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Books & Books: How Miami's Most Legendary Indie Bookstore Came To Be

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Whether it's reminiscing about the time Joan Didion walked into his bookstore while she was writing Miami or running into Gary Shteyngart in Sydney, Australia on assignment for Travel + Leisure, Mitchell Kaplan is filled with serendipitous anecdotes starring the most influential literary voices of our time.

The purveyor of Miami's book culture, Kaplan opened Books & Books in Coral Gables in 1982 at the age of 25 and ushered in the Miami Book Fair shortly after that, attracting countless award-winning authors to the shores of Miami for the last three decades to his four bookstores in the Gables, South Beach, Bal Harbour Shops and, most recently, the Adrienne Arsht Center. His efforts were recognized this year with Publishers Weekly 2015 Bookstore of the Year award.

Seated across from him at a shaded table in the courtyard café of Books & Books in Coral Gables, Kaplan stops me midway through our interview to ask, "Are you writing?" He wants to know about my work, and so I tell him. He presses on, "Don't be daunted about thinking of a book. Think of what you're close to that other people might be interested in. You have as much purchase on a view of your life as anyone else. I just know a little bit of encouragement goes a long way." It's that warmth and kindness that's made him a friend to so many in the community. And on this mild fall afternoon, he's happy to have a meandering conversation about bookselling and the creative life.

Let's start from the beginning. How did the first Books & Books come to be?

At law school at Antioch University, I found myself in the bookstores more than the law library. There were some really great bookstores in D.C. at the time and I said, this is an option. So at the age of 23, I dropped out of law school and I drifted back to Miami. University of Miami had a program where you can get a Masters of English and a Masters of Education at the same time, so I did that and I taught high school English. I told the woman who hired me I was going to open a bookshop and she wouldn't have me for very long. I opened a little bookstore across the street [from the current Books & Books location in Coral Gables on Aragon Avenue]. I said, if I can make as much as a teacher, then I will stop teaching. Fortunately, I was making so little as a teacher that the bar was very low. It looked a little like this [location], with floor to ceiling bookshelves. It was little. I loved it, the whole literary culture.

I'm sure! You're a cornerstone of Miami's culture because Books & Books isn't just an independent bookstore; you're the independent bookstore of Miami.

I was extremely lucky to be from Miami and then coming back when I did to open the store in 1982. Miami was just coming out of the Mariel. The Cocaine Cowboys were just starting up. It was before Miami Vice, before the models on South Beach. It was when you could buy Versace's mansion for $50,000 probably or $100,000. You could buy buildings on Lincoln Road for nothing. It was at a very low period. So I was very fortunate that I was interested in literary culture at a time when literary culture was on the precipice of growing and everything was on the precipice of growing. I could be a part of helping my own hometown develop into something more than what it was when I left. It's been a wild, beautiful ride.

You are such a part of Miami's community. Anytime I come to hear a reading, nine times out of ten, you're the one up there giving the introduction—at least that's how it is when I come.
We have similar tastes.

That's what it is! It seems like you're every book patron's best friend and everyone wants to come say hello.
You develop a life, a literary life. Remember, I was 25 when I started this, so the people that I've met in retail over the years, they were little kids. Imagine, when I started, you were just born. Your mother would've been wheeling you in, so there are many people like that that I know very well. You realize when you do something long enough, you don't stand still, and you're involved and follow your passion, you get rewards from that. My best friends are the people who are my customers or the writers who are here. People up in New York who are in publishing we all grew up together.

I start looking at the book fair guides going way, way back and in the early guides it was Saul Bellow. It was the lions. And then at some point, it was the young lions like Adam Johnson. It's these younger people who are a bit younger than I am and yet I've watched their careers develop, like Junot Diaz and Edwidge Danticat. It's a beautiful thing to know that if it wasn't for us some of these people wouldn't be put together with their readers. They wouldn't find their readers here in Miami.

What is your formula for creating an engaging independent bookstore?

Well, it's all about place. I'm not just a retailer. For me, it's the sense of community and I think that's a part of the formula. The formula, it's not something you can manufacture. It has to come from a place, real and genuine. It's almost like being a writer. You have to have a real and genuine voice. As a retailer, you have to have a genuine voice as well. I think authenticity is really what people respond to.

