5 Questions for Kepler’s Books

The Bay Area is blessed to have scores of independent bookstores. One of its leading lights is Kepler’s. The Menlo Park store opened in 1955, two years after City Lights. Like that celebrated San Francisco store, Kepler’s began by selling paperbacks—books that everyone could afford. Its founder, the peace activist Roy Kepler, also ensured that the store would be a cultural center of the community, hosting numerous events that included appearances by the Grateful Dead and Joan Baez. These days, Kepler’s is a community-financed bookstore that’s paired with Kepler’s Literary Foundation, a nonprofit organization that programs events. Now in its seventh decade, the store remains true to its activist roots.

We spoke with Aggie Zivaljevic, a buyer and inventory manager at Kepler’s. A native of Sarajevo, Zivaljevic is also a fiction writer, with work published in Narrative Magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, and The Literary Review, among other places. On her desk is this framed writing advice by the author Simon Van Booy: “Write as you garden—with passion, awe, intent, and openness.”

ZYZZYVA: What’s the coziest spot in your store for reading?

AGGIE ZIVALJEVIC: I love a corner where the Fiction section begins at the intersection of Poetry and Romance. It feels like a good resting place before taking a long Fiction back wall path from A-Z, with colorful books’ spines lined up like candies in a sweetshop.

Z: What’s a little-known fact about your store?

AZ: Our founder, Roy Kepler, refused to pay a portion of his federal taxes to protest U.S. involvement in wars. We are the only known bookstore that’s nearly shut down twice—and both times have been saved and reimagined by our community. We don’t judge people by what they read, where they buy their books, and whether they prefer print, audio, or e-books.

Z: How would you describe the smell of your shop?

AZ: Kepler’s smells like new schoolbooks on a first day of school—and of strong black coffee and banana pancakes from the nearby Italian cafe.

Z: Which new book would you recommend most to readers?

AZ: Aleksandar Hemon’s novel The World and All That It Holds follows the devastatingly beautiful love story between two soldiers: Rafael Pinto, a Bosnian Jew, and a Muslim, Osman Karisik, both mobilized in the Austro-Hungarian army. Stepping into Hemon’s world feels dizzying, with its epic span and multiple untranslated sentences and songs in Spanjol, Bosnian, and German, but it’s also intoxicating. The musicality of the foreign languages and Pinto’s longing for his Sarajevo home and lover tugged at my heart. This novel is a triumphant symphony of gorgeous sentences. I’m also very much smitten by Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water. It’s a mesmerizing novel set on India’s Malabar coast, profuse with scents and flavors, just like its location in Kerala is bursting with ripening mangoes and coconut trees. The book’s heart lies in the multigenerational family tales of love, grief, and one mother’s unthinkable sacrifice. This book triumphantly speaks about the power of medical healing and the healing properties of storytelling.

Z: Aside from your own, what’s your favorite bookstore?

AZ: On the adult side, my favorite is the legendary City Lights in San Francisco. And for children’s literature, it’s Hicklebee’s in San Jose, a magical neighborhood store.

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