Maybe not as much as he wanted, but probably more than he ever knew.
A trim man with some outsized notions, Roy inspired and infuriated. He challenged authority, and paid the price. He gave ideas a long shelf life.
Concretely: Roy Kepler propelled the American peace movement for more than four decades. He helped develop the nation’s first public radio station. He built that which still stands and innovates: an exemplary bookstore that remains in family hands.
“I wanted to find something that I could enjoy, believe in, and support myself in,” Roy explained in a 1984 interview.” I have always loved books, and it occurred to me it could be a viable business opportunity.”
He was more than right. The store Roy Kepler opened in order to live with a clear conscience became a crucible. Or, as Mr. Webster puts it: a place in which concentrated forces interact to cause or influence change.
“Roy,” Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter said in an interview, “was an important man.”
Most people don’t know the half of it.
As a World War II conscientious objector and one-time executive director of the War Resisters League, Roy promoted peace. He helped bring the groundbreaking public radio station KPFA onto the airwaves. He helped instigate the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence and Mid-Peninsula Free University, whose social and intellectual progeny live on. He inspired a new generation of bookstore owners. He went to jail and he went to Capitol Hill, where he presciently lectured congressmen.
“In our country,” Roy told the House Armed Services Committee in January 1950, “we increasingly find the democratic process being laid aside in the name of top secrets, espionage, military necessity, national unity and conformity.”
That’s 1950, folks; half-a-century before the USA Patriot Act, color-coded terror alerts and the tender mercies of John Ashcroft et al.
That’s Roy Kepler, the lifelong activist, the inveterate writer of letters and founder of organizations. This is the man sketched out in five boxes worth of archived materials at the invaluable Swarthmore College Peace Collection. This is the man behind Kepler’s, the place where personal biography ripens.
From its modest beginnings on May 14, 1955, through five moves, to its present 10,000-square-foot maturity under the management of Roy‘s son Clark, Kepler’s has meant more than books. Call it the X Factor, the unforeseeable consequence of encountering: person-to-person, person-to-idea.
Some encounters add unexpectedly up to history; say, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia meeting his closest collaborators at Kepler’s. Some encounters are advertised, like the in-store appearances since the 1990s of the likes of Gloria Steinem, Jimmy Carter, Madeleine Albright and many more. Still other encounters are more passing, though perhaps no less meaningful.
“It was a very good bookstore,” recalled National Book Award-winning author Robert Stone, who was a Stegner creative writing fellow at Stanford in the early 1960s, “and it was a very good pick-up spot.”
It's a gathering place, then; but, one also bursting with bound ideas that can change lives. Imagine, over the course of 50 years, how many people have chanced at Kepler’s upon the words that moved them by a nudge or maybe a slap in the face.
“It‘s almost certain that half of the books that bent my young mind, I got from there,” Stewart Brand, a 1960 Stanford graduate and father of the Whole Earth Catalog, said in an interview.
Now, with half-a-century in business, Kepler’s Books seems, well, ordained; meant to be. But, of course, even institutions result from choices and are sustained by them. Like, the choice Clark Kepler made two decades ago to inherit his father’s mantle, to keep the bookstore rather than sell it to strangers. A decade later, Publishers Weekly affirmed Clark’s choice when it named him Bookseller of the Year.
Roy Kepler, too, made a series of choices. Now, it may all seem inevitable, the way evolution always does when viewed through the rear-view mirror. Then, it was a roll of the dice, and Roy Kepler himself wasn‘t always so sure of where to place his bets.
“In a sense, I am merely an educated slob, not trained for any specific trade, vocation or profession other than that of teaching,” Roy wrote a friend on August 7, 1954, when he was jobless and searching. “I abhor business. I won’t sign loyalty oaths, and in short I am an unreconstructed member of the unemployed.”
That summer was a pivotal time for the young Roy Kepler. His wife Pat was pregnant. He had resigned from his position with KPFA. He had no particular prospects. He could not know what lay ahead, though behind him there were hints.
Roy Kepler was born in Denver on May 7, 1920.
His father Earl was 35, a native of Kansas. His mother LeClede was 27, a native of Missouri. At the time of Roy’s birth, they had been married 10 years. He had a brother named John and another brother named Earl, Jr. who was two years older.
Earl Kepler, the father, was a traveling salesman; the 1920 Census lists him as a salesman for an unnamed “supply company,” which meant a little bit of everything. He trafficked in candy, cigarettes, beer.
“He was gone quite a bit,” Roy recalled in a 1984 interview.
Roy’s father had finished 8th grade. Roy’s mother, too, was limited in her schooling, but she urged books like Black Beauty upon her children. Religion was present in the Kepler household, but not dominant.
“My brother and I grew up not knowing the difference between Baptist and Presbyterian,” Roy recalled in the 1984 interview, initially conducted for the Palo Alto Weekly. “We grew up going to the churches they sent us to.”
