We spoke with Danny Caine, owner of The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas, in this installment of the CLMP Bookstore Spotlight series.
Tell us about The Raven Book Store. When were you founded and where are you based?
The Raven was founded in September 1987 as a mystery-only bookstore in downtown Lawrence, Kansas. Through the years the focus has broadened a bit, and we recently (like, last week) moved to a bigger, freshly renovated location on Massachusetts Street, the historic main thoroughfare in Downtown Lawrence. We’ve maintained a mystery specialty, but have added focuses in politics, poetry, literary fiction, local authors, and children’s books.
What is your Book of the Month Subscription Program? Which categories do you recommend for readers interested in books published by independent presses?
We run a curated book of the month subscription program with several different choices. Readers receive one book per month, selected by our bookselling experts. It’s a great way to broaden your reading horizons and stay ahead of the curve in what you read. We try to get independent presses into all our subscriptions, but they appear most in our Fiction in Translation and Poetry subscriptions.
In 2019 the Raven posted a viral Twitter thread about local bookstores, online booksellers, and the price of books. Why is it important for readers to be aware of how and why books are priced the way they are?
Amazon has a strong and dangerous monopoly in many industries, first and foremost in books. They account for more than 50% of all book sales and more than 75% of online book sales, and those percentages are growing. When a company that big regularly slashes prices on books, it of course puts neighborhood bookstores out of business because we can’t compete with prices like that. The only way to be able to compete with those prices is to expand into a trillion-dollar company with a huge portfolio of profitable tech (much of which is dangerous and privacy-invading), and I’d hazard a guess that even if it were possible, your local indie bookstore wouldn’t be interested in doing that. Selling books as loss-leaders for your monopolizing data-collecting operation should not be a prerequisite for being able to sell books. Aside from all that, it’s alarming that the largest seller of books is working really hard to lower the perceived value of books. If Amazon keeps lowering people’s expectations about what books should cost, it’ll be even harder for anyone to make a living wage across the entire book industry.
Can you tell us about some of the zines the Raven produces and publishes?
In October 2019 I turned that Twitter thread about Amazon into a zine, and it found a huge audience. I’m still honored and humbled by how much that zine resonated with folks. In the process of all that, I fell in love with the DIY fun of making zines, so the Raven started its own little zine imprint. We’ve carried on the activist nonfiction tradition of the Amazon zine with one about the importance of the USPS, but we’ve also had fun collecting customer recipes from online order comments, and even letting one of our cats write a novel. We also honored our original location with a zine in anticipation of our move to the new spot.
What are some of your top-selling—or favorite—books by independent literary publishers?
Like many bookstores, we’re selling Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass by the case, which is a delight. We also do brisk business with our good friends at University Press of Kansas, who produce perennial Raven bestsellers like Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills and the Kansas Trail Guide. We’ve also had hits recently with Graywolf Press, like Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic and Deb Olin Unferth’s Barn 8, both of which are wonderful.