End of a chapter for Kepler's bookstore | January 13, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 13, 2012

End of a chapter for Kepler's bookstore

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

by Chris Kenrick

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

Kepler, who has headed the 57-year-old bookstore founded by his parents, Roy and Patricia Kepler, said he wants "to see Kepler's continue on without me."

Heading the transition team is Praveen Madan, a former business consultant, who says his current 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 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.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com. Almanac Staff Writer Sandy Brundage contributed to this report.


Like this comment
Posted by The-Future-Is-Digital
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 10, 2012 at 9:08 am

> He thought the key might be repositioning the bookstore to do what
> Amazon and other retailers can't do, instead of trying to win an
> impossible battle against online sellers.

Kepler is wise to recognize the inevitable. The digital revolution has advanced so far that people who have grown up in brick-n-mortar settings can not conceive of how to reinvent themselves quickly enough. This happened to the mainframe companies in the late 1980s, as micro-computers on desktops replaced large, central-site, computers. Most of those 1960s/1970s mainframe companies are gone now.

We’re looking at the possibility of “wearable computers” that will replace micro-computers one of these days. And with the continuing digitization of the world’s extant published works, the need for book stores, and public libraries, diminishes with each passing day.

Kepler would be wise to shut his operation now .. rather than burn up a lot of other people’s money .. try to stave off the onslaught of the digital future.

Like this comment
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 10, 2012 at 11:21 am

the_punnisher is a registered user.


The big " K " needs a new business plan; please check into the Tattered Cover in Denver to see what type of business plan works.

Web Link

A similar situation with a successful business plan.

Evolve. The Tattered Cover did. And it is thriving.

Like this comment
Posted by Tom
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 10, 2012 at 11:28 am

To The-Future-Is-Digital -- I understand your point and to some extent agree with it. My job is working with technology every day at Stanford. But I think if there's anything we can say with certainly about the future, it's that there's nothing we can say with certainly. What we can do is try to keep hold of our values and find ways to let them guide us in whatever that turns out to be.

I was a student haunting Kepler's narrow aisles back in the original location in the 60's and listening to Roy Kepler talk about non-violence in Stanford dorms. The bookstore, the discussions, the controversies, all were part of the same thing -- it's that thing that (to me at least) is a value that we must not lose.

(OK, soapbox off.)

Like this comment
Posted by Katy Bejarano
a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2012 at 11:29 am

I've been shopping at Kepler's since 1956 when I was in 8th grade, having no idea at the time that it was controversial! It's just been a marvelous place to find books that appeared nowhere else. It started my love of books, and although I now live in San Mateo, it is still my favorite place to find a new read. It is tempting at times to buy at another cheaper place, and I was encouraged that they started to accept used books (hoping it would help it survive like Powell's in Portland), but that hasn't seem to help enough. I so admire Praveen Madan and his wife, Christin Evans for doing whatever they can to keep this treasure available to inspire more people to read. I don't think there is a magic pill that will guarantee success in this digital world, but hopefully they will keep trying to find something that will work. Just because some other industries haven't been saved, doesn't mean this one can't be made over into a success.

Like this comment
Posted by Downtowner
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 10, 2012 at 12:34 pm

The rental cost in that location works against a bookstore's ability to survive. Clark's business model hasn't worked very well.

I miss the intimacy from days of Roy Kepler & Ira Sandperl.

Like this comment
Posted by bummer
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 10, 2012 at 3:22 pm

I agree with Tom.

Like this comment
Posted by Glenn
a resident of another community
on Jan 10, 2012 at 3:44 pm

How does Powell's Bookstore in Portland make it, and continue to get bigger? It now takes up a complete City block plus some other adjacent parcels. Its not particularly well organized, clean, well lit -- its cafe is sad to say the least. But the place is packed all hours of the day, and you can spend 3-4 hours there (without coffee or a computer) and never get bored. Menlo Park and Palo Alto should be able to support such a venture!

Like this comment
Posted by local
a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 10, 2012 at 4:41 pm

I don't know about Powell's now, but even in the past they had a thriving online used book business, an old a rare books section (with a lot of very expensive books), and they are in a place where you can't beat the foot traffic.

