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May 11, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The culture of Kepler's The culture of Kepler's (May 11, 2005)

At 50, venerable bookstore still has soul

by Sue Dremann

There are 100,000 titles on Kepler's bookstore shelves.

The answers to a multitude of burning questions reside in this place, where customers thumb the pages in search of pearls of wisdom, humor and solace.

But there's one question that can't be answered by any of Kepler's books: What is a Keplerite?

Few bookstores can claim to have a culture, but that's what Kepler's has maintained for the last 50 years. On May 14, the venerable bookstore will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a public celebration.

"A Keplerite is a free-thinker, among other things, and a reader," Ralph Kohn, a retired Kepler's manager, said. "We inhale books," added his wife, Irene Stern. "It's like going to the candy store."

Keplerites are socially conscious. Free speech was and still is of paramount importance to Kepler's culture. On its shelves, books as diverse as "In Defense of Internment, The Case for 'Racial Profiling' in World War II and the War on Terror," sits next to the diametrically opposed sentiments of Michael Moore's "Dude, Where's My Country?"

The more volatile days of fires, threats and bombings endured by the store because of its controversial stands may have ended, but the store still incites occasional outrage among its patrons. "Some people cover up a book with another book, they rile up so easily," longtime employee Nancy Wirth said.

The soul of Kepler's has always been its social and political consciousness. The store's founder, the late Roy Kepler, was a dedicated pacifist. He was raised when the memory of World War I was still fresh in people's minds. "After World War I, there was a very strong anti-war sentiment," Kohn recalled. "The trench warfare was brutal."

A conscientious objector during World War II, Kepler met Kohn while caring for mentally impaired children.

When the war ended, Kepler moved into the next phase of peace activism as the Cold War heated up. He spoke before the House Armed Services Committee about non-violence and he culture of fear and suspicion brewing in the United States.

Kepler opened his bookstore in Menlo Park in 1955 as a means to support his family, but also to create access to a range of ideas, his son Clark said.

"People smoked in the store. It was funky, informal, inviting, and non-pretentious," Clark Kepler said.

It wasn't just any other '50s bookstore. Kepler posted signs in the windows in 1956 proclaiming "The Peninsula's largest anti-missile bookstore."

Kepler's was radical in another way: it was the first bookstore to sell paperback books on the Peninsula. Before this time, "only 'trashy' books were paperbacks. Bookstores didn't carry them," Wirth said.

Publishers were reissuing important literature in paperback, but many bookstores resisted carrying them.

Kepler's and two other avant-garde bookstores, Cody's in Berkeley and City Lights in San Francisco, became part of the "paperback revolution," Wirth recalled. "It was exciting. Many of the world's best known books were out of print. They were inaccessible to most people, except for titles carried in libraries," she said.

The paperback revolution came at an auspicious time. Television had brought a new value to American culture: consumerism. Television dictated a code and set of values by which people were to live. But many people couldn't face what television espoused, Wirth said.

"People felt bitter if they didn't understand what to do with their life, or the meaning of their life," she added.

An alternative culture emerged as a backlash to the narrow spectrum of values prevalent at the time. The Beat movement was the first manifestation of that backlash. Existentialism was in. People drank red wine and sulked. They searched for meaning through philosophy and books. They became very intellectual.

The free-thinking, pacifist philosophy placed Kepler's in step with the emerging alternative culture. The 35-cent paperbacks opened new worlds of thinking to the masses.

"Kepler's was the intellectual hub for people in the Stanford area," Wirth recalled. "Ken Kesey hung out at Kepler's to hit on chicks."

Authority figures viewed the bookstore as a dangerous, subversive place. Mothers, teachers and rabbis told their teens not to go to Kepler's store. "And so, I went," many later told son Clark, who now runs the store.

Roy Kepler wanted people to make informed choices. He put a copy of Mao's "Red Book" in the store window. He sold "soft porn" wrapped in brown paper, Wirth said. "He didn't support Mao. He thought people should be able to buy anything. People brought in self-published things."

But some wished to destroy the tolerant culture of Kepler's.

Extremist groups targeted the store in the '60s, throwing rocks and a hatchet through its windows. Arsonists struck his bookstores in Los Altos and Menlo Park. A bomb shattered the store's windows in Los Altos. There was even a death threat.

Some remember the violence against the store with clarity. "People like 'Pro-America' were mad at him. He was always pressing for freedom of the press. I can remember a time when Pro-America was trying to shut him down. They were trying to keep people from using his bookstore," 90-year-old Palo Alto author and peace activist Shirley Ledgerwood said.

