Microcosm Publishing in an expanded edition, the Raven became the face of indies everywhere, valiantly doing business in the digital age. Caine is a prominent face in contemporary bookselling: often quoted in media reports on indie bookselling, Caine was named Bookseller of the Year by MIBA in 2019 and profiled by the New Yorker in 2021, and Midwest Living magazine cited the Raven as best bookstore in its “Best of the Midwest 2022” feature. Caine currently serves on both the American Booksellers Association’s and MIBA’s boards.
The Raven has long been an ardent defender of indies, Caine said. He recalled how, in the late 1990s, Kehde and Wright advocated for their business when Lawrence residents debated the addition of a Borders superstore across the street. That store eventually did open, and remained until 2011. “But the Raven survived,” Caine says, “in part because of the compelling story about small businesses the original owners had been telling for years. What I say about Amazon is what the original owners said about Borders in 1997.”
A Showman for Books
The third time is the charm for Lowe. A commission rep affiliated with Book Travelers West for more than 20 years, and head of group since 2008, Lowe has been nominated two previous times as PW’s Sales Rep of the Year, in 2016 and 2019.
Lowe, who recently partnered with the heads of Fujii Associates and Como Sales to form National Book Travelers, is the quintessential road warrior, traveling between Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington state. When Jonathan Evison, previously published by Workman’s Algonquin Books imprint, “needed a smooth handoff to Dutton” for 2022’s Small World, Lowe ferried Evison around the Pacific Northwest for three days on a 24-bookstore tour. Lowe doesn’t even rep for Dutton—although he did use the trip as an opportunity to recommend that booksellers stock up on Evison’s backlist titles from Workman, a company that Lowe does represent.
But it was at the height of the pandemic when Lowe really distinguished himself. Lowe, who, pre-pandemic, had converted his West Seattle garage into a combination office/book showroom, began scheduling Zoom sales calls. During these meetings, he walked around his showroom, holding up finished samples grouped by publisher or distributor, leafing through them while pitching, so that the buyer can see jackets and interiors. “This allows me to do custom presentations that are not harnessed to an in-person visit,” he told PW. “I can get much more creative.”
Tom Nissley, the owner of Phinney Books in Seattle, describes Lowe’s Zoom presentations as “quite a show: he’s zipping around his room, and it’s obvious that he’s thought about what you can do in terms of displays. But then he works with some very visual publishers that you can’t get across in the same way with just a phone call.”
This story has been updated to include a link to a video of MIBA members inside Apostle Islands Booksellers bookstore in Bayfield, Wisc. cheering the announcement of the Raven's win.