Miami book fair had a humble birth in 1980s


When Miami was known for drugs and violence, longtime residents envisioned a book fair uniting a disparate community.

In the early '80s, Miami had the national reputation of a cultural wasteland, fueled in large part by films and television shows that glamorized the local crime scene.

Longtime residents, like Mitch Kaplan and I, viewed our city through a different lens -- one that witnessed intellectual conversation and growth incited by the opening of new art museums and libraries.

At this time, Mitch was the owner of a small bookstore in Coral Gables, and I was the president of Miami Dade College's Wolfson Campus. Mitch knew that people in Miami were hungry for books, and I was looking for a way to transform the downtown area of our fledgling campus.

A couple of librarians, notably Margarita Cano, thought that if they put together a book sale in Bayfront Park, it would help promote the nearby library branch. Margarita asked Wolfson Campus' librarian, Juanita Johnson, if she could borrow some tables for the book sale.

I had just returned from a trip to Spain, which included a stop at an impressive book fair. So when Juanita told me about the group's plan for a book sale, we began to envision a more elaborate affair. The college could provide more than just tables; we could offer a sizable venue, staff support and passion.

Juanita and I called a meeting with the local library staff and independent booksellers and came up with a plan for a large literary event that could serve as a powerful driver for bringing our disparate community together and helping downtown Miami live up to its artistic potential.

That first year of ``Books on the Bay'' in 1984 planted the seed for what is now the Miami Book Fair International. Booths lined the streets of Kyriakides Plaza at Wolfson Campus during our initial two-day festival, and fairgoers lined up to see authors such as James Baldwin, Ken Kesey and Marge Piercy. There had been a lot of skepticism about whether people would come. But they did, and we had a wonderful sense that we were onto something important.

As the fair evolved in the late '80s, culture began to gain a foothold.

When Alina Interin came on board in 1989, she began developing the international aspect of the fair and worked to increase outreach to the multinational community that South Florida had become. The Book Fair became the venue for a who's who in the Spanish-language literary scene, and celebrated Caribbean authors began bringing their untold stories to the city.

The Book Fair quickly became an event that attracted attention from all over the country and helped the world rediscover Miami. People who wanted to emulate our success visited from other cities, and publishers began to understand the Fair's potential. Starting the Book Fair took a lot of hands and a huge leap of faith.

The '80s were an era known for cocaine cowboys and violence, and tourism was at a low point.

However, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of people from Latin America and the Caribbean enriched and strengthened the city's culture and transformed Miami into the booming tropical metropolis of present day.

The Book Fair has certainly grown over the years, but some things have remained constant -- remarkable support from the community, large enthusiastic audiences and terrific, committed volunteers.

I am proud of the Miami Book Fair International and its role in transforming our city's educational and cultural landscape.

More than 2 ½ decades since its inception, this celebration of literature and literacy continues to unite our community.

Eduardo J. Padron is president of Miami Dade College.

Read more Miami Stories stories from the Miami Herald

Geoffrey Philp

    Miami Stories

    There was no slacking off in this family

    Recently, everyone in my family came down with a nasty cold/flu that has been going through Miami like a wildfire in the Everglades. We were walking around like sniffling, bleary-eyed zombies addicted to Kleenex and Theraflu. Pitiful.

 <span class="cutline_leadin">Pedro Fournier</span> shows a photo of himself outside his home in Havana before fleeing 20 years ago. Fournier was among the 35,000 Cubans who fled during the Balsero Crisis in 1994. He currently lives in Miami’s Little Havana.

    miami stories

    A long journey by raft, and a lesson in freedom

    I was born in Guantánamo in 1956. I moved to Havana as a teenager to study and ultimately graduated with a math degree. In 1994, I decided take a raft to the United States.

 <span class="cutline_leadin">Quite a change of heart: </span>From left to right, daughters Flynne and Jana, Marlene Warren, and daughter-in-law Amy pose for a photo in 1995.

    Miami Stories

    Converted: New Yorker thrilled to be a Floridian

    I wanted to spend my retirement entertained with a million things to do each and every day. My husband Steve, on the other hand, wanted to spend his retired life in the sun, fishing for permit. He said, “Key West.” I said, “New York.” I was determined to remain in New York, and Steve was just as determined to move to Florida.

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category