"It was almost dangerous to frequent his store. You never knew if someone would let off a bomb or something."

Despite the danger, Kepler spoke to the group suspected of attacking his store. "He was taking his life into his own hands," Kohn recalled.

When the arsonists were finally arrested, Los Altos police warned Kepler he was on a rumored assassination list. He was to be killed if any of the extremists were arrested, according to news reports. "He had to take his family and hide," Kohn recalled.

But perceptions eventually did change. "The character instrumental in the violence used to come in the store a few years later after he was let out of jail," Kohn said.

Kepler continued his active commitment to non-violence. He helped form the Mid-Peninsula Free University; joined forces with Ira Sandperl, founder of the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence; was arrested at Lawrence Livermore Lab and the Oakland Induction Center during demonstrations and went to jail.

When Kepler and wife Patricia refused to pay a portion of their taxes that went to military spending, an IRS agent begged Kepler to pay up to avoid imprisonment. Kepler still refused.

"He liked Roy. I think he ended up paying the tax for him," Kohn said.

Kepler's also played a major role in the burgeoning peace movement.

"Roy and Ira (Sandperl) started organizing groups to protest the Vietnam War. The whole atmosphere was helping people to become involved in war protests. They had meetings during store hours. He'd close the store if there was a protest so employees could go. You didn't have to, but if you wanted to, you could," Wirth said.

Through the 60s and 70s, the culture of Kepler's began to evolve into a broader counter-culture. Beat intellectuals and pacifists were joined by "people who worked for Whole Earth, hippies into the rock and roll and recreational drug scene, politicos, and people with an interest in ethnic groups," Wirth said.

Sometimes the counter-culture's philosophy was detrimental to Kepler's business. "People kept stealing Abbie Hoffman's 'Steal this Book.' The bookstore had to almost close because people kept stealing the books. They believed 'ownership was evil,' so they felt it was morally valid to steal from business owners," Wirth said.

In 1972, Kepler turned management of the store over to Kohn, a Midwestern bookstore owner and longtime friend. Kohn worked in a more low-key fashion, but the tenor of the counter-culture was still evident.

An invitation to one of Kepler's famous "Taco Parties" proclaimed: "The Right Party for You! Not to waste votes on political parties! Don't be fed Empty Shells and promises. Vote the Taco Party."

Book choices also changed. In contrast to the intellectual Beats, the majority of hippies read mostly comic books and "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," Wirth said. By the 70s, a shift in interests and objectives was again in the wind. Overt activism died down, and Kepler's "slid along" as a community store, populated by dyed-in-the-wool hippies and people searching for books in the self-help genre, she said.

But there were still moments of drama, such as when police closed the store down in 1972 after Kepler's received a bomb threat when U.S. Rep. Paul McCloskey appeared for a book signing. In 1989, there was another bomb threat when the store held a protest after Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a death edict on writer Salman Rushdie for his novel "The Satanic Verses."

By the 1980s, Kepler's began to re-examine itself and adapted to the changing times. Clark Kepler took over management of the store, and he steered Kepler's into the technological 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," Wirth said.

He moved the store across El Camino Real to a new 10,000 square-foot building. Although the store no longer served coffee and baklava, Café Borrone next door took up the slack. The two businesses complement each other, with an exchange of educated and hip clientele.

Clark charted new waters by putting the store online and developed a new business model to keep up with radical changes in the book business. Still, he continued to stoke the Kepler's culture of free-thinking and social responsibility.

"I share many of his views," Clark Kepler said of his father. However, the methodology has changed.

"My goal is to have the books and authors do the talking."

Author events became the new "soul of the bookstore," Wirth observed, exposing the community to the complete spectrum of thought, through readings and book signings. The free-thinking philosophy remains. Speakers have ranged from commentator Arianna Huffington and rocker Grace Slick to former First Lady Barbara Bush and recently, Jane Fonda.

Kepler's has remained socially conscious, donating books to early literacy programs in schools and raising funds for a variety of community nonprofits. A percentage of proceeds from sales of journalist Mike Doyle's history of Kepler's monograph will be donated to the Resource Center for Non-Violence in Santa Cruz, where many of Roy Kepler's collection of books reside.

Keplerites Kohn and Stern say the store's culture remains strong. "The store hasn't lost that ambiance," Stern said. "It has incorporated that culture while also appealing to the Atherton ladies. It still maintains its soul."

E-mail Staff Writer Sue Dremann at [email protected]

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