As major book sellers struggle to compete with online retailers and a readership gone digital, one local chain celebrates its 30th anniversary this weekend with the zest of a page-turner.
Books & Books, founded in 1982 by Miami Beach native Mitchell Kaplan, a former English teacher at Southridge High with a jones for literature, remains a regular must-visit for presidents to promote their memoirs, for basketball stars to press the flesh with fans, and for creative thinking in an industry beset by numerous challenges.
Books & Books has gone into publishing, and continues as the official bookseller behind, arguably, the biggest book fair in the country — the annual Miami Book Fair International.
Books & Books’ anniversary celebration this week includes a street party Saturday night in front of the flagship store on Aragon Avenue in Coral Gables complete with food provided by celebrity chefs, including Allen Susser, Michelle Bernstein and Norman Van Aken.
Kaplan couldn’t predict 30 years ago that Books & Books would outgrow its original location in the Gables and survive 30 years later. But there was no other path for him. Books & Books, quite simply, had to succeed.
“I made a decision early on to be in the book business because I love literary culture and all its aspects,” Kaplan says “I never thought of moving on to anything else so long as we are able to survive and the community supports us. So 30 years, in retrospect, makes sense.”
Kaplan acknowledges the challenges facing the book industry are immense.
In fact, just as Kaplan pondered his 30th, two industry publishing giants, Random House and Penguin, announced a merger. Books & Books, however, has grown to include stores in Miami Beach on Lincoln Road Mall, Bal Harbour Shops, Fort Lauderdale’s Museum of Art, Miami International Airport and licensed branches in Grand Cayman, Bahamas, and New York’s Westhampton Beach.
“The fact we have survived 30 years is a testament to the literary community in Miami, to our readers and writers, and the fact they support us,” says Kaplan, who has ventured into filmmaking as well.
Some of Kaplan’s favorite memories:
• Isaac Bashevis Singer (author Yentl the Yeshiva Boy and many others). “One of our earliest signings, we had Isaac and he lived on Miami Beach for many years and ended up coming to the bookshop quite a bit. The first event we had almost 30 years ago, too many people that could fit in the store came. We had to take his books up to his apartment and have him spend a couple hours signing books.”
• Elie Wiesel (Nobel Peace Prize winning author). “I remember the first time I met Elie Wiesel and presented him and how moving it was to hear him speak, how impressive he was not only as an author but as someone with an incredible message to tell.”
• U. S. presidents: “About all of them that are alive. The very first one was Jimmy Carter. He was probably the fastest book signer I have ever seen. We could barely keep up with the sales.”
Bill Clinton was a huge hit in 2004, drawing more than 5,000 people who camped out for hours for a chance to get a signed copy of his memoirs, My Life, and a handshake from the dextrous Commander in Chief. Clinton, by the way, signed copies with his left hand while shaking hands with his right — and making eye contact.
Clinton could sign only 2,000 books but he didn’t want to disappoint all of the throngs crowding Aragon Avenue.
“He actually went outside and started signing books, he drove the Secret Service crazy,” laughs Cristina Nosti, Books & Books director of events and marketing.
• Christopher Hitchens (author God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything). Books & Books often uses satellite locations, such as churches and temples, to host popular figures who draw overflow crowds. This was how people had a chance to meet former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, M*A*S*H star Alan Alda, Charles Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern and controversial celeb biographer Kitty Kelley. Hitchens, the noted atheist, sat on a panel discussion with a rabbi, a Buddhist monk, a representative from the Christian community and an Islamic scholar at …Temple Judea.
“Hitchens destroyed everyone, except the Buddhist monk,” chuckles Nosti.
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