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Where have all the Kepler's supporters gone?

Original post made by Renee Batti, associate editor of The Almanac, on Nov 16, 2006

I've been bewildered by the lack of customers in Kepler's when I've dropped by during the past few months. When the store closed "for good" last year, hundreds of people came out to lend support and oppose the closure. A year after the store's re-opening, I'm wondering where all those supporters have gone.

Clark Kepler reportedly said recently that sales are about the same now as they were in August 2005, when he decided he could no longer afford to keep the store open.

Can anyone explain what's going on here? Is the lure of online shopping too strong to resist? Are independent, brick-and-mortar bookstores irrelevant?

Comments (18)

Posted by Gern Blanston
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Nov 16, 2006 at 4:38 pm

Thanks for the reminder -- I'll drop into Kepler's with the kids this weekend to do some holiday shopping.


Posted by Booklover
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 16, 2006 at 5:43 pm

I've been frustrated by the difficulty in ordering books when they don't have what I want in stock. Before the big closure, Kepler's was great for ordering books. Now, not so much. It just makes it harder for people to resist the convenience of Amazon, no matter how much they want to support Kepler's.

Posted by PageTurner
a resident of another community
on Nov 16, 2006 at 5:53 pm

Difficult to order books? I'd say it's time to talk to the manager or owner. Can't afford to lose Kepler's, so we loyalists have to keep the staff on its toes so other customers don't give up.

Posted by Book Buyer
a resident of Hillview Middle School
on Nov 17, 2006 at 7:52 am

I just called Kepler's about two books and received great service. The info desk not only checked the computer, but also the shelves, to make sure they were in stock. Then they held them for my pickup.

One option you have is to order the books from Kepler's online. Click here: Web Link

I've heard Kepler's people say that the store doesn't need to get a lot of new customers to make a profit. It just needs to get its existing customers, who maybe buy a third of their books from Kepler's, to buy more of those books from Kepler's -- maybe two or three more a year.

Posted by communitymom
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 21, 2006 at 1:01 pm

I am going to do the bulk of my holiday shopping at Kepler's. They have a wide line of gift items in addition to books. And gift card from Kepler's can be used at ANY independent bookstore nationwide, so you can send it to your relatives and friends out of the area. (NO Excuses!)

I am proud to have re-upped as a supporting member, which gets me a 10% discount all the time. There have been major events to reach out to the community, including through the scools -- so I am seeing a lot of "new life" there. I think I heard there is a major promotion happening over Thanksgiving weekend.

But we each have to take "ownership" -- and actually SHOP there, whether in person, phoning in orders or on line. And becomign a sustaining member is an important part of their new business model.

The holiday season makes or breaks a store. Let's help Kepler's this holiday season as part of our "gift" to the community!

Posted by Kepler's Fan
a resident of another community
on Nov 21, 2006 at 2:15 pm

According the ad running at the top of this web site, Kepler's is having a huge sale this weekend...everything is 30% off. So everyone go shop!!

Posted by PageTurner
a resident of another community
on Nov 22, 2006 at 3:01 pm

Just got back from Kepler's, and am happy to report not only a healthy number of patrons but a real buzz in the air as well. And the shelves, tables and calendars racks are well-stocked. Hope the community can sustain the energy and support so we don't lose this treasure again -- and for good.

Posted by Robert Stodieck
a resident of another community
on Nov 26, 2006 at 11:42 am

Everyone is now reading online. Like this newspaper for example. The medium sized bookstores like Keplers were first assalted by the larger chains and now the Net. The the number of people watching television at any time has dropped ~50% from 10 years ago. Guess what those people are doing instead.

I loved Kepler's and etc. but I rarely bother now. Old books take too much space. Keplers should add coffee, wireless Internet, some power outlets and displace some of the books. Starbucks is the competition, not Barnes and Noble.

Posted by darkstar
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 28, 2006 at 6:26 am

Perhaps the Kepler's supporters have finally realized the painful truth many of the rest of us did years ago: the store is a poorly managed shadow of its former self. Kepler's used to be great. I started going to Kepler's when I was 10. They were on El Camino Real then, where Starbucks is now. They were open to 10 or 11, which at the time was a big deal for Menlo Park. Even 7-Eleven closed down at 11.

Ever since then whenever I wanted a particular book I would call Kepler's and they usually always had it. About 5 years ago that changed, Kepler's never ever had what I was looking for. Borders on University Avenue always did. I finally stopped bothering with Kepler's because I was tired of hearing that they could order it for me.

