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September 07, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Can this bookstore be saved? Can this bookstore be saved? (September 07, 2005)

** Clark Kepler says investors have stepped forward who could resurrect Kepler's books; landlord appears willing to negotiate.

By Andrea Gemmet

Almanac Staff Writer

There's a chance -- a chance -- that Kepler's Books & Magazines in downtown Menlo Park may not be as dead as everyone feared.

The sudden demise of the popular independent bookstore following Clark Kepler's short, emotional announcement at a 9 a.m. all-staff meeting held Wednesday, August 31, reverberated up and down the Peninsula, as the store's many devotees reacted with shock, sorrow and disbelief. Almost as soon as word got around that the bookstore was shuttered and locked, there was talk of saving Kepler's.

And, as Clark Kepler told the Almanac on Friday afternoon, that talk may result in a new life for the 50-year-old bookstore founded by his father.

"I'm entertaining qualified investors who are looking at saving Kepler's," he said.

Mr. Kepler is talking with three such investors who have stepped forward, he said. He declined to name them, or to give details about the magnitude of the bookstore's financial troubles.

Also, the landlord for Menlo Center, where Kepler's is located, publicly indicated a willingness to negotiate a better rent deal late last week.

"Daily and hourly, things are happening. Yesterday morning I first started getting these possibilities coming forward," Mr. Kepler said on Friday. "I think something is going to happen in the next few days or in the next week that will tell me what direction we're going in.

"Miracles started happening," he said.

Besides competition from chain bookstores and Internet megastores like Amazon.com, high rents have also been blamed.

"In life, it's always all of those things," Mr. Kepler said. "At various times I was able to self-fund. I'm unable to do so any longer."

David Johnson, Menlo Park's business development director, said that last year he unsuccessfully attempted to help Mr. Kepler negotiate with Menlo Center owners, the Tan Group, for relief "from an inordinately high 'pre-bubble' rent structure." Kepler's long-term lease was signed in 1999 at the height of the dot-com boom, Mr. Kepler said.

He met with the Tan Group on Friday about reducing the store's rent, he said.

The Tan Group, based in Palo Alto, issued a press release late last week saying, "We consider Kepler's a unique asset to, and irreplaceable part of Menlo Center. As such, we very much want to retain them and consequently met with Clark today to determine how we might work together to make this happen. We were encouraged by today's meeting and will continue our efforts to help the Kepler's legacy endure."
Black Wednesday

Last Wednesday was a black day for local book lovers, a steady stream of whom had gone to Kepler's only to find locked doors and a posted sign announcing that the economic downturn that began in 2001 had proved to be business' undoing.

Many people reacted as though a perfectly healthy relative had suddenly, shockingly, dropped dead, and they responded with tears, disbelief, dismay -- and occasionally, a spark of hope that, with community support, Kepler's could pull a Lazarus and rise from the dead.

In a letter to the Almanac, Menlo Park resident Josh Abend had suggestions that ranged from charging a one-dollar browsing fee to holding PBS-like pledge drives. Michael Closson of Palo Alto is circulating his e-mail address and soliciting suggestions, and a Save Kepler's blog at savekeplers.com went up almost immediately.

Mr. Johnson, the business development director, said in a press release, "Steps are being taken by city staff and others to investigate any possibility of resurrecting the business."

Even a few Kepler's employees tried to think of wealthy locals who could serve as angel investors, said Andy Battles, an assistant manager at Kepler's for the past five years.

The community outpouring has been heartwarming, said Mr. Kepler, who stopped by the store the day after it closed and saw the messages of support and sorrow posted outside.

"It's humbling to hear that kind of support -- and it also gives me a sense of hope and enthusiasm," he said.

He added, however, that "realistically, as much as I appreciate everybody's support, thousands of people contributing a little bit is wonderful, but it's not going to do it."

He called his staff a wonderful group of people who love books and loved Kepler's.

"It was not perfect by any means, but we put our heart and soul into it," he said of himself and the staff. "It's a really sad thing for all of us to be facing this situation. We had a really difficult, emotional, trying Wednesday morning when I described what we needed to do."

He said it was especially difficult for him to hide the news of the store's closing from many of his staff members.

"We needed to do it in a staged manner and we needed everybody on board until the last minute," Mr. Kepler said. "I can understand why they feel so disappointed and devastated."
A few signs

To all outward appearances, Kepler's was a thriving business with a national reputation, occupying a highly visible 10,000-square-foot store at Menlo Center on El Camino Real. Kepler's drew a steady stream of renowned writers and celebrities-turned-authors at readings and book-signing events, and had celebrated its 50th anniversary in May.

But from the inside, there were signs that the business was foundering, Mr. Battles said. Employee hours were cut last fall, and the company was occasionally overdue paying bills to its book distributor, he said. And, in the days preceding the closure, the ordering department stopped ordering new inventory, an unannounced book sale was held, and a store-sponsored talk by Alan Alda set for September 25 in the City Council Chambers was abruptly canceled.
Tremendous loss

The magnitude of the loss of Kepler's would be considerable. The bookstore was a regional draw for the downtown shopping district, one of Menlo Park's top 25 producers of sales-tax revenue, a cultural mecca for the Midpeninsula and a flagship for independent bookstores nationwide -- to say nothing of the cherished place it occupied in the hearts of local residents, many of whom said the store's closing felt like a death in the family.

