“I cannot sleep unless I am surrounded by books.” – Borges
This is the story of how one unique bookstore, Books & Books, has been able to continue to grow and change and ultimately survive and thrive in what remains an incredibly challenging environment. It’s the story of how through the hard work of a virtual generation of booksellers, a bookstore finds itself making a difference.
Mitchell Kaplan, the store’s founder, started his career working part-time for one of those chains that populated every suburban mall so many years ago. He was a recovering law student – leaving after two years – and had just begun a graduate program at the University of Miami, which would allow him to teach so he could earn a living. But, he was clear about one thing, bookselling, not teaching, was what he really wanted to do.
“Teaching would get me through the next few years after law school,” explains Mitchell. “If I was to own a bookstore, though, I needed some experience, as I knew nothing about business. I had a B.A. in English Literature, but no idea what sales tax actually was. I knew more about Neruda and Thomas Pynchon than I did about interest rates or bank charges.”
“From the very start of law school, I pretty much knew I had a problem; I found myself in local bookstores more than the law library. My moment of Zen came one day when I was in a Wills & Trusts class and was asked by the professor just what my strategy would be to solve a particularly thorny legal issue. The first thing that came to mind and the first thing I unfortunately blurted out was, “I’d hire a lawyer, “ and when it dawned on me that that might just be me, I realized it was time to go and I was forced to reassess just what my life’s calling would be.”
“In the confusion that followed I realized how much I loved bookstores, and how authors were my heroes; memories of a first year survey class of 20th century literature at the University of Colorado fondly returned. It was in this class, taught by an aging poet, that I learned about the iconic bookstores of the last 100 years; the ones which were central to the various literary movements and periods we were studying. Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company in Paris; publisher of Joyce’s Ulysses when no one else would. The gathering place for the lost generation where on any given day Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound or Eliot could be found browsing its shelves…”
“Then there was the Gotham Book Mart in midtown Manhattan in the 30’s & 40’s; Frances Steloff fought the censorship battles of her day and imported all the small, literary journals she could find, the store having a significant impact on writers as diverse as Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg and even Borges… And, still going strong, in San Francisco is City Lights, home to the Beats of the 50’s, where Ginsberg first read Howl and where college students to this day make a pilgrimage hoping for a glimpse of its owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti.”
Armed with all this, Mitchell opened the first Books & Books in 1982 in a small, 500 sq. ft. space in Coral Gables, Florida, which is really Miami. The city at that time was a fairly bleak place; the Mariel boatlift had just brought hundreds of thousands of immigrants to Miami, with no place for them to go and no infrastructure to support them. They were living in squalid tent cities and their children were having a difficult time integrating into a school system that wasn’t prepared for them. Racial tensions were also bubbling up and there were a series of riots that were wracking the city. Time magazine declared in a front-page story that Miami was a paradise lost.
All of this was before the advent of Miami Vice, the rediscovery of the importance of Art Deco architecture and before, even, the notoriety of the Cocaine Cowboys. No excitement, no opportunity, just a city collapsing under the weight of its circumstances. This was the state of things when he opened, at the age of 25, the first Books & Books.
“In Miami, at the time, there were many other independent bookstores; in fact, nationwide, over 50% of all books sold were sold in stores like mine and there were probably close to 4,500 members of the American Booksellers Association. There were hundreds of English majors all over the country dropping out of law school and opening bookshops. Square Books in Oxford, Ms., Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., Village Books in Bellingham Washington, R.J. Julia in Connecticut, Book Soup in Los Angeles, King’s English in Salt Lake City, Utah, Changing Hands in Arizona and the list could go on and on. These bookstores were also living and breathing examples of the tradition of bookselling that so inspired me, the bookstore as community center, as cultural focal point.”
Now housed in an exquisite 1927 building listed in the Coral Gables Register of Historic Places, across the street from the original store, Books & Books in Coral Gables is the central store, hosting over 60 author events a month, featuring presidents and Nobel prizes winners, athletes and artists, celebrities and poets and a variety of other community-based events.
“From the very beginning we established ourselves as the store where literary events took place alongside the selling of books,” recounts Mitchell. “We had open poetry readings that drew hundreds each month and our very first reading and signing was with Nobel Laureate Isaac Singer, whose Collected Stories had just been published by Farrar, Strauss. In those early days we developed strategic partnerships with everyone: schools and universities, places of worship, business groups, clubs and even local governments.”
The bookstore also, early on, developed a very strong following for our vast collection of books on art, architecture, and photography. Although these were specialties of ours, you could also find the finest poetry, fiction and essays from the small and university presses at our store. It was clear that our selection would help us develop a customer base that would pass up other stores to shop with us.
Now, over 30 years later, when you step foot into any Books & Books, you’re still walking into your neighborhood bookstore, whether you find yourself in bustling Miami International Airport or on a Caribbean island.
“Selection, service and ambiance,” says Mitchell. “This is the mantra of independent booksellers and that’s what we’ve all been focusing on as we’ve met increased competition all these years. We continually have to demonstrate our value to our customers and make our stores the most inviting they can be, our staff and store policies as customer friendly as possible, and provide an offering of books and related items that is interesting and different enough to help drive business past much larger competitors.”
Demonstrating value and finding ways to monetize our value has been what has driven our strategy for many years now. We provide our customers with a distinct experience that can’t be found in the chains or online; our partnerships in the community run deep and wide. We provide books and programming for public and private schools alike, for synagogues and for churches; we allow our stores to be used for in-store book fairs and as a place for community groups to meet. Gift certificates are given and we donate money back to groups who ask us to sell books for them. Each of our stores looks different from one another and we have unique restaurants/cafes in two of them, as well. The Cafes at Books & Books have become as beloved as the bookstores.”
In short, I believe the near future will be a bullish period for independent retailers of books; we’ll have to be more creative and look for opportunities that suit who we are, but the opportunities will be there. The local first movement, the slow food movement, and, in many ways, the drive for sustainability in everything are evidence that there is also a cultural bias developing for stores that inhabit our sales channel.”
This a golden time for bookselling. Writers are writing wonderful books and there is a vibrant group of readers wanting to read them, and as baby boomers age, they will have even more free time for books.”
I don’t know of a more dynamic period in my life as a bookseller and I remain committed to the power of the great good a physical bookstore can still achieve. Like so many other booksellers, I consider myself one of the luckiest guys around, still able to toil in this wondrous business of ours, making whatever contribution I can to the sustainability of the literary culture I so love.”
We survive another day so we can put a good book into a customer’s hands and by doing so ensure that our beloved literary culture will live to see another day…”