Like this comment
Posted by Marrol
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 10, 2012 at 6:07 pm

Gone by way as the blacksmith. The times continue to change, as will traditional book store/cafes and the like. Come up with an entirely different business plan and stay ahead of the curve. Nostalgic and nice but a thing of the past.

Like this comment
Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 10, 2012 at 6:15 pm

Well, obviously digitital books have a great advantage over paper books, but i still like paper books, or let's say the e-books is hardly perfect.

When I read from my Kindle or iPad I do not get an intuitive feel for where I am in the book, or even the page. Depending on the type face or settings one page looks different every time it can be looked at.

Then there is the text-to-speech thing, which is a great idea, the main reason I got a Kindle, because it can read to me when I have my hands or eyes occupied, but the publisher can turn that off and on. I hate that. I think it is discriminatory to blind people, which I am not, but still!

I do not even know what chapter I am in, and the speed bar at the bottom of the page is not really a help. The page itself should have chapter and the page or whatever edition the e-book is taken from .

Also illustrations and especially diagrams are problematic. I really do not like e-books except for text-to-speech and how portable they are.

There should be some base level of book defined by law - an e-book, viewable and readable to certain standards with handicapped access like text-to-speech, all for one price - then if you want the hardcopy you pay extra for that. That way only the books people really liked would make it to hardcopy saying lots of paper, trees, ink, pollution, energy, etc.

Like this comment
Posted by Hemingway
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 10, 2012 at 6:59 pm

Tech shmeck! There is nothing like the look, feel and smell of an independent book store. Keplers has been great. The machine will never replace paperback or hardcover just as robots will never replace man.

Like this comment
Posted by Maroll
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 10, 2012 at 7:28 pm

Yeah well it won't be long before it's closed. People once said there was nothing like the look, feel, and smell of a horse drawn carriage. Independent bookstores will exist to serve a small niche of the population. It's called progress. Get used to it.

Like this comment
Posted by The-Future-Is-Digital
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 10, 2012 at 7:54 pm

> The machine will never replace paperback or hardcover
> just as robots will never replace man.

Don't be so certain about that --

New Honda ASIMO World's Most Advanced Robot Leads Woman on :
Web Link

New Honda ASIMO Humanoid Robot Recognizes Peoples Voices Simultaneously:
Web Link

New Honda ASIMO Humanoid Robot News Pours Drink
Web Link

and by the way .. you're reading/writing this blog using a machine.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 10, 2012 at 8:27 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

My e-book cost 99.99 and is as good as a Kindle. Full internet access.

Like this comment
Posted by The-Future-Is-Digital
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2012 at 7:47 am

Major libraries around the world are making their treasures available to the world, via e-books:

Web Link

Over time, local bookshops are just not going to be able to compete with worldwide availability of books, movies, etc.

Like this comment
Posted by AMRW
a resident of another community
on Jan 11, 2012 at 1:14 pm

Retiring at 53?? Lucky Kepler.

Like this comment
Posted by Hulkamania
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 11, 2012 at 3:22 pm

The book sales business has been in a state of change for quite a while. The local book stores were mostly wiped out by the mega sellers like Barnes & Noble. Kepler's survived. Now the mega's retail operations are being wiped out by their own internet sales divisions and the Kindles. Kinda just desserts don't ya think.

Hopefully, Kepler's can adjust their business model to stay ahead of the game.

Like this comment
Posted by too late for this
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 12, 2012 at 9:07 am

coming soon - 3-d printers - print whatever you want - print your next refrigerator -
maybe books aren't printed but everything else will be

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Posted by Marrol
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 12, 2012 at 9:19 am

It's over for Kepler's. The business models that might find some success in places like Portland and Denver would not fit the changing demographics of the Bay Area. He can get in line with the blacksmiths along with his ideas.

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Posted by too late for this
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 12, 2012 at 9:29 am

3d printers and it's over for everybody else as well. poor people who can't afford printers will be the new cavepeople

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jan 12, 2012 at 12:18 pm

All retailing has not moved to the web, and probably will not move solely to the web.

