The Raven Bookstore Selected as State Women-Owned Business of the Year

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Would it be suspect if Lawrence, Kansas -- the hometown of legendary crime writer Sara Paretsky -- did not have a bookstore specializing in mysteries? Fortunately, for the past 15 years, it has.

The Raven Bookstore: Mysteries and More was founded in 1987 by college friends Mary Lou Wright and Pat Khede. The duo was recently presented the Women-Owned Business of the Year award in the retail category from the Kansas Department of Commerce and Housing. That is no small feat for the two women who were refused traditional bank loans, started up anyway, and then survived the 1997 opening of a Borders directly across the street.

"I remember one man in town … who would only refer to the store as a hobby, not a business," Wright said in an interview with the Lawrence Journal World. "It always made me mad, but this award is a real honor because it says we're a business, not a hobby."

The store, which was viewed with such skepticism by bankers and businessmen, now claims a financial history with only a single year in the red, and that only a loss of $300.

In a recent interview, Mary Lou Wright talked to BTW about the award, the store, and Lawrence. "Lawrence, with the University of Kansas, is a very liberal place. We're 30 miles west of Kansas City, and we're small enough to have a cooperative sense. People here are supportive of community and sensitive to the 'Wal-Marting' of America. There's an understanding that we help each other out."

Wright cites as an example the day in December 1997 when Borders opened 100 yards away from the Raven. "It was our all-time record income day. People wanted to show support, and they needed to do Christmas shopping -- so they came and bought," she said. That wasn't the first time others had come to the aid of the store: When Khede had a terrible car accident, more than 10 years ago, the manager of the Kansas University Bookstore offered to send some of the staff over to help out, for free. Then, when Borders started building the store, the Raven's landlord came over with an offer they, ultimately, refused. "He said, 'We're concerned about your store and Borders … so we're lowering your rent,'" Wright recalled. "People here are different -- a lot of leftover hippies -- [their landlord] offered because it was the right thing to do. And we said no because that was the right thing to do."

"Of course," Wright continued, "[the opening of Borders] has affected us, but probably not as much as Amazon has." But the Raven attracts customers in a variety of ways. "We do a lot of special orders, about 100 per week, from all over the state. We specialize in books by regional authors and British imports. We use the Book Sense 76 lists and can decide, based on the list, to order a few. At Borders, those decisions are made in Ann Arbor with no local input. Some of the better staff at Borders sends people to us for regional titles and special orders," she said.

The Raven has expanded twice, to 1,200 square feet, adding a small children's section. Kehde is the buyer and stocks an ample supply of gardening books and "better" fiction. "People can buy Danielle Steele at the grocery store, but they can buy Barbara Kingsolver here. We have 18 book clubs. We promote Book Sense gift certificates heavily, in the store and in our newsletter. I just noticed two redeemed at the Chinook Bookstore in Colorado Springs," Wright said.

Wright describes Lawrence as a travel destination. "For people from big cities, it's charming and quaint. With our local unique merchants -- it's got the small town allure. And the people from really small towns in Kansas -- they find it sophisticated. College football is very big here. It's common knowledge that when the men go to the games, the women shop. We love the Nebraska games because Nebraska wives spend money," she said.

University life plays a role in other ways, too. "Professors at the university order fairly obscure books for classes, specifically from us because they want the kids to learn about the options in the marketplace," Wright said. And although Wright claims that "New Yorkers have never heard of Kansas," a number of notable authors have made appearances at the Raven -- native daughter Paretsky, Sue Grafton, Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, and such non-mystery writers as Ian Frazier and William Least Heat Moon.

As Wright explained, "We're a big enough town to support a bookstore but small enough to know our customers." -- Nomi Schwartz