Independent bookstores begin their next chapter

Wise Blood Booksellers in the Mills Record Company building. // Photo by Zach Bauman

Wise Blood Booksellers in the Mills Record Company building. // Photo by Zach Bauman

“We opened in, technically, December of 2019,” says Dylan Pyles, manager and co-owner of Wise Blood Booksellers alongside Judy Mills. “We had two and a half months of ‘normalcy.’ But it wasn’t really normalcy because you’re just getting going—we were making plans for advertising campaigns and setting up events for the summer, booking authors. And of course, we all know what happened.”

Pyles is referring to COVID-19, which sent a shockwave through the nation’s small, local businesses. In the volatile period, physical bookstores found themselves fighting a number of battles. One of their main offerings—a haven for slow, thoughtful browsing amongst print books—was temporarily eliminated. At the same time, the pandemic drastically altered our relationship to the consumption of art and media. We wanted more of it, and we wanted it delivered to our doorsteps immediately. That’s a tall ask of a short-staffed local bookstore.

Yet, throughout the shuffle, they’ve managed to avoid shuttering at the rate of other small businesses. According to an investigative piece from Alternative Press in May, the American Bookseller Association’s membership increased from 1,635 to 1,701 over the course of a year. Of ABA members, there were only 14 closings in 2021 and 70 in 2020.

While the industry is not without its casualties, some of our hometown favorites have not only managed to stay afloat, but to push the boundaries of what a bookstore can do for the community. 

La'Nesha Frazier speaking to customers at Bliss' Mom's Day Market pop-up at Mean Mule Distilling Co. in May

La’Nesha Frazier speaking to customers at Bliss’ Mom’s Day Market pop-up at Mean Mule Distilling Co. in May. // Photo by Cheryl Clayton

Such is the case for Bliss Books & Wine. The owners had to think on their feet to reinvent their business model. 

Sisters La’Nesha Frazier and La’Nae Robinson founded Bliss Books & Wine with the motto “Read, Sip, Relax” well before the pandemic loomed on the horizon. The concept was spawned from a different brand of chaos.

“I was reading a book at work over lunch,” says Frazier. “It was getting great at the apex of the book, and I had to stop because I had to go back to work. I was really, really frustrated, and my frustration extended because I knew that once I got home, mommy duties and wife duties would kick in.” 

Frazier, who works as a full-time physical therapist, wanted an asylum to read, enjoy a glass of wine, and retreat from the daily insanity. She struggled to find the right place for herself in Kansas City. She figured Robinson, an engineer, might feel the same.

 “I started bouncing ideas off of my sister, and she was just like, ‘Yeah, that sounds amazing. That sounds like bliss!’ And thus, Bliss Books & Wine has been created.”

Frazier and Robinson had a few months to get the business up and rolling. They hosted three pop-ups around town featuring local authors and served up boozy book pairings. Then, the pandemic hit.

 “We had to pivot and figure out how we can still make this work,” says Frazier. “Everything went virtual, everything went online, and we’ve been rocking and rolling ever since.” Now, the front page of their website reads, “Our mission … altered.”

These days, they sell most of their books through their website—new stock goes straight from the distributor to the reader’s doorstep. Bliss still sells used books, and they started holding in-person pop ups again in early 2021. When asked where they store their physical stock, the sisters start laughing. 

“I have the new inventory that we’re taking to the pop-ups and all of the used books that we have on our website—that’s stored in my house,” says Frazier. “I have a Bliss Room downstairs in my basement that’s just full, and then I went into our basement gym area as well. So, I’m stacked to the brim here.”

Img 3094

Bliss 2019 Fall pop-up featuring KC author Marcus Dickerson (standing) speaking with customers. // Photo by La’Nae Robinson

“We are so ready [to have a brick and mortar]!” Robinson chimes in.

The sisters are now selling at a breakneck pace. But they didn’t start off the pandemic with the dial turned to 100.

“Initially, life in general slowed down,” says Robinson. “And then June happened with all the unrest and protests, and we had a mad rush of people looking for antiracism books. That brought a lot of people to our site, to our social media—people were just flooding us looking for books, which was great.”

Still, Robinson reflects, “It was a lot of pressure to keep up with the demand, the orders, and a knowledge of the books that were available that people were asking for. I wouldn’t say it went against the flow of our bookstore and what we’re trying to do—but, that’s a serious topic. That’s heavy.”

