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May 04, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Cover story: Kepler's: more than a bookstore Cover story: Kepler's: more than a bookstore (May 04, 2005)

From funky to fashionable, Kepler's Books has been a Menlo Park favorite for 50 years. It's throwing a big birthday bash May 14.

By Marion Softky

Almanac Staff Writer

Clark Kepler remembers running barefoot among the crowded shelves of his father's bookstore when he was a kid. "My feet were always black," he laughs, recalling when the anti-war store expanded into the auto-body shop next door; the cement floors were still soaked in oil.

What a contrast to today's upscale Kepler's, where just last week 400 people paid $26.95 to squeeze into the store and hear Jane Fonda talk about her life and her book, while 200 more listened in the plaza outside.

Yet in different ways, Kepler's has been a source of legend and a favorite hangout in Menlo Park since 1955. In May of that year, Roy Kepler opened a bookstore to sell paperback books and to crusade for a world without war and violence -- both revolutionary at the time.

The books sold from day one, and a generation of rebellious kids stretched their minds over coffee, baklava, books and ideas in the funky back room.

While the style and appearance of Kepler's has changed, it is still a community sparkplug. Sharing space fronting El Camino Real with Cafe Borrone and the British Bankers Club, it is a place where all ages hang out, browse a great collection of books, and talk.

Kepler's will celebrate its first 50 years with a community bash Saturday, May 14, from 1 to 4 p.m. in the store and plaza at 1010 El Camino Real in Menlo Park. All books will be 20 percent off, and there will be fun for the family, a raffle and a cake.

Partly because it has remained a community hangout, Kepler's has thrived as other independent bookstores have gone under. In 1994, Clark Kepler was named Bookseller of the Year by "Publisher's Weekly."

"Now it's very different," says Mr. Kepler, sitting outside Cafe Borrone near the fizzing fountain. "This was called the Peninsula back then; now it's Silicon Valley. People's interests are different."

But the legends of the old Kepler's live on. Some of the young people who used to hang out in the heady atmosphere created by Roy Kepler are now legends themselves. Folk singer Joan Baez, members of the Grateful Dead, and many local leaders remember sharing ideas, political action, music, and danger in the cramped store.

Back then, Mr. Kepler reflects: "People smoked in the store. It was funky, informal, inviting, and non-pretentious."

"It was a cultural Mecca," recalls Jay Thorwaldson, editor of the Palo Alto Weekly, who used to hang out at Kepler's during high school and college, then covered the violence against the store for the Palo Alto Times.
Paperbacks and protests

Back in the 1950s, when Roy Kepler, an austere and passionate apostle for nonviolence, was looking for a business to support his young family, paperback books were considered trash; traditional booksellers and publishers wouldn't touch them -- "like comic books today," says Clark Kepler.

So three Bay Area bookstores -- Kepler's in Menlo Park, City Lights in San Francisco, and Cody's in Berkeley -- led the revolution that transformed bookselling, and brought 35-cent classics to legions of new readers.

Also in 1956, Roy Kepler joined the forefront of the anti-nuclear, anti-war movement. Signs appeared on the window: "Peninsula's largest anti-missile bookstore." And for two years at least, Roy and Patricia Kepler got written up in local newspapers for withholding part of their income taxes to protest military spending.

From then into the 1970s Kepler's played dual roles on the Midpeninsula. It was the popular source of books on all subjects and of all political slants for the community. Ira Sandperl, one of Roy Kepler's closest friends and colleagues, once noted the only book ever banned from Kepler's shelves was "The Anarchist's Cookbook," which told how to build bombs.

Under the leadership of Roy Kepler, Ira Sandperl, and others, Kepler's also grew into a Peninsula center for political action and nonviolent protest against nuclear weapons, and later against the Vietnam War. Mr. Kepler also joined other pacifist organizations such as the Mid-Peninsula Free University, and the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence, with Ira Sandperl and Joan Baez. For a while he was Ms. Baez' business manager.

Roy Kepler went to jail in 1960 for protesting nuclear weapons at the Lawrence Livermore Radiation Laboratory. In 1967 he was arrested again, along with Ira Sandperl and Joan Baez, for trying to shut down the Oakland Induction Center as part of "Stop the Draft Week."

Mr. Kepler's high-visibility protests made him and his store the target of people who hated his politics and had no reservations about violence. In 1968 and 1969, there were a series of arson attempts, attacks, and a bomb at Kepler's stores in Menlo Park and Los Altos. Mr. Kepler even received a death threat. He was quoted as saying, "I suppose someone is mad at me for not being violent."

Mr. Thorwaldson recalls that a sting exposed the members of a Nazi terror network. He also recalls that Roy Kepler went to talk -- unsuccessfully -- with the people who had been attacking his store. "That was very courageous and conscientious," he says.

Clark Kepler, who was about 10 at the time, recalls sleeping in their Los Altos living room, away from the windows. "I felt physically safe," he says. "It was scary and exciting at the same time."

Over the years, Clark Kepler has talked to lots of customers for whom hanging out at Kepler's was a life-changing experience. The common theme went like this, he wrote in the quarterly newsletter: "My father/mother/principal/rabbi, etc. told me not to go to Kepler's ... so I went."