The Denver public schools introduced Roy to peacemaking. A cosmopolitan curriculum had been developed in the years following World War I; it was not explicitly pacifist in orientation, but it was certainly anti-war. During the 1930s, such sentiments were fairly common. In April 1935, about 60,000 college students pledged never to participate in armed conflict, and Time magazine put a pacifist—and future Kepler colleague—named A.J. Muste on the cover.
“The school system considered war unthinkable,” Roy said, adding that his teachers had concluded “it had been tried and failed, it had killed millions of men and didn’t accomplish anything.”
After high school, Roy went to work at a gas station where cars rarely stopped. For a reader, it was perfect. At the age of 18, Roy discovered the likes of George Bernard Shaw. For seven or eight months, Roy tended the quiet gas station and continued his reading.
In October 1940 the draft came and, Roy said, “we had to congeal our thinking.”
Roy and his brother Earl had both been talking about pacifism, and about how they would respond to Uncle Sam‘s inevitable call. Their friends, too, were making similar plans. In the relative comfort of their pre-war circle, conscientious objection seemed a viable option.
The Selective Service and Training Act of 1940 declared that persons “by reason of religious training and belief” who were “conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form” would be assigned to “work of national importance under civilian direction.” A series of Civilian Public Service camps, under the direction of the historic peace churches, was agreed upon. The Kepler brothers, and their circle, had an option to war.
“But of the little group we had, my brother and I were the only ones to stick with it,” Roy said. “When the cards were down, people went where the family pressure was.”
Nor were draft boards particularly sympathetic. Earl Kepler was the first in his Denver area to formally file as a conscientious objector. His CO claim denied, Earl went to prison. His fate was not alone. Throughout World War II, about 6,000 American war-resisters went to prison. About 12,000 conscientious objectors won assignment to Civilian Public Service camps.
Near the end of 1941, Roy lost his first bid for C.O. status, and he appealed. Decades later, he recalled an “old lawyer“ on the appeals board pressing him with lawyerly hypotheticals.
“He asked questions like, ‘what would you do if a madman broke into the house and was going to hurt your sister?’” Roy said. “I asked, ‘is it a big man or a small man?’”
“I said that if he broke down the door, then he was probably a big man and he would probably kill me,” Roy reasoned. “Then he asked what if I had a gun. I asked, am I a good shot? He said yes, and I said then I would shoot the gun out of his hand.”
Roy won his appeal and was designated a conscientious objector.
Roy spent World War II in a succession of CPS camps with names like Glendora, Minersville, Laurel, Germfask. They were a mixed bag. Endless discussions with literate and self-reflective men, he recalled later, provided him a “cram education.“ He read George Orwell and Cyril Connelly.
He also grew frustrated. Weeding, ditch-digging and trail-grooming fell far short of the “work of national importance” promised under the 1940 draft law. Increasingly throughout the war, unpaid C.O.s complained about being consigned to manicuring mountains.
Inevitably, tensions arose as well between the conscientious objectors and the communities outside the camp gates. Some considered the C.O's as simple shirkers. One Sacramento Bee article about the Minersville camp in Trinity County summed up the sentiment with the headline, “War Objectors Live Life of Riley in Outdoor Paradise.” Facing similar skepticism earlier at Minersville, Roy showcased his lifelong predilection for civil discourse by suggesting a community meeting.
“From such a democratic meeting, we may not find a solution to this problem,” Roy wrote the local Trinity Journal, “but we will all have a clearer understanding of it.”
Some men simply walked out of the camps. Others took refuge in small acts of resistance. Ordered to dig a ditch, a C.O. might carry the dirt in interminable spoonful-sizes. The camps proved a further education for Roy, in the use, limits and human consequences of direct action, up until the time of his March 1946 release.
“World War II was a very hard war not to fight,” Roy said. “If ever there was a war to be fought, that was it. It was as close to a reasonably just war as you could get. (But) I had to take my stand.”
World War II left Roy Kepler more radical. He had seen the peace churches struggle to manage the CPS camps, and had concluded the arrangement didn’t work. He was dead set against conscription, and a firm believer in taking direct action against the government’s war policies.
In September 1947, Roy took over as executive director of the venerable War Resisters League. He followed that in April 1948 by helping form a group called Peacemakers. He believed in direct action, taking steps. Two decades before young men burned their draft cards to protest the Vietnam War, author Scott Bennett noted in Radical Pacifism, Roy proved adept at anti-conscription street theater.
On June 23, 1948, Roy and fellow activist James Peck approached the White House, which Peck then entered with tourists. Underneath his coat and tie, he carried a chain and padlock. Once inside, he chained himself to a staircase bannister and began passing out anti-draft leaflets. It took guards five minutes to break his chains and haul him off. Roy, meanwhile, distributed statements outside the White House.
The next year, Roy took to the highways. For seven weeks in 1949, he would travel 11,813 miles through 25 states, spreading the word and collecting intelligence.
