Hearne: Vivien Jennings & Rainy Day Books Battle to Save Local Bookstores

Are the days of local bookstores numbered?

With mom and pop book shops few and far between, the death last year of book behemoth Borders and word that Barnes & Noble is hanging on by the skin of its teeth, it’s easy to make that case.

It’s already painfully obvious that music CDs and DVD movies are not long for this world. Chances are if you’re still buying those, you’re mulling over things like AARP memberships and Jack’s erectile disfunction ads.

Face it, what local businesses really are "safe" anymore outside of clothing, drugstores, groceries and necessities people need to purchase in person?

But back to books…

“I don’t think that books are going away,” says Vivien Jennings of Rainy Day Books in Fairway, the leading purveyor of big name author events in Kansas City. “A lot of people still like the organic book because it’s just you and the book. So I think the organic book is here for at least my lifetime.”

What about libraries? Who really needs them anymore with Google and the Internet just clicks away?

“I think libraries are doing okay,” Jennings says. “And studies have shown that people’s brains – particularly young people – that if they only use computers, where the computer does the thinking and seeking – they won’t be able to remember and think as well. So kids should not just let the computer do everything for them.”

Like newspapers, greeting cards and many businesses, survival in the Internet Age is the name of today’s game.

Faced with competition from huge chain bookstores in the 1990s Rainy Day embarked on a course of promoting its small store by bringing in authors for book signings and talks at area venues. That after watching the majority of its rival, small booksellers bite the dust. First it was the big box stores, then Amazon, Ebay and now electronic books.

“They were going to put a Borders up the street with taxpayer dollars and we were against it,” Jennings says. “Because for us to be able to do what we do we have to have community support. And it would not only have hurt our business, it would have hurt what we were trying to do for the community.”

Yet while it would be unthinkable even a few years back, Jennings and her fellow small, independent bookstore peers are actually feeling sorry these days for mega players like Borders.

"I do because  it’s very dangerous for anyone to have too much impact (and control) over an industry," Jennings says. "That’s why we have anti trust laws. So it’s better to have a number of players. We were at the Winter Institute meeting in New Orleans in January and there was a lot of concern about Barnes & Noble. Because we want to be able to have bricks and mortar bookstores where you have people selling books and creating interest in reading. You don’t want people to just be in a cave – you know – a computer cave. We want people interacting and exchanging ideas – especially for budding new authors.

"And you know what? I feel bad for the booksellers who worked at Borders. That was tough. The thing is that they were a community business and a local business to some extent and they invested money into the community. Maybe not as much as us but…"

While Rainy Day dodged the going out of biz bullet in large part by hosting hundreds of author events every year, Jennings and partner-in-crime Roger Doeren decided a few years ago to dial things way back.

Did they?

"Ohhhhhhh, well we are, but pay attention," Jennings hedges. "I told you we were going to do fewer but bigger. And we were doing 20 to 25 a month – almost every week night – so we’ve cut back some. But we’re still out all of the time. We decided to do fewer but bigger, but we didn’t really affect that very well. But it’s really difficult to get people out now because people are overloaded and they don’t have the time.

"So we’ve realized that we need to make each event an experience. Not just an author signing a book. It’s a total experience – the best experience we can think of for each author -an experience you cannot miss.”

OK, what’s the post-cutback, magic number now?

"Now we just do a couple a week, maybe two or three a week," Jennings says. “We’re still doing well  because we work smart and we work hard, but there’s still no rest.”

In the begininng, getting the big book companies to send authors to KC was the hardest part.

“Kansas City was a total flyover zone,” Jennings says. “People just did not believe this was a (legitimate) market. So we did Anne Rice at the Alexander Majors home and we showed ‘em. Nobody had ever done anything like that here before.”

Take author Jodi Picoult’s signing tonight at Unity Temple on the Plaza.

"That’s a big, big girl’s night out for her book Lone Wolf," Jennings says. "It’s fiction and is about the question of who has the right to make end of life decisions. And then Giada De Laurentis is coming to the Midland on April 5th and Lauren Conrad the star of The Hills will be at Unity Temple for another girls night out on April 10th. And MSNBC host Rachel Madow and I will be having a conversation at the Uptown on Earth Day in April, so that’s going to be really fun."


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5 Responses to Hearne: Vivien Jennings & Rainy Day Books Battle to Save Local Bookstores

  1. chuck says:

    I obviously did not write that either.

  2. balbonis moleskine, romance novel cover model says:

    Rainy Day > Amazon > B&N > A WET FART > PROSPEROS
    Rainy Day books remains one of my fondest childhood memories. I still love reading to this day, and I can credit being able to browse those dusty shelves with my mom as part of the reason why.

    They won’t go out of business, they provide a unique service (discount, used and hard-to find books) without the attitude (ahem, PROSPEROS).

    If all else fails, they should just sell Hitachi Magic Wands and Roors under the counter. 🙂

    And as for the Chucks, this is like third grade math class. Both Chucks need to sign their comments with the first letter of their last name so they can be graded by their teacher.

  3. paulwilsonkc says:

    While I Am aarp qualified…..
    …. Im not sure thats a substantial part of my feelings on this, but I hate to see this happen. I’ve been a book collector for years, likely have 400 classics, first editions and favorites in my living room library, I just like the feel, smell of a BOOK, not a NOOK. Also, theres just a peace that comes with sitting in an old book store, reading. MY favortie place in the world is Taylor Books in Charleston. One third book store, one third coffee shop and one thrid art gallery. I’ve always been proud that I got to go there enough I had a Frequent Drinker card for them!
    Rainy Day has a place in this town and we need to support local shops like this one!! If everyone who buys anything from a “chain” would redirect their purchase to RD, they could like a nice, long life. As well they should.

  4. smartman says:

    Gee Yada Yada Yada
    If she had two fried eggs instead of those perfect, perpetually ripe melons on her chest she would not be nearly as popular as she is. In much the same way the camera accidentally focuses on LEGS on Fox News and Business channels, (see Kimberly Guilfoyle and Andrea Tantaros on THE FIVE), Giada’s hooters get more camera time than whatever she is cooking on her show.

  5. chuck1 says:

    My Name is Chuck
    and I did write that first comment.

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