This is the story of how one 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 the hard work of a virtual generation of booksellers built a bookstore that 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.
And So It Began…
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. These recent arrivals 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 riots 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, WA R.J. Julia in Connecticut, Book Soup in Los Angeles, King’s English in Salt Lake City, UT, and Changing Hands in Arizona. 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. The 9,000 square foot, Mediterranean-style building has hard wood and original tile floors, a fireplace, beamed ceilings, floor-to-ceiling dark-wood bookshelves, an open-air courtyard and a full-service café, serving beer and wine.
Books & Books continues to host a monthly art exhibit that began in 1985 inside its Coral Gables location. We’ve showcased hundreds of local, national and international artists and their artworks over the years. The work is sold through the register, with Books & Books acting as a gallery and getting a percentage of what is sold.
We are one of the few venues left in Coral Gables for free live music so the bookings are quite competitive. We nurture music students from local universities and colleges by giving them a chance to perform. Many interesting collaborations have stemmed from the series, including a 25th Anniversary Concert produced with Grammy Award-winning bassist Esperanza Spalding and Grammy award winning violinist Federico Britos.
“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.