Years later, he reflects, "It was important for me to know how important Kepler's was to so many people."
Transition: Roy to Clark

The 1970s and 80s were transition years, as Roy backed away, and Clark grew up and into his new role running Kepler's.

In the early 1970s, Roy Kepler began distancing himself from the daily management of the store. He moved to Grass Valley with his family. "Mom wanted to live in the country," notes Clark.

Ralph Kohn, an old friend who had shared a conscientious objector camp with Roy Kepler during World War II, took over managing the store in 1972.

"Roy left me with a sort of a time bomb," Mr. Kohn says in an interview in his West Menlo Park home. He stayed as manager until Clark took over in 1983, and continued to work in the store until 1997.

While the store continued to thrive, there were several moves, and some labor problems. The Los Altos store closed in 1980, when Kepler's moved into new Menlo Park quarters in the Victoria Lane shopping center -- with carpets, but no open room for coffee and baklava. "We were trying to make a sow's ear out of a silk purse," Mr. Kohn commented at the time.

Clark, who was studying environmental ethics at Sierra College and dreamed of saving the world, was not at all sure he wanted to take over his father's business. He was brought into the store in 1979 to help out and learn the ropes.

About that time, Roy Kepler was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Clark's three sisters did not want to run the store, and it was put on the market. At some point during the discussions, Clark says, he looked at what his father was going through, and realized he could save a small part of the world by taking over.

"A light went on in my head," he says. "The words came out. It just sort of happened."

The big thing during Clark's early years was the move to Menlo Center, where Russ Collier was redeveloping the whole block east of El Camino Real between Santa Cruz and Ravenswood avenues.

"We were looking for more space," Clark recalls. "We jumped at the opportunity to move Kepler's back to El Camino in a beautiful new building."

And when Mr. Collier asked what other tenants would make a good fit, Clark asked for a cafe. So Cafe Borrone and Kepler's have regained some of the same chemistry that gave vitality to the original bookstore.

On September 1, 1989, Kepler's moved into its spacious new quarters -- and business took off.

"When we made the move, it was a real chancy thing," says Mr. Kohn. "But I think sales sextupled in the first year.

"Clark has done a remarkable job."
Silicon Valley challenge

Walking around the store, Clark Kepler can't help straightening a stack of books on one of the tables that draw customers to browse in the airy front of the store.

Piles of hard- and soft-cover books -- chosen by the young and well-read staff -- invite people to "Bargain Books," "Biography," "Humor," "Spirituality and the Natural World," "Cooking," "Current Events," "Young Adults," etc., etc., etc.

"Forty percent of our business comes off the table," Mr. Kepler says.

Behind the tables are shelves with more specialized books; the back wall is lined with fiction, arranged by authors, from A to Z.

The new Kepler's doesn't just look different from the old Kepler's. The mechanics of selling books has changed over the last 50 years. Mr. Kepler can remember when every book had a card in it; now he's up to date with computers, and moving toward just-in-time inventory control.

Kepler's.com provides information and advice, and sells a lot of books.

Reading trends have also changed, as have the ways that books are published and promoted.

"Oprah has the biggest impact on people's reading," Mr. Kepler says.

Yet business remains tough, especially since the dot-com bust. "We're seriously challenged in this economy -- the loss of jobs and the loss of foot traffic," he says. "And expenses continue to go up."

In addition, independent bookstores such as Kepler's are being pushed by the big chains, and both are being pushed by the big-box retailers and Amazon.com.

"The majority of books are not sold by traditional bookstores," Mr. Kepler says. He notes that many publishers are now owned by media conglomerates, where "books are just a division."

Bookstores are also competing, in terms of both time and dollars, with other market forces -- "especially for young people who grew up with TV and computers and PlayStation at their fingertips," he says. "They ask, 'Do I buy a video game or a book?'"

Nevertheless, Kepler's appears to be weathering the competition. Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, has high praise for Clark Kepler and his store.

"Kepler's is one of the premier independent bookstores in the country, and certainly in Northern California," he says. "Clark has not rested on his laurels; he has taken the store to the next level."

Mr. Kepler remains optimistic. "Books are easily accessible. They don't need electricity or special skills. They still have a substantial and important role in entertainment and education," he says. "My passion is to bring books and people together."

Part of Kepler's success stems from its roots in the community and its outreach to the community.

The store is less overtly political than it used to be. While Clark admires his father -- "I share many of his views," he says -- he is not the unrelenting activist his father was. "My goal is to have the books and authors do the talking."

And Kepler's is now a beehive of events when hundreds -- even thousands -- of people gather to hear authors or celebrate books. In 2001, 1,600 people gathered for a book signing by former president Jimmy Carter. In 2003, more than 2,000 came to a party to celebrate the release of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

Kepler's sponsors several public events each week. These range from open mike for poets the first Sunday night of each month, to book groups and book signings by popular authors. In one month in 2003, speakers included Madeleine Albright, Al Franken, Molly Ivins, and Barbara Bush.

Kepler's also partners with community nonprofit organizations to raise funds for good causes. When members of certain organizations -- the League of Women Voters or Acterra, for example -- buy a book, Kepler's will make a donation to the organization. "It's a way of giving back to the community," says Clark.

"The fun part is really the books and the people," Clark says. "We are blessed to be in a community that is affluent and reads to children."


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