Kepler's finds key to future in its past
Kepler's Books and Magazines has a new look — and that look may awaken memories of its radical roots. The store, which struggled to survive during recent years, may have found new life by turning to its past.
"We're bringing Roy (Kepler) back, bringing back a sense of radical integrity," said manager Amanda Hall as she kept an eye on the work in progress, conversation punctuated by construction noise. "We want people to walk in and feel like they've come home."
The Almanac dropped by for a tour on Sept. 14 to see what's changed since Kepler's temporarily closed two months earlier for renovation.
Staff working to redesign the store discovered a treasure trove of emblematic textures, fonts and colors stored since the early days, said Christin Evans, who is now in charge of store operations. "We wanted to bring back the feel of those days." Reaching under a portable bookshelf, she tugged out a piece of old vinyl used for flooring at one point in the store's past — black with streaks of white — then described how painters will mimic the look for the new floor.
Ms. Evans pointed out multicolored bricks bearing words such as "cooking" in old-school fonts scattered around the shelves. Like many other features of the store — chairs, magazine racks, tables — the bricks are portable. The flexibility of furniture allows staff to change the store layout on the fly, making it easier to host intimate book club events or marquee events, Ms. Evans explained, or create new subject sections, if, say, books about zombies suddenly get big.
The new has a place alongside the old. Audiobooks and e-books offered in different formats will have dedicated sections, although they may not be fully ready when the store reopens by the end of September.
The impact of the Future Search event held in July was clear. "It gave us permission to put more of Roy Kepler into the store," Ms. Evans said. Over time, the radicalism of early Kepler's gave way to the "docile decades." according to those attending Future Search, and now the trend may be reversed.
The changes are more than skin deep. The new Kepler's, while staying at 1010 El Camino Real, is smaller: 6,440 square feet now, down from 10,000 square feet. And somehow the smaller store is going to accommodate more books. "We're trying to figure out if we have space for them all," said Praveen Madan, who with wife Christin Evans heads the transition team for the new Kepler's. The idea is more books in better displays to encourage browsing as a "physical experience."
He described the budget as "shoestring." A community fundraising campaign brought in approximately $760,000, with about half of that spent on preparing the store to get back into the bookselling business. While he expects the number of employees to remain about the same, their duties will have changed. Staff will be cross-trained to work in any area of the store, ensuring that they all get time to talk to customers, rather than being cloistered by job.
"It's a lean model that we fine-tuned at Booksmith," Mr. Madan said, referring to the independent bookstore he and his wife own in San Francisco.
As wife Christin focuses on store operations, Mr. Madan will take over the nonprofit events portion of the business, which for the time being will remain on site. "We're not ready to take on a large lease obligation yet," he said. Running a nonprofit within the bookstore has "a lot of do's and don'ts" per IRS regulations, but Kepler's is looking to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation for guidance.
Speaking of events: Most will now be free. Charging dilutes the utility of exposing the public to new authors and results in smaller audience, according to Mr. Madan. "We felt it was doing a disservice." But for blockbuster events such as the upcoming Sept. 25 conversation between Salman Rushdie and Tobias Wolff — "We can charge a little bit for that."
Menlo Park can't wait for the store to reopen, judging by the amount of work contributed by volunteers as Kepler's prepares for the changes — some spent hours helping to take inventory; others, like audiobook expert Lee Moncton, are contributing knowledge.
Visitors keep dropping by to take a look at the renovation in progress. Even Clark Kepler has been spotted.
"He said, 'Get better chairs!" Mr. Madan recalled, and grinned.