In the late 1970s, Mitchell Kaplan dropped out of law school in Washington, D.C., with the dream of opening an independent bookstore in South Florida, where he grew up. As a law student, it didn’t take Kaplan long to realize his true passion was for books, rather than the courtroom. “I found myself in the bookstores more than I was in the law library,” he says. As an undergrad at the University of Colorado, he studied English literature and thought about becoming a writer.
After leaving law school, Kaplan began his bookselling career working at a B. Dalton outlet in Florida, while earning an advanced degree in English education at the University of Miami. “Although I knew it wasn’t the kind of store I wanted to open, I worked at a B. Dalton in order to learn the basics of bookselling,” he says.
After teaching high school English for three years, Kaplan opened his first Books & Books location, a 500-sq.-ft. shop in Coral Gables in 1982. Nearly 33 years later, Books & Books, PW’s 2015 Bookstore of the Year, has expanded its literary empire to include shops in Miami Beach, the Bal Harbour Shops, and Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center, as well as affiliate locations in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., the Cayman Islands, and the Miami International Airport.
While other bookstores have come and gone over the years, with many floundering during the recent recession, Books & Books has thrived thanks to a combination of brand leveraging and community building. Even before Kaplan opened his first store, he knew he wanted to engage the community with his shop. He worked long hours—for the first few years, he was the only employee, occasionally bringing in his mother or friends to take shifts. He loved literature, and he loved to share this passion with the South Florida community.
“At that time, it was really the only bookstore in South Florida,” says author Russell Banks, Kaplan’s longtime friend. “Even then, it was the best bookstore in terms of inventory—he was very careful about his selections—and it’s always been one of the best ones south of Atlanta... It’s always been a place for writers, academics, intellectuals, and serious readers.”
Miami was a very different place in the early 1980s, Kaplan notes, with a host of economic and social issues. The city was also fighting another stereotype: “At the time, it was thought that the only reading to be found in Miami catered to the very old or just those looking for a mindless beach read,” Kaplan says. “But I knew this wasn’t the case. I had a bookshop and knew that my customers’ tastes were as sophisticated as anywhere else.” He held readings at his store, and his open mikes sometimes drew crowds so large that the writers attending would have to read in shifts to make room for listeners.
To give books a higher profile in the city, Kaplan organized the Coral Gables Festival of Books and Writers shortly after opening his first store. The event was small, he says, but it grabbed the attention of Eduardo Padron, who today is president of Miami Dade College, and who, in 1984, was looking to organize a book fair at the college’s new downtown campus. He brought together various literary and cultural leaders from the area to test out the idea. “But from the very first meeting, Mitchell stood out,” Padron says. “He had the energy and the passion we needed to get the project off the ground, and he put in the time to get the authors here and their publishers engaged. At the college, we created the infrastructure, and Mitchell got the publishers to take Miami seriously at a time during which the city was being dismissed as a party town, or worse.”
“It was a wonderful coming together of like-minded people,” Kaplan says of the festival. “It was like something out of an old Mickey Rooney film. ‘Let’s put on a book fair!’ ” Since then, they’ve grown the Miami Book Fair International into one of the largest in the world. “From the very first, people came,” Kaplan says. “We built it and they came, and it snowballed. I think it gave Miami a real sense of pride.”
In 1989, Books & Books opened a second store in South Beach on Lincoln Road. Kaplan had grown up in Miami Beach, and his new shop was across the street from the now-closed Doubleday Bookshop he frequented as a child. “So it was really special to me when we opened,” he says. “We’ve always been a little bit off the beaten path,” he adds. “Now Lincoln Road is the beaten path. But when we opened, the area was desolate.”
Kaplan says that from the beginning, he had no master plan for Books & Books. “For me, bookselling is more about the journey than anything else,” he says. The growth “was organic. It happened slowly.” The Coral Gables store outgrew itself, and when a 9,000-sq.-ft. space in a historic building (which was across the street from an open-air courtyard) became available in 1999, Kaplan jumped at the chance to move. They renovated the 1927 Mediterranean-style building, exposing the original tile floor in certain places and adding hardwood flooring in others. Its two front rooms had drop ceilings removed, transforming them into wide-open beamed spaces.
In 2005, the owners of the Bal Harbour Shops convinced Kaplan to open a bookstore at the luxury fashion center. “It’s the most high-end retail mall in the world when measured by square foot,” he said. He couldn’t refuse the offer. It would take his brand to a whole new level.
Then, at the end of 2014, Kaplan opened the newest Florida store, Café at Books & Books, in the Arsht Center.
“Once we had opened three of our own stores, we were able to develop systems, put things in place so that we could do more,” Kaplan says. That ability came in handy when Kaplan was approached by developer Dart Realty, and in December 2007 Books & Books opened in Camana Bay, a multimillion-dollar development in the Cayman Islands.
“I think the first words that came to my mind were why not? ” Kaplan says. “And with why not? firmly in mind, I opened myself up to a million possibilities. I could take chances doing things I found satisfying and fit in our mission to further a sense of community while promoting literary culture. Why not take a few chances?”
The Westhampton Beach store opened in July 2010, after publishing veterans Jack McKeown and Denise Berthiaume approached Kaplan about a possible affiliate arrangement.
Then came the airport location in Terminal D at Miami International Airport, created with Areas U.S.A. In addition to these locations, there’s also the Newsstand, by Books & Books. Developed with Doug Levine, the founder of Crunch gyms, the newsstand brings the coffeehouse-bookstore concept to downtown Miami’s Southeast Financial Center.
Kaplan remains open-minded toward any opportunity that might come his way. Two years ago, Books & Books teamed up with the Coral Gables Museum, located next to the Coral Gables bookstore, to open a museum gift shop featuring books about the region, sidelines, and art. He also continues to bring in local authors for events, hundreds a year, he said, sometimes two a night in Coral Gables. And these days, many of the readings are streamed live on the store’s website.
Consignment arrangements with around a dozen publishers have also boosted business for the Books & Books stores. Each store is organized with special sections devoted to each publisher. It’s a “scan-and-pay model,” Kaplan says. “My sales with publishers I work with on consignment are significantly higher than they were under a more traditional model.” In another initiative, for some time Books & Books has tapped into the area’s large Spanish-language speaking and reading population, offering Spanish-language events and books. “They’re very, very popular,” Kaplan notes.
Over the last several months, Kaplan has teamed up with Albertine Books, a New York reading room and bookshop devoted to a French-American intellectual exchange. As a result, he has launched a French-books section, with about half its titles available at the store through consignment. Down the road, he hopes to bring in books written in and translated into other languages, he says. “If there’s a need, why not?”
Then there are Kaplan’s personal projects, the Mazur/Kaplan Company, a film production company that has purchased the movie rights to books such as The Silent Wife, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. He’s even dabbled in publishing, through B&B Press, a hybrid publishing program he formed with publishing veteran Ausbert de Arce.
“I’m passionate about everything I do,” Kaplan says. “I think that’s the trick. The trick is to keep the passion alive.”