Not only was Kepler's mobbed during the holidays, but so was the Stanford Mall. Also note the daily crowds at Costco, Target, TJMaxx etc. etc. etc. -- these retailers combine store/web merchandising to meet the demands of their customers and have adjusted, and continue to adjust their sales models.

The customer base has a lot of variety.

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Posted by The-Future-Is-Digital
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 12, 2012 at 7:05 pm

This week Kodak, and Twinkies, have each filed for bankruptcy reorganization. Kodak has fallen to the Digital Revolution, Twinkies, as it were, has other, problems--such as pensions owed to labor union members ..

American Airlines is in bankruptcy, with Delta circling as a possible suitor:

Web Link

And the Post Office would file for Bankruptcy, if it could--also finding people using the Internet to replace paper mail.

The times--they are a changin' ..

Like this comment
Posted by Why the fuss?
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 12, 2012 at 9:05 pm

It's just a bookstore - nothing more. Yes people gathered there in the 60's to exchange ideas. People gathered in a lot of places. I just don't understand why Kepler's is held on some pedestal. We all have places from our past that make us feel young and where we have great memories. Most of them are gone. This too will pass.

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Posted by Marrol
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 12, 2012 at 10:24 pm

Exactly, it's just a bookstore. Maybe they can downscale and become a used or antique bookstore that caters to the minority of people that are still interested. They can carve out a small niche. Aging hippies can gather and think of days gone by. Bookstores of this type will be about as rare as a pay phone, and soon to follow, newspapers.

Like this comment
Posted by too late for this
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 13, 2012 at 6:59 am

can't help noticing the glee with which people are rubbing their hands, thrilled to bits that life is starting to bite those poor people who would not embrace change.

just remember-- you don't know the real cost of onlinery. It had to be, remember, subsidized, in order to get off the ground. It won't be as much fun when it starts costing what it should've cost from the beginning, and by the time that happens, you might be one of the ones who has to choose between dinner and facebook.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Jan 13, 2012 at 11:58 am

Such nasty comments with stunning age-ism -- today's fashionable prejudice? With any luck, you might get older and get this hostile treatment too.

re: BOOKS:
Note that Amazon sells both Kindle and traditional books and does well at both, Costco's traditional book section does great. The book is not dead and people of all ages read them and shop at on-the-ground stores. Have you really not seen people of all ages at Keplers (hords of kids), and at other local stores?

There are many different book-buying habits and many folks use different modes at different times --- just as they make other purchases in different ways at different times.
Should we eliminate the University Ave/Santa Cruz shops or the Stanford Shopping Center because you can get the same stuff online? Should we eliminate grocery stores because people can go marketing online?

Kepler's provides unique local/small retailer services...e.g. Service, recommendations, and because it is in this unique intellectual community their events with literary superstars are very well attended.

A SIMPLE IDEA: Perhaps a new Kepler's business model for Kepler's would include more choices --- both electronic and traditional books, and perhaps they would expand their unique events and other live programs.

Like this comment
Posted by Bye, Bye Keplers
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jan 13, 2012 at 2:38 pm

"Perhaps a new Kepler's business model for Kepler's would include more choices"
A good model would be to get rid of Clark Kepler---he has run the business into the ground twice now. Instead of constantly whining about competition and how everyone should just shop locally (i.e. overpay to fatten his wallet) maybe he should concentrate on following the above advice.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 13, 2012 at 3:17 pm

I don't see the point of the nasty comments. I shop via a variety of methods.
I do worry about consolidation of information in online form, over time, only made available by certain behemoth gatekeepers, for a price. Er, a monopoly. One in particular is cozying up to the Obama Administration (and I imagine has made massive donations to his coffers) and will be awarded the management of ALL of U.S. citizen's medical information. Things like this are why I support (attempting to keep) a variety of local news media, public libraries, and so on. Mock me if you like.

Like this comment
Posted by too late for this
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 17, 2012 at 6:44 am

Neighbor, excellent comments. See also Monday's (16th) NYT about these concerns over consolidation.

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