Save Kepler’s

Chances of saving Cody’s?

Many people have asked me about this subject over the past couple days because of my involvement in saving Kepler’s. However, there seem to me significant differences in the situations of each store. In the campaign to reopen Kepler’s, the major objectives were to a) raise capital b) renegotiate the store’s lease and c) implement a new business plan. The objective for Cody’s to reopen seems to be a complete revolution of the business climate on Telegraph Avenue where sales for many establishments have dropped off over the past 10 years and the city of Berkeley has done little to revive the area. For Andy Ross or supporters of Cody’s to bear that burden seems like an impossibility.

According to our sources, Ross is not open to the possibility of outside investment in Cody’s to keep the Telegraph store open. (The money raised by outside investors and Clark Kepler’s receptiveness to them allowed Kepler’s to reopen.) He is, however, willing to listen to offers on the space on the corner of Parker and Telegraph, as he has control of its lease.

Cody’s on Telegraph is Closing

Cody’s Books on Telegraph in Berkeley will be closing on July 10 after being open there for 43 years. According to owner Andy Ross, the Telegraph store has lost over $1 million and its sales have declined by two-thirds since 1990. Cody’s stores on Fourth Street in Berkeley and Stockton Street in San Francisco will remain open.

In the press today, the owner of a Great Good Place for Books in Montclair was quoted as saying, “I can’t believe it. It’s a real indication that the climate of independent bookselling is really changing in the Bay Area. The fact that something we considered a mainstay will no longer be there—to me it’s saying good-bye to a friend. It’s like a death.”

It all sounds rather similar to the reaction that Kepler’s closing produced last summer.

I went to Cody’s four or more times a week when I lived in Berkeley from 2001 until 2003, and the store will be missed. I can say that I really only went there because I lived within walking distance, not being a big fan of Telegraph, in general. I think many of the concerns raised by Andy Ross and then echoed in the Mercury News article are legitimate and not just a cop-out. Of course, I was an anomaly–a Berkeley student who bought two to five books almost every week.

Was the problem that students don’t buy books or that Cody’s was in a place that was frequented largely by students?

Press coverage of the Cody’s closure:

  • Contra Costa Times: Farewell Coming for Telgraph Landmark
  • San Francisco Chronicle: Famed Bookstore’s Last Chapter
  • Inside Bay Area: Sales Lagging, Cody’s Closing
  • The Mercury has followed up with an article about the closing and its relationship to a deteriorating Telegraph Avenue marketplace for businesses:

    The owner of iconic record store Amoeba Records said Wednesday he has no immediate plans to close his Telegraph store but didn’t rule out the possibility.

    “Our stores in Los Angeles and the Haight (in San Francisco) are doing well, despite what’s happening in the industry,” Mark Weinstein said. “But our Telegraph store is hurting. And given the political climate in this city, I don’t see that changing.”

    Likewise, the Chronicle also has an article about the decline of business on Telegraph:

    Telegraph’s image problem — the street between Parker Street and campus is often littered and dirty, and homeless youth often loiter outside businesses — is hardly new, and the city has over the years made various efforts to clean things up.

    ….

    But Telegraph Avenue is also not alone in its economic woes, with downtown businesses hurting almost as much…. The entire city has seen sales tax receipts stagnate or decline, with the notable exception of the trendy Fourth Street shopping district that has seen almost consistent growth since the 1980s, he said.

    From the blogosphere:

  • Liz Mann, who blogs in letters, writes one to Andy Ross.
  • A husband and wife lament the closure of Cody’s.
  • Kepler’s in Trouble Again?

    The San Francisco Examiner reported last week that Kepler’s may be in financial trouble once again.

    Six months after community supporters fought to bring Kepler’s Books back from the brink of bankruptcy, the bookstore is still struggling to make ends meet.
    ….
    The bookstore had one of its best Christmas seasons on record and has raised money through a new customer-membership program, but already that support is waning….

    Update: A brief piece in the San Jose Mercury dismisses the rumors about Kepler’s closing again.

