Bullish on Books

While some big bookstore chains have folded during the Internet Age, Miami’s Books & Books continues to flourish.

By Robin Shear
UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (November 13, 2013) — Some might consider national-award-winning independent bookseller Mitchell Kaplan something of a Warren Buffett of the book world.

With even corporate giants like Borders closing shop of late, Kaplan has not only survived the advent of the Internet and the e-book, the self-publishing frenzy, and the recession; he has thrived in his industry for decades, all the while helping his native Miami bloom into a hot spot for author appearances. How he’s managed that feat in the modern-age was the subject Kaplan came to address Friday, November 8, at the University of Miami’s Newman Alumni Center’s Toll Library.

Kaplan’s talk, “Success of the Independent Bookstore during the Age of the Internet,” was sponsored by UM’s School of Education and Human Development, where Kaplan earned his master’s degree in 1980. UM President Donna E. Shalala welcomed visitors to the event, which helped kick off Alumni Weekend festivities, before departing to claim her spot atop a Homecoming Parade float. 

Not only is Kaplan an alumnus; he has twin sons attending UM. Further, he co-chairs the Momentum2 University of Miami Libraries Campaign, as School of Education and Human Development Dean Isaac L. Prilleltensky noted in his introduction.

Kaplan began by telling the audience that his path to entrepreneurial success has defied conventional wisdom. “I took no business courses,” he said. In fact, after attending law school, Kaplan decided to switch tracks and become a public school teacher. But Kaplan said it was the very lessons he learned while standing in front of 250 10th graders for three years as an honors English teacher at Southridge High in South Miami-Dade that laid the foundation for his future ambitions. In particular, he cited all the necessary planning and strategizing teachers must do. Plus, he said, “to be a teacher is to be somewhat of a salesperson.” Of course, all that would mean nothing without one final key ingredient: passion. “I spent more time in bookstores than I spent in the law school library. I knew I wanted to be a bookstore owner,” said Kaplan. “We have a quote in our stores by [the author Jorge Luis] Borges that reads, ‘I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books.’ I feel that way.”

When he launched his flagship Books & Books store in Coral Gables in 1982, he worked to create a place where communities of book lovers could congregate. “If we just have large conglomerates or chains, we lack something,” he said. Three decades later, Kaplan’s enterprise has expanded from one store to six, including one in the Cayman Islands and another in the Hamptons on Long Island. Books & Books hosts 700 author appearances annually, he said, while another 400 authors appear at the Miami Book Fair International, the wildly popular community festival Kaplan co-founded 30 years ago and whose board of directors he chairs.

Lionized for his achievements and his contributions, Kaplan has served as president of the American Booksellers Association (ABA) and received major honors such as the National Book Foundation’s 2011 Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community. Yet, he admitted during his talk, there have been plenty of obstacles. In the early days, one big challenge was perception: convincing publishers that Miami was about more than prescription drugs and sunbathing, that an audience of sophisticated readers was hungry for literature, and lots of it. 

These days, it’s a different kind of struggle he’s facing. “When I started in 1982, 50 percent of books were sold in [independent] stores like mine. Now it’s only 8 percent,” Kaplan explained. “There were 7,000 ABA members; now there are 1400.”

But while Kaplan knows the numbers, he’s still bullish as ever on the power of the word. “I think we are going to go through a golden age of writing—and a golden age of book buying as baby boomers retire and have time to read,” he said, adding that the growth of electronic books is finally beginning to plateau.

Kaplan is also encouraged by what he sees as a trend toward younger people opening bookstores and closed with a bit of hard-won advice for any would-be proprietors. “You have to have a really high tolerance for debt,” he said. “No sane person would do what I do. You have to love it because there are not great riches. But it’s a lifestyle I would never give up for anything in the world.”

The Miami Book Fair International takes place from November 17 to 24.

Robin Shear can be reached at 305-284-1617.

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