Kepler’s Books CEO Praveen Madan, left and new Kepler’s Literary Foundation Executive Director Jean Forstner stand inside the foundation offices in Menlo Park on Monday, July 3, 2017. (Kevin Kelly / Daily News)
Kepler’s Books achieved a milestone this week when it fully separated the bookstore from all of its programming.
The Menlo Park bookstore, which opened in 1955 with a focus on being a cultural hub and continues that mission today, announced Wednesday the formation of Kepler’s Literary Foundation.
The foundation, with an executive director, two full-time staffers and three part-timers, is now completely independent from the bookstore and is solely in charge of producing events and community programs featured at the bookstore and off-site locations.
The nonprofit, whose offices are directly across from the store on the other side of El Camino Real, initially formed as Peninsula Arts & Letters in spring 2013, but until recently was being subsidized by the store and didn’t have a board of directors. It is now completely funded by community donations. The community also asked that the nonprofit be rebranded with Kepler’s in the name.
The board is chaired by Patrick Corman, a veteran Silicon Valley marketing and communications consultant. The vice chairman is Dan Gilbert, a tech entrepreneur and investor; the secretary/treasurer is Beth Morgan, COO of Twine; and other directors are Anne Dimock, a creative writer and nonprofit executive, and Kepler’s CEO Praveen Madan.
Madan said Monday the future looks rosy for the bookstore, at least for the next five years.
He recently signed a new five-year lease and said since taking over from Clark Kepler in 2012, store sales have gone up 5 to 6 percent every year. Since January, entry-level workers begin at $15 an hour, which Madan said increases to $16.44 when profit-sharing is added in. That’s an 82 percent increase over the starting wage of $9 an hour when he took over five years ago, he said. BookLit, a gift book website Kepler’s purchased two years ago, has also seen sales increases double each year.
While Madan said pay should be $20-25 an hour to be considered a “living wage,” turnover is no longer the problem it was a few years ago, which he said adds to the store’s success.
“By having people with longer tenures … that experience translates into stronger business performance,” he said. “It also helps that we’re the best-paying bookstore in the entire Bay Area, probably the entire country at this point. … We’re playing catch-up. People have been underpaid in this industry for a very long time.”
Jean Forstner, the foundation’s new executive director, said she recently hired an event manager who relocated from Brooklyn to work in Menlo Park.
“It’s not just the money, it’s the fact that they’re learning something that is exciting and delivering results and they can see it,” Madan said.
Separating programming from the for-profit side has been the key to success, Madan said, suggesting that otherwise Kepler’s run might be over. He said the idea came from Vivian Leal, a longtime Kepler’s supporter, during talks in 2012.
In her new role, Forstner said she aims to bring more high-quality programming to the community that will take deeper dives into topics. Forstner was previously Kepler’s director of programming and operations. Prior to that, she was state director for the late U.S. Sen Alan Cranston.
“We have a team where our sole focus is on creating really great literary experience for people,” she said. “If we bring in a Nobel physicist, we’re going to find somebody at SLAC (National Accelerator Laboratory) who can speak that language and create that conversation … something that a person (attending) will not forget.”
The foundation also continues a 2-year-old partnership with Ravenswood City School District, wherein Kepler’s brings well-known authors of youth literature to the district’s seven schools and gives the district 30 copies of each book. This past school year, with two authors visiting each campus, she said every district student got the chance to meet with an author.
Madan said while much of the vision of the Kepler’s 2020 Project launched in 2012 has now been met, missing pieces remain the lack of a “living wage” for many employees and a way for the community to have ownership in the bookstore. Of the latter, Madan said the idea is still in discussion but it could entail anything from a membership program that offers discounts and inside scoops to a co-op that pays dividends to members. He said Kepler’s is also considering pursuing programs to house its employees.
“Perhaps it could be a housing fund that could be used by employees that would likely need support from community donors,” he said.