Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Another Keplers story


From the New York Times:

Bookstore Writes 'The End' to an Era
By
JOHN MARKOFF
MENLO PARK, Calif.,

After 50 years, Kepler's Bookstore closed its doors permanently on Wednesday, and loyal customers now come in groups of two and three to scrawl their farewells on big pieces of paper taped over its shuttered doors and windows.

For five decades, Kepler's, which began as a paperback shop on El Camino Real, the road that runs through the heart of Silicon Valley, has served as not only a bookshop but also a hub for a vibrant counterculture that peaked in the 1960's and 70's.

In "Searching for the Sound: My Life With the Grateful Dead" (Little, Brown, 2005), the bass guitarist Phil Lesh writes about how the original bookstore, which in the early 60's also had a small seating area for selling coffee and baklava, was a meeting place and rehearsal hall for the musicians before they became a band.Kepler's, which moved several times before 1989, was at the heart of the bohemian community that thrived around Stanford in the 60's: Stewart Brand opened the Whole Earth Truck Store several blocks to the north, from which he published the influential Whole Earth Catalog; the Midpeninsula Free University, a center of the counterculture, had a storefront nearby; and the People's Computer Company, a gathering place for the hobbyists who helped create the personal computer industry in the mid-70's, was also just blocks away.

Opened in May 1955 by Roy Kepler, a pacifist, the bookstore, just a short bike ride from the Stanford University campus, was abruptly closed on Wednesday by Mr. Kepler's son, Clark.

The business had been unable to rebound from Silicon Valley's dot-com bust, he told the employees during a brief meeting before shutting the doors.

In a note posted on the front door of the store, Mr. Kepler, who took over the business after his father died in 1994, wrote: "The decision to close our doors has been one of the most difficult in my life. As much as we love what we do and would like to continue another 50 years, we simply cannot. The economic downturn since 2001 has proven to be more than we can rebound from."

The irony of Kepler's demise amid the wealth and splendor of Silicon Valley was not lost among a number of those who have worked at the store in the past. They placed the blame not just on the giant book chains that have been steadily displacing the nation's independent bookstores, but also on the rise of Amazon, the giant online bookseller.

"They have been hurt more than anyone by the Internet," said Neal Sofman, who owns the San Francisco bookstore A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books. "There is no one on the Peninsula who isn't computer literate."

Mr. Sofman, who opened his own first store in Cupertino, Calif., while he was working at Kepler's, said his experience was typical of Roy Kepler's style, which did so much to foster the alternative community on the Peninsula.
"It was a place where you went to exchange ideas," he said.

A number of other Kepler's employees started bookstores in the San Francisco Bay Area, including Fred Cody, who founded Cody's, a popular independent bookseller in Berkeley.

The store had a tremendous influence on many of its customers, who would go there for hard-to-find magazines and books.

"I was a glassy-eyed undergraduate," said Stewart Brand, who began frequenting the bookstore while studying biology at Stanford. "It was a pillar of local civilization."

Kepler's best sellers often were not on any other lists, said Craig McCroskey, a publisher's representative and another former Kepler's employee, who met his wife while working at the store.

"We would sell everything from bodice-rippers to books like 'The Existential Pleasures of Engineering,' which were purchased by people wearing pocket protectors," he said.

Even in the 80's and 90's, when the store became less of a counterculture fixture and more of a mainstream business, it retained its function as the village well, where neighbors came to gossip and chat.

Kepler's was long distinguished by its unusually knowledgeable employees, who could give customers detailed literary advice. Ira Sandperl, a Ghandian scholar who would become the folk singer Joan Baez's mentor in the late 50's, was a fixture behind the cash register until he retired in 1988.

"People would confuse me with Roy," Mr. Sandperl said on Friday while eating breakfast next door to the shuttered bookstore. "But I would be holding forth at the counter while Roy would be sweeping up or cleaning the toilet in the back."

Mr. Sandperl recalled being driven to distraction by the Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia and his friends, who would practice the same song endlessly many nights at the bookstore. He recalled phoning Mr. Kepler to ask if he could throw them out of the store because he disliked their music so much, but he was told they were harmless.
Mr. Kepler, who remained a peace activist throughout his life, had gone to prison as a conscientious objector during World War II. He would later become executive director of the War Resisters League and in the 60's helped Mr. Sandperl and Ms. Baez create the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence. Mr. Sandperl said he had been jailed for civil disobedience with Mr. Kepler a number of times during the Vietnam War.

In the 60's the store became a target and its windows were broken numerous times, once by a bomb. The police ultimately found that the attackers had been members of a local Bible study group who were angry at the ideas Mr. Kepler supported.

The community does not seem to be ready to let go of its bookstore. A movement to resurrect Kepler's has already emerged, complete with a Web site (
www.savekeplers.com).

The reaction of Steven Fields, a longtime customer, was typical on Wednesday. After having lunch at Cafe Borrone next door, he told his 11-year-old daughter, Hanna, that Kepler's was closed. She immediately burst into tears.
"What am I going to do?" she said. "Where am I going to go? It was the best place."

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