Lawrence, Kansas had a notable history even before one of the best mystery bookstores in the country set up shop there, but now that they’ve also got The Raven Bookstore, they’re pretty much set as a city. Did I mention I like Lawrence? I like Lawrence. A lot.
The Raven Bookstore, purveying fine literature and fine crime fiction since 1987, is following in the footsteps of a city long-dedicated to liberal causes, with a pinned tweet that says “We do not believe reading a book is enough to combat the spread of hatred and fascism. However, we believe it’s a good start.” In 2017, as the bookstore celebrated its 30th year in operation, ownership changed hands from owner Heidi Raak, who purchased the store 10 years before from the store founders Pat Kehde and Mary Lou Wright, to local author and longtime employee Danny Caine (you can read more about the store’s history here). In 2018, the Raven Bookstore received the appropriately named Raven Award for contributions to the mystery world outside of creative writing, and 32 years after opening, the Raven Bookstore, with its bookstore cats named after Ngaio Marsh and Dashiell Hammett (Ngaio is pictured above; scroll to the bottom to see Dashiell) is here to stay.
Danny Caine was kind enough to answer a few questions over email about the store, its crime section, and the mystery world as a whole.
Molly Odintz: What was your most memorable interaction with a mystery author, or do you have any anecdotes to share about crime writers with big personalities?“One day I turned on the light in my office to find an early 1980s framed headshot of Sara Paretsky sitting on my desk. No employees had any recollection of how it had gotten there.”
Danny Caine: I’m not even sure if this counts but I love this story because it says so much about what it’s like to work at our store. Background: Sara Paretsky lived in Lawrence for a spell and Lawrence played a part in the formation of Paretsky’s Sisters in Crime organization. If you mail Sisters a check, the PO box is still here. Our first owners, Mary Lou Wright and Pat Kehde, were very involved with the group, especially in its early years. Though Sara Paretsky doesn’t live here anymore, we still have very strong sales for her and we mostly think of her as one of our Lawrence authors. One thing you need to know about working in a bookstore is that things disappear and appear at will. It’s like the Room of Requirement but there are no rules and objects teleport, apparate, and go missing totally at random. A favorite pen you lost could end up in the Christmas Decorations box you haven’t touched since before you lost the pen. One day I turned on the light in my office to find an early 1980s framed headshot of Sara Paretsky sitting on my desk. No employees had any recollection of how it had gotten there. Shrugging, I put it on a shelf in Mystery and there it resides to this day. Here’s a free idea: somebody write a cozy mystery series about a charming but mismatched band of bookstore employees who try to solve exactly these kinds of small mysteries but end up way over their heads every time.
MO: Pick a trend in mystery and crime writing you think is on the rise, or one that’s over.
DC: I love mysteries that engage with current issues and politics, but not in a “ripped-from-the-headlines” kind of way. I think a lot of exciting new and new-ish mystery authors are weaving these issues into their stories in an intricate and essential way that’s very exciting and casts a lot of insight onto the world today, beyond a flashy attention-grab based on actual events. Jane Harper’s mysteries wouldn’t work without environmental concerns. Attica Locke’s wouldn’t work if the threat of white supremacy wasn’t lurking around every corner. These books are fun to read but also insightful and relevant to critical issues today. It doesn’t even have to be current, either! Sujata Massey’s Perveen Mistry historical mysteries are a bit cozier than I usually read but they have a great feminist streak that raises important questions about gender and religion. Even though the books are set in India in the 1920s, they resonate with questions we ask ourselves today.
MO: What’s your favorite book to handsell?
DC: I love the art of the handsell. Part of the reason I love it is because it can make a surprise bestseller. We have books we handsell regularly and when we go to reorder them, there’s like two in Ingram’s warehouse. You get the feeling that you’re the only store in the world that sells that book, which is a feeling I love. Our inventory manager, Chris, can sell Ray Bradbury’s Classic Stories Volume 1, a $6 paperback from the 80s, to anyone. Kelly, one of our longest-tenured employees, can sell the novels of Stewart O’Nan to anyone. Another employee could get Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biographies into surprising hands. I love how darn specific people’s handselling picks are. Myself, I like to think of the handsell as a doctor-patient interaction, where someone comes to me with a problem (I don’t know what to read) and I try to find a solution (a good book). My routine is pretty flexible, and I really try to match a book with a person based on their tastes. I do handsell a lot of Elena Ferrante and Jane Harper, and I adore helping someone leave with a poetry book, especially someone who doesn’t consider themselves a poetry person.
MO: What’s on your back-in-print wishlist? I know every bookseller has a book they’d love to sling a brand new edition of.
DC: The fact that the mass market edition of To Kill A Mockingbird was taken out of print is an absolute crime. We somehow waited too long and ran out just now, in the peak of summer reading season. We should’ve ordered a truckload when we had the chance.
MO: What’s something that you want people to know about your town, or the literary scene in your town?
DC: Nothing makes me roll my eyes like a reporter from New York sending a dispatch from Iowa that’s like “there’s no oat milk here, send help, save me from the yokels.” News flash: people live between New York and Los Angeles. People even live between Chicago and Denver! Those people make art and have interesting opinions! They have progressive ideas and eccentric senses of style! They dream and ache and buy things and fall in love and make really good food! It’s amazing how quickly people from elsewhere can forget that.“I like to think of the handsell as a doctor-patient interaction, where someone comes to me with a problem (I don’t know what to read) and I try to find a solution (a good book).”
MO: What are some ways for people to get involved with your bookstore? Do you have a newsletter, or a website, or a particularly active twitter? This question is to make sure we highlight the best way for our readers to connect with your bookstore.
DC: I run the Raven’s Twitter account at @ravenbookstore. That’s my favorite way to do things, I think because I’m a poet so small chunks of text are a natural way for me to express things. Or maybe it’s just the most word-based social media platform and we deal in words, after all. If you like cat pictures, Instagram is your best bet @raven_book_store. You can always see upcoming events or order books at our website, too: ravenbookstore.com.
MO: What do you think are the most important issues for indie booksellers right now?
DC: There’s a reason we keep talking about Amazon on Twitter. Amazon is not only the biggest issue faced by the bookstore industry, it’s the biggest issue faced by the retail industry as a whole. There’s a lot at stake, especially if Amazon’s growth continues unchecked. Amazon has done a great job convincing many people of two things: first, that Amazon is the easiest place to buy anything, and second, that free one-day shipping is a normal thing to expect. We disagree with both, of course—the first because putting too much of the market share into a single company is dangerous, especially for people who like their towns to have successful small business and not boarded-up storefronts. The one-day shipping thing is a disaster for the environment, not to mention our delivery infrastructure, in ways we’re only beginning to understand. Shipping single-item cartons overnight for low-to-no cost is a treacherous thing to do to your carbon footprint, but it’s so easy and fast that I think people tend to ignore the consequences. Anyway, I could go on making noise about Amazon forever, and I probably will. Bookstores are doing well right now, it’s true. But if we take that for granted and keep pouring money into Jeff Bezos’s pockets, our wonderful bookstore renaissance could disappear very quickly.
How to Visit The Raven Bookstore
6 E 7th St, Lawrence, KS 66044
Mon-Sat: 9 am – 8 pm Sun: 12 pm – 5 pm