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Kepler's Bookstore goes out of business

Announcement stuns employees at 9 a.m. meeting -- rents, competition cited

Kepler's, a landmark bookstore and cultural icon of the Menlo Park/Palo Alto area for more than a half century, abruptly closed for good this morning.

"This is it," owner Clark Kepler told about 40 employees at a 9 a.m. all-staff meeting, shedding tears. Employees were left stunned and reeling from the announcement as Kepler cited financial problems that had built since the dot-com bust of 2001. Some employees cried during Kepler's short announcement.

"It's like the heartbeat of Menlo Park," four-year employee Cynthia St. John lamented after the meeting. "He had a difficult time saying what he had to say -- he's a little guy with a big heart."

Stunned would-be customers peered in the windows and glass doors and read a notice on the door. Clippings on the windows about the history of the bookstore remained from a major 50th anniversary celebration last May (Palo Alto Weekly, May 11, http://www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/morgue/2005/2005_05_11.kepler11mb.shtml ).

Kepler's also has consistently been selected as "best bookstore" in the Weekly's annual "Best of ..." reader poll, and this year was elevated to the "Hall of Fame" for winning five years in a row.

"Kepler's leaves a huge hole in the literary scene in the South Bay -- there's no question," Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, said of Kepler's closing. "In our (bookseller) world, it's national news."

About a dozen employees lingered at a table outside the adjacent Cafe Borrone, consoling each other and discussing the closure. Some employees had heard rumors of a financial crisis over several days, but many thought the all-staff meeting was to announce layoffs.

David Johnson, the City of Menlo Park's business development officer, also was at the scene and said the cancellation of an Alan Alda talk scheduled for City Hall in late September tipped some people off that there was trouble.

"We knew they were struggling with high rents," Johnson said.

Chris Pennington, who has been an off-and-on employee there since the 1980s, put a large ribbon on the door after the meeting. His mother, Karen Pennington, had worked for many years in the ordering department.

"It's heartbreaking," he said. The store was open until its usual 10 p.m. closing time Tuesday night.

"It's like a relative in the family dying," Roy Borrone, owner of Cafe Borrone next door to Kepler's, told the Weekly late Wednesday morning. He said he relocated his restaurant from Redwood City to Menlo Park to be adjacent to Kepler's when it moved across El Camino Real to its present location in the late 1980s.

The bookstore earlier had a coffee and snack bar within the bookstore.

"It's the rents that make it so darn hard," Borrone said, adding it will definitely affect his business to have Kepler's gone.

One employee who asked not to be identified said there was no discussion of what will happen with the inventory, except that Kepler said the books would not go back to the publishers.

The bookstore was founded by Clark Kepler's father, the late Roy Kepler. Until 1989 it was located on the west side of El Camino a block south of its latest location, where it became known for its support of progressive social causes and antiwar positions.

— Jay Thorwaldson and Bill D'Agostino

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