They Get “Raven” Reviews

The raven, that legendary bird, has been far from a harbinger of doom and closer to a symbol of knowledge for Pat Kehde and Mary Lou Wright. For the past 17 years, these two alums from ’62 have owned and successfully operated The Raven bookstore in downtown Lawrence, Kansas.

Between graduation and settling in Kansas, however, the two took diverse roads: Pat zigzagged across America, while Mary Lou chose a more even flight path.

Out of the gate, Pat married a Claremont McKenna graduate and moved to Baltimore; she worked in a local library while her husband attended Johns Hopkins in a master’s program. In the mid-60s, Pat returned to Claremont for a time, taking a position with the Pomona Public Library. Her next stop was Kansas, where she completed a master’s degree in library science at Emporia State University. Then, on to Florida, where she took a job in Jacksonville. She describes the move as “fairly insane—but a fabulous job.” Finally, it was back to Kansas for a second master’s degree and second marriage.

Mary Lou’s post-grad years were considerably less travelfrenzied than her business partner’s. Leaving Scripps, she moved to Lawrence and enjoyed a 35-year career with the University of Kansas as business manager of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.

The idea to go into business together evolved from conversations between the two friends, who had re-met in the 80s. During this time, they found they both shared an interest in starting a business—a shop of some kind—despite the fact neither had any retail experience. According to Mary Lou, “We had no firm ideas about what product we wanted to sell, so we started to think about what were some of our own shared interests.”

“We both were avid readers of mysteries,” recalls Pat. “After attending a booksellers’ workshop we realized not only was this was something we were capable of doing, but something we would enjoy doing for a long period of time. Our lack of experience in this industry simply never gave us pause— except, perhaps, financially. But I knew Mary Lou was really good at accounting, so I wasn’t too worried.

“The only people who did call us ‘crazy’ were bankers,” she wryly notes.

Key to their success after securing seed money (they were refused traditional bank loans) was finding a good downtown location. When a space they both liked became available, they jumped at it. Within a year of The Raven’s opening, a microbrewery went in nearby, and with it, a windfall of added foot traffic to the area. In 1997, a Borders bookstore opened directly across the street, but, fortunately, it has not yet had any serious negative impact on their business. To date, The Raven proudly claims a history of only one single year “in the red.” Even then, it was a loss of only $300. “We’ve had a good deal of luck,” Pat admits. “We live in a supportive community that remains sensitive to the ‘Wal-Martizing’ of America.”

While The Raven has branched out in sales of other book genres and a range of cards and gifts, Mary Lou says, “Our bread and butter is still mysteries.” A welcome boon to the business has been the advent of book clubs (they host 18) and a significant increase in women authors. They supplant their on-site sales with special orders for University of Kansas courses as well as private consumer requests. They’ve also filled a crucial niche by stocking books by regional authors and British imports. And, though a small independent bookshop, the women have utilized big-business Internet marketing techniques, creating The Raven Bookstore website, which offers staff recommendations for novels and an online event calendar promoting author book signings at the shop.

Mary Lou and Pat have pledged to continue their enterprise “for as a long as it is still fun.” Their success in the era of such giants as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders has not gone unnoticed by local and state agencies. In 2002, The Raven and its earnest owners earned a truly “novel” honor: the State of Kansas’ prestigious Women-Owned Business of the Year Award.

 

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