Books & Books: 25 Years of Making a Difference

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One night isn't going to be enough to celebrate the silver anniversary of South Florida's Books & Books, which has hosted thousands of locally and nationally known authors over its two and a half decades. So Books & Books' website suggests customers and friends "Save the Month" for the flood of anniversary celebrations throughout October. Festivities include dozens of readings, a storewide sale, and a block party where revelers can toast the bookstore's 25th anniversary with champagne.

"It's going to be big party," said owner Mitchell Kaplan. "We're having an open house as a way of giving back to our customers. We'll be closing down the street and setting up a stage for 10 different musical groups. We'll also be giving away food from our cafes all night, and the next day we're having a big book club mixer."

The roster of readings and events seems like a lit fest in itself. Among the authors slated to appear are Dave Barry, Sharon Creech, Mary Gordon, and Ann Patchett. On Saturday, October 20, the day of the anniversary party, the bookstore will hold a storewide sale, and that night festivities will spill out from the courtyard onto Aragon Avenue for the massive block party.

Many authors who have read at the store, as well as customers, have signed Twenty Five, Books & Books' "commemorative online publication." Dave Barry, a longtime friend of Kaplan and the bookstore, wrote: "Not only does Books & Books have a brilliant yet mellow owner in Mitchell Kaplan; not only does it have a knowledgeable and unflaggingly helpful staff; not only does it have excellent events almost every night featuring a spectacular array of authors; not only is it a great place to spend an afternoon or evening; but it also has the one indispensable element of a truly literary experience: beer." Other authors penning tributes include Russell Banks, Edwidge Danticat, and Carl Hiaasen.

Kaplan was also recently honored by the Miami-Dade Public Library Foundation at a reception where more than 60 local authors toasted the bookseller.

A past president of the American Booksellers Association and current American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression board member, as well as a co-founder of Miami Book Fair International, Kaplan is a Miami native. In 1982, after teaching high school English for a few years, he founded the first Books & Books in an 800-square-foot location in Coral Gables. The store expanded to its present 8,000-square-foot space in December 2000. Books & Books hosts nightly author events, as well as book clubs, discussions, workshops, cooking demonstrations, and live music. It has a full restaurant, The Cafe at Books & Books, in the store's courtyard.

In 1989, Books & Books opened a second location on the well-trafficked Lincoln Road in South Beach. The bookstore, which has ceiling-high windows facing the pedestrian mall, specializes in art, design, fashion and architecture, and, like the Coral Gables location, also has a full service restaurant. The third Books & Books opened in 2005 in Bal Harbour and a fourth, in the Cayman Islands, will open this fall.

Kaplan's start in bookselling grew out of a "vague notion I wanted to be around books and the people who write and read them," he told BTW. "What drove me ... was discovering what a bookstore could do for and mean to a community. I was motivated by a desire to help develop a nascent book town. The idea grew in a very organic way; I didn't have it mapped out. Ultimately, I think I wanted to do what any good independent bookstore does, develop, serve, and be the heart of the community."

Asked about the current state of independent bookselling, Kaplan said he believes it to be "healthier now than it's been in a lot of years." He attributed this to "Buy Local" efforts that are mushrooming across the country, a movement that independent bookstores have largely directed. "For one reason or another people are looking to local independent businesses because they are beginning to understand the value that they bring to the community," explained Kaplan. "They are beginning to understand what they lose when an independent bookstore closes, or what they lose when a local hardware store closes. It's a message that independent bookstores have articulated for many years now, but it seems that the time is right for this message to be heard."

But Kaplan measured his optimism somewhat. "On the other hand, we've never been in a more uncertain time when it comes to the whole business of bookselling. Clearly we're on the cusp, I think, of lots of changes. And how we booksellers navigate the waters of those changes will ultimately determine the health and strength of independent bookselling."

One of the guides for booksellers over the years has been Book Sense, said Kaplan. The program is "a tool that has helped [independent booksellers] articulate who we are. The tools we have right now are so much more sophisticated than when I started, and it allows us to be so much better at what we do."

The increased strength and resources of indies led him to consider how powerful the industry would be if so many bookstores hadn't closed in the last decade or so, he said. "We've gotten to the point now through computers, Book Sense, and other tools that we can direct market, and we're doing such a great job. Imagine the power of the independent bookselling if we had a couple thousand bookstores back in business. We've lost a lot of wonderful bookstores."

Kaplan said that his anniversary has led him to think about some of the bookstores that have closed as well as to more fully understand the impact Books & Books has had on Miami and its elemental role in building the city's literary life. A role, he noted, that countless other independents have filled across the country. Reflecting on the legacy of the South Florida institution, Kaplan said, "It's wonderfully gratifying to be part of that community of independent booksellers and to have built a bookstore that's made a difference." --Karen Schechner