A Kansas Bookshop’s Fight with Amazon Is About More Than the Price of Books

If you know anything about the Raven bookstore in Lawrence, Kansas, then you know that it charges more for books than Amazon. Advertising higher prices is an unlikely strategy for any business, but Danny Caine, the Raven’s owner, has an M.F.A., not an M.B.A., and he talks openly with customers about why his books cost as much as they do. Two years ago, he took that conversation to social media, using the store’s Twitter account to explain why the Raven was charging twenty-six ninety-nine for a hardcover book that a customer had seen online for fifteen dollars. “When we order direct from publishers, we get a wholesale discount of 46% off the cover price,” Caine wrote. “Our cost for that book from the publishers would be $14.57. If we sold it for $15, we’d make . . . 43 cents.” Caine estimated that, with an inventory of some ten thousand books in the store, on a profit of less than fifty cents a book, the Raven could afford to stay open for about six days.

Amazon has a much larger inventory—not only of books but of other goods with much higher profit margins—as well as many other revenue streams. The company can afford to take a loss on books. “If you’ve ever wondered why it seems like ‘there are no bookstores anymore’ or why retail businesses keep closing in your downtown, this is it,” Caine wrote. The Raven can’t afford losses like Amazon, but almost every dollar that the store makes stays in Kansas: after the publisher’s cut, half of every book sold goes directly to employee wages; the other half goes to rent, marketing, and other operating costs, including store maintenance, the Web site, and food and veterinary care for the Raven’s most famous employees, the cats Dashiell (as in Hammett) and Ngaio (as in Marsh).

Caine’s posts were amplified by other bookstores and applauded by booksellers. After readers shared them widely, he compiled them in a zine called “How to Resist Amazon and Why,” adding an open letter to Amazon’s C.E.O, Jeff Bezos, and directing readers to other essays and articles on the business practices of the world’s second-largest retailer. The zine sold more than ten thousand copies. Caine has now published an expanded version as a book, which arrives at a critical moment for independent stores like the one Caine runs.

Despite the pandemic, book sales were up over all last year, but mostly for places like Amazon; bookstore sales fell by more than twenty-eight per cent. Even at stores where sales held steady or increased, profits declined as customers migrated online, raising shipping and delivery costs. More than one bookstore closed every week in 2020, and many of the ones that survived are now facing deficits that could close them before the pandemic ends. As Caine suggests in his book, preserving small-time retail will likely require stronger antitrust enforcement. But, in the meantime, the fate of bookstores and many other small businesses depends on the willingness of consumers to agree with Caine’s broader argument: that cheap goods have higher costs than we realize, and that paying more is a better investment than we think.

Midway between Topeka and Kansas City, Lawrence has one of Kansas’s most distinctive downtowns. The Raven sits on Seventh Street, half a block off Massachusetts Street, named in the eighteen-fifties by the nostalgic organizers of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, who had come west to oppose slavery and then arranged for other abolitionists to join them in the years before the Civil War. Lawrence was defended by John Brown and his allies during the Wakarusa War of 1855; ransacked by pro-slavery forces the following year; and then razed by so-called Border Ruffians, from the neighboring slave state of Missouri, in 1863. The history of the conflict, which became known as Bleeding Kansas, is marked around town by brass historical plaques and exhibits at local museums, as well as the John Brown license plates that adorn cars along Massachusetts and the other streets that run south from the Kansas River.

More than a hundred local restaurants, coffee shops, stores, and galleries line those same streets. A nonprofit has advocated for these businesses since the nineteen-seventies, lobbying for civic improvements to keep the downtown safe and accessible for pedestrians, organizing opposition to a corporate shopping mall, decorating the street lamps for holidays, and helping to put on a busker festival, a hot-rod hullabaloo, homecoming parades, and zombie walks. The Raven is in the same building as Liberty Hall (part independent movie theatre and part live-music venue), just around the corner from the Free State Brewing Company and a block from the barbershop where William S. Burroughs used to get his hair cut.

The Raven was opened, in 1987, by Mary Lou Wright and Pat Kedhe, old college friends who loved mystery novels and named their downtown store after Edgar Allan Poe’s poem. (The shop’s newsletter is called “Quoth the Raven.”) They became members of Sisters in Crime, a global network dedicated to promoting women crime writers, but the Raven soon expanded from a mystery-focussed shop into a general-interest bookstore, growing alongside Lawrence itself—which, thanks in part to the University of Kansas, the local hospital, Hallmark Cards, and a national-defense contractor, has sprawled beyond its free-state settlement roots into a city of nearly a hundred thousand people.

“The Raven was smaller then,” Kelly Barth, who has worked at the bookstore for twenty-four years, told me. “In those days, it was all paper inventory, and Pat and Mary Lou had these shelves of file boxes with hundreds of thousands of index cards with titles and author names, and you kept the inventory by hand. There was this grid of X’s at the bottom, and when new books came in you added X’s, and when you sold one you’d cross it off, write out a real paper receipt, and probably have to run one of those old kuh-chunk-a-chunk credit-card readers.”