“One of the chief things that struck me was the retreat into private lives which characterizes most of what people are doing today,” Roy recounted in his single-spaced, seven-page report. “Part of this, I suppose is necessary and healthy, for we can’t live all of the time with great, complex problems of mankind and the world… However, it is clear that the retreat into private lives is also a kind of waiting: waiting for the world to explode, for the bottom to drop out.”
Roy returned to school at the University of Colorado. There, he protested the firing of teachers who refused to sign the university’s loyalty oath, and bombarded local newspapers with regular missives. For class, he wrote papers like one in August, 1951 titled The Function of the Terror in the French Revolution.
Roy received only a B+ for the paper, but the topic still proved fruitful after he chanced upon a notice inviting Fulbright scholar applications. Over some conservative resistance, Roy won the scholarship and left in September, 1951 for the University of Bordeaux. It was, Roy subsequently said, “a dream year,” as he observed Europe’s post-war recovery and met “some of the world’s most beautiful women, and ugliest men.”
When Roy returned to the United States, the college graduate, former Fulbright scholar and by-now seasoned peace activist was a bit adrift. His next steps were unclear; but, as it happened, some other alumni of the Civilian Public Service camps were still trying to change the world.
In 1946, pacifist Lew Hill and several other former conscientious objectors had established the Pacifica Foundation. The foundation declared it would "engage in any activity that shall contribute a lasting understanding between nations and between individuals of all nations, races, creeds and colors; to gather and disseminate information on the causes of conflict between any and all such groups… "
On April 15, 1949, following some false starts, KPFA went live with the first program on “Anglo-American Folk Ballads.” Roy encountered the Berkeley-based station shortly afterward.
In his report on his 1949 War Resisters League cross-country field trip, Roy described being sympathetically interviewed for half-an-hour on KPFA. Roy would remember the station, and in time end up there himself as promotions manager and subscription director.
They were making it up as they went along, as author Matthew Lasar recounts in his illuminating book, Pacifica Radio. Once, in April 1954, four hipsters smoked marijuana on the air while they raved about the drug. Roy, himself the model of sobriety, was among the KPFA men who later defended the show. Roy took on bigger targets himself with his blunt weekly commentaries.
“The common man is now free; he has the vote, a job and can even get a college education,” Roy proclaimed in October 1953. “So what does he do with it all? He buys a shiny car, a shiny refrigerator, a TV set and indulges himself in pop culture.”
But pacifist sentiments were not enough to hold the KPFA team together. In August 1954, Roy resigned from KPFA along with several others, following bitter disagreements over station leadership and direction. In an August letter to Robert Smith of the Palo Alto Co-Op, Roy described how he was on the search for meaningful work.
“I am beginning to scout the field to learn what the possibilities are for the kind of work I would like to do (first priority) and the work I may have to do (second priority),” Roy wrote. He asked Trevor Thomas of the Friends Committee on Legislation about “any openings in the field of general social betterment.”
He kept circling around, until he found his material calling.
Paperbacks were a problem child in the early 1950s.
They were promising, but still a bit coarse. They made traditional bookstore owners leery. The Stanford bookstore buyer, for one, shunned them altogether.
“She thought they weren’t really books,” Roy recalled.
One prevailing attitude was summed up in five days of hearings conducted in December, 1952 by the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials. “The so-called pocket-sized books, which originally started out as cheap reprints of standard works, have largely degenerated into media for the dissemination of artful appeals to sensuality, immorality, filth, perversion and degeneracy,” the committee report lamented after five days of hearings.
But if still considered scruffy in some circles, paperbacks were also showing new life. Trade and university presses were beginning to issue their paperback lines. By the early 1950s, Kenneth C. Davis recounted in his page-turning history, Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America, “it was… becoming clear that the paperback was a growing force on the American cultural scene.” Paperbacks, the Atlantic Monthly reported in 1953, had become “a highly competitive mélange of serious literature and trash, of self-help and pseudo-science, of sex and inspiration.”
Into this world, with some 4,500 paperback titles in print in the mid-1950s, began stepping some pioneers.
In June 1953, the poet and World War II Navy veteran Lawrence Ferlinghetti and a partner had each put up $500 and opened the City Lights Pocket Book Shop in San Francisco. City Lights specialized in paperbacks and attitude. Not long afterward, a friend of Roy’s had asked him to survey the bookstore scene, for insight into the future distribution of books and magazines.
The more he looked into it, the more Roy saw opportunities. The stars had aligned themselves. Post-KPFA, he needed a job. He loved books, and was an experienced organizer. He was also a savvy businessman with an ability to make the bottom line. So with roughly $4,000, and some creative scavenging, Roy pulled his new store together.
“We scrounged fixtures from all over Northern California,” Roy recalled. “I went around and picked the books I liked.”
