Features & Columns

Kepler's 2020: Community
Bookstore of the Future

Kepler's looks to open-source tech model to launch a new initiative to help independent booksellers
SHELF LIFE: An innovative new program aims to keep bookstores like Menlo Park's Kepler's aloft. Photograph by Alex Stover

Call it serendipity, but I slithered into Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on the very day the store announced its new venture to create the independent bookstore of the future. In fact, it was within a few hours. Get ready, as this idea could only have happened in Silicon Valley.

As most have figured out by now, the traditional economic model of an independent retail bookstore is essentially obsolete, thanks to the ease with which one can buy exactly what he or she wants much cheaper from online retailers. And Amazon has proven that after people buy e-readers, they end up purchasing way more e-books then print books.

Enter a brand-new idea: Kepler's 2020, the official transition phase into the community bookstore of the future. This will be a hybrid model, consisting of a community-owned bookstore that focuses on curating and retailing books and a nonprofit that focuses on events.

As the blog says: "When you know exactly what you want, an online retailer is a very efficient way to get it. What they aren't as good at is serendipity. Anyone who loves books can tell you about the gem they picked up while they were browsing at a bookstore—a staff pick, a personal recommendation or just a happy find. Bookstores also continue to excel at providing a community around writing and reading—author events, book clubs and literary gatherings."

Clark Kepler, whose dad opened the store 56 years ago, is not going away. He is retiring but will still function as chairman of the board. The store will still be called Kepler's, but leading the transition team is Praveen Madan, the "literary entrepreneur" who owns Booksmith on Haight Street in San Francisco.

Over the phone, Madan said that, unlike when Borders was going broke, with Kepler's, we are not witnessing the publishing industry pushing a business into bankruptcy. We are not seeing bookstore executives asking for bonuses as the company goes under.

At Kepler's, says Madan, the opposite is happening. An expression of grassroots love has emerged to innovate the next independent bookseller model. People are volunteering hours and hours of their own time.

"You just don't see that with any other commercial institution in this country," Madan says.

The particulars of the new model are still being hashed out, but the basic idea is to split off the community events and the author series into a dedicated nonprofit, which allows tax-deductible funding from corporate and individual donors.

Without the need to subsidize those events, the for-profit retail portion should be able to run more effectively and grow stronger.

The point is not just to save Kepler's; rather, this could be a revolution, an idea that should spread beyond Menlo Park to other independent booksellers. There is a future for this business, Madan believes.

"I do think there is a goal here, long-term," he tells me. "A lot of the ideas we've been talking about on the bookselling model, they are applicable to other independent bookstores in the rest of the country.

"As we've started to go public with the story and shared this with other people, we are already seeing interest from other independent bookstores. [They're] calling me, emailing me, and saying, 'Hey, how do we do this nonprofit thing? We've been thinking about this for years, but we just don't know how to do it, because it's so complex.'"

Madan himself comes from a tech background; he's a former software engineer and management consultant. The most interesting aspect of the plan is that he views the process as one of open-source innovation. Whatever the team learns from this endeavor will be given away in the hopes that it can help other independent bookstores. It's like a Wiki concept, allowing other bookstores to customize and adapt the plan to suit their own particular scenario. Anyone can port the idea to their own platform.

"It's like software," Madan explains. "And the people who get that immediately are the VCs. In fundraising rounds and meeting with entrepreneurs, the venture capitalists get that in the first five minutes of the conversation. They get it. There's like a multiplier effect here. You can totally scale this, but you don't scale it with a chain or by franchising it. Those are the old models. You do it by Wiki style or Mozilla style or Linux style. You give it away."

And we shall hope that serendipity still plays a role.

Kepler's 2020