Raven Book Store believes that reading books won't fix the world's problems, but they can be a pretty good place to start. Founded in Lawrence, Kansas in 1987 as a mystery-specialty shop, the Raven has grown into a beloved general-interest bookstore and community fixture in the city.
This year, the store entered a new and exciting chapter its in history. In January 2022, the Raven officially became employee-owned when owner Danny Caine sold 49% of shares in the store to a group of seven employees: Kelly Barth, Hannah Reidell, Chris Luxem, Sarah Young, Nikita Imafidon, Mary Wahlmeier Bracciano, and Jack Hawthorn.
As we take a moment this Labor Day to recognize the power of workers across the book industry, we asked the Raven's employee-owners to share some of their mission and goals in adopting a collective model of ownership at their store.
Photo Credit: Adam Smith. L-R Back Row: Kelly Barth, Hannah Reidell, Chris Luxem, Sarah Young. L-R Front Row: Nikita Imafidon, Mary Wahlmeier Bracciano, Jack Hawthorn, Danny Caine
What is the story behind the Raven Book Store? Could you share some of the shop’s history and mission?
Kelly: I’ve worked as a bookseller through three iterations of the Raven, which first began as a little store by two tennis-playing friends with a mutual love of mysteries. I started on the Raven’s 10th anniversary, the fall that a Border’s opened catty-corner to our store, the first in a series of existential threats that we survived by offering personal service and a deep knowledge of books in a chain-store world. Those were the days of paper and microfiche–receipts on spindles, hand-written sales reports and order forms, thousands of 3x5 inventory cards alphabetized by title in boxes under the sales counter (God help you if you dropped one), and a microfiche reader that looked like a cross between a portable TV and a microwave.
In the next generation, we computerized everything (nuff said). Also, we really opened the Raven’s doors to on-site readings with both local and national authors. And the second owner became one of the very best friends I could hope for. That’s the beauty of working in a bookstore. You’re going to find your soul friends in both customers and co-workers.
How did the Raven come to be employee-owned, and what were your goals in adopting this leadership structure?
Mary: Our co-op model was inspired by that of Boston’s Porter Square Books. I think part of the motivation to switch to an employee-owned model was our General Manager, Danny’s, long-term goal of helping make bookselling more of a legitimate career, comparable to careers in other industries, or at least to make bookselling a “good job.” Being employee-owned is a facet of our company culture of caring for one another, and it allows us to maximally benefit from the fruits of our literal labor.
In the day to day, what does it mean to operate as an employee-owned store? How do you organize your labor and make decisions?
Nikita: We have a few managers who have their specialties, such as Chris managing inventory and Jack managing the in-store experience, such as seasonal decor, displays, and a large part of the supplies. We also, however, have booksellers who are owners and not managers, as well as booksellers who are neither, but we are all skilled and full of ideas, so we often try to organize labor with everyone in mind. Lily has been at the store for 10 years and is perfect at keeping our gift card system up to date, whereas we have a new employee named Wulfe who has been crucial to completing our events team. We often make decisions as a managing group, but we also will put ideas forth at all-staff meetings to gain perspective from everyone on staff.
So far, what benefits have you seen since adopting an employee-owned model? Has any part of the journey surprised you?
Kelly: I’ve been surprised by how much I felt I owned the store already, in a visceral, heart kind of way. So now owning it on paper feels wonderfully and practically redundant.
What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered functioning as a collective? How have you (or are you) navigating them?
Nikita: Functioning as a collective means a lot of passionate people with often differing opinions, so it becomes difficult to find compromise at times. We have been navigating them by remembering the importance of staying flexible. We can try something out for a little while and adapt as we go. Nothing in bookselling is permanent, including on the back end. We can see if the idea that is most popular works and make small changes to try to make it more reflective of more booksellers.
Danny: There’s not a ton of precedent for what it means to be a “bookseller owner.” We’re making it up as we go along; it’s not a process that happens overnight. Still, it’s an honor to watch this wonderful team of owners move into their new roles with grace and imagination.
Do you have any advice for other stores considering adopting an employee-owned model?
Nikita: Keep your communication lines as open as possible. We’re still trying to make that work better at our store, and it’s always going to have to be refined, but I feel like a lot of our bigger issues usually stem from a communication breakdown. Trying to make sure all working parts are on the same page so everyone feels heard, respected, and informed is important
Danny: The employee-owned model is wonderful, complex, and totally worth it, but it was a lot of work to implement. There’s not really an easy, affordable, ready-to-go legal solution for a business our size to do this. So we spent a long time (about a year) in close talks with the Raven’s lawyer and accountant trying to figure out the best way to go employee-owned. We also got a lot of help from Porter Square, which we’re ever thankful for. So it wasn’t easy, but again, totally worth it. Just be ready to do a fair bit of work to get it in place.
What makes you excited about the future of the Raven?
Kelly: This new generation of booksellers with their minds and hearts wide open. It’s an honor to work with them.