Author and Kansas native Sarah Smarsh (Heartland) explained in an email what makes the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kans., so special. Since Danny Caine took the helm in 2017, she wrote, the Raven “has led a national conversation about the importance of purchasing books from small, independent stores; navigated the pandemic with creative solutions, including outdoor readings and a new ‘Ravenmobile’ for community book delivery; and continued to provide a safe, democratic space for ideas and people of all identities.”
Smarsh isn’t alone in noticing that what started in 1987 as a mystery specialty bookstore with select local interest titles has become a Midwestern literary legend: Midwest Living magazine cited the Raven as best bookstore in its “Best of the Midwest 2022” feature. Caine, too, has drawn positive attention. The Midwest Independent Booksellers Association named him Bookseller of the Year in 2019, the New Yorker profiled him in 2021, and he’s routinely quoted in media reports on indie bookselling.
Caine serves on the boards of MIBA and the American Booksellers Association, and is director of the Paper Plains Literary Festival, a fact Smarsh notes by way of demonstrating the Raven’s “commitment to boosting culture in a place and region outside the highly coastal, highly urban, beaten path of the literary scene.” The festival, which launched with virtual events in 2020, hosted its first in-person events last month, with Angeline Bouley, Smarsh, and Colson Whitehead headlining.
Caine didn’t set out to become what Smarsh calls him: “a rock star among booksellers” whose “funny, sweet, often spicy voice across social media has fostered support from around the world.” Nevertheless, the Raven has come to represent indies everywhere, valiantly withstanding the almost insurmountable obstacles bricks-and-mortar bookstores face in the digital age.
After working as a high school teacher in Cleveland, Caine moved to Lawrence to attend the University of Kansas in 2014. While enrolled in the MFA program there, he began working at the Raven part-time, and in 2017, a few months after graduation, purchased the store from Heidi Raak, who had bought it in 2008 and transformed it into a full-service, general bookstore. In 2019, Caine self-published a zine, How to Resist Amazon and Why—and a star was born. Microcosm Press reissued the zine a few months later and then released an expanded, 120-page book in 2021; both sold well.
Though Caine, who sold 49% of shares in the Raven to seven of his 12 employees in January, may take pride in the role he’s played in amplifying the conversation about Amazon’s predatory practices, he maintains that the Raven was an ardent defender of indie bookstores well before he appeared on the scene. In the late 1990s, store founders Pat Kehde and Mary Lou Wright advocated for their business when Lawrence residents were debating the addition of a Borders superstore across the street from the Raven.
According to Kehde in a 1997 article in the Topeka Capitol-Journal, “Personal service and knowledge of books will separate Raven from the chains, even though she knows she can’t always compete when it comes to price.” Kehde, the article continued, hoped that “price isn’t the only thing customers care about.”
That Borders superstore eventually did open and remained until 2011, when the chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. “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.”