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September 14, 2005

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Publication Date: Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Saving Kepler's: Investors await response from landlord Saving Kepler's: Investors await response from landlord (September 14, 2005)

By Rory Brown

Almanac Staff Writer

Potential investors, employees and devoted supporters are ready to save Kepler's Books & Magazines -- if they get the chance.

Despite overwhelming support from the community, efforts to save Clark Kepler's beloved bookstore hinge on negotiations with the company that leases the store's El Camino Real site to Mr. Kepler, the Palo Alto-based Tan Group.

The current lease was negotiated in 1999, at the height of high-flying economic good times, and several sources estimate the rent to be about $30,000 a month.

Mr. Kepler said a proposal was sent to the Tan Group on Friday afternoon, but he doesn't know when he will get a response. As of Monday evening, he was still awaiting an answer, and Kepler's doors remained locked.

The bookstore, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last spring, abruptly closed its doors on August 31, leaving the community stunned.
Time of the essence

Meanwhile, a group of investors are ready to help reopen Kepler's as quickly as possible if Mr. Kepler and the Tan Group reach a new lease agreement.

"Time is of the essence. At this stage, we need to move beyond discussions," said Daniel Mendez, founder and leader of a 15-person investor group. Co-founder and vice president of Visto Corp., a Redwood City technology company, Mr. Mendez met with Mr. Kepler on September 1.

Mr. Mendez and his group of investors aren't the only people ready to back Kepler's financially. The week the store closed, two Stanford medical professors pledged either a $50,000 investment in Kepler's, or a $100,000 donation to a tax-deductible foundation that would support the store, according to Menlo Park Councilwoman Kelly Fergusson.

In an e-mail to Ms. Fergusson the potential investors said they have enjoyed the bookstore's selection and helpful staff for more than 45 years.
Hundreds at rally

While the potential investors wait for good news, support from the community has been ongoing and widespread.

On September 6, passing drivers honked their horns and more than 500 people gathered at Menlo Center with signs, banners and cheers, as the area outside Kepler's was filled with the fervor of a political convention.

Organized by Ms. Fergusson and Michael Closson of Palo Alto, the rally featured several speakers, including Mr. Kepler, who described the outpouring of support as "astonishing, amazing and humbling."

Following the rally, more than 100 people crowded into the City Council chambers for a special meeting to discuss a future business plan for Kepler's. During the meeting, 23 people -- including concerned residents, employees working for Kepler's when it closed, and even a few local students -- addressed the council, sharing suggestions of how to go about saving the bookstore and keeping it in business.

Kenneth Kay, Mr. Kepler's attorney, assured the audience that Mr. Kepler is willing to do whatever is necessary to reopen the store. "[He] is willing to work outside his comfort zones," Mr. Kay said. "He told me, 'I don't have any particular result in mind, except that I'd like to see Kepler's Books continue.'"

"We need to get the doors quickly opened, and the store refinanced and established," said Jillian Manus-Salzman, a literary agent with homes in Menlo Park and Atherton.

Ms. Manus-Salzman suggested talking to local schools, and establishing a program where a small percentage of Kepler's sales go back to local schools, pulling more customers and revenue into the store. Office Depot stores currently have a similar program.

Jan Altman, a Menlo Park resident and executive director of DrivAd Inc., an advertising company, offered to put on a "save Kepler's" advertising campaign, free of charge. The company specializes in installing ads in the rear windows of vehicles.

Other evolving ideas include the creation of membership program, forming an official relationship between Kepler's and Stanford, and expanding the bookstore's reputation through an extended blogging network.

Two students spoke on behalf of friends and classmates.

"Students don't have a lot of money, but we do have time," said Rachel Bolton, an Atherton resident and senior at Castilleja School, who offered to volunteer at Kepler's.

The biggest applause of the meeting came after 11-year-old Patrick Reed, a student at Hillview Middle School, said he would propose a fundraiser for Kepler's at his upcoming student council meeting. During the last fundraiser, the school raised $17,000, he said.

Other speakers viewed Kepler's problems as the result of broader economic problems.

Stu Soffer, a former Menlo Park planning commissioner, reminded the council that this isn't the first city landmark to be in jeopardy. "We lost the Park Theatre, and it was the fabric of downtown," he said.

Kathy McGinn, a Menlo Park resident of more than 15 years, said the city is losing its identity as local businesses disappear. "We need small businesses that make Menlo Park a town," she said.

While the speakers agreed that Kepler's must be saved, some people said there are other factors to consider.

Richard Li, a former Wall Street broker, said the council should not be involved in every step of reopening the store. "If the council takes charge of an investor group, there are liability issues," he said. "Let the community do this, not the council."

Mariana LaPalmer, a Kepler's employee of two years, raised a different issue, noting that before the store's closure, Kepler's employees were already subsidizing it. Employees were paid an hourly wage in the $6 to $8 range, she said.

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