    Kepler’s Member Appreciation Night

    After a brief encounter with the people at the door who refused to let me into the store, I attended Kepler’s second member appreciation night yesterday. Some of the employees presented their current book picks, and Al Jacobs gave a brief reading. People from Common Ground gave away plants. Obviously, the theme was gardening.

    The store’s chief marketing officer, Anne Banta, said that Kepler’s Q1 revenue for 2006 is down from last year. Looking around, it wasn’t particularly hard to see why. The average age of people in the audience was over 60. That is a minor exaggeration at most. Relying on an aging population as your core customer base is a big problem for a bookstore–an independent bookstore with wildly fluctuating resources. This wouldn’t be a concern if Kepler’s sold hearing aids or walkers. People may become deaf or diasbled after they retire. They do not, however, become serious readers. Research shows that most people become serious readers in childhood and adolescence. Now, the question is, what, if anything, can Kepler’s do to create and hook these people on its store?

    When I lived in New York, my two favorite stores were the Gotham Book Mart and St. Marks Bookshop. I can’t think of two more different independent bookstores in the country.

    During the two years that I shopped at Gotham, I recognized every employee who worked there, and everyone recognized me. The store itself is fairly small, and is home to a cat named Thomas (after Pynchon) and a mess of books, which includes every significant work of fiction published during the past 100 years, and basically any literary journal you can think of. If they are missing something, it’s because it recently sold. (You won’t find twenty copies of the same title that’s only going to sell two.) You might not be able to find what you’re looking for, but I’ll guarantee you that the employees can.

    The employees are largely what make this store great. (John Updike has called it his “favorite bookstore in North America.”) Although I think of myself as fairly well-read, the employees at Gotham must read about five times more than I do that because I would always walk out with books that one of them brought up during conversation and that I hadn’t even heard of when I entered the store. These people have recommendations and lots of them. Their literary prolificacy makes them trustworthy. They rave about books that haven’t even been released yet and then let you borrow the store’s advance copies to see for yourself. These people know their books, and they want to proactively share them with their customers. Did I mention that Gotham doesn’t even have a website?

    Of course, the Gotham way of highly personalized customer service is not the only successful model I’ve observed in independent bookstores. About 10 minutes by subway from Gotham in the East Village is St. Marks Bookshop. This store is clean and well-lighted like Kepler’s. All the books there are on shelves, i.e. none are stacked on the floor. While Gotham closes early, St. Marks is open late. I have never seen a pet inside St. Marks. The management’s instructions to its employees can be summed up like this: “Customers know what they want. Do not talk to them. Do not approach them. Do not bother them. If they have questions, they will find you and ask.” The employees at St. Marks know their stuff, they just won’t share anything unless you ask them. The store has one of the best selections of fiction, art books, and critical theory that I have found anywhere. It does not carry self-help books, sports books, or computer books. It does not sell board games or toys. I’ve found the selection at Kepler’s increasingly disappointing, and it was not uncommon for there to be no copies of The Great Gatsby or the USA Trilogy or Pale Fire on the shelves for weeks at a time.

    I don’t think that Kepler’s will or should adopt one model or the other entirely, but there are lessons to be learned from each about how you can build a loyal customer base. Kepler’s seems to think you can do this by letting people take our PBS-style memberships that will supposedly make them feel good about supporting a local institution. I have no problem supporting Kepler’s, and would gladly write them a check if I felt like the store was moving in the right direction. However, the literary journals that once lined the shelves between the front registers and the magazine racks have been replaced by children’s games. (Again, this–all these non-book items–seem to me a bid to compete with Borders in Palo Alto, which is probably a bad move. To stock items that have higher profit margins than books is an excellent idea, but to do so at the expense of your primary product is not such a good idea.

    Moreover, in its expectation that customers–or members–treat it essentially as a non-profit, Kepler’s should adopt more of the responsibility and transparency to its members (donors) that comes with being a non-profit. Banta’s report that the store’s Q1 revenue for this year is below last year’s is vague, lacking hard numbers and unexplained. Are people buying fewer books? Fewer magazines? Is it because the store isn’t open as many hours during the week? Is it because the events have been poor?

