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Arts and Entertainment

But She Is In Her Grave, And Oh! The Difference To Me...

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We heard it through the grapevine - actually, through Neil Gaiman's weblog - and we're just about to lose our minds. Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, the famous South Bay independent bookstore, has closed its doors after 50 years.

The Palo Alto Online News reports that City Hall officials were aware that the owner, Clark Kepler, was struggling with high rents in the wealthy area. Menlo Park is in between Atherton, one of the wealthiest suburbs in the United States, and the equally overpriced Palo Alto, home of Stanford University. Clark's personal message at www.keplers.com does not specifically refer to rent increases, but he says that "the economic downturn since 2001 has proven to be more than we can rebound from."

Roy Kepler, social activist, founded Kepler's in 1955 to provide independent bookselling and dialogue for the South Bay area. His son, Clark, took over in 1979, and by 2004 the store was more noted for its authorial events than its political demonstrations. However, its late hours, vast stock, and clean shelves still drew in everyone from professors to students to dot-com programmers to aging sixties radicals. Gaiman speaks for many authors, saying "It was one of the stores I always looked forward to signing in."

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We worked at Kepler's, first as a cashier, then at the Info desk, then as a children's books specialist, for six months in 2004 just before we graduated from college. There was never a day when the story wasn't bustling with excited customers. We visited this past year for its 50th anniversary celebration, and saw no signs of less activity. Kepler's was moving lots of stock, but it still couldn't stay afloat. The profit margins in bookselling are notoriously slim.

What does this mean for LA bookstores and the rest of the country, and why should readers - especially those of us who buy all our books online - care? Independent booksellers have independent buyers who can choose to stock one title or another based on what they think is of merit, not what a national chain recommends. Managers at Barnes & Noble, Borders, and the other megastores have no such discretion.

Writers like Christopher Paolini, whose latest fantasy Eldest has now broken records for the largest single-week sales in Random House Children's Books history,would never have achieved success if they hadn't been promoted by independent bookstores. No one at Borders stocked his self-published novel Eragon before he was picked up by a major publisher. It was the small stores who created the buzz and sold the book. Without the indies, we are going to lose a lot of Paolinis and their books- and that's one less dragon in the world.

We'd like to hope that if one of our beloved LA independent bookstores - Dutton's, Book Soup, Vroman's, and Children's Book World - was so threatened, that our city and citizens would step up to raise money to save it, rather than letting it go. We are disappointed today, not just in the end of Keplers, but in the silence of Stanford at its going. An independent, opinionated bookseller who can recommend books to you is one of the greatest privileges of an free nation and an intellectual community. We lose that privilege when we don't defend the independents.

And you can buy your books online at Powell's, a Portland indie, just as easily as Amazon.