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Long Live the Paperback Revolution


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LONG BEFORE Barnes & Noble, Borders and Amazon, there was Kepler's Books in Menlo Park. As of right now, the independent bookstore is turning 50 years old. World War II conscientious objector Roy Kepler first opened the place in May of 1955. Several other South Bay bookstores have come and gone in the meantime, but Kepler's still reigns supreme. The stories are endless.

It seems odd now, but back in the '50s, most publishers (as well as the general public) didn't consider paperbacks to be "real" books. Roy Kepler, along with Fred and Pat Cody in Berkeley, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights in San Francisco, changed all that. Bay Area bookstores became the leaders of the "paperback revolution."

Kepler himself drew considerable attention for his antiwar efforts, and in 1960 he was arrested at the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory for anti-nuclear weapons protesting. Throughout the '60s, Kepler's blossomed into a counterculture mecca. According to Grateful Dead historian Dennis McNally, "The Grateful Dead started here. Jerry Garcia was a fixture at Kepler's in the early '60s. He got his education stealing things off the shelves."

In John Markoff's wonderful book, What the Dormouse Said: How the '60s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, he says Kepler's "served as a beacon for an eclectic group of intellectuals who were outsiders in a community that was largely split in its economic dependence among Stanford, a fledgling electronics industry, and large military contractors like Lockheed."

According to former store manager Betty Sumrall, "If you had long hair, you could come in—there were places at this time where you could not even go if you had long hair. If you were too poor to buy a book, you could come in and read. Anyone, radical or not, was welcome."

Kepler's didn't endure the '60s without problems, of course. There were arson attempts and bomb blasts, due to the antiwar nature of the place. In 1968, someone blasted out the front windows in the Los Altos store.

An ad from the time read: "It's hard to say which is growing faster—the peninsula war industries or Kepler's Books. Unlike the Stanford Research Institute, Kepler isn't planning an underground shelter yet, but with books lining the walls and floors, we may be forced underground, too."

After moving around a few times, the store eventually made it to its current location at 1010 El Camino Real in Menlo Park. It continues to be one of the most successful independent bookstores around. A huge public party Saturday afternoon (May 14, 1-4pm) will feature live music, raffles, games, prizes and book bags filled with the best books from the last five decades.

Which leaves us with one burning question: Why on earth can San Francisco, Berkeley, Menlo Park and Santa Cruz support independent bookstores, but San Jose can't? I've posed that question to several San Joseans over the years and no one seems to have an answer.

Clark Kepler, who currently runs the store, said he wasn't qualified to analyze San Jose's situation, since he doesn't know the community well enough, but he said folks should demand an alternative to the nauseating strip malls.

"The phenomena of big box retailing and chains are ones that are very seductive to the consumer," he explained. "The perception of having everything there—convenience, low pricing, to be on every corner, the strip mall look—is something I think a community wants an alternative to. I think a lot of times people like the idea of an independent bookseller or grocery store, and the question is whether you want to shop it and give it your business all the time. That's the key component in being able to maintain a community, a downtown that is local."

So call your favorite real estate mogul and demand lower rents and more independent bookstores in San Jose. Tell them you need better places besides Barnes & Noble in which to slug coffee, lurk in the occult section and hit on New Age women.

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From the May 11-17, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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