Tell me about how the Miami Book Fair grew from Books & Books.
I actually started a book festival here in Coral Gables. It was called the Coral Gables Festival of Books & Writers. Eduardo Padron of Miami Dade College just came back from the Barcelona Book Fair and he was the vice president of that campus. He didn't run all of Miami Dade at that point, so he called us all together and said let's do something like that in Downtown on a larger scale. I had just been to a big book festival in New York that's no longer around and then there was the Boston Globe Fair which was basically a series of author events, so Eduardo and I said, let's marry them together. We can have the street fair and then do all of these author events. And Eduardo put the college backing behind us. It's a testament that Miami is able to support a book fair like this.

You guys were awarded Publisher's Weekly Bookstore of the Year.
Some people say, 'what took us so long?'

The very little secret is: I didn't really want to be competing against other bookstores so I've always shied away from applying. So we would be nominated and I wouldn't really put [in the effort]. This year we were nominated and I thought that I owed it to my staff to go for it. And my staff put together the most amazing application and I think that's how we really won it. But every independent bookstore is the bookstore of the year. It's an amazing tribe, the tribe of independent booksellers. What happens is when I go to any city, I know the bookseller there. It's kind of an amazing thing to feel a part of. I went up to the Knopf 100th Anniversary Party [at the New York Public Library. There were about 100 authors there and people in the publishing industry and I just felt connected to something larger.

There was a time, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, at the advent of electronic books when publishing was up in arms. There was a lot of talk about the fate of independent bookstores and the shifting landscape of the publishing industry. Many bookstores went out of business, but today you hear a lot about them thriving. What do you make of all of that?
It's always been a shifting landscape. Before the e-book, it was the superstore. It was Barnes & Noble and Borders. And before that, it was the discounters. It was Crown Books. In terms of the online stuff, to me, and the reason why I'm in the bookselling business, is because of the space. It's because of meeting you. It's being able to provide a community space to people. I think as long as people desire community, until we all live virtually, there will always be a need for these kinds of spaces. When you think about it, we're tied into the slow food movement that's happening, the return to vinyl. I actually saw a piece about the return to the cassette tape. So there is this kind of looking backward where old technology doesn't have to be bad and tossed off.

How do you go about stocking the shelves?
It's not a science; it's really an art. On a technical side, sales reps meet with each of the managers of all the stores to bring in anything they think they can sell that gives them their own sensibility. I have a woman who's phenomenal who oversees all the merchandising in all the stores, but basically what I always thought about is that no matter where you are in Dade County or South Florida, I want you to scratch your head and say, 'I wonder what's going on at Books & Books. I wonder what I can find there, even if you have to pass three chain bookstores.' It's about discovery. It's also about having a staff that's really knowledgeable, an ambiance that's unique, and it's about being involved in the community too.

Is there a particular section that you take a lot of pride in?
We have a really wonderful poetry section. We try to be very, very expansive in fiction. We have architecture and design. The other thing I'm extremely proud of is our children's section and our children's booksellers because dealing with the next generation of readers and helping to form them is really a part of our calling. When I see a little kid walk in, I could stay there staring at him or her all day.

You highlight a lot of Florida writers. Would you say there's a single book that encapsulates South Florida or Miami on your bookshelf?
There isn't one that really encapsulates where we are. There are different books over time that talk about Miami in different ways. Like, there's a wonderful noir writer called Charles Willeford and he wrote a book called Miami Blues, which is about old Miami, a Miami that doesn't exist anymore. But he was right on at the time that he wrote it in the early ‘80s. LaBrava by Elmore Leonard is another one. There's some wonderful non-fiction written about Miami. There's a book called Up For Grabs by John Rothchild. It's also about a specific Miami. There's a wonderful book about how Miami developed as a tourism place. It's called Last Train to Paradise [by Les Standiford], which is a lovely, lovely book. There are books written about Cuban Miami and Cuban culture here. What's happened is that Miami has now become multi-genre. Where it was once thought of as black humor and mystery, it's no longer that. So you have, of course, the great Carl Hiaasen and James Hall, and all of those writers. You now have amazing poets who live here. You have writers who live here that you don't even realize are here, like Irvine Welsh, who wrote Trainspotting. He lives in Miami Beach. Russell Banks and his wife Chase Twichell, who is a poet, live here part of the year. So Miami is now becoming this really rich place. All Miami books are representative of all of Miami life. You now have a generation of people writing about growing up Cuban, like Richard Blanco who wrote The Prince of Los Cocuyos. It's phenomenal.

