Kepler’s Books: Can This Bookstore Be Saved?
Readers all over the country who value not only books, but the opportunity to buy them in spaces that serve as community gathering places, often find themselves bemoaning the lack of independent bookstores. And book lovers who have not given up hope that independent bookstores can survive must read about their likely demise at every turn…but who is actually taking action to try to keep independent bookstores from folding? That action could be as small as buying a book from an independent bookstore or something along the lines of what Praveen Madan has done: convincing an independent bookstore owner who is closing shop to let you try to turn things around.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Clark Kepler, the owner of Kepler’s Books, an award-winning bookstore in Menlo Park, CA, was all set to close up shop at his beloved but debt-ridden bookstore and enjoy retirement when he asked Madan (who had helped turned around The Booksmith, a San Francisco indie bookstore he co-owns with his wife), to buy up some of the store’s assets. Madan, who had taken his wife to Kepler’s Books when they first stared dating, had a better idea. Rather than buy up what was left of Kepler’s Books, Madan decided that he wanted to secure the future of the bookstore that Clark Kepler’s father Roy opened in 1955.
This is why The Washington Post’s Ron Charles, along with Politics and Prose owners Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine, found themselves in a room with Kepler’s supporters and board of directors. Madan brought together savvy boosters of independent bookstores and asked them to “reimagine what a community bookstore could be” and help keep Kepler’s Books going. Charles chronicled these meetings in a series of blog posts for the Post (“How to save an independent bookstore“). He noted that the meeting unearthed some tried and true ideas, including the list below that one participant described as “nothing new.” (Although #6 could be considered radical for an indie bookstore; in this video, Madan asserts that he’d like Kepler’s to be the first U.S. bookstore to sell or give away the Kindle.)
1. Be financially sustainable.
2. Have a clearly defined mission.
3. Be dedicated to community outreach.
4. Serve as a gathering place for creative events and social events.
5. Support life-long learning and literary education.
6. Sell books in any form, on any platform.
7. Maintain a virtual presence, with technology fully integrated into the store.
8. Provide a carefully curated selection of books.
Among their more innovative ideas was Kevin Smokler’s vision of “a futuristic bookstore that sends individualized recommendations to customers’ smartphones as soon as they enter the front door.”
Before gathering book-loving minds to focus on saving Kepler’s, Madan outlined his vision: dividing the business into two parts (a nonprofit to present author talks and other community events and a smaller, for-profit community-owned bookstore); and using technology to attract customers.
The new leadership behind Kepler’s is clear on the website for The Kepler’s 2020 Project: “It’s no secret that things are tough in the bookselling business these days.” Their efforts to deliver “a model for a bookstore that has never been seen before” include soliciting support and donations online.
While the physical store is in California, it makes sense to issue a call for help beyond the store’s immediate community. The shuttering of independent bookstores all over the country means that there are people in many places who would rally to see one succeed.