Folks across the country turned to bookstores like Bliss last summer as outlets for both education and joy reading. The influx of orders became a test for Frazier and Robinson. They needed to meet the community’s needs while also respecting the core mission of their store. 

“People were still there to hold those conversations, which was great,” says Robinson. “And they hung around a little longer to enjoy the fun part: Listening, just reading for pleasure, and holding easier conversations, and talking about wine. It hasn’t been too overwhelming. The two sides are there, and they’re flowing naturally.”

Frazier and Robinson also had to reenvision the “boozy” half of the “boozy bookstore” concept. While there was no magical solution to providing an in-person reading plus drinking experience, the sisters have found ways to provide a spot of bliss and a good glass of wine to their literary family. 

Img 3092

From a 2019 Bliss Books pop-up featuring author Marcus Dickerson. // Photo by La’Nae Robinson

They’ve partnered with regional wineries including Jenny Dawn Cellars in Wichita, Kansas and KC Wineworks to marry great books with the perfect bottles. Robinson and Frazier have also figured out how to bring happy hour to Zoom.

“The first Wednesday of every month, we hold our book club virtually [called Wine & Spines],” says Robinson. “We started that in May of last year, early on in the pandemic. We pick a book, everyone reads it over the next four weeks, and then we get on Zoom, we talk about it, and we drink wine. Sometimes we’ll spotlight an author and they’ll come on and talk. We’ve had some of the local wineries attend and then we do a pairing, talk about their wines, and we did a virtual tasting.” 

While they’ve started dipping their toes back into the waters of in person pop-ups, their pandemic-era innovations aren’t going away just yet. You can find a link to purchase digital audiobooks through Libro.fm on their website. All purchases will benefit Bliss. They’ve also partnered with Hummingbird Digital Media to provide readers a digital ebook storefront. 

Frazier and Robinson will also continue to host Zoom-based monthly book clubs, bolster local and emerging artists, and build their community.

“The interactions that we’re having on social media—people are emailing us all the time, they’re calling all the time, they’re looking for different books to see if we can get them in. That’s how we populate our online shelves,” says Robinson. “It brings the community aspect in that way as well because people feel like they have a vested interest in what’s going on.”

They also get some of their trendiest book recs from those closest to home.

“My oldest, she likes to give me [middle grade] recommendations,” says Robinson, “so she’ll talk to all of her friends. And my son does some elementary stuff in his time, too. The hope is I’m going to give those two a space on the website to do a blog where they can post the recommendations.”

Ultimately, the flood of support provides relief for the sisters. When they began devising their business model, they were nervous about competing with larger retailers such as Amazon. 

“I was a little hesitant initially—the turnaround is not as quick and shipping costs a little bit more [than with Amazon],” says Robinson. “But the community has been very understanding. I would say more than that. And I don’t think they expect us to be on the exact same level as the big boys. And they’re okay with that and they want to support local; they want to support independent bookstores.”

Indeed, indie bookstores offer resources that Amazon simply cannot and will not.

Img 3725

The rear entrance of the new Raven Book Store location. // Photo by Nick Spacek

In a Twitter thread that went viral in April 2019, the Raven Book Store in Lawrence, Kansas outlined precisely why we should turn to our local bookstores before we turn to Amazon. They provided myriad reasons such as indies supporting local and emerging authors and artists; giving folks a chance to meet their favorite authors during readings; hosting open mics; providing steady local jobs; and partnering with other cultural organizations.

 “Last year was a good year for print book sales,” says Danny Caine, owner of the Raven. According to a January article in Publisher’s Weekly, “unit sales of print books rose 8.2% in 2020 over 2019 at outlets that report to NDP BookScan [that tracks sales data across the American publishing industry].” 

“But bookstore sales were down,” Caine adds. “Which tells me that Amazon is gobbling up more and more of the book market. We need to help people learn about the importance of an independent bookstore, and telling that story has always been a part of what the Raven does.”

They’ve done more than tell the story; they’ve demonstrated it repeatedly. Over the last year, the booksellers at the Raven have organized around saving the USPS and hosted dozens of free, virtual events. The team even worked with the owner of Ladybird Diner to create a collection of essays about the eatery, entitled Ladybird, Collected—it was their highest selling book of 2020, with all profits going towards the diner’s community meal program.

The Raven is not just a haunt known to locally-minded Lawrencians (and Ladybird-goers). They’re a national indie bookstore sweetheart. After making waves with the Twitter thread, Caine published a chapbook titled How to Resist Amazon and Why, and the store began to garner coverage from national media outlets such as The New Yorker. All of this attention, unsurprisingly, led to a spike in sales.

