A grand public party on Saturday, Sept. 19, will mark the 60th birthday of Kepler's Books. But the iconic bookstore in downtown Menlo Park perhaps has an even greater reason to celebrate a 10-year milestone this fall: After abruptly closing down in late August 2005, shocking the community, the store was reborn about five weeks later after the public rallied to save it.
After holding the esteemed position for its first five decades as the gathering spot for booklovers, writers, and progressive political activists on the Midpeninsula, Kepler's has evolved since 2005 into a new breed of bookstore, with a nonprofit arm that offers the community culturally rich programs both inside the store and beyond.
The birthday celebration, from 2:30 to 5 p.m., will include live music, games, a photo booth, face painting and, at 4:30, a cake. A story time for kids is set for 2:30, featuring Christie Matheson and her new book, "Touch the Brightest Star."
Acts One and Two
Founded by pacifist and political activist Roy Kepler in a small space on El Camino Real, Kepler's was one of a trio of Bay Area bookstores to champion the paperback book in an era when they were shunned by the serious booklover. The other two shops also became legendary in the book world: City Lights in San Francisco and Cody's in Berkeley.
Roy Kepler eased out of managing his store in the early 1970s, leaving his old friend Ralph Kohn in charge; Roy's son, Clark, took over in 1983.
Big changes in the book world -- beginning with large chain bookstores attracting customers away from the smaller independent stores, and continuing with the Amazon revolution -- created huge pressure on bookstores like Kepler's, and Clark Kepler became part of a coalition of independent booksellers who looked for innovative ways to survive.
But by summer 2005, just three months after throwing a party for the store's 50th birthday, Mr. Kepler shocked the community, and his staff, by padlocking the doors.
The community reacted swiftly. Menlo Park resident Daniel Mendez helped create an investor group, a board of directors was established, and the lease for the store's massive space in the Menlo Center was renegotiated to ease some of the store's financial burden.
Newly restructured with a membership program and other strategies in place, the store reopened in early October. With the community's renewed support it appeared Kepler's would regain its financial footing and live to see 51. It did, but its health was hardly robust.
By 2011, the store was again facing closure. When husband and wife Praveen Madan and Christin Evans became involved with the store in January 2012 to try to restructure it again and restore it to health, Mr. Kepler retired. Mr. Madan now serves as the store's CEO and Ms. Evans is the head buyer.
Act Three, and counting
Since then, the store space has been reduced by half and renovated, and book sales have picked up -- they increased by 8 percent from 2013 to 2014, Mr. Madan reports.
In a significant move, the nonprofit Peninsula Arts & Letters was established to partner with the business. The nonprofit handles all the literary and cultural programs of the enterprise, Mr. Madan says.
Among the programs are the traditional author events, most of which are free. But the nonprofit also hosts ticketed events featuring many esteemed figures in the literary and political world, including David McCullough, Barney Frank, Margaret Atwood, Armistead Maupin and Richard Dawkins. These events, Mr. Madan says, have been popular and are sometimes sold out well in advance.
Mr. Madan says that program organizers are also trying new formats, including on-stage interviews such as the event featuring author Tom Barbash interviewing the acclaimed Kazuo Ishiguro, and the recent comedy night event with Alan Zweibel of Saturday Night Live fame.
Beyond Kepler's walls, the nonprofit is engaged in programs on local school campuses, including one in which authors visit schools "to ignite a passion for reading and writing among kids," Mr. Madan says.
"Last year we expanded this program with a new partnership with the Ravenswood School District, and we were able to produce free literary events at the seven public schools in East Palo Alto and Belle Haven," he wrote in an email. "We are ecstatic with the results, and the feedback from students, teachers and librarians has been overwhelmingly positive."
Mr. Madan says that he and his team are looking to build out the nonprofit arm of the Kepler's enterprise, "and we welcome community members who might have time, ideas, or money to contribute towards our exciting mission of deepening literacy and cultural enrichment for our community and improving Kepler's sustainability."
If you go
Kepler's celebrates 60 years in Menlo Park from 2:30 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 19, at the store and the Menlo Center plaza at 1010 El Camino Real. The event begins with a story time for kids, and there will be live music, games, bookmaking projects, and a cake at 4:30. The event is free, but reservations are requested at keplersbooks.brownpapertickets.com.