End of chapter for Kepler's bookstore

Clark Kepler retires, entrepreneur to take helm of Menlo Park store

Click on photos to enlarge and see captions.

By Sandy Brundage

Almanac Staff Writer

Clark Kepler, current leader of the 56-year-old Kepler's bookstore in Menlo Park, doesn't look like someone ready to retire to a life of leisure.

"Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," Mr. Kepler said when asked what he's reading these days, having just seen the movie. The only part of his upcoming retirement that sounds leisurely is the leisure reading he's looking forward to, a change of pace from nonfiction books on running a business.

Those plotting the future of Kepler's Books sans Kepler are not ready to talk publicly about details because they're still hammering them out. But they are working to redefine how the store fulfills its role in the community, perhaps as a nonprofit, thanks to the involvement of an entrepreneur whose recent pursuits include opening an independent bookstore in San Francisco and creating an author lecture series.

So what comes next for Mr. Kepler? "That's a really big question for me at this point," he said, gazing thoughtfully behind his glasses even as he kept one ear perked for questions from staff in the background. Now 53, he's worked at the store since 1979, and sounds invigorated by the thought of finding new ways to express his passion for locally owned businesses through channels such as Hometown Peninsula, which he co-founded.

The approximately 30 people working at Kepler's are also wondering what the future holds. According to their boss, they're "very much involved in the change process to redefine Kepler's and their jobs, so the final outcome of the new model will be determined by all of the stakeholders, including the employees."

Turning the page

Back in 1955, Kepler's was part of a trio of Bay Area bookstores that delivered paperback books for the first time to the masses -- the Paperback Revolution.

"I hear stories of what Kepler's meant to people. They say it was the place they were forbidden to go by authority figures, it was the place where the hippies and Communists hung out. And they say 'so I went in and checked it out,'" Mr. Kepler said, grinning.

The other members of the trio, City Lights in San Francisco and Cody's Books in Berkeley, also struggled through the same economic hardships as their Menlo Park counterpart, with Cody's Books finally shutting its doors in 2008.

If Kepler's doesn't change, it faces the same fate.

Six years ago, that fate would have been sealed had it not been for the community's response. Clark Kepler abruptly shut the doors on Aug. 31, 2005. The store reopened two months later after raising $1 million from investors who became members of the Patron's Circle and formed a board of directors.

"We realized six years ago that having good books sitting on shelves waiting for customers to come in wasn't viable," Mr. Kepler said.

That $1 million investment turned into 2 million books sold; 3,000 author events; about $3 million in sales taxes; and $200,000 in donations to schools and nonprofits, by his calculations.

That still wasn't enough to secure the store's future. In October, Kepler's expanded its event space, charging for admission to lectures and movies, and letting other community groups use the space. Those changes allowed the store to break even, but weren't enough either.

An evite circulated early in December by former Menlo Park mayor Gail Slocum invited an undisclosed list of recipients to attend a meeting on Sunday, Dec. 18, to discuss Kepler's potential future as a nonprofit event space/for-profit bookstore hybrid. The effort raised about $150,000 prior to the meeting, with a goal of $300,000.

The mission, according to Mr. Kepler, is to keep alive the identity of Kepler's as a community hub for the passionate exchange of ideas -- in whatever form that may take. But how can that be accomplished, and more importantly, who can do it?

"After 32 years, I realize I'm not the force to make the necessary changes," Mr. Kepler admitted.

He turned to someone who had taken an interest in Cody's Books, and has decided to take an interest in Kepler's now: entrepreneur Praveen Madan and his wife Christin Evans, who created The Booksmith, an independent bookstore in San Francisco, and Berkeley Arts & Letters, an artist and author lecture series.

It's not exactly a newfound interest. Mr. Madan, who lived in Menlo Park for several years beginning in 2002, haunted the shelves at Kepler's during his free hours. "Kepler's was ground zero of my introduction to independent bookstores," Mr. Madan said. "So when Clark called and said 'do you want to talk,' I said 'are you kidding me? I'm there.'"

Five years ago he and his wife decided to walk away from their high-tech careers to become independent booksellers. "It's not something I grew up thinking I would do," he noted. But having achieved the trappings of success as an engineer and management consultant -- the titles, the promotions, the ability to support a family -- he found himself wondering if that was all there was. Conversations about what excited the couple kept returning to this crazy idea of cracking open the book business.

"We knew we loved books and being around people who read," Mr. Madan said. "We wanted to do something that would keep us growing, keep us learning, and make a contribution. It was magnetic."

Kepler's 3.0

Mr. Madan sees the conundrum of how to keep an independent bookstore viable as an interesting philosophical puzzle. "The industry reached a point where it needed to change, change more, change faster, and reinvent (itself)."

