The passing of Kepler's Books, Menlo Park, CA

In todays San Jose Mercury News I saw a very sad item. It announced the closing of a very good, fabulous even, local bookstore in Menlo Park. I've been happily shopping there since I first moved here to Silicon Valley, and I'm very saddened about the closing of the store. I'm very surprised as every time I visited they were very busy.

Something in the article stood out, though. One of the people quoted, a former employee if I remember right, claimed that amazon (amazon.com that is) killed them.

Well, I can't say that I agree with that idea. Yet, I know the argument very well.

I am an online writer who has been part of the amazon affiliate program for many years. I've thought long about this quandry, because I highly value the local bookstore just as I highly value the online stores.

Here's how I see it.

First, there's the open market competition aspect. To a large extent we have an open market, and people can shop where they will. I don't think amazon.com is able to compete well on price, but they certainly compete very well in depth of offerings. And it's not just amazon.com, but the other online booksellers. And it's not just online booksellers, but the major chains. All have come together to threaten the small local bookstore, and somehow the small local bookstore isn't finding a way to compete in this environment.

Second, online bookselling isn't a closed market that can only be done by the hugeness of amazon.com. Indeed there are many outlets online for the small local bookstore to take part in global bookselling. Off the top of my head I know that amazon.com, half.com, alibris.com, and abesbooks.com all offer ways for book merchants to list books for sale.

For example ... there's a little known niche book about an event that happened in the midwest in the early 1970's. It just so happens that my Grandfather was a major part of that event, and plays a large role in the book (which was written by Charlie Esterhaus, then a writer for Rolling Stone magazine). Since it's such an unpopular book I thought I'd never be able to get a copy, but then I stumbled across alibris.com and was able to find several used bookstores that had copies. So I bought one for myself, my sister, and my brother, because I thought we all would enjoy being able to read about our Grandfather. The sale went to local bookstores (with a small cut to alibris.com no doubt) and we got to have a copy of this rare book. This is what I see as a win-win-win-win situation. I had been looking for that book for years in used bookstores, to no avail. And the power of the Internet (alibris.com anyway) made the book available to me and my siblings.

This rise of technology is a wave of new ways of living and conducting economic lives. I suppose you could view it in a darwinian way and say that those who are unable to adapt will be swept away.

I'm sorry that the small local bookstores are dying. I wish them well in adapting.

UPDATE (September 3, 2005): According to an article in the Palo Alto Daily News for today, a deal has been reached allowing Keplers to continue in business. The article describes a big outpouring of grief over this event, with hundreds of handwritten notes left on the doors to the bookstore describing shock and disbelief, and that a rally is scheduled for Tuesday with a special city council meeting in the evening. The article says the building owners have agreed to terms which will keep Kepler's in business.