by Gilles d'Aymery
"Those who speak most of progress measure it by quantity and not quality."
(Swans - September 12, 2005) PATRONS LOOKED in disbelief at the little note hanging at the door of their favorite bookstore on August 31 2005. It read: "Kepler's is closed." Founded in 1955 by Roy Kepler, a peace and equal rights activist, the bookstore became a cultural landmark in the Bay Area. Nationally renowned, like City Lights in San Francisco and Cody's in Berkeley, Kepler's was more than a bookstore; it was a center for the peace and justice movement. Day in and day out 40 people worked there in a friendly atmosphere always at the ready to find or order the book of one's desire. For the dozen years Jan and I lived in Menlo Park most of our book and magazine purchases were done there. For a while, we lived a short block away from the store -- a five-minute stroll at most. I would visit regularly; sit in the magazine section to browse French magazines like Le Nouvel Obs' or Le Canard Enchaîné or Le Monde Diplomatique. (Of course, they carried the Anderson Valley Advertiser!) One didn't have to buy anything but I seldom left the store without a new book. Co-workers would ask, "so, what did you do last night?" and I would answer, "we went keppling," or "we keppled." It was a magic place.
CLARK KEPLER, Roy's son, put it succinctly: "As hard as we've worked to maintain sales and stay open...we were insolvent." Kepler's could not compete with Amazon.com and the mega-stores such as Barnes & Noble. Independent booksellers are disappearing in droves. More and more local businesses are disappearing in droves. And you, good readers, keep shopping online or in the mega-stores. It's so convenient, isn't it? Then, one wakes up in the morning to find a little note on the door -- "store's closed" -- and can't believe it. Landmarks are not supposed to close...till they do.
THE NEXT STEP, once the stunning realization has set in, is public outcry, community organizing, and attempts to save the place, which is what happened. A rally to "Save Kepler's" took place on September 7, a Web site created, city officials picked up their phones, potential wealthy investors showed up, the landlord may agree to a lower rent. Dawn Kepler, Clark's sister, puts it best (on September 8):
Dear Book Lovers,
I want to thank everyone on behalf of my brother, Clark, and our family, for the outpouring of affection and support for Kepler's. I stood in the plaza and remembered the very first store, saw folks from my father's time, and just cried to hear the kind words spoken. My brother has given everything he could to the store. He has continued our dad's vision. My dad didn't just start a store; he started an idea. He wanted to stop war and he needed an occupation that would support his family while he pursued peace. A book lover himself, he decided that selling books -- making all ideas available to everyone -- was a way to support himself and, oddly enough, he believed that greater knowledge might bring greater peace!
Someone said if the store reopens it will, of necessity, be different. Folks, the store has been reinvented many times, more than you imagine. But that is what living things do, they change. Kepler's isn't just the building, it's ideas, community, conversation, learning. I think it morphed from being just a family business years ago and became what the readers, the authors, the detractors and the supporters made of it.
First, we have to believe we can change things. Then we will.
KEPLER'S may open again. But the trend is unmistakable. Independent booksellers are a dying species so long as we keep shopping in the mega-stores or online to save a few bucks and for convenience. I've nothing against online shopping and certainly understand that for many people the savings can make a big difference. Amazon.com is not the enemy but, as I wrote in 2003, it "does not lavish its visitors with comfortable chairs and benches where one may read any book or magazine for hours on end, without even being asked to buy anything. Kepler's does; and we support the store as much as we can (Kepler's is a member of BookSense, the sound and sane place to purchase a book through the Internet)." Amazon.com does not provide a forum for "ideas, community, conversation, learning." Books there have become a commodity, in the company of electronics, tools, toys, apparel, office products, music, watches, software, etc. They have no life of their own piled in huge warehouses; you can't touch them; you can't smell them; you can't talk to someone about them; you can't trust the book reviews; you can't go in the evening to listen and talk to Howard Zinn or Arundhati Roy; but, yes, you can expediently save a few dollars...and the bookstore eventually closes...and 40 people are out of work.
PEOPLE, YOU CAN both shop online (convenience) and support your local, independent bookstores. Again, in the U.S., use BookSense. We have to believe we can change things.
