Best of Palo Alto 2020

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Retail

'Our team is stronger than ever'
Iconic bookstore weathers pandemic without a single layoff

Carolee Hazard, a bookseller at Kepler's Books, prepares orders inside the Menlo Park store on June 2. The independent bookstore, which offers online and in-store service, plans to launch an open-air bookstore, which will be the first of its kind in the area. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

When the pandemic forced Kepler's Books & Magazines to close its doors to the public in March, the independent bookseller did what it's done many times over the past six decades: It adapted.

The Menlo Park store, facing a 40% drop in sales just two months into San Mateo County's shelter-in-place order, turned its focus to online sales and forged new relationships with its distributor and vendors to get books into customers' hands. Sales through Kepler's website quickly ballooned to more than 25 times of what the store sold online before the pandemic.

"The amount of growth has been astounding. It has blown our minds," CEO Praveen Madan said in May.

Since then, the store has been able to reopen to the public, and in-store shopping has reclaimed a majority of sales — about 60%. The bookseller, however, is still experiencing 10 to 12 times the number of online orders than it did previously.

What's more, the bookseller has weathered the pandemic without laying off a single employee.

At a staff meeting in March, while facing dismal prospects and weeks of quarantine, employees voted unanimously to adopt a plan that reduced expenses and accepted voluntary hours reductions to avoid layoffs, Madan explained.

"We set a simple goal at the beginning of the pandemic that we were going to keep our team together despite the shutdown and try to emerge stronger from this experience," he said. "This has proven to be a winning strategy. Our team is stronger than ever. We are collaborating wonderfully and able to innovate on many fronts."

While customers can once again browse the store's aisles to peruse thousands of titles in the revamped store, which has added MERV-13 medical-grade filters to its air-conditioning units to keep staff and guests safe, the bookseller is working on another shopping alternative: an open-air bookstore.

"Kepler's en plein-air," as Madan calls it, would once again transform the store to meet the needs of an ever-changing community of booklovers by bringing books outdoors, where the risk of spreading the virus would dramatically decrease.

K.S.

Scroll down to find out how last year's winners have responded to the pandemic.

Book's Inc.

Books Inc. offers an array of joys for local bookworms: old classics, new hardcovers, newspapers, magazines and gift ideas galore. Founded in 1851, Books Inc. has weathered wars, depressions, earthquakes and more than one pandemic. The bookseller is offering curbside pickup, online ordering and virtual author events.
Town & Country Village, #74, 855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, 650-321-0600; booksinc.net
2018 Hall of Fame: Best Bookstore

Cheeky Monkey Toys

Cheeky Monkey Toys is a family-owned shop that specializes in finding "just the right toy" for each customer. Since opening its doors in Menlo Park in 1999, the shop has provided interactive toys designed to stimulate children's minds to generations of local families. When all nonessential businesses were ordered to close in March, Cheeky Monkey Toys quickly pivoted to a direct delivery-only service, dropping off toys within a 10-mile radius of the store. Cheeky Monkey has reopened for in-store shopping and also offers curbside pickup and delivery.
640 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park, 650-328-7975; cheekymonkeytoys.com
2019: Best Toy Store

Essentique

Mandana Navi got her start in the beauty business in her own kitchen, testing out recipes for skin products and sharing her results with friends before opening Essentique on California Avenue in 2016. After closing in March due to health mandates, the shop is scheduled to reopen on Nov. 30. Navi's line of hair, skin and body care products also are available at Essentique's online store.
2417 Park Blvd., Palo Alto, 650-800-7375; essentique.com
2019: Best Beauty Supply

Footwear Etc.

