Danny Caine didn’t expect 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 the collapse of the company, was that we had four or five different ideas on how to do this. I felt like every Sunday I would meet the managers and be 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 shipping last year, it was nationwide shipping that really stuck.
Before the pandemic, only 1% of Raven’s sales were done 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 it’s not us right now,” Caine said. “It is certainly a testament to the Lawrence community.”
While book sales have always been strong during the pandemic, large companies like Amazon have primarily benefited. More than 70 bookstores closed in 2020 and bookstore sales have fallen by almost 30%.
“This expedition is the reason we’re still here,” he says. “It saved us. “
It’s also one of the factors that prompted them to move to a larger location on Massachusetts Street at the end of August. Online orders were previously processed in the middle of the fiction section, but the new store has a back room where two employees handle orders full time. This, in addition to the increase in traffic in the streets, made it possible for a few weeks to be successful.
“It’s going better than we could have imagined,” he says. “We added three booksellers. “
Caine, of all, 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 presents his political arguments more as “pro-bookstore” than as “anti-Amazonia”.
“You can’t compete with Amazon in terms of selection or speed, but one thing you can have that they don’t have is a point of view that people are really celebrating. And you have your curation. “
Much of Raven’s voice is how she defends books by Kansas authors, like “Ladybird, Collected” by Meg Heriford or “She Come By It Natural” by Sarah Smarsh. It’s even more expensive than that, however. These days, The Raven and other independent bookstores are reimagining the definition of a bookstore beyond four physical walls.
This raises the question: how important are from physical locations to customers? With e-commerce websites like bookshop.org, it has never been easier to digitally support independent booksellers who are part of the local community or who organize customer-friendly collections.
It’s not 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 much easier way to new booksellers to get involved.
“It’s not at all a very traditional bookstore model. But I would say you have to think this way to be ready for the future, ”Caine says.
In Kansas City, sisters La’Nesha Frazier and La’Nae Robinson own Bliss Books & Wine, a bookstore that combines literature and free wine. The pandemic has stalled their search for a physical location, but instead of one, business has always been pretty good.
“Like, every state. I ship books everywhere, ”says Robinson. “And they say,” We know you are not Amazon. We don’t want Amazon. We want owners who know who we are. Who know what we like.
They are currently hosting rotating pop-up events and stocking their inventory at Frazier – 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 open up the brick and mortar, then we can have our wine room above our bookstore,” Frazier said. “Once this is up and running, we will be together again.”
Their virtual bookstore isn’t going anywhere, however.
“There’s no way we can just be brick and mortar and carve out our extended community that we’ve built virtually. Like, it’s the Bliss family. It’s everyone. It’s all inclusive, ”says Robinson.
Likewise, Danny Caine is grateful to the Lawrence community for their support. But he doesn’t want people to assume that bookstores are suddenly going to be fine based on the success the Raven has had recently.
“We had to work really hard to get here and you know it can go wrong anytime,” Caine says.
This is especially true now, as the holidays approach and the U.S. Postal Service is struggling, and there are a myriad of supply chain issues due to the pandemic. That’s one more reason, Caine says, to shop early for the holidays.
Ultimately, independent bookstores will never be able to compete with Amazon’s speed, but what they offer may matter more in the long run.
“From a purely economic standpoint, it’s not the most efficient or the cheapest way to buy books,” Caine says. “But is it more ethical than buying books on Amazon? I would definitely say that. And I think a lot of our clients would too.
Bliss Books & Wine will be hosting an adult book fair at KC Wineworks on Saturday 23 October. More information is online.
The Raven Book Store will virtually welcome Rebecca Coffindaffer in conversation with EK Johnston on Monday, October 11. More information is online.