"My recreational activity is reading. This is my epicenter," said a mournful Robert Lauriden, outside of the closed bookstore. "This is the most catastrophic thing that has happened to Menlo Park."

Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, said the loss of Kepler's leaves a huge hole in the South Bay literary scene. "In our world, it's national news."

Menlo Park Mayor Mickie Winkler described Kepler's as part of the cultural landscape that will be greatly missed.

"This is a tremendous loss for our community on many levels," she said.

The failure of Kepler's is sure to be an unnerving event in the bookselling world, said Avin Mark Domnitz, CEO of the American Booksellers Association in New York. People looked to Kepler's as a symbol of excellence in bookselling, he said.

"I'm not sure that the local economy wasn't at play. Kepler's competed extremely well against the local competition," Mr. Domnitz said. "I think the real estate market and the local dot-com bubble burst had more of an impact."

He added, "Clark Kepler is an excellent, excellent businessman. I'm sure he assessed his options and this was the only way to do it."
Bankruptcy

Mr. Kepler said he was still preparing to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection last week, but he had not yet done so.

"I'm running 100 miles an hour in opposite directions," he said of his discussions with potential investors and the bankruptcy proceedings. "It's very draining. At the end of the day, my head is spinning and I'm asking myself, 'What am I doing?' But I get up in the morning and keep doing it."

The store's abrupt closure stood in marked contrast to that of Wessex, the used bookstore across the street. Owner Tom Haydon spent months trying to find a buyer, and ultimately held a well-publicized going-out-of-business sale earlier this year. Kepler's, on the other hand, held a festive 50th anniversary party in May, and banners celebrating the many prestigious authors who have come to the store still flutter outside its doors.

Mr. Battles said the timing had to do with the store's cash flow. A successful June -- thanks to Father's Day, graduations and the release of the latest Harry Potter book -- raised just enough to keep Kepler's going through the summer, he said.

"They did it when they realized they had enough to pay employees their vacation pay, and pay the people they owed money to," he said.

The final paychecks, which were distributed after Mr. Kepler's "blessedly brief" announcement, included a nice letter explaining the situation and information about unemployment insurance, Mr. Battles said.

Employees were told to cash the checks right away, before the store's assets were frozen, said Chelsea McNeel, who worked as a floor employee for the past two years. She said Mr. Kepler was working very hard to make sure employees got everything they deserved.

"This is very hard for him. This store is his father's legacy," she said.

Roy Kepler, a peace activist and a World War II conscientious objector, founded the eponymous bookstore as a place to foster the exchange of ideas. He sold affordable paperbacks -- a revolutionary move at the time -- and created a favorite hangout for bookworms, intellectuals and rebellious kids. Jerry Garcia and several members of the Grateful Dead hung out and jammed at Kepler's during the 1960s.

Over the years, Kepler's evolved from a small storefront next to the Guild movie theater on El Camino to Menlo Center's anchor store and a centerpiece of downtown Menlo Park. Kepler's formed a symbiotic relationship with neighboring businesses Cafe Borrone and the British Bankers Club, making Menlo Center an oasis of cultured nightlife in sleepy downtown Menlo Park.

Roy Borrone, who relocated his cafe to Menlo Center to be next to Kepler's, said the closure will definitely affect his business.

"It's the rents that make it so darn hard," he said, adding that he was shocked by the news.

"It's like a relative in the family dying," Mr. Borrone said.

That feeling of personal bereavement has translated to the bookstore's employees, most of whom have displayed a noticeable lack of rancor about the abrupt loss of their jobs, and expressed a great deal of sympathy for Mr. Kepler.

"It's like the heartbeat of Menlo Park," said Cynthia St. John, a Kepler's employee for the past four years. "(Mr. Kepler) had a difficult time saying what he had to say -- he's a little guy with a big heart."

Mr. Battles, who said he will look for a job at another bookstore, said employees knew that Kepler's was a special place.

"Cody's books, City Lights, A Book Passage -- the ones that are legendary -- you knew Kepler's was in the class like that when you worked there," he said. "I'm going to be comparing whatever I do to Kepler's for a long time."
Almanac reporters David Boyce and Rory Brown, News Editor Renee Batti, and Palo Alto Weekly staff writer Bill D'Agostino contributed to this report.

The next chapter opens Tuesday

These community events in support of Kepler's bookstore are scheduled for Tuesday, September 6, according to Menlo Park Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson. ** At 5 p.m., a rally will be held at Menlo Center in front of Kepler's bookstore. The rally is being organized by Michael Closson of Palo Alto. ** At 6 p.m., there will be a work session at the Civic Center, most likely in the City Council Chambers, where people who are interested in helping to create a sustainable business plan for Kepler's bookstore will discuss ideas.

Also on Tuesday, Clark Kepler and the Tan Group are scheduled to meet and discuss options for keeping the store in business.


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