The Local Independent Bookstore 2.0

This post comes to us courtesy of Two Lines Press’s summer intern, Rachel Pesavento Brownell. In it, she returns to her childhood bookstore, Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, CA, to see about the big changes that have been occurring there. Rachel is a rising senior at Pomona College in Southern California hoping to pursue creative writing (particularly poetry) in a personal and professional capacity. This summer she’s been enjoying the poems of Tony Hoagland, as well as her late professor Hillary Gravendyk.

Rachel will be back next week with a second post investigating a translation of one of Roberto Bolaño’s poems.

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My sister was one of those die-hard Harry Potter fans who wouldn’t eat, sleep, or leave her room until she finished each new book. Accordingly, she made sure to acquire the installments at midnight on the day of their release. I, being the baby sister, was swept up on these late night literary dalliances, half-pleased at getting to stay up so late and half-annoyed as I didn’t quite understand what the big deal was about this series. Every midnight release my family attended was held at our local independent bookstore—Kepler’s, in downtown Menlo Park. The establishment went all-out for these events, encouraging participants to dress in character (I distinctly remember spray-dying my hair red to parade as Ginny Weasly) and hosting various activities leading up to midnight, such as a real-life sorting hat (I was always assigned to Hufflepuff).

To me these memories are the essence of what a small bookstore like Kepler’s provides for the community. In fact, these kinds of quirky traditions, carried out with such endearing enthusiasm, are what give an independent bookstore its “independent” status in my opinion—more than the technical independence from the world of corporate chains.

As I found the presence of Kepler’s in my backyard so charming, I was completely surprised when it briefly closed in 2005. Generous patrons in the surrounding area came to the store’s rescue, allowing them to reopen just a couple of months later. But Kepler’s has never been the same. Today the bookstore occupies half of its former floor space, as well as about half its former inventory, it seems. It’s just a little bit disappointing to walk in there now, to a perfectly good bookstore, and feel like something’s missing in the smallest and yet most important way—in the almost imperceptible downshift in energy the room, its products, its patrons, and its staff carry.

The bigger truth, though, is that Kepler’s has done a laudable job and been very fortunate to continue existing at all. I may wax nostalgic about childhood experiences there that no longer seem possible, for me or anyone else, but in reality Kepler’s is going head to head with a multi-faceted and fearsome Goliath: a tremendous increase in online reading options; online book-shopping sites like Amazon.com; chains like Barnes & Noble (although judging by the fate of Border’s they may be facing a perilous future of their own); and a general lessening of public interest in literature.

In light of these challenges Kepler’s, under the leadership of Booksmith co-owner Praveen Madan, has embraced a new program of operation, “Kepler’s 2020,” in which the bookstore joined forces with the non-profit Peninsula Arts & Letters around the time of its reopening. The message I got from Madan is that bookstores are going to have to get creative and rethink basic infrastructure in order to survive: “Kepler’s is the first bookstore in the U.S. to openly acknowledge that the days of for-profit retail bookselling seem to be numbered and begin a pro-active effort to transform itself into a mission-first non-profit community.” And that’s what “Kepler’s 2020” is all about.

Through this restructuring, with Peninsula Arts & Letters in charge of events and community programs, Madan says Kepler’s is hoping to focus on the importance of books beyond the shelf-to-hand profit model: “our mission is to open minds, deepen literacy, and promote critical thinking.” Within the store itself, Peninsula Arts & Letters holds regular readings and talks by successful authors, and the occasional community “BookSwap” as an avenue for book-lovers to socialize and share their favorite works with one another. By taking these steps, as well as planning to extend their programs to in-need schools in East Palo Alto and Belle Haven, Kepler’s seems to be stepping purposefully and proudly into their new “mission-first” philosophy.

But where does that leave the kids who swarmed to Kepler’s past their bedtime, clad in their Hogwarts attire? Where does that leave the adults they’ve become—those who grew up around and came to highly regard such independent bookstores? It seems society, including the bookstores themselves, are encouraging us to look at these places as historical artifacts—the incubators of political and cultural movements (like the Beatniks) that were born in places like Kepler’s, Cody’s, and City Lights—but not as places to count on for the best selection of quality literature, or the best, warmest atmosphere for those who enjoy such quality literature.

“Books are always going to be important,” Praveen Madan insists. “The form (print, electronic, audio) people read is simply a personal choice.” Hopefully he’s right and literature will remain inherently meaningful, despite the unsteady future of the small bookstores that have so hospitably housed it for the longest time.

However, as one of those newly minted “adults” who has grown up during the reign of Amazon and the arrival of ebooks, I still carry memories of what a place like Kepler’s used to mean, and I still feel the form and the venue in which I consume a book is almost as important as the book itself. Comfortably browsing the shelves of my local bookstore, actually holding the new stories or collections of poems in my hands, and then locating my favorite nook in the back of the Fiction section in which to peruse my potential purchases—this routine makes reading so much more exciting to me than pulling out a Kindle and pressing “Buy.”

I remember discovering my favorite author while just sitting in Kepler’s one day during a lazy weekend afternoon, back resting against the end of a wooden stack, eyes poring wondrously over bits of Lolita and Pale Fire. I remember the annual errand in June of stopping at Kepler’s to purchase my summer reading for elementary and middle school—the store would put up giant tables each year of items from the local schools’ lists, helpfully matching each kid to their individual school and then the requisite books in a movingly neighborly spirit I wasn’t even conscious of taking for granted.

So really, while Kepler’s has embraced innovative, practical thinking in navigating the 21st century and is rightfully proud to be standing its ground, there’s also an undeniable undercurrent of loss, an emptiness of impending ends. I think it’s that subtle grief I sense walking in to Kepler’s 2.0 today—the chilling feeling of being somewhere that’s becoming a museum of itself.

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