Although Mitch Kaplan, owner of Books & Books, in Coral Gables, Fla., and one of the nicest and smartest people in bookselling, is the president of the ABA for the next year, and probably the year after as well, characteristically he downplays the importance of his new role. "The ABA is a collaborative organization," he explained. "At some associations, the agenda is set by the president. So they swerve all over the place depending on who the president is. The ABA is run strategically, in accordance with input from member booksellers. It's bigger than any one person. The role of the president is to build on the foundation that came before and leave a legacy that the next president can carry on.

"One of the things really great about the ABA is that there's a solid foundation," he continued. "I hope to build upon that foundation by acknowledging all the work done before I took office. I also hope to continue the great work done while dealing with the challenges facing bookselling today."

Developing programs to strengthen the viability of booksellers is a "personal goal" for Kaplan. "Bookstores are so vital to communities," he said. "They are important cultural centers. When one leaves, there is a tremendous loss to that community." As examples, he cited Ruminator Books in St. Paul, Minn., scheduled to close its doors on July 31, and Chinook Bookshop in Colorado Springs, Colo., which closed June 15.

Kaplan stressed that the association will continue to focus on implementing the goals of the ABA's 2002—2007 strategic plan, which emphasizes education, advocacy and promoting Book Sense as well as other cooperative activities.

Throughout his conversation with PW, Kaplan emphasized the importance of collaboration between ABA board and staff in accomplishing these goals. "The board makes sure the strategic plan is operated in a functional way, and the incredible ABA staff, led by [CEO] Avin Domnitz and [COO] Oren Teicher, actually carries out the strategic goals of the membership." Noting that the staff "follow through on everything," he called them "an amazing group of people."

Industry Activist

Before being elected to a one-year term as ABA president last month, Kaplan served two one-year terms as the ABA's v-p, while Ann Christophersen, co-owner of Chicago's Women and Children First Bookstore, served as president. "Ann Christophersen was a remarkable president of the ABA. I have some big shoes to fill," Kaplan said with his usual generosity. "I'm so glad I could serve on the board with her, to learn how to interact, to learn how to inspire. She was so good at that."

Kaplan is the owner of the striking 8,000-sq.-ft. Books & Books, which has a 75,000-title inventory. Opened in 1982 in upscale Coral Gables, the store moved to its current location—a 1927 Mediterranean-style building, complete with courtyard—last year. Since 1989, Kaplan has also operated a 2,500-sq.-ft. satellite bookstore with a 40,000-title inventory in Miami's trendy South Beach area.

Kaplan has been busy for many years in industry organizations. He is one of the founders of the Miami Book Fair International, now in its 21st year, and currently serves as co-chair of the fair's board of directors. And he has served on several ABA committees since the mid-'80s. "I admire the work of the association," he said. "I think it's important for booksellers to act as a group. I like to help facilitate that.

"I've also been active with the ABA for selfish reasons," he added. "It's given me the opportunity to meet an incredible number of remarkable people. One reason booksellers have such primacy in our culture is that booksellers are extremely generous with one another, helping each other along. Mentoring is so important to us as booksellers—both being mentors and being mentored."

Switching Courses

Kaplan noted that the ABA has switched course in the past several years, emphasizing education and a more activist kind of advocacy, rather than the legal advocacy work it focused on previously. "The lawsuit took a lot of time and energy away from other programs," Kaplan said. "Education now is the number one strategic goal of the ABA. We want to give our members strong tools to operate in a challenging environment.

"Advocacy is still a very important goal, though. It's implicit in everything we do, even education," he added, citing the ABA's recent bookstore petition drive against Section 215 of the Patriot Act. "Two hundred thousand signatures have been obtained from bookstore patrons. We're still going strong with this."

In describing ABA's recent accomplishments and future goals, Kaplan clearly is most enthusiastic about the ABA programs that require interaction between booksellers, most notably the Book Sense program.

"Book Sense is five years old. It's a big part of what the ABA does. We're building on the legacy of Book Sense while continuing to make it even more useful to members," he said. "In fact, in the strategic plan, we've elevated Book Sense to a whole goal in itself. We've allowed people to compete on the Internet; we've started up the gift card program. We also have the ABACUS Study and the '2% solution' program."

Kaplan is realistic yet optimistic about the future of independent bookselling, even though the ABA membership rolls continue to shrink, with 1,804 bookstore members this past April, down from 1,908 bookstore members in April 2003. "We've lost members, yes, but we haven't lost market share," Kaplan told PW. "The challenge is to harvest new members to open bookstores while giving our existing members the tools to become more effective booksellers. A lot of us hope there is a strong next generation of booksellers, and we're doing everything we can to guarantee that."