    Oh, the events. Last night a four-page market research survey was distributed to members. On it, I ranked events as the most important thing I want improved at Kepler’s. I’m aware that the store won’t compete in selection with Stanford or Cody’s or Green Apple, but they can–or at least could–compete on the strength of their author events. Last year at this time, I was looking forward to seeing Jonathan Safran Foer, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Phil Lesh all read at Kepler’s. I have looked at this year’s events calendar, and have essentially no interest in all but maybe–just maybe–one of the events. Meanwhile, I will be attending events that I am interested in at Booksmith, A Clean Well-Lighted Place, and Cody’s.

    Of course, I should point out that my survey probably has very little value to people like Banta because I am 24 years old and spend thousands of dollars a year at independent bookstores. In other words, I am an anomaly. However, on the other hand, who better to listen to when deciding how to shape the future of Kepler’s than someone like me who is a serious reader–someone who buys and reads a large number of books; someone who has been to a lot of author events and bookstores all over the country; someone who has worked for both bookstores and book publishers–someone who cares deeply about Kepler’s? When I started this site to help save Keplers, I envisioned the store using its reopening as an opportunity to remake itself. I’m aware that not even half a year has elapsed yet since the reopening, and that to judge its progress at this point is probably unfair. However, to not judge at all would offer no chance for the improvement that I hope is still possible.

    One final note, the April issue of Inc. magazine has the first in a series of articles by Bo Burlingham about the resurrection of Kepler’s. Burlingham was at the event last night and passed out copies of the magazine to Clark Kepler, others, and me. The cover slug for the story says, “Can the Best Minds in Silicon Valley Save an Old-Economy Business?” It’s nice to be called, hyperbolically, one of the best minds in the Valley, but I would much rather have Safran Foer or Ishiguro or Eggers or Lethem reading at Kepler’s.

    Remainders

    I managed to miss posting the link to this interview with Jonathan Lethem, which is required reading for everyone who cares about literature or art or anything, or, well, just anyone.

    The IHT/NYT blog reports that tomorrow at the World Economic Forum, Bono will announce a multi-million dollar corporate backed campaign for The Global Fund.

    Courtney Love is Paula Fox’s granddaughter? And Gabriel Garcia Marquez has stopped writing?

    Nicholas Kristof reviews two new books about genocide in Sudan in the current New York Review of Books. The highlights:

    You expect that from time to time, a government may attack some part of its own people, but you might hope that by the twenty-first century the world would react. Alas, that hasn’t happened. Indeed, the Armenian genocide of 1915 arguably provoked greater popular outrage in America at the time than the Darfur genocide does today.
    ….
    The most feasible option is to convert [African Union Forces] into a “blue-hat” UN force and add to them UN and NATO forces. The US could easily enforce a no-fly zone in Darfur by using the nearby Chadian air base in Abeché. Then it could make a strong effort to arrange for tribal conferences—the traditional method of conflict settlement in Darfur—and there is reason to hope that such conferences could work to achieve peace. The Arab tribes have been hurt by the war as well, and the tribal elders are much more willing to negotiate than the Sudan government and the rebel leaders who are the parties to the current peace negotiations.
    ….
    Some organizations, like Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group, have also produced a series of excellent reports on Darfur—underscoring that this time the nations of the world know exactly what they are turning away from and cannot claim ignorance.
    ….
    Once again, the international response has been to debate whether the word “genocide” is really appropriate, to point out that the situation is immensely complex, to shrug that it’s horrifying but that there’s nothing much we can do. The slogan “Never Again” is being transformed into “One More Time.”

    Perhaps, the media should devote less coverage to James Frey and more to Sudan? Or at least to J.T. LeRoy, whose work and fabrications are far more impressive than Frey’s.

    All this should be balanced by a little levity: The Worst Job Ever.

    Garrison Keillor tears apart Bernard-Henri Lévy’s new book, American Vertigo, in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review. Levy responds in the New York Sun.

