Independent booksellers, including downtown's Raven Bookstore, are teaming up to build market strength in the fight against industry giants such as Borders, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com.
While Pat Kehde takes pride in running an independent bookstore, she readily welcomes some help from more than 1,000 of her closest business friends.
That's why her Raven Bookstore recently joined a collective marketing effort for some 1,200 independent shops in all 50 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
The effort -- Book Sense: Independent Bookstores for Independent Minds -- is designed to help independents retain market strength in an industry becoming dominated by megaretailers such as Barnes & Noble, Borders and Amazon.com.
Book Sense members trade advice on good books, sell gift certificates for use in member stores, and are gearing up for a joint e-commerce site next year on the World Wide Web.
"It's the only way independent booksellers are going to have any clout -- and not necessarily with the customers, but with the publishers," said Kehde, who opened the Raven 12 years ago at 8 E. Seventh. "We have to have a united front."
The American Booksellers Assn. (ABA), a 99-year-old trade organization for independent book retailers, created Book Sense this year to put up that front.
Among its weapons:
- A local branding campaign, started in April, featuring Book Sense door decals, bag stickers, bookmarks and in-store posters to boost recognition nationwide.
- National gift certificates, sold beginning last month, that allow someone to buy a certificate at, say, Hue-Man Experience in Denver -- or any other Book Sense Store -- and use it at the Raven in downtown Lawrence.
- "The Book Sense 76," a list of titles recommended by member booksellers, came out this month. Among them was No. 68: "Mind of the Raven," a study of the "enigmatic wolf-birds" recommended by a seller in Bellevue, Wash. A weekly bestseller list is in the works.
- BookSense.com, a central collection point on the Internet for Web sites of individual stores and ABA information, would provide access to a 1.2 million-title database and a state-of-the-art transaction system for e-commerce. Technical problems have pushed its unveiling back to next year.
The irony of independent retailers working collectively isn't lost on Richard Howorth, the ABA president who has watched independents' market share slip from 34 percent in 1992 to 18 percent today.
"Independent booksellers, I would guess, are sort of the most independent-minded people you could hope or not hope to encounter," said Howorth, owner of Square Books in Oxford, Miss. "But everyone, or most everyone, understands that more than ever we're in this together. And if we don't act -- at least in some ways -- with some programs in concert, those very individual identities that we are will be threatened with extinction."
The Raven, owned by Kehde and Mary Lou Wright, already is selling gift certificates and is putting in another order for Book Sense bag decals. And the need for the program is easy to see.
Just across the street is a giant Borders, 700 N.H., which is more than 15 times the size of the twice-expanded Raven.
Borders hasn't killed the Raven, although two other independent Lawrence booksellers did close up shop in 1997. The reduction in stores led to a 35 percent sales increase for the Raven in 1997 -- it's best sales year ever -- before the Borders opened in December.
Sales were down 15 percent in 1998, Kehde said, but have since held steady even as Amazon.com and other Internet retailers have come on the scene.
She figures that solid, friendly and knowledgeable service remains the Raven's strongest selling point, along with its 18,000 titles heavy on literary fiction, travel, regional authors and mysteries.
"The best thing we can do is buy good stuff, know it and put it in the hands of people who appreciate it," said Kehde, who is still mulling whether to join the Book Sense e-commerce site, at $200 a month. "That's a low-tech thing, but that's what we do."
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