The year that Barth started her part-time job at the Raven, a Borders opened across the street. “Back then, it was big-box stores versus indies, and I remember worrying so much,” she told me. “I had really just started working there, but it already felt like such a sacred place, and I was so worried we’d lose all our customers.” But opening day for the Borders in town was the single biggest sales day in the Raven’s history. “It was amazing,” Barth said. “People would go browse at Borders but make a point of coming to order the books they wanted from us, the same way they do today with Amazon.” Still, the Raven’s sales decreased by fifteen per cent the year after Borders came to town, and a quarter century of bookselling has left Barth realistic about the precarity of the industry. “It’s a life style, really. I love books and, even though I may never get rich, I just love it, and I think you have to.”

Sarah Young, who has worked at the Raven for more than eighteen years, feels the same way. She’s watched children grow up in the store, and knows the literary tastes not only of some of her regulars but also of their extended family, from all the birthdays and holidays for which she’s helped find the right book. A professor of English at Benedictine College in nearby Atchison, Young started at the Raven not long after she finished her doctorate at the University of Kansas, impressing some of the staff by answering a customer’s question while filling out her application: “She happened to be describing a series of mysteries I knew pretty well, so I called out, ‘You’re looking for Diane Mott Davidson,’ and I was hired.” The bookstore was a source of financial stability during Young’s early years of adjunct teaching; she mostly works weekends now. Her favorite shifts are Friday evenings, when the date-night couples come by after dinner and the live-music and movie crowds sometimes spill into the store—once including the musician David Crosby. “It’s like there’s this big, giant secret everybody’s in on, the people who shop at the Raven,” Young said. “They feel special, not in a self-aggrandizing way but in a way that means we’re all connected to each other.”

Caine felt that way from his first visit to the store. Originally from Cleveland, he and his wife moved to Lawrence for graduate studies. She was a music therapist starting a master’s at K.U.’s School of Music; he had gotten frustrated teaching high school and wanted to study poetry. “I remember the first time I walked in,” he said. “There were these two women trying to cut this screaming, struggling cat’s nails, and I thought, This place is going to be great.” The cat was Dashiell; one of the women was Barth and the other was Heidi Raak, who bought the store from Kedhe and Wright when they retired, in 2007.

It was Raak who hired Caine, in 2015, after he’d spent months coming by the store. Two years, a few thousand hand sales, and a couple of hundred book events later, Caine bought the place. It started as a joke, one night when he and Raak were working late together. “Honestly, it was a super long day, and we were both a very special kind of tired, I think, and we had just gotten all of the folding chairs set up for an event—which, those are borrowed from a local hardware store, and so they show up right before and we scramble to move shelves and get set up—and finally Heidi said, sort of exhaustedly, ‘Maybe you should just buy the store from me.’ She was definitely kidding, or at least I think she was, but this light went off for me.”

Raak had been an excellent steward of the store, computerizing the inventory and starting a monthly reading series that strengthened the shop’s connections to local authors and the nearby universities. But the pressures on indies around the country were enormous and only growing. The Borders in Lawrence had closed in 2011, but by then it was no longer the main existential threat to the Raven. “Sometimes, there’s just a right time and the right person,” Barth told me. “And that’s Danny and this is the moment. He’s like David and Goliath, but it’s Danny and Amazon.”

Despite having worked at a bookstore for two years, Caine said that he knew nothing about running one. He signed up for Bookstore Boot Camp, a crash course run by the bookstore consultancy Paz & Associates and recommended by the industry’s nonprofit trade organization, the American Booksellers Association, which has more than seventeen hundred members across the country. Through the A.B.A., Caine began learning more from other booksellers about the challenges he faced. “I definitely feel that, in that first part of my career, we were talking amongst ourselves about Amazon and price gouging and monopolies and how to get by,” he said. “Now I feel like it’s about getting the word out to customers. It’s not that we’re anti-Amazon, but we’re pro-bookstores and pro-community.” He added, “I really just want people to think about where they’re spending their money, and why.”

Caine’s defense of the Raven came easily, but it took him some time to formulate his broader views on ethical consumption. The slogan “shop local” has been around since the early days of Walmart, but Caine believes there is a renewed commitment to the principle among consumers who have watched that corporation and others like it make billions of dollars in profit year after year while paying such low wages that their employees are among the top recipients of food stamps and other government aid programs. (A study last year found that a staggering seventy per cent of the more than twenty million Americans who received federal aid were working full-time.) The argument most often mounted in defense of retailers such as Walmart and Amazon is that by keeping prices low they are serving customers, including those who can’t afford to pay more. However, that is a shortsighted and simplistic account of these companies’ economic impact. Caine sees the limits of that logic in his own community, where big businesses’ profits are privatized but costs are socialized. “Tax breaks, corporate welfare—we make it so much easier for Amazon to just grow and grow, and yes, the prices are lower, but we’re paying for those in so many other ways with our tax dollars.”