He thought the key might be repositioning the bookstore to do what Amazon and other retailers can't do, instead of trying to win an impossible battle against online sellers.

"I am absolutely certain that there's still a place for independent bookstores," he said, ticking off the reasons why: We create our reality by telling stories to one another, and stories aren't going away. "If anything, more and more people are telling stories" as self-publishing takes off. "So there's also a need for people who act as curators to help find great stories and share them."

The independent store doesn't have a corner on a market that includes the likes of Oprah's Book Club, of course, but it does fill an intimate niche in the community.

What will Kepler's look like five years from now? "That's exactly what we're working on figuring out," Mr. Madan replied. "That's not just for me to answer the question. It's for the entire community, the Peninsula to answer."


Text of email from Clark Kepler announcing his retirement:

"After 32 years of bookselling I have decided that it is time for me to make a change. I am retiring from Kepler's and want to see Kepler's continue on without me. We are working on a transition of management that will keep Kepler's going and enhance its position as the intellectual and cultural hub for the peninsula.

"I will continue to work with Kepler's through a smooth transition while looking forward to taking some personal time with Kelly. My desire to support the peninsula community will keep me involved in Hometown Peninsula and local activities of course.

"I've really valued the relationship we've had over the years."



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Like this comment
Posted by ECR
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 10, 2012 at 11:47 am

[Post removed because it refers to early posts that have been removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Srini
a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2012 at 12:32 pm

[Portion removed because it refers to other post that was removed.]

... That's why we are so polarized. All Peter and I and others would ask of an open minded retailer would be to offer all points of view on all subjects, not just politics. Maybe Mr. Kepler would have enjoyed just that much more success to have allowed him to do more than break even. Now, I'm sure you, or somebody who thinks like you do, will chime in here about the credibiliity and viability of anybody who dares to profess something different from your narrow mind, but that will only serve to prove my point. So please go at it. But don't lose sight of the fact that the more successful book sellers have a broader client base. Whether it is to listen to various points of view, or just use opposing ideas as fodder for their own drivel, at least they are made available. Also, giving Jane Fonda a forum for anything, without doing the same for one of your favorite targets like, say, Anne Coulter, doesn't help, either.

Like this comment
Posted by anon
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Jan 10, 2012 at 12:32 pm

I stopped shopping at Keplers years ago when the staff became so sure of their intellectual superiority and looked down their noses at my purchases. And special ordering was an ordeal. Amazon was fast, cheaper and non critical. Easy choice. Revamp the attitude of the store, welcome all customers and stop being so snotty about other people's reading choices. No more charging $10 to attend a book reading. And give the readers flopped all over the floor a specific place to read instead of allowing them to be tripping hazards all over the store. Then maybe more of us will return and enjoy looking through the books.

Like this comment
Posted by ECR
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 10, 2012 at 12:53 pm

"You epitomize the left wing attitude that no other viewpoint is worthy of publication and distribution"

Really? Keplers carried the conservative authors, just above "anon" talked of making those purchases.

I didn't say anything about no other viewpoint being worthy, I merely reflected that Peter's opinion of "far left viewpoints" are in fact the norm for the area. We are a community of smart, thoughtful, well educated neighbors with great values.

That's why we're Left.

And it drives the narrow minded folks crazy!!

Like this comment
Posted by GOPslayer
a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2012 at 3:09 pm

We got ourselves a pack of republi-trolls here. I tell ya, the communtiy's glad your anti-social, scrooge like personalities are not causing other's reading experience to be disrupted.

Like this comment
Posted by Srini
a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2012 at 7:00 pm

Srini is a registered user.

Thanks GOPslayer. Your mindless, unfounded reponse further endorses my perspective of your ilk: differences of opinion have no place on what you percieve to be your turf. Pathetic. Fortunately, the liberals who I call friends, of which there are many, don't resort to name calling. They simply offer intelligent debate, and we agree to disagree. You are obviously not capable of that.

Like this comment
Posted by
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Jan 11, 2012 at 8:57 am

Kepler's is an institution as important to the communities that its serves as the Almanac. I've spent hours in its stacks looking for the right novel or reference or travel book. Sure, I occasionally order from Amazon especially if sending a gift, but I wouldn't want Big Brother Amazon to be my only choice of reading material. The knowledgeable staff at Kepler's has helped me find out of print books, and even recommended Amazon when they couldn't deliver. They are knowledgeable in every department and wonderful in the children's section. The authors brought to town for lectures and the local authors featured at the store are another way in which this book store has enriched our reading lives. I am sad to see Clark Kepler retire, but encouraged to hear that experienced people will help the store thrive. The staff is great, please keep as many as possible.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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