Guest- Bookseller Sarah Young

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!

26 Thoughts

  1. It’s so good to hear about an independent bookstore surviving the pandemic and continuing to serve its readers! My wonderful local bookstore is Kew & Willow Books in Kew Gardens, NY. It’s a small store & didn’t offer delivery, but shipped books & had pick up at the store. While they are open, the monthly book discussion continues to be on Zoom & in person events are slowly returning.

  2. No but boy do I wish we did! Sarah, I admire your work ethic and tenacity. Maybe you could open an extension in Winthrop, Maine lol!

  3. Unfortunately, we live in a very small town in a remote part of the state. There are NO book stores here at all.

    Does the heart good to read about a bookstore that not only survived the epidemic, but thrived. Congratulation on thinking out of the box. Hard work not only saved your store, but all your employees means of making a living as well. Many years of success in your new location.
    2clowns at arkansas dot net

  4. Welcome to the blog, Sarah! It sounds like your store did everything right during lockdown. Thanks so much for sharing your story.

    I am super fortunate to have a great indy bookstore in the next town, which also pivoted and did home delivery. When Paul would show up at my door, I wanted to hug him (I didn’t, of course)!

    Jabberwocky, which has been in business for fifty years, still hasn’t resumed in-person author events, but I hope they do soon. I miss my launch parties there! They also didn’t get into zoom events. Did the Raven?

    1. We did do lots of Zoom and Crowdcast events! They were really helpful and actually opened us up to several different authors and audiences.

  5. Welcome Sarah! Your story sounds a lot like Mystery Lovers Bookshop, in Oakmont PA – my local indie ( They leaned into their online sales during the pandemic, also providing free local delivery and they ship nation wide. I remember needing two books for my son (who was still in high school), and Mystery Lovers delivered them right to my door! One of the sellers told me that they went from online sales being about 2% of their business to 80%.

    They are also back to in-person events, but still are a great resource in the online world. I hope the people who discovered them during the pandemic – and who don’t have a local indie – still place orders.

    1. That was one of the upsides to the crisis, wasn’t it? Bookstores and other independent merchants developed online presences that allowed them to reach far wider markets!

  6. Welcome, Sarah! Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful story. I live in the Washington DC area and we are blessed with a plethora of fabulous independent bookstores. One More Page in Arlington in particular has been so supportive of my books followed closely by Scrawl Books in Reston.

  7. Welcome to the Wickeds, Sarah! What a wonderful and heart-warming story. Print: A Bookstore is a block away from me in Portland, Maine. They were wonderful throughout the pandemic, with pick-up hours when you could appear at the front door and get your bag, and, as things eased, appointments for in-store shopping. I arrived at one of these appointments last holiday season with a list of the children I give to and one of their experts helped me find every gift.

  8. This warms my heart! What a wonderful post.

    Shout out to my local Indy – Bogan Books. If you are ever in Fort Kent – please stop by, Heidi and family do a great job.

  9. That was indeed a wonderful story! I am fortunate enough to live in Tucson, AZ which has a number of independent bookstores, but my very favorite is Antigone Books. They pivoted much like The Raven did during the pandemic, but I don’t remember that they did deliveries.(My aging memory is sometimes faulty, though, so they may have). At any rate Antigone has been around a long time, and originally focused on feminist and LGBT books. Now they are a “full-subject” bookstore and provide outstanding service to readers as do most indie bookstores, I’m sure.

  10. Sadly, the stores I frequented the most (and had wonderful in person events where I found so many authors I loved) closed long before the pandemic. At least a decade ago. Thanks for this look at how you and your store survived and are doing now. It made me smile.

  11. I love your resourcefulness, and am delighted you survived so well.

    My favorite indie bookstore is Aaron’s Books in Lititz,PA. They survived the pandemic with delivery to your car. Lots of online ordering, and always with a smile. Todd and his wife, Sam, had their parents helping out and kept things going. Even the book clubs kept meeting by Zoom. They are back to full service and doing better than ever.

  12. My favorite independent is Mystery to Me in Madison, WI. They have such a great selection of books, book clubs and terrific author events! The staff goes above and beyond for anything their customers might need. Congrats to the Raven; what a great story!

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