You're constantly surrounded by diverse, creative, funny, smart people. Do you ever get star struck?
Oh yeah, all the time. One of the reasons why I got into this business was because writers were my heroes. I am constantly daunted by seeing these writers write amazing things, so yes, to answer your question, I am often star struck by the people that I meet. And I'm sometimes disappointed and wish that I hadn't met them because I love their work so much.

Is there a single author reading that's the most memorable or significant to you?

We've had a lot. Starting with the first one with Isaac Singer. There were too many books for him to sign at the store, so I got them to bring them to his apartment. He had just won the Nobel Prize. We had a reading that was in old Miami Beach with every living Nobel Prize-winning poet. We had Joseph Brodsky. We had Octavio Paz. We had Czeslaw Milosz. We had Derek Walcott. And we had young poets. Now, these young poets are the poets we all read. And we all had dinner after that. It was just astonishing. Or the first time I heard [Allen] Ginsberg read. Or the first time Garrison Keillor ever came. He was at the height of his popularity. It was like everyone had Garrison Keillor on their lips and he led everybody in a singing of Amazing Grace at the end of it. I could go on and on and on. Having Pat Conroy and Anne Rice, putting them together because I was hoping they'd draw an audience because nobody really knew them and now they're gigantic stars. Being moved by seeing Isaac Singer later on at the Book Fair in conversation with his publisher and the audience laughing at what they thought was a joke, but was actually early signs of dementia.

Being here one night closing up and Paul McCartney walked in. So he's browsing and I'm with him and we stop in the Dickens section. We start talking about Charles Dickens and he's a Dickens scholar. To be able to have that 10 minute experience, talking about Charles Dickens with Paul McCartney was surreal. I've had a lot of wonderful 10-minute experiences.

For those who want to be more involved in Miami's literary community, what do you suggest?
You definitely have to get involved with the Book Fair and the Literati Society. It's a bunch of wonderful people. It's for younger people. You definitely have to make sure you're aware of the different events happening at bookstores like mine. And also what's happening at the writing programs at the colleges. There's the Literary Center at Miami Dade College. There's a writing program at FIU that Les Standiford runs. There's a writing program at University of Miami that Evelina Galang runs. We have these literary resources. And then there's things like Bookleggers. There are readings that pop up all over town. There's The Moth Miami. There is a literary world here that's very, very well developed.

If you're a writer, you want to make sure that you find a mentor to read what you write. Often people ask about how to get published and I say first you have to really write a book that really is worthy of publishing. And that can only happen by having other people read your work. And you have to find people you respect and let them read your work. I'd also say there's a remarkable film community here, as well, and you should make sure you go to places like the Coral Gables Art Cinema. They have wonderful programs for young filmmakers and so does the Gusman and places on Miami Beach. It's a good time to be in Miami. For me, it's the best time to be in Miami. There's so much that's going on.

When people say the book is dead and people don't read anymore, what do you make of that?
The book is not dead. People are reading. They say that technology really takes hold when it's solving a problem. I think as long as we still write with a beginning, middle and an end, the book is the perfect vehicle. Nothing changes there. When you read on a Kindle or something else, you're still reading the beginning, middle and end. When we develop our narratives differently, when we tell stories differently, then the book might change. Until that happens, there will always be a space for the book.

With that said, we'll move into the fire round. Favorite place to read in Miami?

I have one of those Eames lounge chairs in a little office studio. It's one of the most comfortable chairs that have ever been made.

What are you reading right now?
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I'm also reading a novel now, but it's not coming out for a couple of years. I read a lot of galleys that are given to me.

What's next on your reading list?
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg and M Train by Patti Smith

Favorite book of all time?
The book I remember turning me onto other books is The Red Balloon.

What TV shows do you binge watch?
I'm addicted to Homeland. I also really like the show Manhattan. My sister produced it. It's about the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The only other TV I really watch? I'm a news junkie and a basketball junkie, so I switch between the Miami Heat and Rachel Maddow.

If you weren't a bookseller, what would you be doing?
I'd probably be in Bergen, Norway having a music club and bringing wonderful singer-songwriters there.