Readers' Choice 2020

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'Our team is stronger than ever'
Iconic bookstore weathers pandemic without a single layoff

Carolee Hazard, a bookseller at Kepler's Books, prepares orders inside the Menlo Park store on June 2. The independent bookstore, which offers online and in-store service, plans to launch an open-air bookstore, which will be the first of its kind in the area. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

When the pandemic forced Kepler's Books & Magazines to close its doors to the public in March, the independent bookseller did what it's done many times over the past six decades: It adapted.

The Menlo Park store, facing a 40% drop in sales just two months into San Mateo County's shelter-in-place order, turned its focus to online sales and forged new relationships with its distributor and vendors to get books into customers' hands. Sales through Kepler's website quickly ballooned to more than 25 times of what the store sold online before the pandemic.

"The amount of growth has been astounding. It has blown our minds," CEO Praveen Madan said in May.

Since then, the store has been able to reopen to the public, and in-store shopping has reclaimed a majority of sales — about 60%. The bookseller, however, is still experiencing 10 to 12 times the number of online orders than it did previously.

What's more, the bookseller has weathered the pandemic without laying off a single employee.

At a staff meeting in March, while facing dismal prospects and weeks of quarantine, employees voted unanimously to adopt a plan that reduced expenses and accepted voluntary hours reductions to avoid layoffs, Madan explained.

"We set a simple goal at the beginning of the pandemic that we were going to keep our team together despite the shutdown and try to emerge stronger from this experience," he said. "This has proven to be a winning strategy. Our team is stronger than ever. We are collaborating wonderfully and able to innovate on many fronts."

While customers can once again browse the store's aisles to peruse thousands of titles in the revamped store, which has added MERV-13 medical-grade filters to its air-conditioning units to keep staff and guests safe, the bookseller is working on another shopping alternative: an open-air bookstore.

"Kepler's en plein-air," as Madan calls it, would once again transform the store to meet the needs of an ever-changing community of booklovers by bringing books outdoors, where the risk of spreading the virus would dramatically decrease.


Scroll down to find out how last year's winners have responded to the pandemic.

Menlo Velo Bikes

"Business has been through the roof" at Menlo Velo Bikes as the pandemic has fueled a surge in bike sales and ridership, according to owner Rainer Zaechelein, whose shop provides a wide variety of bicycles, rentals and maintenance services. The shop is currently open for curbside drop-off and pickup.
433 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, 650-327-5137;
2019: Bicycle Shop

Kepler's Books & Magazines

Kepler's Books & Magazines has weathered the good, the bad and the unprecedented for the past 65 years. Although the independent bookseller looks a lot different than it did when it was the hangout for the counterculture in its early days in the 1960s, it has remained a beloved cornerstone in the community, offering a broad collection of books, magazines and literary events. In response to the pandemic, Kepler's nonprofit arm, the Kepler's Literary Foundation, created Refresh the Page, a series of online conversations, classes and seminars for adults and youth. The store is now open and also offering plaza pickup service.
1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, 650-324-4321;
2019: Bookstore

Shady Lane

From Firefly jewelry and luminescent art glass to pottery by local artisan Lee Middleman, Shady Lane has been offering one-of-a-kind pieces ever since artist Alice Deutscher opened the boutique more than four decades ago. The boutique is open for limited hours for in-store shopping four days a week and offers online shopping and curbside pickup. The store also offers gift wrapping.
325 Sharon Park Drive, Menlo Park, 650-321-1099;
2019: Boutique
2019: Place to Buy Jewelry

Menlo Flooring & Design

Family-owned and operated Menlo Flooring & Design has been providing expert flooring design and installation for Peninsula residents for more than 20 years. During the pandemic, the store has opened its state-of-the-art showroom by appointment only.
905 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, 650-384-6326;
2019: Floor Coverings

Portola Art Gallery

Portola Art Gallery has been showcasing local artists for 14 years at its current location in the Allied Arts Guild complex. After shutting down for three months during the shelter-in-place order, the gallery is again open for guests to view paintings, photos and pottery in person. It also has artwork displayed online. Although events have been canceled, artists are now visiting the gallery to answer visitor questions in person.
75 Arbor Road, Menlo Park, 650-321-0220;
2019: Frame Store/Art Gallery

Ladera Garden & Gifts

Ladera Garden & Gifts is a one-stop shop for garden, gifts and flower arrangements. Juan and Mercedes Navarro, who have operated the full-service nursery for 39 years, have re-opened their business for in-store shopping Tuesday through Sunday.
3130 Alpine Road, Portola Valley, 650-854-3850;
2019: Gift Shop
2019: Nursery
2019: Florist

Menlo Hardware

Menlo Park Ace Hardware has been the go-to hardware store for home, garden and building supplies since it opened in 2005. In addition to offering housewares and tools, the independently owned shop offers services, including key cutting, custom glass and acrylic sheet cutting, blade sharpening, window screen repair, propane exchange and product assembly and delivery. In-store shopping is available seven days a week.
700 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park, 650-325-2515;
2019: Hardware Store

Flegel's Home Furnishings

Flegel's Home Furnishings has been a downtown Menlo Park fixture for 65 years. The family-owned furniture and interior design store has helped generations of clients create inviting home environments ever since Art and Cleora Flegel opened the furniture store at its original location on Santa Cruz Avenue. The shop, which moved into a new location on El Camino Real at the start of March just before the shelter-in-place went into effect, has reopened its doors for business.
1010 El Camino Real Suite 90, Menlo Park, 650-326-9661;
2019: Home Decor & Furnishings

Fleet Feet

Fleet Feet in Menlo Park is committed to enhancing local running and walking communities and helping customers find products that improve their fitness experience. They assess foot type and gait cycle and have 3D scanners to measure feet, making their footwear recommendations uniquely tailored to each customer. The Fleet Feet store has been reconfigured to allow for social distancing, and for those who prefer to shop online, they're offering virtual shoe fittings via Zoom. They are now closed on Mondays to allow for extra time to clean.
859 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park, 650-325-9432;
2019: Place to Buy Shoes

Cheeky Monkey Toys

Cheeky Monkey Toys is a family-owned shop that specializes in finding "just the right toy" for each customer. Since opening its doors in Menlo Park in 1999, the shop has provided interactive toys designed to stimulate children's minds to generations of local families. When all nonessential businesses were ordered to close in March, Cheeky Monkey Toys quickly pivoted to a direct delivery-only service, dropping off toys within a 10-mile radius of the store. Cheeky Monkey has reopened for in-store shopping and also offers curbside pickup and delivery.
640 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park, 650-328-7975;
2019: Specialty Store