Img 3743

The new interior of Raven Book Store before it opened. // Photo by Nick Spacek

“[Also,] among the uprisings about civil rights, there was a huge interest in buying nonfiction books about race and racism, and those were close to holiday numbers for us last summer,” says Caine. “There were a couple of moments, like the holidays, where I’ve never worked harder in my life. It’s been really hard. I’m thankful for the booksellers. Without them, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.”

The Raven didn’t reopen up their store for browsing until this past June, relying exclusively on online sales, pick up orders, and local delivery.

“The act of going into a bookstore and picking up a book off the shelf and buying it right there is blissfully simple and wonderful,” Caine says. “And when you make all that remote, it becomes much more complicated in many ways. There’s like 10 or 11 steps in fulfilling a web order. And so, we were adding extra shifts at night just to stay on top of the huge piles of stuff that needed to go out.”

Despite the exhaustion that Caine and the booksellers experienced, he’s incredibly grateful for the national support. 

“In general, supporting a small business benefits surrounding small businesses. A rising tide raises all ships. And I talk about this with Amazon a lot, but if you divest from Amazon, they’re not going to notice your absent purchases,” Caine points out. “It’s too big to feel a single person or a few people pulling away. But small businesses are small enough that they will feel the addition of your business.” 

Raven certainly felt the rising tide. As a result they’ve been able to rent a new location directly on Massachusetts Street, the main thoroughfare of downtown Lawrence, where they’re sure to gain more foot traffic. The store wrapped up their move in late August—the former location of 30 years is officially closed and they’re ready for customers at their new home on Mass.

“An expanded shipping program and local delivery require space to process,” Caine explains. “Our new release fiction section turned into a shipping desk. We can’t get rid of new release fiction and we can’t get rid of the shipping desk. So, we need a more permanent solution to this hybrid online-and-in-person-bookselling model. And the new location offers that because it has a big back room [with] a workspace for shipping and processing.”

Img 3720

The exterior of the new Raven Book Store location before it opened. // Photo by Nick Spacek

For his part, Caine has long wanted to see the store become more accessible to disabled shoppers. At their old location, the door was elevated multiple inches from the ground.

“We can talk about being accessible all we want, but trying to get in the front door as a wheelchair user—we have a ramp, but it’s clunky. It’s much easier and more accessible to go right in the front door, even with a stroller and for people with kids. I really wanted something at street level for a long time.” 

The pandemic presented the perfect storm to make the big move. From every angle, Caine says that positive growth has provided the motivation to seek out a new home for the Raven. With room to stretch out, for example, the booksellers will be able to add an expanded children’s section with storytime and other programming for kids.

“It was a blank canvas,” says Caine. “And we were able to get in the process really early and kind of shape the remodeling process to our specs. It means we’re going to be in a brand new space custom-built for us, and a lot of it is being paid for as part of the renovation effort, and that is out of our pocket. So that ended up being a really sweet deal for us.”

Their new space was previously occupied by an axe-throwing fad business before it suffered a fire that left most of the building gutted, with the exception of a vintage tin ceiling that was restored and reinstalled for the Raven. Aaron Marable, a Raven regular, designed the interior scheme and made brand new custom-built bookshelves for the space. 

For fans of their new delivery options, don’t fear. The new location does not spell the end of doorstep drop offs.

“Local delivery is going to be a permanent part of our business model now,” says Caine. 

The same holds true for Wise Blood Booksellers in Westport.

“Even before we shut down [at the start of the pandemic], we were doing porch deliveries for folks within a ten mile radius,” Pyles recalls. “[We were] able to offer that and not really question, ‘Is this good for business? Is this a business practice?’ We are in the book business because we believe that this stuff is really important. It enriches lives. It is our duty to make sure that people have access to [books] during this time that’s going to be really hard for everybody.” 

Dylan Pyles, co-owner of Wise Blood, in front of the fiction section. // Photo by Zach Bauman

Dylan Pyles, co-owner of Wise Blood, in front of the fiction section. // Photo by Zach Bauman

Wise Blood grew from a small selection of music books that co-owners Pyles and Mills began stocking at Mills Record Company. Sans a strong digital inventory system or even the customer base of an older business like the record company, Wise Blood had to think outside the binding in order to support their customer base in 2020. 