Caine argues that, even if American shoppers never fully divest from Amazon, it is crucial that we not purchase all our goods from one company—and he maintains that any given act of consumer decision-making might alter our habits and help lead to larger changes. “It’s not just books or bookstores,” he said, pointing out all the other local Lawrence businesses to whom he has redirected his personal spending, and citing another zine he published last year, “Save the USPS: A Small Business’s Love Letter to an Essential American Institution.” That one, he said, grew out of his awareness of how vital the Postal Service is to rural communities around the country, and to small businesses like his that depend on its delivery services.

The Raven’s employees all have their own conceptions of ethical consumption, some more formulated than others. For Jack Hawthorn, an organic farmer and bookseller who also handles the store’s visual displays, such an understanding comes from a philosophy of work and community. “You can buy your vegetables at the grocery store, and that’s fine, but when you know the land they came from or the farmers who grew them, and how much they care about the land, it’s different, you’re part of that community,” Hawthorn told me. “Same thing for books, or whatever else you buy.”

Last year, the Raven was one of many independent bookstores that marked Amazon’s annual Prime Day sale in October by participating in the A.B.A.’s “Boxed Out” marketing campaign. Stores like Book Soup, in Los Angeles, and Café con Libros, in Brooklyn, installed brown-box displays on their sidewalks and covered their windows with slogans, such as “If you want Amazon to be the world’s only retailer, keep shopping there” and “Our wifi is free, please don’t use it to make a $1.6 trillion company even richer.” The hashtags #BoxedOut and #ShopIndie accompanied social-media posts from stores around the country: BookBar, in Denver; Bookshop Santa Cruz; Books & Books, in Miami; Left Bank Books, in St. Louis; Literati Bookstore, in Ann Arbor; Loyalty Bookstore, in Washington, D.C.

During the pandemic, some struggling bookstores managed to stay open only because of bookshop.org, an e-commerce startup launched in 2020 that allows individual stores to create custom shopping portals. Bookshop.org positioned itself as an alternative to Amazon, offering stores thirty per cent of the list price for every title sold through their affiliate portals, and contributing ten per cent of the site’s general sales to a fund that is equally distributed to indie shops. While the stores that use it may earn less than they do from direct sales to consumers, they benefit from a fulfillment service that allows smaller stores to compete with larger inventories, offering faster shipping options without overhead costs such as Web hosting or transaction fees. Still, some booksellers worry that, instead of taking business away from Amazon, bookshop.org is taking customers from the very places it purports to serve.

“It’s really complicated,” Caine said. “What’s right for one store might not be right for another.” The Raven already had a Web portal for shopping, and, in the first few weeks of the pandemic, the store shipped orders to customers in all fifty states. Caine has been able to retain all eleven of his employees; for the first time ever, he may soon be able to offer them health insurance through the store. “It’s really easy to criticize everyone else, but it can be really hard for small businesses to offer high wages or benefits, and one of the biggest challenges for bookselling is that it’s not necessarily a sustainable career. I think a lot about how to make sure young, excited, diverse booksellers can make a living. I don’t think the love of books should be a way to exploit people, working for less than they’re worth.”

Caine was thinking about sustainable careers when he created the original, sixteen-page version of “How to Resist Amazon and Why.” “I guess it comes from all those years on the local poetry circuit, back when I was in grad school,” he told me. “I’d put together a zine of whatever I was reading and sell them for two bucks, and if I sold twenty of them any given night, I’d have a tank of gas for the week.” That’s about how many copies he thought he’d sell of the anti-Amazon zine. Instead, he said, “we sold like fifty right away, and then my wife got so sick of me sitting at the dinner table with my stapler, putting them together, but they just kept selling. Other indies wanted them, and one woman ordered a bunch so she could slip them under the door of all her neighbors.”

Eventually, after Caine had made four thousand or so dining-room-table copies, Microcosm, an independent publishing company in Portland, reached out to see if he would let them distribute the zine. After selling another ten thousand copies, Microcosm’s C.E.O. asked if Caine might be willing to expand it into a book. Caine wrote the book-length version in a year, with half the chapters building the case against Amazon and the other half offering “interludes” about the Raven and other small businesses like it. “We’re not relics,” Caine writes. “We’re community engines. We create free programming. We donate gift certificates to charity silent auctions. We partner with libraries and art organizations. That stuff might seem small to someone aiming to colonize outer space, but to us and our community it’s huge.”

Those chapters were easy. The others were harder. “Obviously, Amazon isn’t going to cease to exist,” Caine told me. “So what exactly was I arguing for?” An antitrust symposium organized by the A.B.A. exposed Caine to the work of Matt Stoller, who wrote “Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy,” and David Dayen, the author of “Monopolized: Life in the Age of Corporate Power.” Stoller’s book opens in Osawatomie, Kansas, not far from Lawrence, where President Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech in the summer of 1910, when he was dedicating the John Brown Memorial Park, in which he railed against monopolies and called for an economy that valued human welfare more than property rights. “I stand for the square deal,” Roosevelt said. “But when I say that I am for the square deal, I mean not merely that I stand for fair play under the present rules of the games, but that I stand for having those rules changed so as to work for a more substantial equality of opportunity.”

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