Miami’s emissary of the written word continues to turn new pages in his career
When Mitchell Kaplan started Books & Books in 1982, Miami was far from a cultural bellwether. Pre-“Miami Vice,” pre-MiMo, pre-Basel, the Miami of the late ‘70s and early ’80s was characterized instead by the Mariel boatlift, tent cities of starving immigrants, racial tensions and drug trafficking, leading to a notorious Time cover story declaring Miami Beach as “paradise lost.”
None of this prevented Kaplan, then 25, from pursuing his dream of becoming a bookseller, even if it meant dropping out of law school after two years. Armed with a B.A. in English, he opened the flagship Books & Books in a 500-square-foot space in downtown Coral Gables with little understanding of how to run a business. As he has said, “I knew more about Neruda and Thomas Pynchon than I did about interest rates or bank charges.”
He learned on the job, and over the past 35 years has built his brand into the premier literary institution in Dade County and beyond. There are additional B&B stores in Miami Beach, Bal Harbour, Miami International Airport, Key West, the Cayman Islands, Pinecrest, even the Adrienne Arsht Center. The newest incarnation opened last year in Coconut Grove.
Kaplan has also been a driving force behind the Miami Book Fair International, which he helped found in 1984, further solidifying Miami’s literary bona fides. Between the Fair and his bookstores, all manner of celebrity authors, artists, politicians, poets and athletes have visited South Florida for intimate conversations, from Jimmy Carter to Maya Angelou, George W. Bush to Allen Ginsberg, Toni Morrison to Hunter S. Thompson, Anne Rice to Patti Smith.
Because he is clearly not busy enough, Kaplan in 2018 launched an author-interview podcast, “The Literary Life,” which has already attracted more than 30,000 listeners, and he has begun producing movies and TV projects—big-budget book-to-screen adaptations such as “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” about Charles Dickens. In this conversation with Boca, Kaplan discusses the secrets of his success, bookstores’ existential concerns, his summer reading list and more.
What was the literary scene in Miami like prior to Books & Books?
I’m from Miami originally, but I had left Miami in 1972. When I came back to Miami [in the early ‘80s], it was just beginning to have an upswing. You had a number of writers who were very well established, but might not have had a national reputation at that time. You had Charles Willeford, who’s a classic Miami writer. You had two programs that were just getting off the ground—FIU’s writing program and the University of Miami’s writing program—and so I don’t think it was the most vibrant of communities.
And yet, Miami was known at the time as a place which attracted a kind of writer that was writing in the mystery genre. You had Elmore Leonard coming down and spending a lot of time here. It was kind of, catch as catch can. The bottom-line answer to that question is, the writing community was not very focused, and it was not very full.
And there wasn’t a bookstore like this—a central hub?
I wouldn’t say there was a central literary hub. There were a lot of independent bookstores. At the time I opened, probably 50 percent of all books sold were sold through independent bookstores. The chains were relegated to Walden’s and Dalton’s, and they were in the malls.
What did you do differently with this brand to outlive not only independent bookstores but most chains?
That’s a complicated question. I don’t know if there’s an easy answer. Part of the answer is a kind of stick-to-it-iveness that we’ve had, to deal with the ups and downs, and to bring in supporters of the bookstore who were able to help get us over those rough times. But at the same time, I think we kept very close to our core values, which were really to serve our community. I’m not saying the other stores didn’t, but it’s just something we kept doing over and over again, because that’s what we wanted.
And that means bringing in events, authors?
We do 400 events a year right now. The other thing I have always been cognizant of is we’re creating the notion of the great good place—a place where you could just hang out. That’s one of the reasons why we have a café in our main store, and we have two other cafés in our stores as well.
What was it like getting the Miami Book Fair off the ground in its first year?
People always ask me that—what were the challenges? I was young and a little naïve. I was like, OK, let’s do a book fair; everybody will come. The thing I was confident about was that there were readerships here for the authors we were inviting, because I had a bookstore, and I saw what people were reading. And we went against the grain, and against the myth that Miami was a place where only non-serious people lived. I knew that we could bring a James Baldwin in and have a very big audience. I knew we could bring a Susan Sontag in and have a very big audience. I was never nervous about that.
The other thing we doubled down on is understanding the diversity of what Miami was, and is. So we tried to create the biggest tent we possibly could. So even that first year, we did programs in Spanish, we did a lot of Ibero-American authors who came, people like Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes. We also brought in writers from the Caribbean, and Haitian writers. This was always a part of what our DNA was.
Are you concerned that millennials and Gen Z are not reading, or certainly not reading enough?
I’d have to look at statistics for that. I’m the wrong person to ask, because all I see are millennials when they come in. Last time we had Joy Harjo, we had 150 people, and half of them were under the age of 30. The thing I’m most concerned about, which is for everybody, is the time that people have to devote to reading, given all of the bombardment of social media, of film. We need those quiet times to be able to reflect and read, and I’m afraid we’re losing a lot of that.
I’ve seen more and more people reading on devices—Kindles, iPads.
Actually that’s not really happening, in terms of books. The e-book sales have actually declined. What you’re seeing them read are probably things on Instagram, newspaper articles. But actually, book reading has not grown in the e-book market. What has been growing is audio.
But is there any concern the bookstore will become the next video store, because people don’t need the physical media anymore?
No, I think it’s a little bit different in the sense that … with films, you can download them. With music you can shuffle, and buy individual songs. You can’t shuffle books. You can’t get a chapter here and a chapter there. And the actual object of a book is pretty perfect. So when you’re asking yourself what’s going to replace something, you have to say, what new value is it giving?
You recently launched a podcast. Why start one?
I’ve always loved radio, even as a kid. And I was approached by a group that said, “Hey, would you like to do a podcast?” So my idea was to do a podcast in which you’d learn a little bit more about either the writing process or about people who are writers. So I try to take a more human approach to the podcast. It’s not just about their book. It’s about, how did you become a writer? Why’d you become a writer? What road did you go down?
Have you been surprised by certain books that have turned out to be hits, and conversely, expected hits that turn out to be duds?
I’m always surprised. But one thing I do know is that a successful book must have word of mouth to succeed, and this usually starts with a bookseller putting a book in a reader’s hands. No amount of marketing dollars can create a buzz quite like a book that resonates with readers.
Kaplan’s Summer Reading List
Here’s what Mitchell says to put on your nightstand, or in your beach tote, this season.
“There’s an amazing book coming out at the end of July called The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead. It’s about that scandal that happened in North Florida at an African-American reform school, where a few years ago they found all of these dead bodies. Whitehead wrote The Underground Railroad, which was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. We’re going to bring him down later in July.
“There’s a book I’m very high on by Sarah Blake called The Guest Book. It’s one of these multigenerational novels that tells a story of New England in the 20th century leading up to now, and some of the issues we’re dealing with as a country today—racial inequality, wealth inequality—in this generational saga.
“There’s a book out now by Albert Woodfox, and it’s called Solitary. It’s a nonfiction account of a Black Panther from 1970 who was thrown into jail with three other people in New Orleans for a murder he never committed. And he was in solitary confinement for over 30 years. He just got released two years ago, and this is his story.
“On a more commercial or summer-y read, there’s a new Thomas Harris coming out, and there’s a new Dave Barry book, about his life with dogs.”