“We started to get really creative about what we could offer people that was connected to finding some sort of solace or reprieve in the midst of the pandemic,” says Pyles.

This included Boredom Bundles, an online order option where you pay either $25 (or more) to receive a surprise crate of books hand-picked by the booksellers in the genre of your choice. They also run a partnership with University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Arts and Letters program. UMKC provides Wise Blood copies of their latest book club selection to hand out at the store to folks who sign up for the chat. 

Additionally, the bookstore collaborates with Liberation Lit, a project that runs solidarity campaigns with incarcerated folks to provide them with educational materials and good reading. All of the books that go to the incarcerated first run through Wise Blood’s system to pass clearance at the facilities.

And of course, like the Raven and Bliss, Wise Blood has turned to hosting virtual events.

In March of 2021, Kansas City was slated to host the Association of Writings & Writing Programs’ (AWP) annual conference. The event typically attracts some of the country’s best and brightest literary talent and thousands of attendees.

“We had four or five things already on the books a year in advance for AWP, and had people reaching out to us literally a year in advance,” Pyles laments. “And that doesn’t mean that we didn’t get a chance to do some cool virtual events, get some good opportunities to work with authors, but it’s not the same as growing a community and having a collective of physical people in your store.”

Wiseblood Mills Records 20210812 84

A customer checks out the selection at Wise Blood. // Photo by Zach Bauman

Originally, Pyles and Mills had hoped that both stores would have a full staff. Without the ability to hire during the pandemic, Pyles and the other employees found themselves quite literally jogging back and forth between the two stores to cover shifts, causing energy attrition.

 “[I knew this was] not really a sustainable way to do this,” says Pyles. “And what it’s actually doing is wearing our people down when we could be empowering each other if we’re in the same space. And I think that’s ultimately what it came down to for me: For what we do as a bookstore to be powerful, our people need to be powerful. And our people lose power when we are jogging back and forth between two spaces.” 

They made the decision to move Wise Blood back home into Mills Record Co’s building, eliminating the overhead from the second location. Thanks to some clever interior design, they’ve been able to increase their literary inventory and curate newer releases that they didn’t have the space and funds for before. Now, Wise Blood can operate with the same hours as its sister store—it’s gone from being open 20 hours a week to over 50. 

But there’s been another exciting and somewhat unexpected benefit to come of sharing the space.

 “The thing that I was relatively surprised about when we announced the move was how many people who were regulars at the bookstore had never been to the record store, and how many people who were regulars at the record store had never even heard of the book store,” says Pyles. “One of my new favorite things is the couple that comes in to shop for books and ends up spending an hour digging through the dollar record bins, and vice versa, the people who come to shop for records and end up taking home a Toni Morrison novel.”

Wiseblood Mills Records 20210812 80

A look at the layout of the Mills Record Company/Wise Blood shared location. // Photo by Zach Bauman

At a time where it is difficult for business owners to ensure a comfortable and safe customer service experience, Wise Blood is operating with a community-first mentality.

“One of our philosophies for the record store is that sometimes [they can] get a reputation for being exclusive or intimidating, but we try to push against that at every turn. And we did the same with Wise Blood. This is your space, it’s our space, it’s a shared space.” 

It looks like it will be a shared space for Mills and Wise Blood for a while to come. 

 “Right now, we’re really happy having the two stores together. As I mentioned before, part of the vision for Wise Blood is to eventually give it its own space, but we’ve got no timetable or plans for that at the moment because things are working quite well as they are,” says Pyles. “It’s been great to meet new customers and expand our reach.”

Whether they’re a 30-year-old veteran shop or a fledgling operation, our local bookstores have once again proven that they are vital resources. They are capable of—and indeed, exist precisely to—adapt to the needs of those they serve. The work of the bookseller, from cramming their basements full of used reads to literally jogging across Westport so that we can browse the aisles, is an act of service to our city. 

So, what can you do in return? Not everyone is in a place to afford that shiny new hardcover. Instead, you can like and share their posts on social media. Be patient if your orders aren’t turned around in a single day. Attend virtual events—especially when they’re free—and drop a nice message in the chat (you can tell them The Pitch sent you). Even supporting the other businesses around your bookstore makes a world of difference because, as Caine pointed out, a rising tide raises all ships.

The literary industry is tumultuous and our booksellers are tired. But without them, we’d be poorer in knowledge, arts, community, and the sheer joy that comes from finding a really darn good book. 

Categories: Culture