How a Kansas college town's local bookstore became a national brand and sold books in all 50 states

  • After the death of George Floyd, Danny Caine, the owner of the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas, said he "didn't want to stay silent," so he announced on Instagram that his shop would donate a portion of a day's sales to antiracist research and two bail funds.
  • The 33-year-old shop broke its sales record that day. 
  • The bookstore's campaigns supporting Black Lives Matter and attacking Amazon have made the Raven a nationally recognized brand that now sells in all 50 states.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

On a warm Tuesday in May, Danny Caine's Twitter feed filled with a video of George Floyd's final breaths during an arrest by Minneapolis police officers.

On social media, he saw outrage and protests, but at home in Lawrence, Kansas, the streets were calm. Like thousands of other shuttered businesses across the country, the store Caine owns, called the Raven Book Store, was temporarily closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. But Caine said he knew he "didn't want to stay silent."  

"An image of 2020 is scrolling Twitter and being horrified," said Caine. "Book selling is inherently political. I wanted to use my business and platform to make a more just and equitable world."

A few days later, Caine announced that his shop would donate 5% of a day's sales to the Center for Antiracist Research and two bail funds in Kentucky and Kansas City. The shop raised a total of $1,730 — and broke its sales record that day.

Caine says this kind of customer support has kept the Raven alive as small businesses across the country struggle to compete with Amazon, currently valued at $1.6 trillion, and as 100,000 US businesses have closed since the start of the pandemic. As the busiest shopping season of the year reaches a crescendo this weekend, the remaining small businesses labor in an overburdened shipping landscape to fulfill customers' orders by December 25. 

As the Raven's 20,000 Instagram followers and 15,000 Twitter followers would know, the store has doubled down on campaigns against Amazon and efforts to support the USPS and Black Lives Matter this year. Amid daily photos of shop cats or quirky merch, this work has elevated the Raven's profile far beyond its own city. Sales are up, as are press appearances and staff count; the pandemic-induced pivot to ecommerce revealed customers in all 50 states.

"A lot of people pay attention to what the Raven is doing and it's a privilege I don't want to waste," Caine said. "Staying quiet isn't an option, I feel obligated to use the platform for good."

Business is political 

Danny Caine, owner of the Raven Book Store, delivers products for the shop.(Courtesy of the Raven Book Store)

For many business owners, advocacy may be personally fulfilling, but it's also a smart strategy. Brands that show support for social causes are more popular with consumers, said Tülin Erdem, professor of business and marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business. 

"Consumers want to choose brands that reflect their own values," said Erdem, whose survey of thousands of Americans showed that quality products, treatment of employees, and aligned values are important to buyers. "The most authentic brands are the ones who've embraced causes all along," she said.

By the time Caine was hired as a bookseller at the Raven in 2015, the shop had already built a reputation for speaking out. Original owners Mary Lou Wright and Pat Kehde — who opened the business in 1987 to specialize in mysteries — publicly opposed a new Borders Bookstore coming to town in the late '90s and protested the Patriot Act in 2001, said Caine.

Since he bought the Raven in 2017, Caine's advocacy has matured beyond what he described as "photos of books with witty captions." His more recent campaigns are linked to the store's financial success, ensuring a sustainable future for the business and for its advocacy. He'll promote books for sale under a "reading is resistance" sign or offer to donate a portion of sales to a cause. After all, if the business fails, its efforts to make change will too.

A tipping point in the Raven's national profile came in April 2019 when Caine took to Twitter, fed up after overhearing a customer comment that Amazon's prices were lower. His first tweet in the thread, which explained why independent bookstores can't afford to sell at Amazon prices, was retweeted more than 24,000 times, garnered more than 50,800 likes, and earned him press in The Chicago Tribune. He later turned those tweets into a 16-page zine called "How to Resist Amazon and Why" which sold 10,000 copies for $3 each online and in bookstores around the world.

He also made a zine during the 2020 election season that highlighted how important the USPS is to small business owners and landed him an appearance on NBC's the Today Show. 

"Pat talked to newspapers and did it through op-eds," Caine said, referring to the store's cofounder. "And I'm doing it through Twitter and zines, but it's just different ways to do the same advocacy."

That advocacy has helped keep the bookstore afloat during a catastrophic time for small business owners. Sales at the Raven are up between 10% and 20% this year and since the pandemic began customers from all 50 states have placed online orders, according to documents viewed by Insider. Caine also hired more booksellers, but he declined to share exact revenue figures for the 12-person company.

"One of the reasons why people love supporting small businesses is because they're clear about their values and what they stand for," said Caine. "And we've found a really supportive community through this advocacy.

Defining your 'store voice'

Entrepreneurs who wish to tap into this kind of support should start by examining the issues that affect their community, said Karen Narefsky, a senior organizer for equitable economic development at the Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, which works with small business advocacy groups in New York City.

Caine says he is compelled by the issues that plague his friends, fellow activists, and other small business owners. Hi efforts to oppose Amazon educate customers on the economic reasons they should support a threatened business model that packs an emotional punch for many — the indie bookstore. Antiracist activism resonates with customers and staff alike, and the USPS is a crucial partner for small business owners that depend on shipping and online sales.

"Once you develop the values of your community and the values of your business, try to express it as loudly and persistently as you can, and you'll find a community that supports that," said Caine.

Narefsky advises linking a cause to a feeling. "I think any successful campaign is going to touch people emotionally," she said. "Many people already have an emotional association with small businesses, so folks can draw on that to get people involved."  

However, not every campaign must be a call to arms. In July, the Raven published a 52-page zine called "The Sound and the Purry," ostensibly authored by one of the bookstore's cats "using a visionary automatic writing technique called 'Napping on the Keyboard,'" the website says. All proceeds from the zine's sale are split between the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Lawrence Humane Society.

"The advocacy is part of the store voice but so are funny jokes about the [store's] cats," Caine said. "Using the platform for advocating for good is important, but so is giving people a sense of the Raven without them being in it — that's been a strategy for me this year."

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