Opened on May 14, 1955 next to the Guild Theater, Kepler’s Books & Magazines was small, and in appearance frankly functional. While defiantly ungilded, though, the store was being discovered for its abundant riches. Kentucky yarn-spinner and novelist Ed McClanahan, for one, was by his own account “trying and failing” to be a Stanford graduate student between September 1955 and April 1956. One night, he went with a friend to see a movie at the Guild. Afterward, they popped into the plain-looking new bookstore.
“I was immediately struck by the fact that he had all these literary quarterlies that you couldn’t get anywhere else,” McClanahan said.
Roy delighted in provoking. In 1955, he later told the Menlo Park Recorder, “we were probably the only bookstore on the Peninsula with books by and about Marx. I remember people asking, ‘isn’t it illegal to have that book?’”
Slowly, Kepler’s was also gaining like-minded company. Fred Cody, a World War II Army Air Corps veteran with a Ph.D. in Latin American history, had been handling promotions for a Peninsula book club. With Roy‘s “endlessly helpful” assistance, as Fred and Pat Cody later recounted in their joint autobiography, Cody’s Books opened in Berkeley in July 1956.
The Bay Area now had its paperback triumvirate—City Lights, Kepler’s and Cody’s—and the store’s politically active owners fell into natural collaboration. They ran joint spots on San Francisco‘s classical FM station KSFR, and knocked heads while trying to concoct full-page newspaper ads promoting book like Wallace Stegner‘s Big Rock Candy Mountain and poet Allen Ginsburg‘s incendiary collection Howl. “Kepler, Ferlinghetti and I sat down together and tried to work out the copy of the ad,” Cody wrote in late 1958. “I only wish I could have taped it. It would make even Mort Sahl cry for mercy.”
Roy was drawing attention in other ways. In April 1956, adopting a Peacemakers tactic, Roy publicly declared he was withholding a portion of his federal taxes to protest military spending.
“Civilized people whom prize their good citizenship should make an example of weak-livered crackpots trying to escape their just taxes,” one anonymous individual wrote Roy in an April 17, 1956 postcard. Another, three days later, questioned: “How much tax does one pay on the income from an egghead bookstore, anyway?”
Always the organizer, Roy joined physicist Al Baez and friend Ira Sandperl in forming the Peninsula Committee for the Abolition of Nuclear Tests. The group would later become known as Acts for Peace, and Roy would demonstrate his instinct for direct action.
On the 15th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, Aug. 9, 1960, about 75 adults and 25 children were on hand at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory as Roy defiantly trespassed. He stepped inside the closed parking lot and promptly had handcuffs slapped on. Hauled to Santa Rita jail, Roy and three other arrested men refused to be fingerprinted and refused to sign for their property.
After three days in jail, Roy pleaded guilty to trespassing. It would not be his last time behind the Santa Rita wire. Soon enough, a whole generation would be joining Roy Kepler on the front lines.
Ken Kesey needed his bus driver.
Jerry Garcia needed musical compatriots. Joan Baez needed a mentor, peace activists needed teachers and right-wingers needed an enemy. One way or another, they all found what they were looking for at Kepler’s.
Kepler’s in the ‘60s: where to begin?
Maybe one June day in 1964; a moment, let us say, when the ‘60s qua ‘60s began taking off. Author Ken Kesey was preparing to strike out for the East Coast with his band of Merry Pranksters. At the time, only the truly elect knew what Kesey and his cohorts were up to.
On this particular June day, Merry Prankster and former Stanford creative writing fellow Ken Babbs recalled in an interview, the color-splashed bus Further was outfitted and ready to head out for the World’s Fair and publication party celebrating Kesey’s latest, Sometimes A Great Notion.
“Kesey asked if anyone had seen Neal Cassady,” Babbs recalled. “Ron Bevirt said he just came from Kepler’s, and Neal was there."
So Kesey sent Bevirt down to get Cassady, the motormouth known as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road. A while later, Babbs recalled, a smoking Buick, radio blaring “Love Potion Number Nine,” pulled into the La Honda spread.
Fresh from his latest Kepler‘s fishing expedition, Cassady was astounded when Kesey asked him if he’d drive the bus.
“’You mean we’d be making movies? I’d be a film star in my declining years?’” Cassady said, in Babbs’ recollection.
“There’s nothing I’d rather do for you,” Kesey said.
And with one or two more adjustments, the bus was on its way across the country, in a journey subsequently made famous by Tom Wolfe‘s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
It was fitting that a beat generation legend like Neal Cassady would be hanging out at Kepler’s, and that the mind-altering maestro Ken Kesey would fetch for him there. Within several years of its opening, Kepler’s had become a magnet for colorful characters—starting with the store‘s own workers, like the remarkable Ira Sandperl. Decades later, Hunter still recalled Sandperl’s “big, beautiful, sad brown eyes,” and the sense of “peace and love and sadness” he radiated, and the way he would call everyone friend.
In those pre-Starbucks days long, Kepler’s set out an urn of coffee—ostensibly 10 cents a cup, Hunter recalled, but not everyone felt like paying. And for hours on end, the young and the curious and the restless and the searching could just linger.
