Book review: Roy Kepler's war on war | September 26, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


News - September 26, 2012

Book review: Roy Kepler's war on war

Radical pacifism and the making of an institution

"Radical Chapters: Pacifist Bookseller Roy Kepler and the Paperback Revolution," by Michael Doyle, Syracuse University Press, 416 pp., $29.95.

By Gennady Sheyner

Roy Kepler's life was a tale of two revolutions: one that gave rise to war protests, draft resisters and the bohemian, anti-establishment sensibilities of the late 1960s, and another one that brought paperback books to the masses and, in the process, redefined the bookstore as we know it.

But he didn't look like a typical revolutionary, or, for that matter, a typical bohemian. He did not sport a Che beret, hurl Molotov cocktails, shroud himself in beatnik black, or wear flowers in his hair. While his associates favored group hugs, painted buses and spiraled-down, mind-bending acid trips, Roy Kepler saved his trips for places like Livermore, where he was arrested in 1960 for protesting the recently built nuclear lab; and Oakland, where he was arrested in 1968 after leading a peaceful demonstration in front of the Oakland Induction Center, a transfer point for soldiers about to go to war.

As Michael Doyle illustrates in his excellent new biography, "Radical Chapters: Pacifist Bookseller Roy Kepler and the Paperback Revolution," Mr. Kepler was a sharp, unsentimental businessman, known less for his own personality than for those of wild, world-changing bohemians who populated his popular Menlo Park bookstore, a landmark institution that plans to reopen its own next chapter later this month. But while he often wasn't the loudest or the wildest man in the room, he was, above all, a leader, a man who parlayed his own lifelong pacifism into a broad anti-war movement and, in the process, created a institution that continues to change and inspire bookworms in Menlo Park and beyond.

Roy Kepler is brought back to life in this new biography by Mr. Doyle, a journalist with the McClatchy newspaper chain and a former Palo Alto Weekly reporter. Mr. Doyle's deeply sympathetic and intimate look at Mr. Kepler's life and times follows its subject from his humble upbringing in Denver, to his war-resistance efforts during World War II and the Vietnam War, to his radical experiences with new institutions such as the Free University and the Institute for Nonviolent Studies, to his wild success in transforming his stuffy but eclectic bookshop into the Bay Area's leading melting pot for revolutionary thinkers.

Roy Kepler was born in Denver in 1920 and first became a "radical pacifist" at the onset of World War II, a period when being a conscientious objector didn't endear one to the general population, particularly when the stance had no religious basis. His brother, Earl, also a pacifist, received a 30-month sentence for resisting the war and avoiding the draft. Though he was paroled after 10 months, Earl would never see happy days. He joined the Civilian Public Service and was assigned to work in a forest north of Glendora, the same camp where Roy was based. Within a month, a fire that was accidentally started by his cabin-mate destroyed his cabin and left 95 percent of Earl's body covered in second- and third-degree burns. He died in the hospital.

Roy Kepler would spend his early 20s shuttling through various work camps, including Germfask, a CPS camp in northern Michigan known as the "Alcatraz of CPS." With morale plummeting because of tedious labor, scarce supplies and aggression from residents of nearby towns, Germfask men fought back with pranks, shattering a 3-gallon mustard jar in the kitchen, clogging latrines, covering the floor in a layer of white flour topped with obscenities written in coffee grounds, calling in sick in alphabetical order.

The camp was ultimately shut down and Roy went to another camp in Minersville, in northern Sacramento Valley, where conditions were nearly as dismal. Before long, the war was over, the camps were dismantled and the civilian program was shut down. In March of 1946, Roy Kepler became a free man.

His freedom and the end of World War II did little to diminish his opposition to war and conscription. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, he took part in antiwar protests and joined a series of pacifist organizations, including the prominent and relatively conservative War Resisters League and the smaller but more radical activist group called the Peacemakers.

As a member of WRL, he did his best to encourage nonviolent confrontation and, in 1947, he and his supporters spearheaded a resolution stating that the League would promote "political, economic and social revolution by non-violent means." He advocated tax resistance and took part in protests opposing the 1948 draft, which lawmakers instituted to counter the looming threat from the Soviet Union. By September of that year, he climbed to the top of the League's administration, becoming its executive secretary.

He fell into the book business almost by accident. In the early 1950s, he enrolled in college, traveled to France on a Fulbright scholarship, held a brief stint at the radio station KPFA, got married, had a daughter, and took a job for Eastern News Service, a distributor of books and magazines. The gig involved extensive traveling and gave him a critical exposure to the publishing business.