    The Year of Magical Thinking Revisited

    Jonathan Yardley remembers John Gregory Dunne in Sunday’s Washington Post. He likens Dunne to my favorite author:

    In certain respects, the American writer whom Dunne most resembles is his fellow Irishman and fellow (lapsed) Catholic, F. Scott Fitzgerald. To be sure, Fitzgerald was an outsider who wanted in, while Dunne liked the outside just fine, thank you, but each of them cast a cool eye on American crudity and kitsch, and each found something to admire in the American who longed to move from corruption to respectability. Dunne’s relatively neglected novel Playland is his riff on The Great Gatsby , its narrator Jack Broderick is his Nick Carraway, and its repentant mobster Jake King is his Jay Gatsby.

    Yardley had previously reviewed Didion’s memoir here.

    Amy Tan Reading at Kepler’s Tonight

    Amy Tan will be reading at Kepler’s on Tuesday, January 24 at 7:30 pm. This is the only event that has been announced so far for the winter literary season. I’m wondering where all the other events are. There are many authors with books coming out in the next few months that we’re interested in: Colson Whitehead, William Easterly, Frances Mayes, Amartya Sen, Lawrence Weschler. Will Kepler’s get any of these authors to do in-store events? We’ll see.

    Kepler’s Fifth Board Member

    Kepler’s has yet to name the fifth member of its Board of Directors. In a letter to the editor of the San Jose Mercury on September 21, I called for Kepler’s to name a local author to the board:

    Monday’s announcement of a patron’s circle of investors and a board of directors in the effort to save Kepler’s Books is a welcomed one. However, I was disappointed when I learned the makeup of the board of directors. Kepler’s undoubtedly needs a group to oversee its business operations, and the named members of the board are obviously qualified to do this and committed to the store. However, readers and writers are the people who make a bookstore, and Kepler’s should allocate at least one seat on its board to someone with a purely literary interest in the store–say, a local author or teacher.

    Money and marketing expertise may allow Kepler’s to reopen, but what will make it survive and succeed are the people who get hooked on the store and its books and then bring their friends who end up doing the same. For this to happen, Kepler’s will need to remake itself to thrive both literally and literarily.

    This, apparently, isn’t going to happen.

    Kepler’s Holiday Picks—Where’s the fiction?

    Kepler’s has a nice little pamphlet with its holiday gift picks. However, a wildly disproportionate number of these picks are nonfiction or popular fiction. With literary fiction making up less than 4% of the books sold in this country, it the responsibility of pushing fiction titles falls squarely on the shoulders on independent bookstores. There was no shortage of excellent literary fiction titles this year, with new books from Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Francine Prose. Although Kepler’s has always had good table fiction, their register display seems to contain an increasing number of nonfiction and popular fiction titles. The only work of literary fiction I recall from my weekend visit is Zadie Smith’s excellent novel On Beauty.

    Kepler’s Autumn Literary Festival

    Kepler’s will be putting on a series of readings around town on Thursday, November 3. Here is the lineup:

    Jerome Karabel, UC Berkeley professor and author of numerous articles on higher education and social inequality, introduces his new book, The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton – 5:30 p.m. at Kepler’s, free admission

    Tobias Wolff, Stanford professor and author of numerous books, including: Old School – 7:30 p.m. at Menlo College Dining Hall, free admission

    Barry Eisler, Menlo Park author of the award-winning Rain thriller series, featuring “natural causes” assassin John Rain – 7:30 p.m. at Menlo Park City Council Chambers, free admission

    Ann Packer, national award-winning northern California author of The Dive from Clausen‘s Pier – 7:30 p.m. at Trellis Restaurant, Menlo Park (dessert served), limited to 40 guests, free admission

    Dinner/Author Event with Palo Alto’s Firoozeh Dumas, the author of Funny in Farsi, A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America, who will discuss the food, culture, and insightful experiences of growing up Iranian in America. – 6:30 – 9:00 p.m. at private residence. Hors d’oeuvres and Persian dinner will be served. Limited to 40 guests. Members: $85 per person. Public/Non-Members: $125 per person. For reservations call (650) 462-5501 Mon – Fri, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

    San Jose Mercury: Amazon board member Doerr also a Kepler’s contributor

    John Doerr, well-known Silicon Valley venture capitalist and board member at Amazon, interestingly is listed among those who contributed $25,000 or more to reopen Kepler’s Books and Magazines in Menlo Park.

