Thursday, September 12, 2013
Around the time book retail giants like Borders were becoming ubiquitous, an area literary professional told Pat Kehde she wouldn’t be able to keep her little bookstore afloat unless it got a lot bigger.
Kehde, who opened the Raven Book Store in 1988 with fellow Lawrencian Mary Lou Wright, told him he was wrong.
“I think what we want to do is stay the same size and cultivate our clients,” she said. “We want to be personally involved with the people that come in the store, and know what they like and remember them.”
That personal touch is what Raven owners and regulars credit with helping the cozy bookstore at 6 E. Seventh St. in downtown Lawrence stay in business — even outlasting the hulking Borders that operated less than a block away.
The Raven marks its 25th anniversary this year, and while technology has dramatically changed the bookselling landscape, the shop is hopeful a devout clientele and its commitment to customer service will help it continue on.
Heidi Raak, who took over ownership of the store about five years ago, said she doesn’t take that clientele for granted.
“People in Lawrence are so loyal to us, and so interested and happy to buy locally,” she said. “I practically feel that they’re in partnership with me.”
A mysterious start
Kehde and Wright met in college in California and reconnected in Lawrence after both of their husbands got jobs at Kansas University.
Inspired by a trend they’d seen in big cities, the pair opened the Raven as a mystery bookstore (hence the name, from Edgar Allan Poe’s dark poem of the same title). But given Lawrence’s smaller size, they quickly decided to add regional and other genres.
Now, the Raven sells books in all categories, including children’s. As always, the selection remains carefully curated.
“Because we are small you’re able to find these little gems that you might not find if you’re in a giant bookstore,” Raak said.
Those big stores are full of best-sellers, Wright said. But many readers are looking for more.
“There’s a lot of other good books that don’t make those lists, and that’s what you’ll find at the Raven,” Wright said. “They’re important, and they’re good reads.”
Working for you
The Raven’s knowledgeable staff — including some employees who have worked in the store since its earliest years — is key to maintaining the personal service the shop has always prided itself on, Raak said.
If a customer wants a book the Raven doesn’t have in the store, staff will happily order it for them, Raak said. “We will go the extra mile.”
The same individual attention goes into suggesting titles, which KU assistant creative writing professor Kij Johnson vouches for.
“Their recommendations have introduced me to books I would not otherwise even have picked up — and it’s a sign of how much I trust them that I did so,” Johnson said.
Kehde said what she and Wright set out to sell, and Raak still does, is in large part personal expertise and attention.
“Between our knowledge of books and our knowledge of people, we had a combination that really rose above the idea of mass merchandising,” she said.
Beyond selling books, the Raven aims to be a gathering place for the community to talk about books, Raak said.
The Raven sponsors two mystery book groups and one general book group, each of which meet monthly. The shop also plays host to regular readings and book signings, with an emphasis on local and regional authors. Raak said she tries to boost local authors, self-published or through larger publishers, by carrying their books in the store.
Harriet Lerner of Lawrence, a psychologist and author, said it's hard to imagine reading or writing life without the Raven.
"The Raven brings authors and readers together in a way that Amazon or big corporate bookstores just can't do," Lerner said. "For me, this bookstore reflects the heart and soul of our community."
A pair of store cats, who moved in two years ago, add to the family atmosphere.
The furry sentinels are often found underfoot or lolling in the sun in the front window. Their names, of course, are literature inspired — Ngaio, the black female, is named for New Zealand mystery author Ngaio Marsh, while Dashiell, a gray male, gets his name from gritty American detective novelist Dashiell Hammett.
“They are very well-loved by the customers,” Raak said. “We have people who exclusively come into the store to talk to the cats.”
While the Raven outlasted Borders, which went bankrupt and closed in 2011, business has been hurt by online booksellers and the increasing popularity of digital books, Raak said.
In response, the Raven now offers online ordering for all of its books, and even sells ebooks through its website. Raak said she’s also looking to expand the store’s non-book offerings such as calendars and popular boutique greeting cards.
Kehde, who still works at the Raven one day a week, said it’s important that booklovers not only take advantage of the Raven as a place to sit and talk and meet authors in person but also to buy books.
Kehde said she and Wright fought hard against Borders locating downtown. The store came in anyway in 1997, but Kehde said the protest raised awareness that ultimately helped loyalty to the little book shop on Seventh Street.
“A lot of people realized that if they don’t support local businesses,” she said, “they won’t have local businesses.”