After last year's meltdown I started calling Kepler's again. Nothing changed. I last called there a month ago but no, they didn't have what I was looking for.

The memories are great. But it's time to give up the ghost. You can't expect a bookstore to thrive if they don't have the titles customers want to buy.

It was a great loss when longtime Kepler's manager Karen Tremnaine left a few years back. I don't think Kepler's ever recovered from her departure.

Kepler's saga is not unlike that of the old Menlo Park Hardware. With the founders long gone, the children --or grandchildren at the hardware store-- were stuck running the family business. In both cases the stores lacked vision. Customers slowly drifted away after growing frustrated at not being able to find what they were looking for.

It's easy for customers to fondly remember how great Kepler's was. I would not be surprised if Clark Kepler saw things differently. If I were in his shoes I suspect I'd be grumbling about what an albatross the store is. Either way he's screwed -- stuck running the failing family business or being the guy blamed for the death of this once-great community asset.

Posted by Angela Hey
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Nov 28, 2006 at 2:24 pm

Last time I bought books I went to Borders in Palo Alto, before that Barnes and Noble in San Mateo and before that Amazon. Another favorite is the 2nd hand bookshop in Mountain View.

Maybe Keplers should consider selling a few 2nd hand books of quality as a neighbourhood service - there might be higher margins. Then it would lure in people who want to sell and people who want out-of-print editions.

Why haven't I been to Keplers? Because the coffee shop next door had a queue, I couldn't find a parking space underneath last time, I have frequent shopper cards for Borders and Barnes and Noble, and I happened to be near the other venues to buy other things as well.

I do like Keplers - but in the good old days I used to go there for the variety of international newspapers - which I can now read on the web.

Maybe Keplers needs a Great Books campaign where they encourage people to read the great books a la Aspen or a short course on a series - like Dickens or Agatha Christie or Narnia or a Sci Fi series - where you meet for 6 weeks and each week get a synopsis of a book read by a group of local citizens the price of attendance being "course books (i.e. the books being studied)" from Keplers. They need better differentiation from other stores, services offered by community members and more reasons to go there.

Mating is one reason people go to a bookstore - there are lots of lonely people in the Bay Area who like books - so that could be another angle - speed-dating for Thriller Fans - maybe team up with a community website where people put their favorite books and build on that - is there a Keplers page on MySpace or You Tube? There's got to be an idea for a match up between virtual and real communities that can be monetized.

Posted by BargainHunter
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 29, 2006 at 3:15 am

I just received in the mail from Kepler's: a big paper bag into which I can put as many books and gifts as I like and get 15% off! Count me in for holiday shopping! (I received the bag as a Kepler's member.)

Aside from December holidays, as a mom of a seven-year-old & a five-year-old who attend lots of birthday parties, Keplers has the BEST selection of toys and gifts that are a good step above the usual, that are out-of-the-ordinary and have some flair, for a very good price. NB: Toys and gifts are included in the 15% deal!!

Posted by Community member
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Nov 29, 2006 at 9:40 am

Just a note to remind anyone interested that money spent in Menlo Park tends to be recirculated in Menlo Park. Buy a book at Kepler's and Kepler's then has the wherewithal to bring more books in and stay in business.

Buy the book in Mountain View, Palo Alto, Seattle or wherever, and you help someone outside the community stay in business. What is more important: a bargain and immediate gratification or the long-term health of your community?

If you value the character of your community, shop in your community. If you don't care, then shame on you.

Posted by George
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 29, 2006 at 2:50 pm

I agree with an earlier post that suggests that the store should differentiate itself. The big chain "bricks and mortar" stores are not the competition. If you want a book the same day, you have to go to the larger stores. Their selection of in-stock books, music and whatever cannot be matched.

Keplers should try to be different. The social aspect of bookstores needs to be explored and embraced. Have people visit and stay in the store. Have people want to go there. Get a niche angle and stick to it.

I don't want this to be taken the wrong way, but I don't feel any obligation or inclination to support the "circle of patrons" who now own 70% of the business. They don't need my money. The takeover made me think “predatory investing.”

Barone café is crowded and there are no parking spaces.

Posted by Community member
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Nov 29, 2006 at 5:28 pm

George, I agree that Kepler's should distinguish itself and I would be surprised of Kepler's management didn't know that.

