We set out to build the bookstore of the 21st century,” says Praveen Madan, owner of Kepler’s Books, a retail outlet in Menlo Park, Calif., that serves customers throughout the San Francisco Peninsula. It was late 2011, and Madan was leading a small group of Kepler’s supporters who were charting a plan that would allow the store to survive in a world where the prospects for brick-and-mortar bookselling looked bleak.

Kepler’s was one of a trio of San Francisco Bay Area...

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