Almost 47 years ago to the day that Vivien Jennings started Rainy Day Books in a 450-square-foot space in a Kansas City, Mo., suburb, the indie bookstore has been acquired by a group of local entrepreneurs. The new owners also own Made in KC, a seven-year-old company that specializes in selling a wide range of wares made by local artists and artisans. Terms of the sale were not disclosed, though both parties said that a group of local investors provided the capital for the acquisition and that RDB will operate separately from Made in KC.
Started in 2015 as pop-up shops selling the handiwork of approximately a dozen local artists, Made in KC projects that it will generate $14 million in sales in 2022. It employs 175 people and operates 16 outlets, primarily in leased commercial spaces around the Kansas City metro area, including a café less than 100 feet from the bookstore in Fairway, Kans. It plans to continue expanding, and will open an outlet at Kansas City International Airport after KCI’s transformation into a single new terminal is completed in April 2023.
The company’s business model is built on three different retail concepts: 1,000-sq.-ft. neighborhood shops carrying 150–200 brands in small quantities; marketplaces that range in size between 1,000 and 10,000 sq. ft., where the vendors curate their wares; and cafés, a few of which sell gifts and souvenirs besides food and drink. With the acquisition of Rainy Day, books selected by RDB staff will be added to the mix at the outlets that stock products.
“It does not signal the end of an era,” Jennings, 77, insisted, “It expresses an extension of what we have been doing since we opened our doors 47 years ago.” Now occupying a 2,500-sq.-ft. retail space plus offices and a large events staging area, RDB has long been renowned for its robust programming, featuring A-list authors in conversation with Jennings or other local notables at various venues around the city. The events, executed in collaboration with local businesses and organizations, typically drew large crowds, with each attendee required to purchase a book, and were an important part of the store’s revenue. With the onset of the pandemic, RDB drastically cut back on such programming, hosting only 20 author events this year to date. But with in-store sales way up, total revenue in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2022, were 86% of 2019’s figures, Jennings said. The 2021 holiday season, Jennings added, was the store’s busiest ever.
Tyler Enders, Made in KC’s 33-year-old cofounder and co-owner with Keith Bradley and Thomas McIntyre, and who is Made in KC’s point person with RDB, said the RDB store will be left intact, though that doesn’t mean that changes aren’t coming. The store’s website, for example, will be completely overhauled, he said.
Jennings and her partner in life and bookselling, Roger Doeren, 71, will remain involved in the business, focusing on selling books, helping to train new hires, and overseeing author events, while Jennings’s son, Geoffrey Jennings, 54, will continue in his role as lead buyer. Not only will the store’s 11 employees remain in place, but store hours will be extended, programming expanded, and more staff hired, beginning with national searches for a general manager and full-time events manager.
A tale of two entrepreneurs
Six months ago, after Jennings announced that she wanted to sell the bookstore, there were 137 inquiries, noted Geoffrey, who led the search for a buyer. The list was then whittled down to about a dozen local candidates, including Enders and his partners.
Jennings recalls that she quickly bonded with Enders. “Tyler is me when I started,” she explained, “He’s a risk taker, he’s an entrepreneur who really enjoys what he does. Entrepreneurs have a certain creativity and vision that simple business owners do not. He’s got the same spirit that says ‘what can be done?’ and imagines everything that can be done for an author, and then does as much as can be done. That’s the same way that Tyler thinks.” In addition to his creativity and vision, Enders and his partners have something many booksellers don’t: adequate funding. “They have the resources to take it to a different level,” Jennings said.
Enders said that he and his two partners had never considered adding a bookstore to their portfolio, but were immediately intrigued when they heard RDB was on the market, as the trio had always regarded indie bookselling as “the pinnacle” of retailing. “We had a strong sense of what Rainy Day Books means to the community,” he said, “Made in KC had all the right tools already to make something like this work. Our business lends itself to supporting the RDB concept as it is and taking it further.” After all, he pointed out, “Made in KC already connects customers with creatives, the people who make this city unique.”
Enders acknowledges that Made in KC has not yet settled on “an absolute plan as to how we might place books in our shops,” and intends to let the market dictate such decisions. However, Enders already envisions some unconventional partnerships and collaborations, including programming that could kick off with an author’s touchdown at KCI, so that a visiting author “might experience something pertaining to Rainy Day Books even before they’ve left the airport” that would continue as the author proceeded into the city and appeared at more conventional venues. “We think that based on Made in KC’s audience, which skews a little younger and covers more of Kansas City, we can direct people to Rainy Day Books,” Enders said. “They are going to be as enthused by the customer service, the in-store experience, and the events as current Rainy Day customers are. We just have to show them how to get there.”
While he expects customers to push both entities in new directions, the ultimate goal, Enders emphasized, is to direct people into the bookstore as well as toward its author events. Key to this goal will be the small collections of books selected by Geoffrey and RDB staff sold in Made in KC outlets. “Ideally,” Geoffrey said, there will be a mix of 50% frontlist, titles “that we will get behind and want to make visible throughout the city,” and 50% backlist, titles “that have a track record, that have done well in Kansas City.”
Noting the outpouring of community support for the bookstore since Jennings put it on the market, including the ease with which they gathered a group of investors to provide the financial backing, Enders declared, “I’m excited and fascinated to see what happens in the independent bookstore industry going forward. My partners’ and my excitement for Rainy Day Books was not unique. I hope that what we saw on a small scale here, we’ll see that on a national level. Of course, Rainy Day Books is exceptional and iconic and an institution, but my hope is that what’s happening here is indicative of how people throughout the country feel about their indie bookstores.”