I don't know how to respond to the need to have a book the same day. I tend to buy books that are there already. But I would still use the calculus of what effect a purchasing decision has on the community.

I disagree about the predatory investing take on this bookstore. If the "patrons" are investing in anything, it's the character of the community. An independent bookstore is a great community asset and a terrible thing to lose.

I'm not yet a Kepler's member. It's a big expense and I probably can't justify it with enough book purchases. In other words, I'm poor. But every new book I buy, I buy from Kepler's, and I tend to walk there so parking isn't a problem.

Posted by PageTurner
a resident of another community
on Nov 29, 2006 at 10:24 pm

Finally, someone mentions the importance of the independent bookstore. Those of you who go to Borders, or order online: Do you consider the range of benefits to the community independent bookstores offer? There's a vast amount of literature to tap into if you're curious enough to explore this immensely important question, and I urge you to do so.

In this community, it doesn't take much research to understand how Kepler's has contributed. For book lovers, regular author readings -- free events -- offer a chance to learn about books and writers off-screen. Yes, in flesh and blood, if you can imagine that. People -- authors from all over the country as well as from the Bay Area and our very own community -- actually TALKING about their work, answering your questions, occupying human, flesh-and-blood space. I acknowledge that, in our virtual age, the importance of this flesh-and-blood aspect of experience has been devalued. More's the pity; we are so very much the poorer for it. Also, specific to Kepler's, local libraries and other literacy causes are beneficiaries of Keplers' fundraisers; the store sponsors book clubs to encourage reading and discussions about books and ideas; and, the city's revenues are bolstered by the store's contribution of sales tax.

I appreciate George's insights about Kepler's limitations, but I'd like to point out that the store is reaching out to try to meet social needs of the community. And, that investors in the "circle of patrons" knew from the start that they were as likely to see a profit from their investments as Osama bin Laden was likely to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. As "community member" from Allied Arts/Stanford Park noted, they were investing in the character of the community, and I have immense respect and admiration for them. They are likely to lose financially, but, if their investment pays off, the community will win big time.

I live outside the community, but work in Menlo Park, and I see how important Kepler's -- and Borrone's and Peet's and the pet store and all the other independent businesses -- are to fostering a strong sense of commonality and cohesion among people coming together in the public spaces of our everyday lives. In late August 2005, when Kepler's stunned us by closing its doors, the reaction in the community led me to believe that local book lovers would do what it took to revitalize the store and keep it afloat. Perhaps my optimism was misguided.

Posted by avid reader in menlo park
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 30, 2006 at 11:32 am

i have shopped at Kepler's for 10 years. After the reopening I no longer do. I can go to Book's Inc. and use the frequent reader club card and get one book free at the average price after purchasing ten at any price. I don't need to pay to be a member like the silly program Kepler's has. Maybe if they had better service and selection they would not need to do that. Also many of the periodicals that I used to purchase there are no longer available since the reopening. My understanding is that since Kepler's did not pay it's bills for awhile some vendors will no longer do business with them. For all of you who are wondering why they don't have the books that you want...maybe this will answer the question.

Posted by Lit Chick
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Nov 30, 2006 at 12:19 pm

Ugh, I hate shopping at Borders or any of the other chain book stores. Before I moved to Menlo Park, I'd drive for 30 minutes so I could hang out a Kepler's, rather than go to the big box book store that was 5 minutes away.

The latest version of Kepler's is indeed inferior to its former, robust pre-closure self, but that doesn't mean that with community support, it can't improve steadily.

Think of Kepler's as a good friend who's going through a health crisis. You thought he wasn't going to make it, but miraculously, he pulled through. Now, he's a little more frail and a little less fun than he used to be.

Are you going to dump the friendship so you can hang out with party-boy Borders and carry on an internet romance with Or do you suck it up and stand by the friend that has meant so much to you in the past?

Posted by Community member
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Nov 30, 2006 at 3:06 pm

The thing that repulses me about places like Borders is the chain store technique of ripping off independent stores through the use of strategically placed couches, coffee and music. It's nothing less than a corporate lie masquerading as something charming and homey, and that goes double when a chain bookstore takes over what was once a venerable movie theater, as happened in Palo Alto.

There's no good reason to patronize a chain bookstore. You can get the titles in a neighborhood store, only not as fast and maybe not as cheaply. The delay and the higher price is the cost of preserving a neighborhood that has some real character, and a bookstore that knows its customers in ways other than through a record of purchases.

Sheesh. How can anyone not see this point?

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