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A Lawrence bookstore tried to beat Amazon at its own game, and survived. Now it's expanding

The Raven Book Store's new location on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence is nestled among the downtown's mix of restaurants, shops and galleries.
The Raven Book Store's new location on Massachusetts Street in Lawrence is nestled among the downtown's mix of restaurants, shops and galleries.

Danny Caine never expected to turn his bookstore into a partial shipping warehouse. He was just trying to keep his small business afloat. It wasn’t even the first pandemic pivot he tried.

“The hardest thing about March 2020, other than society falling apart, was we went through four or five different ideas of how to do this. It felt like every Sunday, I was meeting with the managers and being like, ‘Okay, what are we going to do this week?’” says Caine, the owner of the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas.

When the store closed to in-person browsing last year, it was the nationwide shipping that really stuck.

Before the pandemic, only 1% of the Raven’s sales took place online. Now, it’s closer to 30%. They also offer local delivery and curbside pickup, in addition to in-store browsing.

"A lot of places are struggling. We feel really lucky and thankful that that's not us at the moment," Caine says. "It's certainly a testament to the Lawrence community."

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While book sales have been consistently strong during the pandemic, big companies like Amazon have mostly been the beneficiaries. More than 70 bookstores closed in 2020 and bookstore sales fell nearly 30%.

“That shipping is why we're still here," he says. "It saved us."

It’s also one of the factors that caused them to move into a bigger location on Massachusetts Street in late August. Online orders used to be processed in the middle of the fiction section, but the new store has a backroom where two employees manage orders full-time. That, in addition to increased street traffic, has made for a successful few weeks.

“It’s going better than we could have possibly dreamed,” he says. “We've added three booksellers.”

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Caine, of all people, knows how rare it is to be a successful small business owner in 2021. His book, “How to Resist Amazon and Why,” was published in March.

He frames his political arguments more as "pro-bookstore" than "anti-Amazon."

“You can't compete with Amazon in terms of selection or speed, but one thing you can have that they don't is a point of view that people really celebrate. And you have your curation."

A big part of the Raven's voice is the way it champions books by Kansas authors, like Meg Heriford's "Ladybird, Collected" or Sarah Smarsh's "She Come By It Natural." It's more expansive than even that, though. These days, the Raven and some other indie bookstores are reinventing the definition of a bookstore beyond four physical walls.

It raises the question: how important are brick-and-mortar locations to customers? With e-commerce websites like bookshop.org, it’s never been easier to digitally support indie booksellers who are a part of the local community or who curate collections tailored to the customer.

It's not quite as romantic as browsing in-person, but it's certainly gaining traction among customers who value convenience more than anything right now — and pop-ups and online bookstores are a significantly easier way for newer booksellers to get involved.

“It’s not a very traditional model of bookstores at all. But I would argue you need to think that way to be ready for the future," Caine says.

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In Kansas City, sisters La’Nesha Frazier and La’Nae Robinson own Bliss Books & Wine, a bookstore that pairs literature with complimentary wines. The pandemic stalled their search for a physical location, but in lieu of one, business has still been pretty good.

“Like, every state. I’m shipping books everywhere,” says Robinson. “And they're like, ‘We know you're not Amazon. We don't want Amazon. We want the owners that know who we are. That know what we like.’”

They're currently hosting rotating pop-up events and storing their inventory at Frazier's house — but they plan to open a storefront in late 2021 or early 2022 to serve as a gathering place for other avid readers.

"Once we do open up the brick-and-mortar, we will be able to then have our wine lounge on top of our bookstore," Frazier says. "Once that is up and running, then we'll be whole again."

Their virtual bookstore isn't going anywhere, though.

“There's no way that we could just be the brick-and-mortar and cut out our extended community that we built virtually. Like, that is the Bliss family. It's everyone. It's all inclusive,” Robinson says.

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Likewise, Danny Caine is grateful to the Lawrence community for its support. But he doesn’t want people to assume bookstores are suddenly going to be okay based on the success the Raven has seen recently.

“We've had to work really hard to get here and you know, it could go wrong any second,” Caine says.

That’s especially true now, when the holidays are approaching and the U.S. Postal Service is struggling, and there is a myriad of supply chain issues due to the pandemic. It’s all the more reason, Caine says, to shop early for the holidays.

In the end, indie bookstores won’t ever be able to compete with Amazon’s speed, but what they do offer may matter more in the long run.

“From a purely economic standpoint, this isn't the most efficient or cheapest way to buy books,” Caine says. “But is it more ethical than buying books on Amazon? I would certainly argue that. And I think a lot of our customers would, too.”

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Bliss Books & Wine will be hosting an adult book fair at KC Wineworks on Saturday, Oct. 23. More information is online.

The Raven Book Store will be virtually hosting Rebecca Coffindaffer in conversation with E.K. Johnston on Monday, Oct. 11. More information is online.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.