Jessie: In New England where she is noodling yet another story and knitting away on another sweater.
I am just delighted to welcome Sarah Young to the blog today! I met her last month at Bouchercon in MN and found her to be completely charming. I was so pleased when she agreed to be our guest here on the Wickeds! I am sure that you will enjoy a peek into the life of booksellers as much as I did! Take it away, Sarah!
The Raven Delivers!
Hello, Wickeds! I loved meeting so many of you at Bouchercon this year. Thanks, Jessie, for inviting me to contribute to the blog. I am a bookseller and co-owner at the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas, and I thought you’d like to know a little about what’s been happening on the bookstore beat. The Raven just closed a month of actual in-person events IN the store with actual people—albeit still masked—present in bodily form. Our return to in-person events corresponded with our 35th anniversary in Lawrence and our one-year anniversary in a new space. That’s right, we renovated a new space and moved in the middle of a pandemic. Crazy, right? In addition, we have become a partially bookseller-owned business, when owner Danny Caine sold 49% of his share in the bookstore to several long-time employees.
Now approaching my 21st year at the Raven, I’m amazed at the upheaval we survived in the last two years. When the world shut down on March 13, 2020, we closed the doors, and said “see you on the other side.” I went home, taking the two store cats with me and waited just like everyone else. After about a week, Danny Caine implemented a pivot, and we leaned into our phone and web orders setting up a shipping desk in the middle of the store. In addition, we began free delivery within the city limits and surrounding county. At one point we had two delivery drivers three or four days a week, one for the east part of town, another for the west.
Spring became summer and it was a strange time here in Lawrence just as it was around the country. This is a college town, home of the University of Kansas, but college students were gone, and stores were closed. About two days I week, I shut down my computer and the endless Zooms at 3:00 and headed out to deliver books. Sometimes I think the Door-Dashers and I were the only ones on the go. As I took books to shut-in customers, I marveled at the beautiful spring, with everyone planting flowers like mad.
Although there were few cars, there were walkers everywhere. Walkers with weights, wearing ear buds, pumping their way furiously down the sidewalks; walkers with strollers; walkers with eyes glued to the phones in their hands; walkers with dogs, dogs, dogs, and more dogs! Every dog in town must have thought it had somehow reached a canine walkies nirvana.
Pretty soon, my mother began accompanying me on deliveries. Eighty-eight and eighty-nine years old at the time, she was going stir crazy at being shut in. When I said, “We have books to deliver,” her eyes lit up and she was on her feet, ready to go. We carted books all over town on the virtually empty streets, passing yard signs saying, “We Got This”; “Stay Strong” and “Hang in there, World.” As that endless summer of 2020 stretched on, “Black Lives Matter” signs dotted neighborhoods along with ever-increasing evidence of the upcoming election. I learned street themes in Lawrence neighborhoods: Western TV shows are represented by Ponderosa Road, Bonanza, Maverick and Rawhide streets; the golf course streets–Nicklaus, Turnberry, and Inverness–have mansions with lots of windows to clean; Stockade, Wagon Wheel Road, and Saddlehorn Drives are in a neighborhood of steep hills fed by Trail Road and Stetson Drive; Wildflower, Tamarisk, Bluestem, Larkspur, and Helianthus are streets in the southwest part of town, with views still dominated by uncultivated fields sloping out toward the lake.
I delivered out in the county, bumping down dusty roads and swinging into a long, tree-lined drives, temporarily interrupting someone’s country isolation. One day I was working in the store, helping with order fulfillment, and I got a phone order at the end of the day. I asked if they wanted it delivered. “Oh, that would be wonderful, but we live out in Lone Star.” “No problem,” I said. “I’m about to leave and driving in that direction anyway.” Lone Star is an unincorporated community with about seven houses, anchored at its intersection by the Lone Star Church of the Brethren. When the trusty GPS took me to their driveway, the couple ran to greet me. “We can’t believe you drove all the way out here! Thank you so much! We’ve been looking forward to getting that book!”
Raven customers like them kept the store going. They greeted me—from afar—leaning out their front doors to pick up their paper bags full of books. “Thank you!” “I’m so glad you do this!” “I can’t wait to get back to the store!” They loved getting their books. Repeat customers were so frequent we didn’t need GPS to find their familiar front doors. We were not a rain or shine operation, however. After we got a call from a very angry customer because his book had gotten soaked in a rainstorm on his porch, we generally suspended deliveries in the rain or snow. But books eventually got delivered to grateful customers who waved and smiled and thanked me for the trouble.
The Raven staggered its reopening, stumbling along like so many businesses, trying to decide how to survive in a world of the unvaccinated and semi-vaccinated. For months we had a pick-up table outside the store tethered to a special cell phone number and served by two parking spots specially reserved for us by the city. People pulled up and called, and we ran the book out, setting it on a wooden tray table that gradually scarred and warped in the weather. We transitioned to a walk-up window, often guarded by the cats, who kept a wary eye out for people stepping to the opening. Slowly we reentered the retail world, and we are open in our new, beautiful space, full of customers—still masked—but enthusiastic. We now have sixteen booksellers, up from ten or eleven during the shut-down, but no Raven bookseller was furloughed or lost a job during the pandemic, mostly because of our customers, who dived into online and phone ordering from us with enthusiasm.
Our online business is still robust, and our new store space now has a dedicated shipping space. Deliveries are down to one route three times a week, but we have a steady, happy batch of folks awaiting brown paper packages at their doors. The future for independent bookstores is looking bright through our shiny new windows and open front door.
Readers, do you have a favorite independent bookseller in your area? Give them a plug here so that others may find them too!