    Menlo Park is the location of his venture capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and he lives just up the road in Woodside.

    It is noteworthy because Kepler’s said it went out of business in August because of lost sales to big chains and online merchants like Amazon.com.

    Of course, anybody supporting one doesn’t necessarily need to be against the other: “For example, I shop at both Amazon and Kepler’s at times. They serve different purposes,” said Mike Masnick, co-author of the Techdirt blog at www.techdirt.com.

    Palo Alto Weekly: Kepler’s revival aids Katrina schools

    The Palo Alto Weekly reports that the winners of last weekend’s Kepler’s raffle chose to donate the books they won to schools hit by Hurricane Katrina.

    Palo Alto residents Bill and Kara Rosenberg turned a windfall into an opportunity for charity this week.

    The couple won a $500 gift certificate to Kepler’s bookstore last weekend, part of the grand re-opening festivities. The Menlo Park store had been closed for a month while investors from the community worked to revive it.

    The Rosenbergs chose a few books for themselves and donated the rest to schools damaged by Hurricane Katrina in St. Tammany Parish, La., as part of the “Bridge of Caring” project sponsored by Palo Alto school groups.

    Kepler’s Reopening on Saturday, Oct. 8—Volunteers Needed

    Kepler’s will be reopening this Saturday, October 8. There will be a rally outside the store at 11 am. Following the rally, the store will reopen. Additionally, a membership table will be taking membership pledges all day long outside the store. There will be a raffle. There will be fun. This event is not to be missed. Thank you to all of you in the community who have expressed support for the bookstore over the past month. This reopening would not be possible without you. Stay tuned to SaveKeplers.com as there will be additional events announced soon. You will not be disappointed.

    Here is the press release announcing the reopening.

    We do need your help, however. Kepler’s is looking for people to volunteer in various capacities. A list of volunteer opportunities follows below:

    * Work at a membership table and take membership pledges. We need people to work three-hour shifts on the following days:
    November 4, 5 pm to 11 pm
    November 5, 5 pm to 11 pm
    November 6, 9 am to 5 pm

    * Solicit memberships via phone and email.

    * Perform general office work.

    * Underwrite special events. Let us know if your company is interested.

    * Administer database management.

    * Host an author event at your house.

    If you are interested in volunteering in any of the above capacities, please email us with your volunteer interests and availability.

    Friday’s Tidbits

    The San Jose Mercury News mentioned Kepler’s in an editorial arguing for an internet tax. The absence of such a tax allows people to buy from online stores such as, ahem, Amazon without contributing to their local economies.

    Consider the recent closure of Kepler’s, Menlo Park’s storied bookseller: It’s clear that the 8.25 percent price premium that shoppers had to pay when buying books there instead of online didn’t help it stay competitive.

    A letter to the editor in Friday’s Palo Alto Weekly rightly suggests that Kepler’s should name someone with a purely literary interest to its board of directors.

    Salman Rushdie’s appearance, originally scheduled for October 3 at Kepler’s, has been moved to Books Inc. in Mountain View on Castro Street.

    Kepler’s Press Release

    Kepler’s has issued a press release announcing the formation of a Patron’s Circle of local investors and a Board of Directors as part of the efforts to save the store. The story was picked up by the San Jose Mercury and the Palo Alto Weekly among others. Details on membership and volunteer opportunities will be available soon.

    The release begins:

    Kepler’s today announced the formation of a Patron’s Circle of 17 community-minded individuals who will provide the financial basis for the bookstore’s renaissance and a Board of Directors that will add substantial financial and business expertise to Kepler’s while keeping its heart and soul alive. Members of the City Council have pledged strong support for keeping Kepler’s as the hub of downtown Menlo Park. However, the well-known and loved bookstore still faces hurdles in its ongoing negotiations with its landlord, the Tan Group of Palo Alto.

    Members of the Board include Clark Kepler, President, CEO and Chairman of the Board; Daniel Méndez, a Menlo Park resident and co-founder and CTO of Visto Corporation, a wireless technology firm in Redwood City; Geoff Ralston, an Atherton resident and Chief Product Officer at Yahoo!; and Bruce Dunlevie, General Partner at Menlo Park-based Benchmark Capital and a seasoned veteran of venture capital with more than 15 years experience in high-tech investing.

