If “The Most Interesting Man in the World” commercial featured books instead of beer, it would have a real-life representative in Miami’s own Mitchell Kaplan. From studying law to teaching high school to selling books, hosting a podcast and running a production company, Kaplan has lived a life that parallels a fiction novel. But make no mistake—his vision is very real. One trip to any Books & Books location will prove that the community he created in Miami is no tall tale.
MITCHELL Kaplan was born and raised in Miami Beach, but it was at the University of Colorado that he first imagined a literary career. “I always held writers in the highest esteem,” Kaplan said, “but in Boulder, I experienced a literary community for the first time.”
After graduating with a degree in English, Kaplan attended Antioch School of Law in Washington D.C., where his literary aspirations grew. Soon after, Kaplan returned to Miami, where he spent time as a ‘Cane and a schoolteacher before opening the first Books & Books location in 1982.
“I often say that law school drove me to the book business,” said Kaplan. “I found myself in some wonderful bookstores more than I found myself in the law library. I came back to Miami for what I thought would be a summer. That summer turned into over 40 years.”
Upon returning to Miami, Kaplan earned his master’s degree in English and education at University of Miami and began teaching at Southridge High School in Cutler Ridge, all while working part-time in bookstores to learn more about the business.
In 1982, Books & Books’ first location opened in Coral Gables—right across the street from the historic building and courtyard that now houses his current bookstore and cafe. Over the past 40 years, Kaplan has fostered relationships with authors and publishers all over the world and, with their support, has opened brick and mortar locations across Miami-Dade County and as far as Grand Cayman and Key West.
As one store grew into several, Kaplan hosted author signings, film screenings, poetry readings and other events at Books & Books. The whole time, he sought to keep in mind the goal of developing a literary community in South Florida and giving people a “third place” where they could feel at home. But building this community, he said, was no easy task.
“I had to use all my persuasive powers to convince anyone who would listen that there was a sophisticated readership here, one that would support writers as fully as anywhere else. I was fighting against the image of Miami as a retirement community which catered only to those looking for ‘fun and sun.’ We showed them!” Kaplan said.
Indeed, Miami was a different city when Kaplan first opened Books & Books—and it wasn’t just the retirement communities and “Suntan U” stereotypes.
To readers who may be curious about Miami’s past, Kaplan suggests “The Year of Dangerous Days: Riots, Refugees and Cocaine in Miami 1980” by Nicholas Griffin. If the title doesn’t give the book’s theme away, just know that the Magic City has seen some tough times.
As the city reinvented itself, Kaplan had a hand in the action by building Books & Books and bringing people together. However, he said, the city is still not quite the paradise it could be.
“I feel so lucky,” said Kaplan, “to have had a seat at the table as Miami began its long climb back from the horrors of its past. As we opened in 1982, we saw just how a city can remake itself.”
But, he continued, life in South Florida could be even better. “I can’t say that I’m completely pleased with what we’ve become, and the inherent inequalities that still exist here. Income disparity and poverty are still very profound, a [strategy] for what to do about the effects of climate change has yet to be put forward and overdevelopment and a lack of affordable housing continues to plague us.”
He pointed out that young people could be the ones to change this. “I am hopeful,” said Kaplan, “with so many young voices deciding to make Miami their home, I see political and social change on the horizon.”
Through times both bright and turbulent, Kaplan’s bookstores have given readers, young and old, a space to learn and socialize. Such places, he said, are essential for a community—and bookstores are a perfect fit.
“For a community to be whole and complete,” said Kaplan, “it must have those great, good places. Those third places after home and work where people congregate, meet and explore the diversity of their community. Bookstores are really well-suited for that.”
According to Kaplan, Shakespeare and Company did this in Paris, serving the “Lost Generation” in the early 1900s. There was Gotham Book Mart in New York City, Powell’s Books in Portland, Tattered Cover in Denver and City Lights in San Francisco—and now, Books & Books in Miami.
Kaplan’s success does not just lie in his love for books. Kaplan realized that with the technology boom of the 2000s, and with corporations like Amazon eating up a large percentage of literary sales, he would have to evolve his strategy to keep up.
Fast forward to 2020, Books & Books’ Instagram account has garnered upwards of 82,000 followers. Kaplan, whose personal presence is interwoven into Books & Books’ daily feed, uses the account to promote book launches, announce events—now mostly virtual—and support his community.
In addition to his stores, Kaplan now produces films and television shows with his production company, Mazur Kaplan Company, and hosts “The Literary Life” podcast as part of the “Literary Hub” podcast community.
His early films “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” and “All the Bright Places” are all available on streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. His next film, “Let Him Go,” starring Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, will premiere when theaters can safely re-open.
The Literary Life podcast is thriving, according to Kaplan. The talkshow features a new guest to discuss the latest and greatest in literature. Episodes are released each week on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and the Literary Hub website. There are also weekly updates and teasers on Books & Books’ Instagram page.
Kaplan is also the force behind the Miami Book Fair, which started in 1985 and is held each year at Miami-Dade College. This year the fair is set to go digital for the first—and, he hopes, last—time ever.
“I hope this is a temporary condition, as watching Miami come together under the big tent of The Fair brings me the greatest satisfaction,” said Kaplan. “It reaffirms my belief that books, and their authors, can be catalysts for bringing diverse communities together.”
Kaplan explained that, in his eyes, books are essential to civil engagement and having an informed democracy.
“The act of reading is really an affirmation of democratic thinking,” Kaplan said. “Being able to find information through books and to learn how to be empathetic through the reading of stories and novels is crucial if we are to have a civil society.”
“Being able to find information through books and to learn how to be empathetic through the reading of stories and novels is crucial if we are to have a civil society.”— Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books
words_kylea henseler. photo_alexandra gaddy. design_amanda costello.
This article was published in Distraction’s fall 2020 print issue.