After the coronavirus hit the Bay Area, the halt of the local economy was swift and unprecedented. Over the past eight months, Midpeninsula businesses have had no idea how long or how extreme the impacts of COVID-19 might be. They've faced an unpredictable cycle of forced closures and partial reopenings — that at times have pivoted back and forth and back again within days amid changing health mandates, which have indefinitely extended shelter-in-place orders from weeks into months.
To salute their efforts, we are sharing the stories of how some businesses have responded to the coronavirus and taking a look at how our 2019 Best Of winners are doing a year later.
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 reduce their hours across the board 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.
View the rest of this year's Best Of listings here.