“Your bohemians hang out in bookstores,” historian Dennis McNally said in an interview. “That’s the way God planned it.”
A Kerouac biographer and historian of the Grateful Dead, McNally said Kepler’s was “essential” in the formation of the Dead’s world. There were weeks on end in about 1961 and 1962, Dead lyricist Robert Hunter recalled, where he and Garcia and their compatriots would hang out at Kepler’s every day.
“We would be sitting around… and Jerry would say, ‘I have a feeling something is happening at Kepler’s,’” Hunter said, “and so we would pop down there. We didn‘t buy books. We would basically bring our guitars.”
“It was a warm, open, welcoming place for our friends,” Hunter added. “It was a place for young Stanfordites and the young ne'er-do-wells like us to meet.”
Kepler’s was also where another young musician named Phil Lesh encountered Garcia in 1961. Lesh, in his new memoir, Searching for the Dead, recalled how he and other Kepler regulars could "pick a book off the shelf, bring it to your table and quote it in support of some point you were trying to make."
Lesh, at the time, also frequented Kepler’s alma mater, KPFA. There, Gertrude Chiarito was striking a certain chord with her show “Midnight Special,“ and Lesh advised her that he had encountered some promising new talent down at Kepler’s. This was Jerry Garcia, who subsequently made a tape for Chiarito’s show.
It was not Garcia’s only break born in Kepler’s, nor was he the only one nourished by the store's tolerant atmosphere.
Ed McClanahan, who had unhappily departed Stanford in 1956, had by 1962 returned as a Stegner creative writing fellow. He also returned to Kepler’s, where he could find both literary quarterlies and, in McClanahan’s words, “a rack of nudie magazines” close by.
“I would stand there and read them,” McClanahan said. “Well, not read them; I would look at them."
Roy himself, in an interview with the Menlo Park Recorder, would later recall how the Menlo Park chief of police once advised a clerk to remove the November issue of Playboy. The clerk complied.
“When I was told of the incident, I put the issues back on the stand,” Roy said, explaining that “my store is not operated on the basis of allowing the police to select which books or periodicals shall appear.”
Business-wise, the store was doing well enough to prompt Roy to open another branch in 1962 in south Palo Alto; two years later, that 3777 El Camino Real outlet moved a bit further south to the Village Court Shopping Center in Los Altos. Politically, Roy was firing on all cylinders. He wrote the president of Dow Chemical Co. in July 1966, to announce boycott of Dow products until the company stopped making napalm, and he wrote the IRS to say he would not pay a telephone excise tax.
“That tax was specifically re-instituted by Congress as a war tax to support the immoral war in Vietnam,” Roy advised the IRS.
The Kepler’s circle was expanding. Through Ira Sandperl, Roy had gotten to know singer Joan Baez; and Baez, through Sandperl, had gotten to know more about pacifism.
“One day,” Baez recounted in her autobiography, And a Voice to Sing With, “I told Ira I did not want to remain an ignoramus forever and asked if he would consider tutoring me more formally. The discussion evolved into a proposition that we form a school called the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence.”
This was in 1965, and Roy would soon join in the venture. The FBI, of course, was watching. Like her mentors at Kepler‘s Books, Baez had fixed upon tax resistance as a well-aimed blow against the empire. This did not sit well with the federal government.
“A second source advised that Joan Baez spoke before a pacifist group in San Mateo, California on April 5, 1967 and talked about her dispute with the Internal Revenue Service,” the FBI noted in a memo, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. “She said she is refusing to pay 70 percent of her taxes which is the amount of the federal budget which goes toward defense expenditure.”
By 1967, the peace movement that Roy had nurtured during quieter times had grown considerably. A bigger war meant bigger demonstrations, like the October 1967 effort to shut down the Oakland Induction Center. Roy, Baez and Sandperl, among others, were arrested—giving the activists another platform from which to speak.
“I could do no other than to be here,” Roy told the court. “I want to be able to look (my own children) in the face and to let them know that I, with others, sought to prevent our own country from its own militarism and from carrying on the monstrous, illegal, immoral and unjust war against the people of Vietnam.”
Two months later, Roy was again arrested at the Oakland Induction Center on charges of aiding in the commission of a misdemeanor. The misdemeanor in question: obstructing a sidewalk, one of the classic anti-protest statutes adopted during the ‘60s.
Prosecutors subsequently contended their undercover officers had observed Roy quietly conducting the demonstration like a maestro. Roy was the puppet-master, prosecutors claimed; he moved scouts around the streets surrounding the induction center, so the scouts in turn could move in masses of protestors to block the buses filled with draftees.
Roy’s attorneys replied that he, personally, had not blocked any sidewalk or sat in any doorway. No avail. Roy’s sentence: another 10 days in Santa Rita.
Roy was not just protesting during the decade; he was building alternatives. The man who back in 1960 had protested the conformity and banality of his children’s PTA at Fremont Hills School now helped create an entirely new type of school.
