Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Opinion | Silicon Valley has a page turner for bookstores

You can find what you were looking for, but it takes a bookstore to find what you were not

Because of my father’s transferable job in the Indian Railways, we moved from one town to another. Every place I went to, the small independent bookstore, often at the local railway station, became my pet hangout. That was until we moved to large cities that had multiple independent bookstores. There I saw the birth of chain bookstores such as Crossword. But the charm of the independent bookstore was unique and Bengaluru’s Bookworm, Select and Premier became my favourites.

Gradually, I began to witness the closure of many popular independent bookstores like Premier and that was the case even after I moved to Cupertino in Silicon Valley. When I spoke to my friends in the industry, they all gave the same response. From Krishna Gowda, the owner of Bookworm (in Bengaluru) to Praveen Madan from Kepler’s (in Menlo Park), they mentioned challenges from online shopping driving down margins to high rentals to managing large inventories.

Bookworm was started in 2000 by Gowda, an ardent book lover. With more than a million books, he has one of the best collections of books (especially children’s books). However, ever-increasing rentals pose an existential threat. Across the globe, another Landmark was getting ready to file for bankruptcy. In 2012, Kepler’s, Silicon Valley’s most famous bookstore, had started a wind-down process because of shrinking sales and mounting debts (even Einstein wrote about Kepler’s). Now the good news: Kepler’s is alive. Sales have risen for six years. It has increased staff compensation significantly and even implemented a successful profit-sharing programme for employees. So what’s the secret sauce?

It all began with a book-loving chief executive officer. Madan was a typical Silicon Valley executive, travelling the world and climbing the corporate ladder. His life changed when his 16-month-old daughter died. A few years after this life-altering incident, he decided to quit his day job at management consulting firm A.T. Kearney and take a break. The self-created sabbatical for a year was spent travelling and hanging out in bookstores. Finally, in 2007, he decided to give up his corporate career and follow his passion for books and bookstores. He bought his first bookstore, Booksmith, in San Francisco.

Being an outsider, Madan saw things differently. He realized booklovers still cared about bookstores. There was a reason why people came out into the streets and started crowd-funding campaigns when a bookstore closed down, but not when another retail store closed down. When Kepler’s founded by Clark Kepler had to down its shutters for the first time in 2005, people had spontaneously held rallies and raised money to save Kepler’s. However, by late 2011 Kepler’s was running a loss of $50,000 a month. All the investors had left and closure was looming with an expiring lease. With 45 days left for liquidation, Kepler reached out to Madan. He thought: what is good for Clark need not be good for Kepler’s, and started a turnaround that’s now being studied and could be the answer to bookstore survival across the globe. Here are some takeaways:

1. Bookstores need to be operated as organizations with a social mission to serve their communities. This means they need to be owned and operated by their communities employing a philosophy of stewardship.

2. Bookstores are no longer only a place where people go to buy books. Compare it to visiting a museum. People visit the museum to experience art/culture and visit the bookstore on their way out. A bookstore needs to become part of the overall cultural and intellectual experience.

3. If bookstores are community places, why not have a not-for-profit aspect to them? This would also give an opportunity for the community to donate funds, which now becomes an additional source of revenue for the organization. A big step for this was achieved in 2018, when Kepler’s became the first independent bookstore to successfully spin off its events programme and community activities into a separate organization, Kepler’s Literary Foundation, and successfully obtained a tax exemption from the Internal Revenue Service.

4. Have regular events at the bookstore and for the community with exclusive events ticketed and the community events free. In many ways, it should become a community space like a library, the difference being that public libraries are funded by taxes while Kepler’s is funded by book sales, ticket sales and donations.

5. People’s fundamental relationship with a bookstore should change. The bookstore should become a common space for human connection.

6. As it is run by the community, investing in people is the key. At Kepler’s a third of the staff have a master’s degree. Kepler’s became one of the first bookstores to give $15 per hour wage.

People like browsing in a bookstore given its serendipitous quality. It’s more compelling to hunt for a book in a bookstore than follow a search algorithm written by an engineer. As someone said, you can always find what you are looking for online, but it takes a bookstore to find what you were not looking for.

While the bookstore in its traditional form may not always exist, it will remain. But the key, like in any business, is for it to reinvent itself—over and over again.

V.R. Ferose is an inclusion evangelist and bibliophile, is senior vice-president at SAP based in Silicon Valley.

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