Almanac

Cover Story - July 17, 2013

Kepler's reboot enters second year

by Sandy Brundage

Kepler's, the "Silicon Valley bookstore that keeps reinventing itself," appears to be enjoying a new lease on life after 57 years in business, albeit not without a lot of elbow grease on the part of management and staff.

"This has been hard," said Praveen Madan. "It's a complete reboot of the business. It's complex, there are a lot of moving parts."

The effort appears to be paying off. The store is currently experiencing "Christmas in summer," with families buying stacks of books for summer reading and vacation entertainment.

When it opened in 1955, Roy Kepler's bookstore was one of three in the Bay Area delivering paperbacks for the first time to the masses. Decades later, the store, along with City Lights in San Francisco and Cody's Books in Berkeley, struggled to adapt to a marketplace turned on its ear by the Internet. Kepler's, by then under the stewardship of Roy's son Clark, temporarily closed six years ago; Cody's Books actually did, permanently, in 2008.

When a group of Kepler's devotees that included Mr. Madan and wife Christin Evans assumed stewardship in 2012, they cut the business in two, coupling a for-profit community bookstore with nonprofit events. The couple divides their time between Kepler's and their other ventures — the Booksmith in San Francisco and Berkeley Arts and Letters; Ms. Evans splits her efforts about "50-50" while her husband stays focused on the Menlo Park business.

Slowly the new Kepler's has taken shape. More books crowd the shelves, but fewer knick-knacks. A redesign injected a 1960s vibe into everything from the linoleum to sign fonts to take the store back to its radical roots.

No Kepler works at Kepler's now, but the family hasn't disappeared from the bookstore. Volunteer Dawn Kepler, Clark's sister, manages the store's Facebook page. The new team has been known to call Clark Kepler for advice, and he's been known to drop by.

He said it feels very different to be an observer now. "I love bookselling, the bookstore and the community it serves, and the memories of more than 30 years at Kepler's," Clark said. "I did experience mixed feelings initially during the transition, like seeing a child leave the home — happy, relieved and sad."

But he's happy to see the family legacy thrive.

"Times change and the new version of the bookstore reflects that."

The hybrid business model gets a thumbs up for carrying on the bookstore's original mission of bringing people together and fostering intellectual discourse and civic engagement in the community. Clark would like to see even more collaborations along the lines of this year's partnership with the Fox Theatre in Redwood City and National Geographic Live Speaker series, perhaps reaching different venues along the Peninsula.

The store's redesign also got a nod of approval for incorporating his father's image and the spirit of his times.

Is there anything he doesn't like? "Hey, like I said, times change, but what's not to like about a bookstore?"

The future is now

Last year Kepler's held an event to figure out where it was going. "Future Search really created the blueprint of the plan," Mr. Madan said. Participants said Kepler's should refocus on the community while grounding the bookstore in its social history. The store also needed to get comfortable with technology, they suggested, and — the most frequent request — add a cocktail bar.

Well, there's still no bar at Kepler's. But drinks do appear during book-swap events, Ms. Evans said. The price of admission includes beverages and food.

Still on the "to do" list: Building the new team, and creating governing boards for both the profit and nonprofit arms of Kepler's. "It takes time to get the right people in the right place," Ms. Evans noted. They're still recruiting for frontline booksellers, a manager for the kids section, and an events director for the nonprofit arm of the business.

The store also plans to launch a revamped membership program this fall.

The e-quation

What to do about e-books remains a question with either many answers, none of which may be right, or no answer, or one single answer yet to be determined.

"It'll take years (to figure out)," Mr. Madan said.

The store is testing a partnership with the Kobo e-reader and searching for ways to integrate the technology into the community engagement that's at the heart of the reinvented Kepler's.

E-books remain a thorn in the side of even big bookstore chains. Barnes & Noble recently announced it would stop selling the color version of its e-reader — the Nook — after financial analysis indicated the brick-and-mortar bookstores were essentially subsidizing the chain's e-book business.

The new Kepler's looks at social media as "a way of standing on the rooftops screaming 'This is a great book!'" The nonprofit events feed into that, providing a platform for ideas the staff really want to get behind, according to Mr. Madan.

Can you see us now?

Word of the Kepler's revival hasn't reached all ears — some people still think the store has closed, an error occasionally perpetuated by the vacant space in the portion of the building the bookstore no longer leases. Last year the store shrank from 10,000 to 6,440 square feet to wrestle its rent back in line with its finances.

Manager Amanda North said she got a phone call recently from two teenagers trying to find the new Kepler's. "They said, 'We were told to go to Kepler's for our summer reading, but you're not here!'," she said. The teens were in the right place, but standing in front of the now-vacant part of the building. Staying on the phone, Ms. North guided them down the sidewalk a couple dozen feet to the store's entrance.

Still, it's a hopeful sign that Kepler's, whose customers once lamented the lack of inventory, is now the go-to location to find books, and that independent stores in New York and Santa Barbara are following in the footsteps of its business model.

"There's no one silver bullet," Mr. Madan said. "I believe the hybrid model goes a long way towards sustainability."

Woodrow Wilson once said: "Generally young men are regarded as radicals. This is a popular misconception. The most conservative persons I ever met are college undergraduates. The radicals are the men past middle life."

Perhaps that will prove true of middle-aged independent bookstores, too.

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