By the spring of 1955, he began contemplating his own venture — a bookstore that would specialize in paperbacks, a new book type that was largely viewed as vulgar by Stanford Bookstore and other booksellers in the Palo Alto area. In May of that year, Kepler's Books & Magazines opened shop at its first location, 939 El Camino Real in Menlo Park.

Kepler's was one of three independent bookstores that were just starting out in the early 1950s. Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood in 1953. Three years later, Pat and Fred Cody opened the first Cody's books in Berkeley — a store that attracted a strong following from the city's anti-war crowd. Each sought to create something greater than a place that sells books — a community where browsing is encouraged and where connections form.

It is this quality that helped sustain Kepler's through the era of chain bookstores and Amazon — forces that put many independent booksellers out of business (Cody's, for instance, closed down in 2006). Kepler's itself went through a series of close calls and was rescued on more than one occasion by investors from the high-tech field who used to patronize the venerable bookstore.

In 2005, with its finances in shambles, the store was shut down and was saved only by a community outcry and an injection of funds from a team of investors. Earlier this year, Roy's son and longtime store proprietor Clark Kepler retired from the family business, and Kepler's welcomed a new transition team led by former Kepler's enthusiast Praveen Madan. The new Kepler's is scheduled to reopen in late September.

Mr. Doyle's book, like Kepler's bookstore, is loaded with cameos from legendary bohemians and storied pacifists, from the civil-rights pioneer Bayard Rustin and troubled beatnik Allen Ginsberg to the shaggy-haired rocker Jerry Garcia and the charismatic Paly graduate Joan Baez, a prominent figure in Roy Kepler's life.

It was at Kepler's that Jerry Garcia, a store regular, met his future Grateful Dead collaborators, the lyricist Robert Hunter and bassist Phil Lesh. Ken Kesey stopped by the store in 1964 in search of a driver for his bus, which would become immortalized in Tom Wolfe's classic "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." It was here that a curious young nerd named Steve Wozniak pored through computer books and absorbed the knowledge he would later use to help launch another revolution in Silicon Valley. And it was also here that Ira Sandperl, an eloquent pacifist and Ms. Baez's intellectual guru, worked his bard-like magic as a bookstore clerk.

Mr. Doyle devotes plenty of text to the tight teacher-student bond between Mr. Sandperl and Ms. Baez. This includes their establishment in 1965 of the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence at Ms. Baez's Carmel Valley ranch. The venture, which Mr. Kepler helped finance and which ebbed and flowed through several locations before fizzling out in the mid-1970s, was one of many alternative-education projects he would experiment with during the Vietnam War era.

In 1965, he helped start the "Free U," a school that by 1969 claimed to serve 1,275 students and that included among its eclectic offerings nonviolence seminars, improvisational drama classes, and courses on capitalism and neocolonialism. Among his more quixotic efforts was a series of Peace Games, intense role-playing exercises that would split participants into attackers and defenders and included linked arms, mock executions and real tears.

Throughout the era of protests, experiments and change, Roy Kepler remained a constant force — the adult in the room, a man whose pacifist ideals remained fixed and yet tempered by realistic expectations. Ms. Baez described him in a 1994 interview with the Palo Alto Weekly as a "steady, solid, nonviolent rock," according to the book. His wife, Patricia, even likened him to a statue once, "a steadfastly unemotional man more easily admired than embraced," Mr. Doyle writes.

Even when vandals hurled cherry bombs at his stores and threatened to target his house in the late 1960s, Mr. Kepler remained unflappable. While others in his circles saw mayhem and violence as plausible tools in resisting the status quo, he remained tethered to his pacifist convictions up until his death on New Year's Day in 1994 at the age of 73.

Mr. Doyle doesn't try to veil his own admiration for his subject. His portrayal of Roy Kepler and his inner circle is intimate and deeply sympathetic. He consistently refers to Mr. Kepler, Mr. Sandperl and Ms. Baez by their first names and he doesn't dig too deeply into the philosophical underpinnings of Mr. Kepler's and Mr. Sandperl's pacifist convictions. Nor does he raise any questions or present any challenges to Mr. Kepler's and Mr. Sandperl's fixed commitment to nonviolence — there are no discussions of "just wars" in this book.

But the author does a masterly job in weaving Roy Kepler's life into the colorful, rapidly shifting context of the Bay Area in the second half of the 20th century and in explaining how this principled visionary both shaped and was shaped by the zeitgeist around him.

Gennady Sheyner is a staff writer for the Palo Alto Weekly.