This week I’m in Palo Alto, Calif., to participate in a remarkable effort to save a beloved independent bookstore.
Kepler’s Books was founded in 1955 by a peace activist named Roy Kepler. His store became a hangout for intellectuals and students who liked trading ideas and songs with Jerry Garcia and Joan Baez, among others. In 1980, the store passed to Kepler’s son, Clark, and continued to thrive, but like most bookstores, it was eventually crippled by Amazon.com. When Kepler’s closed in 2005, the community rallied, raised money and saved it. But now the store is the subject of a far more radical plan to transform itself and secure its future.
Enter Praveen Madan. He’s the co-owner of an indie bookstore called The Booksmith in San Francisco, and he has an innovative plan. Working with Kepler’s board and a bankruptcy lawyer, he’s pursuing a creative two-part structure: On one side, a nonprofit organization will support Kepler’s author readings and community outreach programs; on the other, shares in the for-profit bookstore will be sold to its wealthy fans and customers.
The most ambitious part of this reorganization may be what’s happening this week. Madan has invited almost 80 people from around the country to a three-day meeting to re-imagine what a community bookstore could be. Publishers, authors, fundraisers, entrepreneurs, bookstore staff, philanthropists and even loyal customers are holed up in a large conference room at the Oshman Family JCC.
Three thousand miles from home, I found myself sitting next to Lissa Muscatine, who, with her husband, Bradley Graham, bought Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington last year. Across from me was Gail Slocum, a former mayor of Menlo Park, Calif. On my left sat an animal-rights activist wearing a button that read, “SOS: Save Our Shelters.” She buys locally grown vegetables. Referring to a friend who orders books from Amazon, she grew so angry that she couldn’t finish her sentence. These are people passionate about indie bookstores and what they represent.
The conference is being conducted by Sandra Janoff, the co-founder of an organization called Future Search Network. Gentle and precise, she explains each step of the process that seems part ice-breaker, part sociology class. “Denial is functional,” she tells us. “Confusion is functional.” Using yards and yards of white paper and lots of color markers, she led us through several brainstorming exercises that sometimes seemed far-removed from the economic challenges facing an indie bookstore. In one, we were asked to write down important details from our lives from the 1970s to the present: “Read 1st Adult Book,” “Graduate Degree,” “Paris.” In another exercise, we took turns shouting out major cultural trends while two assistants created a giant mind-map: “Technological Innovation,” “Slower Career Start,” “Dumbing Down of Textbooks.”
I’m not entirely sure where this process is going over the next two days. But that’s okay. Confusion is functional. And the food is great.