Kepler’s Angels, Big and Small

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Kepler’s Books, founded in 1955 in Menlo Park, CA, USA, was for many years an independent bookstore serving the Stanford University community. Its founder, Roy Kepler, a leftist with pacifist views, refused military service in World War II and later lobbied the US Congress about taxation and its military budget. The general trade bookstore was a nexus of left-wing and counter-culture voices, though it sold books from all parts of the political spectrum. Ownership of the bookstore passed, in the late 1980s, to Roy Kepler’s son Clark, and successful years followed, including selection as Bookseller of the Year by Publisher’s Weekly in 1990. But, with the rise of the bookstore chains (especially Borders and Barnes & Noble) and even more so with the advent of internet shopping and the emergence of Amazon.com as America’s biggest bookseller, Kepler’s, like many other independents, suffered unsustainable losses. A decision to close the store in 2005 provoked an uprising from the community. People complained about losing a beloved store where, ironically, most of them had stopped shopping some years before. Reopening the store required refinancing the business, this time under community ownership; the new business model brought on board Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneurs who had never run a bookstore but who had marketing and management experience. A non-profit corporation, Peninsula Arts and Letters, was formed to run a literary events series, while the reconfigured bookstore remained a for-profit corporation, Clark Kepler eventually receding, via retirement, into the background. The success of the new business configuration raises questions about whether this business model is replicable for other similarly vulnerable independent bookstores in America, or whether the coincidental presence of high-income and highly educated people among Kepler’s neighbourhood clientele puts it in a special position hard to imitate elsewhere.

Kepler’s Angels, Big and Small

in Logos

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