Kepler's faces the future
New structure, same mission for bookstore as Clark Kepler retires
Clark Kepler, current leader of the 56-year-old Kepler's bookstore in Menlo Park, doesn't look like someone ready to retire to a life of leisure.
"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," Mr. Kepler said when asked what he's reading these days, having just seen the movie. The only part of his upcoming retirement that sounds leisurely is the leisure reading he's looking forward to, a change of pace from nonfiction books on running a business.
Those plotting the future of Kepler's Books sans Kepler are not ready to talk publicly about details because they're still hammering them out. But they are working to redefine how the store fulfills its role in the community, perhaps as a nonprofit, thanks to the involvement of an entrepreneur whose recent pursuits include opening an independent bookstore in San Francisco and creating an author lecture series.
So what comes next for Mr. Kepler? "That's a really big question for me at this point," he said, gazing thoughtfully behind his glasses even as he kept one ear perked for questions from staff in the background. Now 53, he's worked at the store since 1979, and sounds invigorated by the thought of finding new ways to express his passion for locally owned businesses through channels such as Hometown Peninsula, which he co-founded.
The approximately 30 people working at Kepler's are also wondering what the future holds. According to their boss, they're "very much involved in the change process to redefine Kepler's and their jobs, so the final outcome of the new model will be determined by all of the stakeholders, including the employees."
Turning the page
Back in 1955, Kepler's was part of a trio of Bay Area bookstores that delivered paperback books for the first time to the masses — the Paperback Revolution.
"I hear stories of what Kepler's meant to people. They say it was the place they were forbidden to go by authority figures, it was the place where the hippies and Communists hung out. And they say 'so I went in and checked it out,'" Mr. Kepler said, grinning.
The other members of the trio, City Lights in San Francisco and Cody's Books in Berkeley, also struggled through the same economic hardships as their Menlo Park counterpart, with Cody's Books finally shutting its doors in 2008.
If Kepler's doesn't change, it faces the same fate.
Six years ago, that fate would have been sealed had it not been for the community's response. Clark Kepler abruptly shut the doors on Aug. 31, 2005. The store reopened two months later after raising $1 million from investors who became members of the Patron's Circle and formed a board of directors.
"We realized six years ago that having good books sitting on shelves waiting for customers to come in wasn't viable," Mr. Kepler said.
That $1 million investment turned into 2 million books sold; 3,000 author events; about $3 million in sales taxes; and $200,000 in donations to schools and nonprofits, by his calculations.
That still wasn't enough to secure the store's future. In October, Kepler's expanded its event space, charging for admission to lectures and movies, and letting other community groups use the space. Those changes allowed the store to break even, but weren't enough either.
An evite circulated early in December by former Menlo Park mayor Gail Slocum invited an undisclosed list of recipients to attend a meeting on Sunday, Dec. 18, to discuss Kepler's potential future as a nonprofit event space/for-profit bookstore hybrid. The effort raised about $150,000 prior to the meeting, with a goal of $300,000.
The mission, according to Mr. Kepler, is to keep alive the identity of Kepler's as a community hub for the passionate exchange of ideas — in whatever form that may take. But how can that be accomplished, and more importantly, who can do it?
"After 32 years, I realize I'm not the force to make the necessary changes," Mr. Kepler admitted.
He turned to someone who had taken an interest in Cody's Books, and has decided to take an interest in Kepler's now: entrepreneur Praveen Madan and his wife Christin Evans, who created The Booksmith, an independent bookstore in San Francisco, and Berkeley Arts & Letters, an artist and author lecture series.
It's not exactly a newfound interest. Mr. Madan, who lived in Menlo Park for several years beginning in 2002, haunted the shelves at Kepler's during his free hours. "Kepler's was ground zero of my introduction to independent bookstores," Mr. Madan said. "So when Clark called and said 'do you want to talk,' I said 'are you kidding me? I'm there.'"
Five years ago he and his wife decided to walk away from their high-tech careers to become independent booksellers. "It's not something I grew up thinking I would do," he noted. But having achieved the trappings of success as an engineer and management consultant — the titles, the promotions, the ability to support a family — he found himself wondering if that was all there was. Conversations about what excited the couple kept returning to this crazy idea of cracking open the book business.
"We knew we loved books and being around people who read," Mr. Madan said. "We wanted to do something that would keep us growing, keep us learning, and make a contribution. It was magnetic."
Mr. Madan sees the conundrum of how to keep an independent bookstore viable as an interesting philosophical puzzle. "The industry reached a point where it needed to change, change more, change faster, and reinvent (itself)."
He thought the key might be repositioning the bookstore to do what Amazon and other retailers can't do, instead of trying to win an impossible battle against online sellers.
"I am absolutely certain that there's still a place for independent bookstores," he said, ticking off the reasons why: We create our reality by telling stories to one another, and stories aren't going away. "If anything, more and more people are telling stories" as self-publishing takes off. "So there's also a need for people who act as curators to help find great stories and share them."
The independent store doesn't have a corner on a market that includes the likes of Oprah's Book Club, of course, but it does fill an intimate niche in the community.
What will Kepler's look like five years from now? "That's exactly what we're working on figuring out," Mr. Madan replied. "That's not just for me to answer the question. It's for the entire community, the Peninsula to answer."