Business

Kansas City Businesses Keeping it Old School: Rainy Day Books

Existing in an age of hyper-connectivity, these local low-tech businesses are thriving. How do they do it?

Story by Lindsey Corey | Photos by David Allison

Vivien Jennings and Roger Doeren, Rainy Day Books

Rainy Day Books has weathered its share of storms in the almost four decades since Vivien Jennings opened the shop’s doors in Fairway.

“Our business has been especially challenged over the last 20 years, but what really carries us along is that every single day a total stranger will come up to us and say, ‘I just want to thank you for what you do for the community,’” she says. “It’s incredibly powerful to experience that on a daily basis, to feel like all the hard work matters.”

Those connections buoy Jennings and Roger Doeren, her business and romantic partner of 20 years. And it’s the connection she and her staff make with each customer that they say is key to Rainy Day Books’ longevity.

Kansas City Businesses Keeping it Old School

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“We build the relationship one customer at a time,” she says. “That doesn’t happen online, not on Facebook, Twitter or Amazon. To us, you’re a person and we’re interested in you and invested in you as a reader forever, and I think that’s been a very important strength of ours. We might not sell you your first book, but we want to sell you your last.”

While online booksellers bankrupt Borders stores nationwide, they didn’t hurt the local bookstore. (Rainy Day Books started selling online in 1994; Amazon launched in 1995.)

“Amazon shot everything it had at us, and we’re thriving. We like competition; we just want it to be fair,” Doeren says, referencing the online seller not collecting sales tax.

Rainy Day also survived the surge in e-books’ popularity, and Jennings says the trend is going back to paper books.

“A lot of our customers have [e-reader] devices that they sometimes use for travel, but we hear every day, ‘I really just want the paper book so there’s nothing between me and the reading experience,’” Jennings says. “People are tired of technology, of having a screen in front of them all the time.”

One publisher selected Rainy Day Books (and about 25 other community bookstores across the country) as a test market for bundling, so when a customer purchases select titles in paper, they’ll also get access to download it.

“We’re honored to be picked for this new concept because we think technology should be complementary and enhance readers’ interest in collecting paper books,” Doeren says. “Try to share an e-book with family and friends sometime. It doesn’t work, and the novelty is wearing off, but the convenience of both is a nice bonus.”

Many of Rainy Day Books first-time customers discover the store through its countless author events. Jennings says providing the “once-in-a-lifetime experiences” benefits the readers, authors, publishers and booksellers. She hosted Suze Orman’s first event 19 years ago in the shop. And this June, she interviewed Hillary Clinton before 2,200 at the Midland Theater. (Watch the video at rainydaybooks.com.) Comedian Jim Gaffigan and bestselling author Anna Quindlen will be here in November, and others reach out to her make KC the first stop on their author tours.

Jennings, who just returned from a literary tour of England with 15 customers, says she’s is working on a special lineup for the shop’s 40th year and planning more overseas tours designed especially for book lovers.