The Mid-Peninsula Free University began life as the Free University of Palo Alto; a dream of Stanford-affiliated activists who first opened up shop in benighted East Palo Alto. When the East Palo Alto center closed, operations shifted closer to the Stanford campus, where Roy saw fresh opportunity.
“It is an old American custom to build counter-institutions that claim to be more free than their predecessors,” Roy told the Stanford Daily in a February 11, 1966 interview.
That meant a far-flung curriculum, with classes ranging from French Symbolist Poetry and Introduction to Plato to Acid Yoga. By that May of 1966, potential students could register for classes at Kepler‘s. Roy himself was in charge of the curriculum committee, and led a recurring class entitled “An Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Non Violent Resistance.”
The Free U, in its brief blooming, was a remarkably rambunctious institution. It published a magazine still found in the Stanford archives, The Free You, that in its heyday showcased the works of Wendell Berry, Robert Stone, Gurney Norman, Richard Brautigan and Ed McClanahan, among others. It offered classes, from Roy’s regular evening seminars on non-violence to exploratory lifestyle fare. It drew in talented and off-beat people who would go on to make their mark elsewhere, like Computer Faire founder Jim Warren.
And, of course, it angered the unlike-minded.
“These individuals go beyond the academic and… their activities undermine the moral fiber of our youth,” one, unnamed woman told the FBI on June 4, 1970.
The FBI special agent explained that the Bureau could not investigate unless there was a suspected violation of federal law. But the FBI’s files on the Free U, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show that agents had already been sniffing around.
A November 14, 1968 FBI memo noted an investigation had been ordered into the Free University and other local groups allegedly serving as fronts for Chinese communist-affiliated organizations with names like the Revolutionary Union and Peninsula Red Guards.
“Because of the violence prone nature of the RU and the Peninsula Red Guards, all of the above organizations should be afforded imaginative and penetrative investigation,” the FBI memo stated.
By March, 1969, memos show, the FBI had concluded that the communists and Marxist revolutionaries did not, in fact, have any control over the Free University. Officially, the investigation was dropped.
Roy, ironically, was just about this time separating himself from the Free University. He did not truck with some of the more chaotic elements manifest in the ‘60s… He valued discipline, in thought and deed, and viewed as recklessly self-indulgent some of what the younger generation was up to.
“Through the glorification of spontaneity, of group action together, of the existential nature of all acts, there is a tendency to accept disruption for its own sake,” Roy warned in the Free You in 1968. “We haven’t begun to have that persistence and patience necessary in a task of social renovation.”
Roy subsequently pulled out of the Free U, as did most others save for a group of self-styled revolutionaries called Venceremos, who used the once-sparkling Free You to declare, as in October 1970, that “the best pigs are always dead pigs.” By the summer of 1971, the educational experiment that once claimed as many as 1,200 members was gone altogether.
Venceremos, though, was not the only group of self-styled militant activists prowling the times.
On the evening of October 15, 1968, a thrown hatchet smashed through the window of Kepler’s Menlo Park store. At the time, the store featured a window display of Chinese books and a poster of Mao Tse Tung.
“First Chairman Mao,“ a note attached to the hatchet read. “Then Kepler.“
The next day, three young men entered the store and commented on the breaking of the window, which had already been repaired. They wondered why the store didn’t have a picture of George Wallace. Then they left.
The next month, on the night of Nov. 13, 1968, two young men came to Kepler’s Los Altos store. They seemed startled to find someone still there, and ran off. The next morning, the store was opened and two cans of gasoline discovered. About ten days later, a bomb blew a four-foot hole in a window at the Los Alto store.
Amid continuing threats, Roy on January 24, 1969, took his concerns to the FBI. In memos obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the Bureau reported that Roy told agents he had been “harassed by periodic acts of vandalism against his two bookstores, and that he is frustrated because there had been no solution.”
Roy hired a San Jose-based private investigator to look into the attacks, an FBI memo noted, and he was also using volunteers to watch the stores. Some of these volunteer watchers were also active through the Free U; a budding young computer scientist named Larry Tesler, for one. Tesler would go on to become chief scientist at Apple Computer and, currently, vice president at Amazon.com. For a time, though, he was spending sleepless nights watching over Kepler‘s and taking down license plate numbers.
“I stood watch one Christmas night,” poet and former Kepler’s book buyer Susan MacDonald recalled. “We had sleeping bags, and slept toward the middle of the store so that we were safe from the front windows, but close enough to hustle and hopefully get a license plate for the police. It was scary but fun.”
In time, the police did make a series of arrests. Jim McGee, one of the arrested men, denied having taken part in the store attacks, but acknowledged antipathy toward Kepler‘s.
“We weren’t the only ones to hate Kepler’s, there were thousands of people on the Peninsula who did,” McGee said in a 1980 interview. “It had a lot of anti-war stuff. We were against the store for what was being sold there. We wanted to draw kids away from the sex and drugs and immorality of the free university.”
