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Thursday, Nov. 3, 2005 06:09 pm

A community and its bookstore

One city recognized protecting an independent bookstore meant everything

In most American towns, chamber-of-commerce booster types measure the town’s status by whether it has such corporate symbols as a Wal-Mart or McDonald’s. For me, however, the true measure of a town’s vitality comes down to whether it has three noncorporate essentials: a vibrant farmers’ market, a good local pub, and an independent community-based bookstore. In assessing Menlo Park, Calif., I don’t know about the first two measures, but I do know that it is strong on the third, boasting a terrific homegrown store: Kepler’s Books and Magazines. For 50 years this family enterprise has been much more than a store — it’s a community center that brings folks of all stripes together, providing information, enlightenment, entertainment, and connection. To go book-browsing in Menlo Park has come to be called “keppling.”
Imagine the shock of locals, then, when they heard late in August that this town hub was shutting its doors for good, a victim of discount pricing by the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But wait — the community refused to let Kepler’s die! Within a week, some 500 people rallied outside the store to organize community support, 17 locals stepped up to invest $500,000 in new capital, professionals had contributed a new business plan, a Savekeplers.com Web site had gone up, some 400 people (from grade-schoolers to senior citizens) volunteered time to help put the store back on its feet, a Kepler’s membership club was started, an 11-year-old student held a school fundraiser, and . . . well, the whole town’s grassroots rallied. Only six weeks after closing, Kepler’s was reborn, stronger than ever. To measure the vitality of a town, don’t look for corporate logos but for signs that the town has a commercial soul and strong community bonds.
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