Eighty volunteers regrouped Friday morning for a second full day of brainstorming about how to reinvent the iconic, though troubled, Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park.
If our first day was a little too amorphous for some participants, on Friday we focused more specifically on what an independent bookstore might look like in the future. Moving between our professional groups and our mixed groups (“Media/Technology” and “Team Douglas Adams” for me), we’re still engaged in major pie-in-the-sky thinking — bakeries in the stars. And why not? Kepler’s sits close to the new Facebook headquarters and Sand Hill Road, where the high-tech venture capitalists hang out.
Our three-day conference is filled with publishers, philanthropists, entrepreneurs and authors determined to devise a store that’s much more Internet savvy, with a staff that’s constantly blogging, tweeting and interacting with customers on Facebook. They imagine live-streaming author events, offering virtual book groups, allowing customers to interact with author holograms and providing Web surfers with real-time access to the store’s inventory and staff.
The challenge, of course, is He Who Must Not Be Named: Amazon.com chief executive Jeff Bezos. The Internet retailer has driven hundreds of independent booksellers out of business in the past decade, first by undercutting prices on physical books and then by popularizing e-books, which indie bookstores haven’t been able to sell effectively.
Kevin Smokler, an author and part-owner of a real estate company, said, “We cannot look at the advent of the e-book as a problem to be solved or a trend to be minimized. Somehow, I should be able to visit Kepler’s and be an e-book consumer at the same time.” Wearing a plastic fireman’s hat to highlight our state of emergency, he sketched out a futuristic bookstore that sends individualized recommendations to customers’ smartphones as soon as they enter the front door. “Smart shelves” with integrated video screens would nimbly change to reflect buyers’ interests.
Many of the participants in what’s called the Kepler’s 2020 Project emphasized the unique advantages that indie bookstores must learn to promote more successfully.
Lissa Muscatine, who, with her husband, Bradley Graham, bought Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington last year, said, “Bookstores have the potential to be an oasis from the atomization of daily life — a town square. We’ve got to come together for a more proactive and aggressive promotion of the buy-local movement.” She also said that bookstores must “take more advantage of our curatorial expertise.”
Others spoke of the need for bookstores to “create adjunct experiences that people will be willing to come in and pay for.” Those experiences might include writing courses, design and production assistance to self-published authors, day care, fine dining, movie nights, corporate retreats for virtual companies, and classes in everything from cooking to yoga to pole dancing.
Praveen Madan, co-owner of The Booksmith in San Francisco, and the driving force behind the current effort to reinvent Kepler’s, seemed deeply moved. “I’m just blown away by all the hope and optimism I’m hearing,” he said.
Some of that optimism was expressed in a poem titled, “An Ode to the Brave New Kepler’s,” which one working group delivered like a weirdly jolly Greek chorus: “A center of amazing innovative detection / Is Kepler’s modern resurrection.”
But the kumbaya atmosphere was periodically shattered by the hard voice of recent experience. Lee Moncton referred to an audiobooks store he used to own with his wife in San Jose.
“When did your store close?” I asked.
Wendy Mayer-Lochtefeld, one of the co-owners of Capitola Book Cafe in Capitola, Calif. challenged the whole room: “How does all this translate into revenue? Money?”
Several participants expressed concern that our bookstore of the future is trying to be everything except a bookstore.
And others questioned the wisdom of relying so heavily on customers’ goodwill to keep a store afloat. “Guilt is deeply embedded in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, but guilt is not a good business plan,” said Bob Miller, group publisher of Workman Publishing.
But it’s not just guilt that encouraged Kepler’s customers to donate $750,000 to its current fundraising campaign. Clearly, there are people in this community determined to keep the indie bookstore alive.
“We’re just starting to write the story,” Madan said. “What I don’t want to happen is I get these great ideas and then tomorrow, you all say, ‘So long!’ ”