Ironically, Roy Kepler was himself not entirely comfortable with all he saw at the revolutionary epicenter. Attorney James Wolpman, who first discovered Kepler’s in the late 1950s while attending Stanford Law School, speculated that he “(didn’t) think (Roy) was that enamored of a lot of what happened in the ‘60s.”
Indeed, in notes prepared in the early 1970s, Roy confessed that “there is a sense in which I have felt myself out of step with many of my fellow pacifists and war resisters for several years.”
And yet. Even flowers that go to seed can have at least the prospect of an afterlife.
“Think of the whole 60s movement,” Roy said in a 1984 interview. “There were times when it seemed endless, then people can pick up a Time magazine and see they took part in a social revolution.”
By 1971, Kepler’s Menlo Park store occupied 5,000 square feet. Soon, it sprawled into a former auto body shop and was an 8,000-square-foot behemoth. If it was a book, it seemed, it was in Kepler’s. All it took to fetch it was a bit of walking down some long and narrow aisles. The store had become an institution, but it was not immune to market forces. New bookstores were opening, some directly inspired by the Kepler‘s model and some staffed by Kepler‘s alumni.
Roy's wife, Pat, son Clark recalled, “was always trying to get us to move out of the city and into the country,” and the attacks on the store had only increased the impetus to move. Roy, Pat and their four children—Clark, April, Dawn and Melody—relocated up to safely remote Grass Valley in the 1970s. It was a peaceful remove, but it complicated store management. With two Bay Area stores to oversee, and family and political obligations pressing, Roy needed help.
He turned to Ralph Kohn. They had first met at the Civilian Public Service camp in Laurel, Maryland, where unpaid conscientious objectors worked with the afflicted in mental hospitals.
Kohn was running a coffee shop near the University of Missouri campus when Roy asked him to come out to California. The timing was perfect, as Kohn’s coffee shop was just shutting down. Ralph came out west, and for the next decade he managed his old friend’s store.
It was a congenial partnership of like-minded men; still, the ’70s were a rather tough comedown from the ‘60s. Idealism had a hangover; alliances disarticulated.
Joan Baez and Ira Sandperl, those long-time peace compatriots whose ideas had been nourished by Kepler’s, had a falling out. Roy himself—once lovingly described in 1976 by a War Resisters League leader as “an abrasive (and essential) son of a gun.”—rigorously analyzed the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence that he had helped start. The Institute, Roy warned Baez in a February 16, 1973 letter, was showing dangerous signs of “in-groupism that keeps others out… accreting staff not so much through direct interest and competency, but rather through preferred sleeping partners, hangers-on, disciples interested in persons rather than shared ideas (and) careless handling of bookkeeping and finances.”
At the store, traditions and commerce could sometimes clash. Roy had always been diligent in the business end—Pat and Fred Cody, in their autobiography, recalled visiting Kepler’s to observe Roy’s book inventory system in action. Individual cards were collected as the books were sold, and once a week hand counted for orders to publishers. The rise of new technologies began rendering such old-school techniques obsolete.
“Roy was innovative when he started Kepler’s, but…it got too big,” MacDonald recalled.
Personnel, too, could be trying, and Roy was no push-over. The pacifist and tax resister was also a money maker, a combination that could surprise. His reputation, Larry Tesler recalled, was “that of a tough businessman” notwithstanding his embrace of peaceful activism. Wages were tight, and Roy steadfastly resisted employees’ effort to unionize.
“It was my impression that because of Roy’s political integrity, some of the employees thought he was Jesus—my words only—and were miffed when, as a business owner he acted like an owner and not a comrade,” recounted MacDonald, who joined other Kepler's alumni in creating the lovely and now-closed Printer's Inc. bookstore.
A 1980 move into the new Victoria Lane shopping center in Menlo Park gave the traditionally functional Kepler’s a glossier finish. Selling the Los Altos store in the same year helped consolidate attention to the mother ship.
But about the same time, Roy seemed off his game in other ways. It took a sobering diagnosis to clear up his status: he had Parkinson’s disease.
“It was clear to his friends that something was wrong with him,” Clark Kepler said. “With that revelation, it was good to know that we knew how to deal with it.”
Roy’s diagnosis also cast the store’s future into question. None of his three daughters were particularly interested in following the family business. Nor was Clark, who had been studying environmental ethics at the University of California at Santa Barbara, much inclined to take over. Roy himself was showing the slight tremors characteristic of Parkinson’s disease, and everyone knew his condition would only worsen.
Kepler’s was quietly put on the market and in 1982 and 1983, Clark recalled, the store was close to being sold.
“We were weighing the pros and cons,” Clark recalled. “I was torn.”
Ultimately, Clark said, he realized he was meant to take over what his father had started.
