In my heart, it seemed like such a good fit,” recalled Danny Caine, a former high school teacher and published poet, about his decision to buy the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kans., in 2017, a few months after completing his MFA in poetry at the University of Kansas. “Of course, I didn’t want to make a bad business decision. It wasn’t just that I wanted to avoid financial ruin for myself. It was also important to me to be a good steward for the store, which has been here for so long and has a hugely passionate and loyal following. I knew if I did something bad to the Raven, I’d be run out of town.”
The Raven, founded by Mary Lou Wright and Pat Kehde in 1987, began as a mystery specialty store that also carried local-interest titles. During the store’s first decade, Lawrence, located 40 miles from Kansas City, also boasted a children’s bookstore, a travel bookstore, and a general bookstore. Unlike the other three, the Raven survived the arrival in the late 1990s of a Borders superstore, in large part by expanding its selection while raising awareness of the downsides to what Caine referred to as “the mallification of Downtown Lawrence.”
Today, the Raven is a full-service general bookstore, and it has become an institution both for Lawrence’s townies and for the local university community.
“Everything that independent bookstores do well, the Raven was already doing under the previous owner and the first owners,” said Caine, 34, who was employed part-time at the store while at KU. “It was active in hosting events and community building. I just fell in love with the store and with the business.”
While honoring the Raven’s origins by maintaining a large mystery section, Caine has injected new energy into the store. Despite the pandemic, it is on solid ground, with a “slight” increase in sales after pivoting last spring to web orders, curbside pickups, and local deliveries; holiday sales were up 7% over 2019. Business has been good enough that, this coming spring, the Raven will move in to a 2,000-sq.-ft. space—which is twice as large as its current space.
“There were a lot of motivations in moving,” Caine said. “Right now, it’s either fulfill website orders or have customers in the store. There’s just no room for both, and I don’t foresee shipping going away even after we reopen to browsing. We needed a new setup where we could have people working on fulfillment in a workspace that’s separate from the sales floor.”
Not only has the Raven shown how a bricks-and-mortar store can weather a pandemic but Caine has become a torchbearer in the public relations campaign the indies are waging against Amazon. His efforts began in April 2019, when he posted a series of tweets that went viral regarding Amazon’s impact on local economies. “Talking about Amazon was always part of my thoughts about how to reach out to customers,” he explained. “While booksellers and others in the industry are good about talking amongst ourselves about Amazon, we have trouble educating consumers. The tweets that got attention were an attempt to explain that.”
Caine compiled his tweets and an open letter he wrote to Amazon head Jeff Bezos into a zine, How to Resist Amazon and Why, which the Raven and many other indies then sold—selling about 4,000 copies total. Microcosm Press, which reissued the zine in November 2019 and sold another 10,000 copies, will publish an expanded edition in trade paperback in March.
“I only know what works for us,” Caine said. “And what works for us is taking a stand—a kind of activist bookselling. Our customers appreciate supporting a business that shares their values. What I say about Amazon is what the original owners said in the newspaper about Borders. I’m continuing their advocacy in support of small businesses.” A bookstore, he added, is “uniquely suited” to be an activist business, because it “can support certain titles or authors or presses that share your values.”
Pointing out that indies cannot compete with Amazon on price, convenience, or shipping speed, Caine said he refuses to fight an “uphill battle.” The Raven has a mantra, he said: “Yes, you are paying more, but you get a lot more with it: author events, community support, political activism, donations to charity. The book costs $5 more, but this is what we’ll do with that $5.”
Editor’s note: This is the first in a regular series of interviews with booksellers about what is going on in their stores. Interviews will appear twice per month throughout 2021.