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Reinventing Kepler's -- again

In retirement letter, CEO Clark Kepler says he wants to see Menlo Park bookstore continue

A Kepler's Transition Team has formed to "re-invent" the venerable Menlo Park independent bookstore whose CEO, Clark Kepler, announced his retirement.

Heading the transition team is Praveen Madan, a former business consultant, who says his passion is finding new business models for independent bookselling.

On Thursday, the transition team e-mailed an online survey to "the Kepler's community," seeking opinions on what people want for the store's future.

Madan and his wife, Christin Evans -- also an MBA and former business consultant -- bought the San Francisco bookstore The Booksmith in 2007, where they've focused on making the Haight Street venue a community gathering place.

The pair have blogged on the Huffington Post as to why they quit their "cushy corporate jobs to re-invent independent bookselling."

"The debate over e-books versus real books is way overrated," Madan told a blogger in 2009. "Who cares if people read e-books or paper books and whether they read them on their iTablets or Kindles?"

What matters, he said, is that long-form reading -- "good for concentration, opening minds and encouraging critical thinking" -- continues.

In their San Francisco shop, Madan and Evans have sought to create social opportunities around books, with a crowded author calendar and so-called "bookswaps," in which customers pay admission to discuss and exchange books over food and wine.

"Amazon can't help you make friends," they said in a 2010 Huffington Post blog, arguing that "bookstores have a unique opportunity to bring people together."

Tuesday evening, a day after Kepler announced his retirement, Madan and Evans were at The Booksmith, hosting a well-attended talk by Adam Johnson, author of "The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel of North Korea."

Madan, a devotee of Kepler's when he lived in Menlo Park -- he now lives in San Francisco -- said he was eager to help when Clark Kepler approached him several months ago and has been putting in long days for the past two months helping to brainstorm the Kepler's transition.

He said he hopes to keep the current Kepler's venue but declined to answer specific questions about the bookstore's future, pleading for time to plan.

In the online survey e-mailed Thursday, the transition team described their effort as "a major project to re-imagine our future and better serve our community."

Survey-takers were asked to rate various "current and potential roles of Kepler's," to state what they most and least like about the store, to rate what kinds of events appeal to them, and even to suggest names for the "re-imagining Kepler's" project.

Names suggested by the team included "Bookstore of the 21st Century," "Kepler's 2020" and "Re-imagine Kepler's."

Besides Madan, Kepler's Transition Team members include Clark Kepler; former Menlo Park Mayor Gail Slocum; publisher Steve Piersanti; investor Robert Kyle; finance executive Mitch Slomiak; Kepler's staff representative Jean Forstner and communications consultant Patrick Corman.

In October, Kepler's had expanded its event space, charging for admission to lectures and movies, and letting other community groups use the space. Those changes allowed the store to break even, but weren't enough either.

An Evite circulated early in December by Slocum invited an undisclosed list of recipients to attend a meeting on Dec. 18 to discuss Kepler's potential future as a nonprofit event space/for-profit bookstore hybrid. The effort raised about $150,000 prior to the meeting, with a goal of $300,000.

In his retirement letter, Clark Kepler said: "After 32 years of bookselling I have decided that it is time for me to make a change. I am retiring from Kepler's and want to see Kepler's continue on without me. We are working on a transition of management that will keep Kepler's going and enhance its position as the intellectual and cultural hub for the Peninsula."

"I realize I'm not the force to make the necessary changes," Kepler told the Almanac, the Weekly's sister paper.

Kepler's, founded by Clark Kepler's parents Roy and Patricia, grew into a hub of the counterculture in the 1960s in its earlier, scruffy location on El Camino Real.

The store, along with City Lights in San Francisco and Cody's in Berkeley, became early sellers of paperbacks when other bookstores resisted.

"Kepler's was the intellectual hub for people in the Stanford area," longtime employee Nancy Wirth told the Palo Alto Weekly in May 2005, the year Kepler's turned 50.

By the 1980s, the younger Kepler was steering the store into the technology age.

"Everyone was coming to the Bay Area to get venture capital. Clark saw it as becoming a store that met the needs of Silicon Valley, a place where the affluent would shop."

Clark Kepler moved the store across El Camino to a new, 10,000-square-foot building, put the store online and developed new business models to keep up with radical changes in the book business.

Author events became the new "soul of the bookstore," Wirth said, drawing authors including Arianna Huffington, Grace Slick, former First Lady Barbara Bush and Jane Fonda.

"I share many of his views," Clark Kepler said of his father in 2005. "My goal is to have the books and authors do the talking."

But in August of that same year, Kepler's abruptly closed its doors due to financial problems, provoking a community outcry.

The store re-opened two months later, armed with $1 million in investments from community members and a board of directors.

Almanac Staff Writer Sandy Brundage contributed to this report.

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