    Click here to read the full release.

    Additionally, click here to read letters from Ira Ruskin and Joe Simitian to the Tan Group.

    Save Kepler’s Mailing List and How to Help

    Thank you to all who attended the rally last week and to those who could not attend but were there in spirit. We mentioned writing in through this website as one way to get on the mailing list for saving Kepler’s. Please email us and say Hi if you would like to be on the list. The address for those of you who don’t do email links is savekeplers@gmail.com. (If there are specific ways in which you think you can help–expertise you think you can offer–please note them in your email.) If you have previously emailed in through this site, you are already on our list. We will keep you informed of any developments in the effort to save Kepler’s.

    As noted at the rally, if and when Kepler’s returns, there will likely be some sort of membership option available. The benefits of membership will be good and are not to be missed. In the meantime, while we work to restore the store, one thing you can do—in addition to getting on our mailing list and buying local—is to urge the Tan Group, to come to favorable terms with Kepler’s on its lease. Crack your knuckles and start writing letters. Even a brief message to the group in support of Kepler’s would be helpful. Contact info for the Tan Group: Tan Group: 3630 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94306, 650.493.6500. They used to have a website, but it curiously went down last week. We persist in wondering why.

    We are looking for Qualified Investors who are capable of making very large contributions to the effort to revive Kepler’s. If you are interested and think you fit the bill, please email us.

    For those who missed them, we have posted some new memories of Kepler’s.

    San Jose Mercury: Rescuing Kepler’s

    The San Jose Mercury ran a short piece updating the current Kepler’s situation. In it, Clark Kepler is quoted as saying, “I don’t think any other attitude than optimism is appropriate. It’s just an incredible outpouring, and I want to do everybody right by making it work.” This one’s optimistic. Click here for the full article.

    Monday, Monday: The State of the Independents and More…

    In addition to Sunday’s article in the San Francisco Chronicle, there has been some other media coverage of the Kepler’s story over the past few days. (If you only have time for one story, make it the Chronicle one, though.) David Morrill has an article on Inside Bay Area about the current state of independent bookstores and the resonating effect of Kepler’s closure throughout the bookselling world. Morrill’s article describes a clear opposition between independents and the big chains. Taking a contrarian view, Rhett Butler offers the idea that independent stores could profit by teaming up with Amazon. Gilles d’Aymery argues, rightly, that customers should and will order online, but that they should do so from their local bookstore. If and when Kepler’s reopens, Keplers.com will offer local same day delivery. Not even Amazon can give you that. Also in the news, The San Mateo County Times published an interview with me.

    If you haven’t written a letter to the Tan Group yet, now is the time to do so. Their cooperation in renegotiating Clark Kepler’s lease on the Menlo Center space is essential if the store is to reopen there. Again, the address for the Tan Group is: Tan Group: 3630 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, CA 94306.

    Finally, if you are not yet on our mailing list, send us an email. After all, why wallow? Why wait?

    Update: KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny did a show about Kepler’s and independent bookstores. Krasny’s guests included Clark Kepler and Andy Ross, the owner of Cody’s books in Berkeley. This show is required listening for people who are concerned about independent bookstores. If you have iTunes, you can click here for Forum’s podcast directory. Otherwise, you can click here.

    San Francisco Chronicle: The end—or is it?

    Heidi Benson’s article in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle describes the current efforts to save Kepler’s and begins:

    It wasn’t just a bookstore: It was a verb.

    Strolling through Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park — after dinner or a movie — was once called “keppling” by one die-hard fan of the Menlo Park store. But all keppling ceased on Aug. 31 when the store abruptly closed after a half-century in business.

    Now there’s a chance that Kepler’s, and “keppling,” may return to Menlo Park, thanks to fans of the store — including a fired-up group of potential investors and a lone ranger who launched an online life raft — who have mobilized to try to reopen its doors.

    Click here for the full article, which is required reading for anyone interested in saving the Kepler’s.