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Amid Amazon Backlash, Kansas City Sees An Indie Bookstore Revival

Kyle Palmer
Dylan Pyles' new bookstore Wise Blood aims to build off the success of an affiliated record store in Westport.

Local, independent bookstores in the Kansas City area are making a comeback. 

Buoyed by growing consumer unease with online retail giant Amazon, "indies" here and around the country are trying to capitalize on customer sentiment that favors brick-and-mortar intimacy and community spirit. 

"It's hard not be excited about the future," says Carrie Obry, executive director of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. "The industry is in a celebratory mood right now." 

Wise Blood 

That mood extends to Dylan Pyles, manager and co-owner of Wise Blood Booksellers on Westport Road. He and co-owner Judy Mills are set to open their doors for the first time on Black Friday. 

"It kind of feels like we're preparing to throw a party for the neighorhood," he says, standing amid boxes of new and used books ready to be stacked onto waiting shelves. 

Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR
On the shelf at Wise Blood Booksellers in Westport, the novel from which the store gets its name.

Wise Blood takes its name from one of Pyles' favorite novels by Flannery O'Connor and is an offshoot of Mills Record Company around the corner on Broadway Boulevard, where Pyles also works. 

The record store is a well-known spot that, for years, has served new and used vinyl to this neighorhood which prides itself on an artistic, offbeat vibe. Pyles says a bookshop should fit right in. 

"I think this part of Kansas City, especially, craves connection to physical media, and real, tangible art. I think a lot of our approach to buying and selling records translates to books and literature," he says. 

Wise Blood plans to start with roughly 3,500 titles, ranging from classic works of literature by Ernest Hemingway and Toni Morrison to new releases from small regional presses and up-and-coming authors. 

He envisions a "gathering place" where local residents can come and browse for books, read and talk. The store also plans to display and sell works by local artists and host author readings and literary events. It's a business plan modeled off the success of the record store. 

"There is a binding kind of magic to music and literature," he says. "We want to be a holistic experience for art, culture and literature." 

Connection to community 

If that sounds high-minded, Carrie Obry with the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association says that's typical of small, independent booksellers.

"Anyone who signs up to run a bookstore isn't in it for the monster paycheck," she says. "They're in it for the value they want to bring to their community." 

Take Rainy Day Books, a venerable metro institution that has been in its tidy space on the corner of a shopping center along Shawnee Mission Parkway since 1975. 

The store's stated mission is to leave a "legacy of literacy" in  Kansas City. To that end, Rainy Day hosts more than 300 author events every year and gives support to local book clubs. Owner Vivien Jennings is also a well-known advocate around the metro for small businesses. 

Still, recent trends suggest being a small, independent bookstore these days is more than about mission. It also makes good business sense. 

After a sharp decline following Amazon's launch in the late 1990s, independent bookstores started to rebound a decade ago. The American Booksellers Association says its membership has grown nine consecutive years and now tops 2,400 bookstores nationwide. Sales of print books, meanwhile, have increased every year since 2013.

Obry sees these trends driven primarily by a backlash to Amazon. Customers, she says, are growing skeptical of the e-tail behemoth's business model, which is based on cheap, easy online purchasing and rush-order delivery. 

"People have realized all of the practices that Amazon engages in are things they don't want to be a part of," she says. 

One bookstore in the greater Kansas City region has become a leading voice nationally in critiquing Amazon. 

'Educating' the consumer 

In April, after a customer made a comment about how cheaply she could buy a book online, Danny Caine, owner of The Raven Book Store in Lawrence, tapped out a Twitter thread that went viral.

Since then, Caine has become a torchbearer of sorts for independent booksellers around the Kansas City region, with near daily tweets and social media messages critical of Amazon. 

"I don't view what I'm doing as necessarily fighting Amazon so much as educating people about the importance of small businesses," he says. "I'm just trying to make some noise about why it's important for places like The Raven to stick around and serve their community." 

This past summer, around Amazon's annual promotion Prime Day, The Raven got another boost when author Shea Serrano encouraged his followers to buy books online from The Raven instead of Amazon. Caine says they matched their typical annual online sales total in just 48 hours. 

This isn't The Raven's first fight against a big corporate bookseller. The store's original owners waged a long, visible campaign against a Borders bookstore that opened in downtown Lawrence in the late 1990s. That Borders eventually went under in 2011 along with the rest of the company, felled by Amazon. 

It's an irony not lost on Caine. He knows his frequent jabs at Amazon won't bring down the tech giant. 

"My main long-term goal is to keep The Raven around and thriving for as long as it can go," he says. 

'Hard sell'

Even for established stores like The Raven, this time of year is make-or-break. Caine says roughly 25% of their annual sales come in the last six weeks of the year, meaning the difference between a profitable year and not. 

Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR
Stacks of used books wait to be put on shelves at Wise Blood Booksellers in Kansas City.

That may be even more true for newer bookstores still trying to make a name for themselves, like Our Daily Nadain Kansas City's River Market. This will be the store's second holiday season after opening in August, 2018. 

Co-owner Andrea Baca says the last 15 months or so have been an education for her about the challenges brick-and-mortar retailers face in an era of easy online shopping. 

"You're basically asking people to spend more money and have less convenience in order to shop with you," she says ruefully. "It can be a hard sell." 

In order to make that sale, Baca and co-owner Amy Covitz hit upon an increasingly common concept in indie bookselling: alcohol. Our Daily Nada serves beer, wine and cocktails with its books. 

"We wanted another revenue stream because the margins on books are definitely difficult," Baca says. 

It's an indication that even in good times, small independent bookstores may need to get creative in order to carve out their place in a retail world still dominated by Amazon. But Baca, like other local booksellers, is hopeful her store is filling a need. 

"Just looking at Kansas City, there aren't a lot of indies. We thought there was room for a small, independent bookstore to be successful." 

Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster and a reporter. You can follow him on Twitter @kcurkyle. 

Kyle Palmer is the editor of the Shawnee Mission Post, a digital news outlet serving Northeast Johnson County, Kansas. He previously served as KCUR's news director and morning newscaster.
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