Startland News’ Startup Road Trip series explores innovative and uncommon ideas finding success in rural America and Midwestern startup hubs outside the Kansas City metro. This series is possible thanks to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which leads a collaborative, nationwide effort to identify and remove large and small barriers to new business creation.
LAWRENCE — Danny Caine was nervous last May when he proposed a radical idea to his management team at Raven Book Store over a Zoom call. He asked if they’d be interested in sharing ownership of the business with him.
The new framework would mean Caine would maintain 51 percent control, while the seven others would own 49 percent. Ownership would hinge on employment, and shares could be easily transferred. Caine was no longer interested in being the lone owner; he wanted the leadership to better reflect the efforts of the team as a whole. Besides, they had already been working by consensus.
But he still wasn’t sure how they’d take the proposal.
Almost without a beat, he said, they were in.
“It felt historic,” Caine said. “I think you could argue that it was. It ended up being a very important meeting in the history of the Raven.”
The deal was finally inked at the end of December, and the new co-ownership team — Caine, Nikita Imafidon, Mary Wahlmeier Bracciano, Jack Hawthorn, Kelly Barth, Hannah Reidell, Chris Luxem, and Sarah Young — has been settling into their roles as owner-booksellers.
“I started at the Raven thinking that it was going to be a fun experience that might take me to a different part of my life,” said Imafidon, who curates the store’s stickers, pins, puzzles, art, and other sideline items. She graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in women, gender, and sexuality studies, planning to work more directly in that field.
“As time has gone on, I have realized that it’s definitely more of a long-term potential for me, which is pretty exciting and bizarre,” she added.
The Raven is a Lawrence institution, around for decades and fiercely supported by locals. It opened at 6 East 7th Street in 1987, when Mary Lou Wright and Pat Kehde turned their love of poetry and mystery novels into a business. When they retired, Heidi Raak bought the store in 2007. She hired Caine in 2015, and he became the new owner two years years later.
Support from the local community — and book community at large — bled over to Twitter in 2019, when Caine posted on Twitter about why an indie bookstore’s prices can’t compete with online booksellers. He organized his thoughts and research into a zine called “How to Resist Amazon and Why”, which was later turned into a book. It has sold more than 10,000 copies.
Click here to read about Caine’s 2020 zine, “Save the USPS: A Small Business’s Love Letter to An Essential American Institution.”
The idea of splitting ownership has been in Caine’s mind ever since he started more closely examining exploitative practices and the inverse of equity and worker rights, he said. He had always been keen on the alternative leadership structures of other small bookstores, like Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which most closely resembles how Caine restructured.
Part of his motivation for the change, in addition to acknowledging the team’s contributions, was to pave a clearer path for bookselling as a career, rather than a summer job.
“In a lot of ways, working in retail is unfortunately not something that’s sustainable over many years because you hit a ceiling really fast,” he said. “So I’m trying to react against that and create a pathway for people to work sustainably in bookselling for as long as they want and really have a literal stake in the business.”
It’s why he decided to bring the Raven’s two longest serving, part-time employees — Young has worked there for 20 years and Barth for almost 25 — into the deal.
In August 2021, while the contract’s details were still being ironed out, the Raven underwent another historic shift.
The staff moved 13,000 books from its original location to its new digs at 809 Massachusetts Street, a space with 50 percent more retail space. Plus, the store now has 800 square feet for a break room, office, and shipping and receiving for online sales, the latter of which was pivotal in the store’s survival through the pandemic.
While the old location had historic charm — creaky and uneven wood floors, attached to Liberty Hall — the new space is just as storied. The building was built in 1865 and has been home to numerous Lawrence businesses, including, most recently, an ax throwing business that endured a fire and decided not to reopen.
Click here to read about the fire that brought Blade & Timber’s Lawrence location to an end.
The Raven renovated from the ground up, intentionally keeping classic elements from the old store, like the original hardwood floors, tin ceiling, and wooden tables. Walking in from the front, fiction is to the left and nonfiction is to the right, with new releases in between. They also expanded the kids section in the back, complete with reading nooks and colorful, modern motifs. If and when it feels safe, they’ll open the back for storytime and children’s programs.
Since relocating, Caine said, they’re close to doubling sales, dispelling any doubt in the move. Now, they can continue doing what the Raven has always done.
It’s not the building, or even the books or quirky stickers, that make the Raven what it is, he said.
“That place, if anything, is a collection of booksellers,” Caine said. “I am one of them, but I am only one of them. I’m glad that philosophy is now officially reflected in how the business ownership is set up.”
Click here to shop Raven Book Store.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.