Earlier this month, Praveen Madan, CEO of Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, Calif., delivered a dire series of observations to the attendees of Reimagining Bookstores, an online gathering of nearly 600 booksellers and publishing professionals. Independent bookstores face multiple crises that threaten their existence, Madan said, ranging from declining literacy to unsustainably low employee wages that he characterized as “institutional poverty.”
Then, before sending attendees into one of the most invigorating gatherings on independent bookselling in a generation, he offered warm encouragement: “Let’s have some fun. Let’s have some energizing conversation. Let’s go create some change.”
Madan’s balancing act of pragmatism and optimism is what led him to purchase and revitalize Kepler’s, the nearly 70-year-old indie bookselling institution, in 2012. In the past nine years, he has transformed the store through creative partnerships—Kepler’s took over fulfillment for the community library when it closed at the outset of the pandemic—and by committing to implementing a living wage for employees.
Those successes led Paul Wright, a board member of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, a Kepler’s Bay Area neighbor, to suggest last year that Madan convene booksellers to try to apply the same revitalization to its entire segment of the publishing industry.
Madan wasn’t convinced. “In the beginning I was like, I don’t know,” he said.
But instead of giving up, Wright took Madan’s reticence as a challenge to create a core group of potential participants, to persuade him to move from uncertainty to a firm yes. He started by introducing Madan to author and consultant Peggy Holman, whose work goes back to the earliest days of the internet and centers on “open space technology” (OST), a philosophy of creating intentional, nonhierarchical gatherings to address complex issues.
Holman then introduced Madan to a squad of fellow OST adherents. Together, they said they were willing to help him organize everything he would need for participants to frame goals and generate ideas. Holman assured him that if he was prepared to start envisioning a new landscape of American bookselling, they could create and manage a simple framework for channeling the experience of hundreds of booksellers into the beginnings of a movement for change.
The team’s enthusiasm persuaded Madan, who began sending out invitations to Reimagining Bookstores in mid-September, and by the first day of the gathering on October 18, the list had grown to nearly 600. Throughout the conference, participants split into groups, devising their own session topics geared toward creating new ways to combat endemic issues that have long hindered stability and growth in indie bookselling.
In retrospect, Madan said, his initial reluctance mirrors a problem among indie booksellers. They are hesitant to ask for assistance. Speaking to the attendees on the second day of the conference, he said, “Bookstore owners and leaders can get better at asking for help, and they’re going to have to get better at asking for help in the future we are imagining here.”
Madan acknowledged that what he is proposing is difficult. To succeed, he believes indie booksellers need to completely reorient public perception of what they offer, framing it as a social good that warrants an array of supports from individual customers, industry partners, and government leaders. At the same time, he is very skeptical that any of those stakeholders can be trusted to lead the effort to make the changes bookstores need.
In a stark assessment, Madan told Reimagining Bookstores attendees that booksellers alone will have to take the steps to guide Americans toward embracing the importance of their place in their communities. “We really have to stop expecting that someone is going to come to our rescue,” he said. “There are many versions of this fantasy: publishers that are going to come rescue us, God is going to come rescue us, the American Booksellers Association is going to come rescue us.”
Madan and his fellow organizers are also convinced that sustainable answers will only emerge if a diverse group of booksellers are at the forefront of sharing the ideas that lead to action. Time and again in the conference sessions, conversations appeared to affirm this sensibility. Participation and leadership by BIPOC and LGBTQ booksellers was notable, especially in a predominantly white industry.
At Reimagining Bookstores, conversations generated radical ideas with potential, including a proposal for the creation of an independent bookstore fund to act as a lender in lieu of banks, which often deny booksellers—especially BIPOC booksellers—access to capital. And nearly two dozen industry professionals attended a session on creating an ongoing organizing committee to keep the discussion moving forward.
For Madan, the key to success will be in resisting the creation of yet another single-solution mindset or a monolithic organization. “It’s not so much, to me, what we are going to do as how, and the how is determined by the principles,” he said during the conference. “I think the reason the principles are so important is because we’re bringing a radically different set of them than what had been applied to this issue before.”
Evan Karp, the only bookseller aside from Madan in the group’s organizing committee, said that the OST members’ enthusiasm for facilitating the event is a positive sign in and of itself—one that points to the potential for booksellers to create the radical change they need by drawing on broad communal support. What shape the effort will take from here is still an open question, but Madan plans to follow up with participants in the coming weeks, encouraging them to resist the pull to go back to business as usual. (Four new sessions have been scheduled for November so far, and four other leaders are looking for expressions of interest in their topics before scheduling meetings.)
For Wright, whose enthusiasm sparked the idea to begin Reimagining Bookstores, the gathering was an affirmation that an ongoing effort is needed to ensure the long-term viability of independent bookselling. “I felt over the last two days the sense that community bookstores are one of the pillars this country stands on,” he said. “And whether their situation is dire—or as dire as we fear—I see them as institutions that must be protected for the sake of our larger society.”
Reimagining Bookstore organizer Praveen Madan (l.), with author and consultant Peggy Holman.