“I hadn’t planned to go into the family business,” Clark said in one interview. “I was at an age where I wanted to go save the world. But at that point, I realized I had an opportunity to help my family rather than chase after a bunch of idealistic dreams. I made that commitment, and I haven’t looked back.”
Turns out, Clark Kepler had a knack for the book business. And, more specifically, for the Kepler’s Books & Magazines business, which is a distinct category altogether.
The one-time Mad magazine aficionado who used to run around the store in his bare feet had never undertaken anything like a formal apprenticeship. It was daunting to step into his father’s shoes, particularly as some of the store’s employees had their own individualistic way of doing things.
Step by step, though, Clark brought Kepler’s up-to-date. He instituted regular catalogs mailed to customers, expanded the store’s lecture series and computerized the inventory system that had, under his father, started out with simple cards placed inside each book for manual counting.
Though not himself a political activist, Clark retained some of the store’s old political engagement. In February, 1989, for instance, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini condemned Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses. A multi-million dollar bounty was placed on Rushdie’s head. Fearful chain stores responded by pulling Rushdie’s book from their shelves.
Kepler’s responded differently, by hosting a public reading of The Satanic Verses. More than 100 people crowded into the store to hear the likes of Ira Sandperl and, in a surprise appearance, a guitar-toting Joan Baez.
“One push of the button, and a shot the world wide," Baez sang, “and you never ask questions, when God’s on your side.”
Later that same year, Kepler’s Books & Magazines moved two blocks across El Camino to its current, 10,000-square foot location. The Victoria Lane store had long since been outgrown, and was incapable of further expansion. For the store’s 70,000 titles, the Kepler’s crew needed something more.
“We envisioned a store which would be expansive and wide open as customers entered,” Clark explained at the time. “Then, further into the store, we hoped for the opposite effect; a cavernous sort of maze with many tall, full shelves where customers could get ‘lost in books.’”
The move was made in time for Kepler’s in May 1990 to celebrate its 35th anniversary in the new location. It was the last big store celebration that Roy Kepler would know. Increasingly confined by his Parkinson’s disease, Roy was in decline. On New Year’s Day, 1994, he passed away at the age of 73.
“He was,” Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo of San Mateo declared, “a warrior for peace.”
Roy Kepler—who half-a-century before had lectured lawmakers on the foolhardiness of conscription, who had been jailed for protesting war, who had withheld his taxes and who described himself as a radical—now had his name honored in the Congressional Record. For at least one moment, Congress had come around to Roy’s way of thinking.
“The legacy of Roy Kepler,” Eshoo noted, “lives on today.”
Eshoo meant specifically Kepler’s Books & Magazines, though more broadly the legacy extends to other independent booksellers inspired by Kepler’s or partaking of the same feisty spirit. But by the early 1990s, the big bookstore chains, Borders and Barnes & Noble, were out-muscling smaller, independent stores. The old Kepler’s coffee urn, browsers’ chairs and liberally stocked shelves had mutated to the chain stores’ in-house Starbucks and gargantuan selling spaces.
In 1995, the fight went to court when the American Booksellers Association sued five major publishing companies. Representing independent stores including Kepler’s and the Kepler’s spin-off Printer’s Inc., the association claimed the publishers violated state and federal law by giving the big chains extra discounts and special terms.
“We have to compete with them,” Clark told the San Jose Mercury News. “We just want the competition to be fair.”
Penguin, one of the five publishers sued, agreed in 1998 to pay $25 million, out of which Kepler’s received $60,000. The money, Clark said, was used to buy more books. A second lawsuit filed in 1998 specifically targeted Borders and Barnes & Noble. This lawsuit was settled in 2001, with Borders and Barnes & Noble each agreeing to pay $2.35 million to partially offset the independent booksellers’ lawyers’ fees. The out-of-court settlement, analysts said at the time, fell far short of what the independent bookstores originally sought.
But that’s the book business: sublime and heartless at the same time; ideas and commerce, going hand in hand. It takes special characters to walk this path righteously. Sometimes, this means a simple shelf stocked with the provocative.
Sometimes, a little carnival color is called for, like when the Stanford Band in June 2003 blasted out a royal Kepler’s welcome for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The cash registers rang, the readers rejoiced and the music flew all the way up to heaven.
“We must give up thinking that peace is something we have to protect, or work toward, or that it is the quiet of the graveyard” Roy Kepler wrote in 1950. “Peace is not a ‘thing', it is a way.”
The above article is copyrighted by Michael Doyle, 2005. It is reprinted with permission. It was published by Kepler’s in May, 2005, as a booklet in observance of the bookstore’s 50th anniversary. Michael Doyle, a former staff writer for the Palo Alto Weekly
, is presently a reporter in E&E News
, a news organization focusing on energy and the environment. He is the author of The Forestport Breaks: A Nineteenth Century Conspiracy Along the Black River Canal
, published by Syracuse University Press.
Radical Chapters: Pacifist Bookseller Roy Kepler and the Paperback Revolution," by Michael Doyle, Syracuse University Press.