An Ode to the Independents

img_8305Our press is located in Lawrence, Kansas.

The university town has long been a regional center for independent, free-thinking. Before Kansas was a state, Lawrence was ground zero for the abolitionist movement in the territory. After statehood, when a pack of guerilla bandits crossed the border from Missouri and burned most of the town to ashes, Lawrence dusted itself off, and got back to living its independent life.

We are proud to be supported by two outstanding independent bookstores. The Raven Bookstore and the KU Bookstore are vastly different operations, but share a common vision of supporting authors, readers and a fierce passion for getting the job done their way.

The Raven sits on a side street just off Massachusetts Street in downtown Lawrence. If you close your eyes and picture a quaint bookstore, chances are you’ll imagine The Raven. Old wood floors creak with each step and the store is full, floor-to-ceiling, with books. The shop has a reputation for stocking the best mystery novels available, but also carries a full line of non-fiction, best-seller, children and regional books.

Heidi Raak has operated The Raven Bookstore for 9 years (the store has been a staple for Lawrence readers since 1987). An independent store since its inception, Raak has weathered (and continues to weather) the changes in the marketplace.

img_8308“Obviously our biggest competition isn’t another store in town, but the internet,” Raak says with a matter-of-fact tone. “We have to overcome the ease of buying a book online with great customer service and knowledge. I think the atmosphere of the store and the experience of shopping for a book is a big draw. There’s something about picking up a book and holding it that is special. You can’t get that online.”

Raak works hard to create an environment around the store that keeps people interested. The Raven hosts countless book launches, readings and parties with authors. Those events bring people to the store and help establish the staff as go-to resources.

“We understand we’re part of a community,” Raak explains. “We support local artists and well-represented authors. We’re proud to carry books by the (University) Press. We appreciate the support Lawrence gives us, and we work hard to be the best, most-welcoming bookstore in town.”

img_8317Up the hill from The Raven, on the north edge of the University of Kansas campus, the KU Bookstore fills most of the 2nd floor of the Kansas Union. The store is one of only a handful of bookstores serving a major university that operate independent of the university.

“We are completely independent of the University of Kansas,” explains Jen O’Connor, store director. “We have no affiliation or obligation to the university. In addition, we are an operating non-profit, which helps us serve the students of KU more effectively.”

The great majority of university bookstores are operated by a larger, national bookstore. When asked to name other independent stores serving universities, O’Connor struggles to name more than two or three.

“I know there are more, but  honestly, not many,” she says with a laugh. “We are independent of the University but Student Affairs has oversight of the KU Memorial Union, of which we are a part.”

Much like The Raven, the KU Bookstore puts a lot of effort into bringing students, and the Lawrence community, into the store with events. O’Connor estimates they host one or two unique events a week either at the store or somewhere on campus.

“We have to stay relevant to the students,” she explains. “We know these students have a lot of options and we work hard to be their first choice. Luckily, not a lot of outlets carry every textbook they need.”

Because the store is a non-profit, they can often offer very competitive prices on trade, text and consumer books. In fact, almost half of the store’s sales are books or products not for a class.

“We don’t have to answer to sales numbers or investors,” O’Connor says. “We have to pay the bills and keep the lights on. That gives us a great opportunity to stay competitive on price – which is a big, big help.”

 

“An Ode to the Independents” is our contribution to University Press Week blog tour. Be sure to check out posts by the University of Texas Press, the University of Chicago Press,  Cornell University Press, University Press of Colorado, NYU Press  and our friends at the University Press of Kentucky.