Kepler’s in trouble again as Christmas momentum fizzles

Six months after community supporters fought to bring Kepler’s Books back from the brink of bankruptcy, the bookstore is still struggling to make ends meet.

Kepler’s abruptly closed Aug. 31, shocking its customer base. “We were running out of cash,” owner Clark Kepler said. Community supporters, including local entrepreneur Daniel Mendoza, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to reopen the store Oct. 8.

The bookstore had one of its best Christmas seasons on record and has raised money through a new customer-membership program, but already that support is waning, according to marketing director Anne Banta.

“We are disappointed that the momentum is not continuing in the way we hoped,” Banta said. “We had wanted a longer feeling of goodwill.”

Most independent bookstores are struggling and some, such as Kepler’s and Noe Valley’s Cover to Cover, have closed and reopened with community support. But Berkeley-based Cody’s opened a new store in downtown San Francisco seven months ago, despite tough financial odds.

“Independents are vulnerable because they don’t have as much money to weather out bad times or competition,” Cody’s owner Andrew Ross said. “The chains open a line of credit and open a new store. When we do it, we have to sign our life away.”

For Ross and Kepler’s, that is literally true. Ross founded Cody’s in 1972 and owns 100 percent of its holdings. Kepler shares ownership of the store, founded by his father, Roy, in 1955, with his mother, Patricia Kepler.

Kepler’s still draws many longtime customers. “They’re friendly and comprehensive and they have a community feel,” said Paul, a 15-year regular who did not give his last name. Paul added that he also shops at Borders and online booksellers.

To fight the competition, small bookstores are adopting some new strategies, according to Nick Setka, board president with the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association. Indie sellers are boosting their trademark customer-service skills and organizing book groups, e-mailing customers with news about upcoming events and books and launching frequent-buyer clubs.

As a result, business has been inching up for the association’s 200 members. “Many had their best Christmas season in three to four years,” Setka said.

The Kepler’s example proves that people’s buying habits have consequences, according to Ross. “People have to understand that if you abandon your businesses, your businesses will abandon you,” he said.

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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