The Washington Post

How to save an independent bookstore

Hundreds of independent bookstores have closed over the past decade, but some determined readers in Menlo Park, Calif., are refusing to let their beloved Kepler’s Books go gentle into that good night. Their efforts could reverberate across the country.

Founded in 1955 by peace activist Roy Kepler, the store was once a hangout for intellectuals and students; Jerry Garcia and Joan Baez made appearances. As Silicon Valley thrived over the coming decades, so did Kepler’s. Eventually, though, the changing landscape for booksellers brought the store to its knees. When Kepler’s closed in 2005, the community rallied, raised money and saved it. But seven years later, it’s in trouble again.

Enter Praveen Madan. He’s the co-owner of an indie bookstore called The Booksmith in San Francisco, and he has an innovative idea. 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 element of this reorganization may be what happened last week in Palo Alto, Calif. Madan invited some 80 people from around the country to a three-day meeting to reimagine what a community bookstore could be. Publishers, authors, fundraisers, entrepreneurs, bookstore staff, philanthropists and loyal customers holed up in a large conference room to hash out what a reinvigorated Kepler’s might look like. The participants raged against Amazon, worried about shrinking margins and fantasized about virtual shelves and author holograms.

To read daily reports on their deliberations and conclusions, go to

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.



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