Footwear Etc. has been helping customers find comfortable yet stylish shoes since 1986. The shop features Vionic, a podiatrist-created brand for men and women that includes built-in arch supports in all of its shoes. The shop is open for in-store service.
463 University Ave., Palo Alto, 650-328-1122; footwearetc.com
2019: Best Shoe Store

Hassett ACE Hardware

From hardware, tools, key cutting and knife sharpening to phone repair, garden supplies and barbecues, Hassett ACE Hardware in Palo Alto has it all. Family-owned since 1957, Hassett is a Palo Alto institution known for its focus on customer service.
875 Alma St., Palo Alto, 650-327-7222; hassetthardware.com
2019: Best Hardware Store

Kepler's Books

Kepler's Books has been a mainstay of the Peninsula's literary scene for more than six decades. Besides offering books, it's also the site of hundreds of free and ticketed events hosted by the nonprofit Kepler's Literary Foundation. The bookseller launched curbside pickup in the plaza in May as well as a host of virtual author and books events. Kepler's is now open for in-store shopping.
1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park, 650-324-4321; keplers.com
2019: Best Book Store

Leaf & Petal

With high-quality brand-name clothing, artisan jewelry and modern shoes, Leaf & Petal has been helping customers find outfits and accessories that express their style since 1976. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, Leaf & Petal is now offering virtual shopping and one-on-one personal appointments.
439 California Ave., Palo Alto, 650-329-8070; lpetal.com
2019: Best Women's Apparel

Lux Eyewear

Lux Eyewear is a one-stop shop for all things vision-related — from eye checkups to lens replacement. Opticians are available on site to assist customers, and Lux's in-house optical lab can process prescriptions in as little as two hours. During the pandemic, Lux Eyewear is offering services on a limited basis. It is also offering online and tele-styling options for its eyewear and private appointments for vulnerable patients.
1805 El Camino Real #100, Palo Alto, 650-324-3937; luxpaloalto.com
2019: Best Eyewear

Mike's Bikes

Founded in 1964, independent bike chain Mike's Bikes has a singular purpose — to get as many people on bikes as possible. The shop features a big selection of brands and types, plus a skilled staff to offer tune-ups. As an essential business, Mikes Bikes has remained open serving customers during COVID-19 health restrictions. Bikes in all categories remain in extremely short supply nationwide. According to the shop's website: New bikes are arriving every day, but in the current situation, the shop might not have the bike available that customers want to see.
4233 W. Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, 650-858-7700; mikesbikes.com
2019: Best Bike Shop

Mills Florist

Since opening in 1903, Mills Florist has provided fresh flower arrangements for special events spanning the past 100 years. The longtime florist also offers balloon bouquets, fine crystal, stuffed animals, dried swags and wreaths, and chocolates and other sweets. According to its website: The shop is open for phone and online delivery orders only and will not be delivering to medical facilities at this time.
235 University Ave., Palo Alto, 650-326-3443; millsflorist.com
2019: Best Flower Shop

Pet Food Express

Pet Food Express features everything almost every pet needs: a line of high-quality food, toys, grooming tools, bedding, a self-service bath facility and veterinary services. The California-based chain also facilitates adoption and rescue events. The store is now offering same-day delivery service.
3910 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, 650-856-6666; petfoodexpress.com
2019: Best Pet Store

Shady Lane

From Firefly jewelry and luminescent art glass to pottery by local artisan Lee Middleman, Shady Lane has been offering one-of-a-kind pieces ever since artist Alice Deutscher opened the boutique more than four decades ago. The boutique is open for limited hours for in-store shopping four days a week and offers online shopping and curbside pickup. The store also offers gift wrapping.
325 Sharon Park Drive, Sharon Heights Shopping Center, Menlo Park, 650-321-1099; shadylanegallery.com
2019: Best Boutique
2019: Best Gift Shop
2019: Best Jewelry Store

SummerWinds

SummerWinds has everything you'll need to make your garden pop, including compost, potting mix, outdoor decor and tools (like trowels and gloves), bare-root fruit trees, native grasses, veggie plants and flower hats. The center is open and is now offering home delivery and curbside pickup.
725 San Antonio Road, Palo Alto, 650-493-5136; summerwindsnursery.com
2019: Best Nursery/Garden Supplies