In October 2021, Praveen Madan of Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, Calif., and a team of co-conveners launched an experiment known as Reimagining Bookstores. Some 600 booksellers and publishing professionals registered for the inaugural Zoom session, and about 350 tuned in. Madan and his team addressed the “multiple crises” that threaten bookstores’ existence, PW reported, yet the conversation was “one of the most invigorating gatherings on independent bookselling in a generation.”
Participants in Reimagining Bookstores view bookstores as akin to cultural hubs like libraries, literary arts organizations, local journalism, and public radio. The aim is to disrupt hierarchical, top-down management styles and institute more collaborative civic models. “Reimagining Bookstores is not a product or a service someone is trying to sell you—it’s a movement,” Madan emphasized.
Madan is the CEO—in his case, “community engagement officer”—of Kepler’s Books and board director of its nonprofit wing, Kepler’s Literary Foundation. With community buy-in and with knowledge he acquired on the board of the Bay Area independent Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Madan rescued Kepler’s in 2012 and now operates it as a social purpose corporation.
“I benefited so much from being part of the Berrett-Koehler ecosystem,” he said, noting B-K’s status as a certified B Corp and the encouragement he received from colleagues, including fellow B-K board member Paul Wright of business consulting firm WrightWork Communications.
The creation of Kepler’s for-profit/nonprofit structure sparked Madan’s vision for Reimagining Bookstores. “It was abundantly clear to me that if I wanted to pay better wages, I needed to have community governance, and that meant running an organization in a very different way,” he said. “It was a very good idea on paper. But how to deliver?”
In 2012, Kepler’s Bay Area community generated “close to $1 million to save the store” and trusted Madan to take the lead. Now, “Kepler’s is 100% community financed, and has been for the 11 years since I joined,” he said.
Madan believes not only in community investment but in alternatives to conventional ideas about growth. Booksellers take tight margins and anxiety as givens; in times of inflation and flux, they worry about emergency loans, charitable aid, or fundraising. “We concluded at Kepler’s that maximizing profits is outdated,” he said. “There’s a contradiction between the drive to maximize profit and the need to raise employees’ salaries. What matters is that you have enough money coming in to pay everyone well,” and that means rethinking the basic framework of how stores operate.
Thanks to the conversations in 2021, Reimagining Bookstores is gaining steam. Investors and philanthropists, already in communication with the regional independent bookselling associations, have begun offering grants and investments, sustainable loan arrangements, and strategic advice to growing cohorts of bookstores. Films about indie bookselling are in development. And Reimagining Bookstores is partnering with the Washington, D.C.–based Whole School Leadership Institute on two informational sessions, May 19 and 25, to develop customized training modules for bookstore management and creative leadership.
Madan said he believes “narratives are starting to emerge” around bookstores as intrinsically valuable community spaces. “I’m trying to light a fire, and there are sparks all over the place. I’m asking how to turn this into a bigger movement.”
Because movements are decentralized, Madan does not micromanage the groups that sprouted from the first Reimagining Bookstores meeting. Nevertheless, he’s an enthusiastic matchmaker for those itching to be involved. At an April 10 gathering of Beyond Bookstores, a group of 35 participants, Madan joined the audience. Media producer Steve Wax, who’s chair of the board of independent publisher Heyday Books in Berkeley, Calif., and Lisa Uhrik, founder of the Plenty on Spring bookstore and president of the manufacturing company Franklin Fixtures in Cookeville, Tenn., described themes they see developing, and plans for workshops to support in-store experimentation.
“I felt like I was transformed by every conversation” with the Beyond Bookstores members, said Uhrik, who has worked with Madan and Seminary Co-op’s Jeff Deutsch to develop her own gathering space, Plenty on Spring, as a B Corp. “I’m excited to be in a cohort interested in thinking beyond the walls of bookstores.”
Uhrik and Wax have identified four themes that resonate with participants, and they’ll build a series of workshops to further explore those pathways. The cohort wants to practice storytelling in curated displays, rethink national advocacy around political issues and the book industry, explore partnerships with local and national businesses like hotel chains and theaters, and foster broader community engagement.
On the topic of advocacy and book banning, for instance, Uhrik said she’s heard “so many booksellers saying, ‘I will not be polarizing.’ They want to be a space of welcome, want to be above the noise—they realize how precarious it can be to be controversial.” Though bookstores “focus on the freedom to read,” she added, they want to do advocacy without alienating locals. “We live in volatile times, so how do you be the light on the corner? I thought that was interesting data.”
Jill Hendrix, owner of Fiction Addiction in Greenville, S.C., likewise appreciates the collaboration fostered by the Beyond Bookstores group. When she saw room for improvement in her own marketing strategies and noticed that other bookstore owners felt similarly, she started an idea-sharing session titled StoryBrand Marketing, alluding to principles from Donald Miller’s 2017 book Building a Story Brand.
“It’s a fact-finding process, trying to identify common issues with marketing,” Hendrix said. “Why should each store have to come up with its own marketing plan?”
The StoryBrand Marketing group looks for approaches that appeal across markets and is compiling a file of good ideas. Hendrix said the discussions prove that “indie booksellers have a hard time believing in their value proposition and explaining it. A lot of people struggle with confidently telling customers why they should pay a higher price to shop with us.”
Next week, part two of the workshop series will explore ways groups and individuals are preparing booksellers for the future.