Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Kepler's Books is dead; long live Kepler's!

In my previous post about the death of Kepler's Books, one of the Bay Area's premier independent booksellers and long my favorite bookstore, I closed dejectedly with, "These truly are the end days of the independent bookseller." And even though Kepler's has since risen from the proverbial ashes the sentiment still holds, for Kepler's is no longer the family business that Roy Kepler started fifty years ago.

No, in order to survive in the grave new world of, Borders and Barnes & Noble (or, more specifically, in the world of one-click shopping, near-zero margins on massive volume and markdowns, zero sales tax and free shipping), Clark Kepler and his advisors decided the store must rebuild upon its devoted local customer base (albeit a base that had clearly been tempted by the likes of Amazon) and must become something of a hybrid -- part charity, part co-op and part Silicon Valley startup.

That decision appears to have been sound, for in the days and weeks following the store's closure there was tremendous public outcry, nationwide press attention (New York Times article), fervent requests for the Menlo Park city council to step in and save the store, calls for volunteers to spread word of the store's need, and demands of the store's Scrooge-like landlord, the infamous and elusive Tan Group, to lower the dot-com-era rent that was leeching the store of more than $30K/month for its 10K square feet (all of which came to pass, actually).

If you visit Kepler's website you'll note that you can purchase memberships, not unlike a membership one might buy at REI, though the benefits are a little less tangible. Several people have opted in at the Patron level for an undisclosed but presumably large sum of money. And most conspicuously, Kepler's now has a board of directors that is chaired by Clark Kepler (who is also the President and CEO), and includes several of Silicon Valley's lesser technology/investment luminaries. At least one valley marketing guru stepped forward during the height of the crisis to offer what aid she could and, while the extent of her aid seems unclear, she did succeed in getting her name in several newsclips and press releases.

Which is to say that the effort to save Kepler's took on a circus-like air, Silicon Valley-style, something that may have been the best outcome for the struggling business -- it certainly generated attention and news coverage. If I come across as unhappy let me be clear: I would much rather have Kepler's Dot Com in Menlo Park than no Kepler's Bookstore, and I applaud -- loudly -- the efforts of everyone who helped save the store. But it is sad that the bookstore Roy Kepler began as a family business fifty years ago, one he successfully passed to his children, is now in the hands of a board of directors, patrons, members and volunteers.


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