Syndicated content, enhanced by collaborative filtering, social networks and personalized ads, tells each of us precisely what we want to know. But all this technology carries a hidden price: the slow death of serendipity.
We all subscribe to the news stories, blogs, search results, and product alerts that we wish to read--fine tuning our feeds until our home pages perfectly reflect our individual values and desires. I already know the keywords of the news stories I'll read, the artists whose music I will hear, the authors whose books I will pre-order online, the opinions of bloggers I will follow, and the buddies with whom I will message. I'm not bothered by noisy, unfiltered content. I will know everything about what I already know, and my beliefs will only strengthen.
As my sights focus, I lose my peripheral vision. I find myself surprised to have missed important news developments (White House scandals, government coups, fad diets, Supreme Court decisions...). Increasingly I hear passing comments describing films, plays, sporting events, parties, concerts, speeches, festivals and TV shows that, had I known about them, I might have enjoyed.
I'd have had no time to reflect upon this today, if not for the serendipitous breakdown in one of my favorite personalization technologies. It happened while I was driving south on 101 to the wonderful Cordevalle Resort in San Martin. When the time came for me to serenade the empty cabin, I noticed that the face plate of my Omnifi media player (see Favorite Car Gadgets) had fallen under the seat.
For the first time in years I was forced to listen to someone else's musical programming, so I scanned my way through the FM dial to A Prairie Home Companion. After Prudence Johnson's rendition of After You've Gone, Garrison Keillor interviewed 92-year-old Diane Cummings, a former neighbor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lamented that nobody goes downtown anymore. Diane's observation was another bit of serendipity, because it shed some light on a question that has been on my mind: why have I, along with so many of my neighbors in Menlo Park and Atherton, been trying so hard to save Kepler's Bookstore, the 50 year-old hallmark of downtown Menlo Park? WHat distinguishes this displacement from the healthy economic consequences of competitive business that drive down costs everywhere else in town, not to mention the planet?
On May 14, 50 years ago, Roy Kepler founded an innovative bookstore to sell paperbacks, a controversial new product in the 1950's dismissed by traditional publishers as subversive, because the lower production costs democratized the set of potential authors (Stanford's book store buyers refused to buy them because they weren't really books). Roy was a conscientious objector and active pacifist who had started schools and radio stations, served jail time for his protests, handcuffed himself to a White House staircase bannister, and lectured Congress on the dangers of eroding personal liberties in the interest of national security.
Kepler's became a magnet for peace activism and civil rights. Jerry Garcia and other Grateful Deaders would frequent the store, along with Joan Baez and restless Stanford students to sing, read, and enjoy Roy's pot of coffee. Over the years, the store has committed itself to the open flow of information, defying attempts by the Menlo Park police, school boards, the FBI, vandals, neo-Nazi terrorists, and fatwas to censor what people read.
Kepler's Bookstore is Silicon Valley's original browser. Its search engines are the clerks who actually read the books.
Under the management of Roy's son Clark (pictured left), Kepler's moved to downtown Menlo Park, next to the equally hip Cafe Borrone (where Peter Borrone sneaks Madeline cookies to my kids). The two stores share an outdoor plaza and playful fountain that attract families in the morning and students at night. The store hosts story hours for kids, and Author Nights that have featured interactive talks by Gloria Steinem, Jimmy Carter and Madeleine Albright, not to mention my favorite authors Christopher Moore and Michael Shermer. High school bands play there on holidays, and parties erupt on the eve of new publications (e.g. Harry Potter, of course). The Kepler's / Borrone scene has clearly emerged as the cultural, social and intellectual center of town.
But with the one-two punch of chain stores and Amazon, Kepler's cash flow has failed to satisfy both the publishers' Receivables departments and the store's Bay Area landlord. Finally, three weeks ago Clark Kepler shut his doors, sending a shock wave through the town as we contemplated family brunches at Cafe Borrone without the requisite stroll through our neighborhood bookstore to peruse best sellers, hear stories, skim foreign newspapers, and meet our friends.
Now, how will we impart our love of reading to our kids, without the tangible props and festive atmosphere that Kepler brought to life? Will we ever again meet our favorite authors in person, to personally thank them, ask them our questions, and bring home a signed first edition to expand our libraries with a souvenir of the day?
As much as we try to stem entropy, life cannot evolve without the critical component of serendipitous mutation. In a post-Kepler world, where will we face random literary discoveries and chance encounters to knock us off course now and then? Or do I simply become my home page?
I'm pleased to report, however, that there is hope. My college friend Daniel Mendez (who first got me into serious book collecting), called Clark Kepler the day after closure to save the store. Daniel has since recruited me and 16 like-minded neighbors (whom Daniel has named the "Kepler's Patron Circle") to fund the continued operations of Kepler's, subject to the landlord's willingness to re-structure the rent obligations. It's a long shot, but with the support of new investors, and, more much importantly, the patronage of readers, the Keplers' store will persist for another half century. Judging by the vocal protests and rallies organized by Menlo Park City Council Member Kelly Furgeson, Bay Area residents are fired up to move their business back offline. (Makeshift signs in the downtown plaza read "Browse on Amazon, Buy at Kepler's").
When Kepler's re-opens, I will invite you all downtown to join us for brunch and a stroll through the store (but turn off your cell phone and Blackberry). Be sure to look for your friends, and meet some new ones. Pick up a New York Times to see what's happening in the world, and check out the authors featured in Kepler's coming season.
You never know what might happen that day.