Tucked away on a side street, just around the corner from downtown Lawrence icon Liberty Hall, The Raven Book Store has been the city's independent “purveyors of print on paper since 1987,” as the shop's Twitter bio cleverly states.
However, owner Danny Caine took over the store at 6 E 7th Street just a little over a year ago, when he purchased the longtime establishment from owner Heidi Raak. However, it wasn't the start of his time with The Raven, as he'd been an employee of the store for several years prior. Caine's ownership of the store comes down to what he describes as a combination of a lifelong dream to own a bookstore and a little bit of dumb luck.
“It was always a dream, but it was a dream I didn't let myself [have],” he says with a grin. “It was like, 'Well, on the off chance that anything ever leads to this, I'd love to do it, but I should probably plan on being a teacher' was kind of what I did.”
Caine actually had a teaching career – high school and college for nearly seven years – and he learned through various ways, at various times, that it just wasn't for him. So, he came to Lawrence to attend the University of Kansas in pursuit of an M.F.A. in poetry, and immediately started trying to get a job at The Raven.
“I moved here, Lawrence was cool, Lawrence had a small bookstore, I knew somebody who worked here, and I started this campaign,” explains Caine of his goal to work in the sort of place he'd dreamed up growing up in a Borders town, where the only bookstore was the big chain. “It took about six months to convince them that they even had a job opening, and that I was a good person for it.
Caine worked at The Raven for two and a half years, and as he lost interest in teaching, he started becoming more interested in the book business. He took on more and different responsibilities and looked into different aspects of bookselling as a career. Then, one night, Raak made an offhand joke about selling the store to Caine.
“I was like, 'This could be my moment,' right?” the now-owner says with obvious excitement. He knew she was joking, but just in case, he seized the opportunity. “I was like, 'Well, if you ever think about it, I would love for you to talk to me first.'”
Then, as jokes sometimes do, it turned into something serious. It took Caine a lot of research to determine whether or not it made sense – whether he could afford to take it on, whether it would be a viable business, and so on – and after nearly a year, he decided that this was his chance, and he took it.
“Thankfully, Lawrence has always been kind to The Raven,” says Caine appreciatively. “It's been great.”
One of the notable changes during Caine's time at The Raven – aside from more shelves and fixtures around the store since he took ownership in August of 2017 – is that, while the store has always hosted readings and visits from local, national, and international authors and poets, they have certainly ramped up over the last couple years, both in terms of number and visibility.
“That's definitely my favorite part, and the part I'm working on the hardest,” Caine says of the reading series. “It's something I have a lot of energy for. I really love bringing authors to town, and once you have a couple that work out, they very slowly begin to beget more.”
He points to a partnership with Liberty Hall as being a large part of it. While The Raven has always done library events at the Hall, they've recently begun putting on their own events there, teaming up with The Commons at KU. To say they've gone well is a bit of an understatement.
“In January, we had 550 people to see Eve Ewing, who's a debut poet in her 30s from Chicago,” offers Caine as an example. “That's amazing numbers anywhere for a poet. You could throw a poetry reading in New York City that wouldn't draw 550 people.”
Caine hopes numbers like that will make Lawrence the culture capital of Kansas, and for folks to view Lawrence as a Midwestern literary hub, not unlike Iowa City. As he says, the city has the authors, the audience, the book store, the facilities, and the energy.
“I would love for people to see Lawrence as a city where cool literary things are happening,” he explains. It's definitely a possibility, and we discuss various other bookstores in middle of the map – Iowa City's Prairie Lights, Denver's Tattered Cover, and Austin's Book People – as shops which offer up examples of how it's happened elsewhere.
“I resist the notion of flyover country so much,” Caine definitively states. “Just because we don't touch an ocean doesn't mean interesting art isn't happening here.”
Bringing in authors and sponsoring events around Lawrence is definitely a way to develop the community both in general, as well as one related to The Raven itself. It's important to do these community events, Caine says, but there's also a practical element to everything the bookstore does.
“I love Lawrence, and we love to bolster the community here and we think it's important to bring people in, but it also helps us to stay afloat,” says the owner matter-of-factly. “We have a table in the back selling books. It's a great way to sell a lot of books, and to make sure we can keep doing this.”
In addition to the thousands of books which populate The Raven's shelves, you can also take home items which demonstrate your love for the store. There's the usual – what's a bookstore without a tote bag or coffee mug? – as well as “Make America Read Again” hats, which the owner can be seen wearing most times you spot him. Caine has also increased the number of t-shirts options available, and he's done it in an interesting way.
“Beyond mugs, The Raven had never done merch before I took over,” he explains. He's designed all the merch, except for their most recent shirt, which features an image of the store taken from Kevin Cannon's Midwest Indie Bookstore Map. There's also what Caine calls the “retro” design, which looks like an old physical education shirt from the '70s. That's where things get clever.
“I wanted to only print one color once,” he explains with excitement. “Each run is a limited-edition one, partly because I think it's fun. It's totally a gimmick, but it's also fun.”
The store printed a limited run of shirts on red and gray as a test when Caine took over, so whenever he sees one of those colors, he knows he's looking an OG, early-adopter Raven customer. It's another example of just how hands-on he is in terms of deciding what merch goes where. Caine was also pretty particular about the look and feel of the shirts, and worked closely with Blue Collar Press to determine what kind they should be.
“Blue Collar was really good about that – I love the shirts we print on,” Caine says. The quality and the price point on those shirts, he continues, allows the bookstore to make their margins and sell the tees for ten dollars less than similar-quality apparel from other places. It's the tote bags, though, that really demonstrate what The Raven is all about.
“Even if it wasn't a bag I had designed and sold to that person, I would think that a bookstore tote bag is such an important marker of who you are,” Caine concludes. “You shop local, you like to read – so that's really cool.”