SATURDAY, A WEEK AGO, Jan and I sat at the Boonville dive-in with one of the old-timers. In his seventies, born and raised in Comtche, California, in Boonville since the early 1960s, still working his Caterpillar in the Sierra foothills, the friendliest of friendly elder was telling us how it used to be in this valley (the Anderson Valley, 110 miles north of San Francisco); how everybody knew everybody else; how no one locked one's home; how one could depend on the community and the local businesses... Then we got into the Katrina mess and the impact on the price of gasoline ($3.5999 a gallon in town that day). The gentleman went on a long tirade on the oil companies taking advantage of us all, when "we only import five percent of our oil needs..." Five percent, I asked incredulously? I think it's more like 56 percent, I added. "Not from the long article I read," was his answer... After a bit more small talk about the lumber boom of the late 1940s to 1960s, when there were some 40 family-operated mills in the valley (only one remains), he excused himself to head for Ukiah, a 50-mile round trip in his 20 miles-per-gallon van, where he had some shopping to do at Wal*Mart, "where things are cheaper than here." For our part we drove to the Anderson Valley Farm Supply & Animal Deli in Philo to get food for our dog.
DAVID AND NANCY Gowan have owned and operated the Farm Supply store and compound (30 acres nested between Route 128 and the Navarro River) for some 45 years. They sell everything from nursery supplies to livestock and pet feeds, stockgates, fencing, wire products, drip irrigation, seeds, alfalfa, oat and grass hay, straw, shavings, chainsaws and gas trimmers, ranch hardware, vet supplies, wood pellets, propane, etc... The Gowans have been in the valley for a long time. Their cousins own the last significant apple orchards of the Valley that have not been replaced by vineyards. The Farm Supply is a wonderful country store to visit, look around, ask advice, have a chat with David, and get first-rate service. The Farm Supply is for sale.
WHY ARE YOU selling, Dave? "Forty-five, 46 years are enough," was his short answer. I was the only person in the store; he had time on his hands and I prodded him further. The Valley has changed a lot in the past 30 years and so too its people. It used to be a well-knitted community. People weren't rich; they worked hard; but they lived well with local products. They'd shop within the Valley. Today they go to the Ukiah mega-stores or they get the products trucked in directly from Ukiah or Santa Rosa. You can't compete with Wall*Mart or Home Depot or Friedman's. They can sell goods at a cheaper price than what I have to pay for them. Everything is made in Mexico, or China... Cheap is what people want. Manufacturers don't care much about small family businesses. He tells me that he used to carry Stihl chainsaws and weed whackers, until a rep showed up and said he had to do at least $25,000 of business a year. He was doing 15. Fifteen grand was not enough for Stihl and they dropped him cold. One can sense a touch of bitterness in the tone of his voice, or regret and lassitude. The vineyards and wealthy weekenders have bidden the cost of land and housing so high that locals can't afford living here any longer and few good jobs exist for those who stay. He was not saying anything more, or much different, than what Bruce Anderson, the former publisher/editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, told me in various occasions and often wrote about in his paper. The Valley is doomed, its community dying. Without family businesses located here in the Valley you'll be left with the big vineyards, a huge underclass of immigrant workers, the weekenders, and the tourists on their way to the Mendocino Coast or stopping by the myriad wine tasting rooms which are interspersed along the valley floor. Huge wealth in the hands of the very few, wide poverty at the bottom, and not much left in the middle -- a phenomenon happening all over the country.
THAT THE ENTIRE FABRIC of our society is falling into disrepair, that we're a part of this society that is falling into disrepair, that we know the society is falling into disrepair, does not seem to change our buying habits. People keep shopping on line and in the mega-stores. They want convenience, more stuff in their garages and closets at ever-cheaper prices. The most wasteful society in the world and in history is drowning in its landfills, watching helplessly the disintegration of its social construct.
WHEN WILL YOU, dear readers, awaken to the situation, respond to the obvious, and act to reverse the drama that's playing under your own eyes? When? WHEN? Buy less, pay a little more, and support your independent businesses. Is it too much to ask?