Miami bookseller Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books is renowned and celebrated as an innovator and pioneer in a business that's either evolving or dying. Take your pick.
He's evolving, though, as confirmed by a recent report that he's involved in shepherding the adaptation of a book into a film.
Here's a profile I wrote last year, coinciding with Books & Books' 25th anniversary and the annual Miami Book Fair, which originally appeared on Moli.com.
Outside the Box
By Richard Pachter
Florida books retailer carves out niche market
Big Box Retailers are also known as Category Killers, and for good reason. The proliferation of Home Depot and Lowe's has driven the neighborhood hardware store nearly to extinction. Sporting goods, toys, housewares, bedding — you name it; giant super-stores replaced neighborhood shops in malls and shopping centers all over the country. Smaller, locally owned retailers still exist, but in some categories, they are nearly nonexistent. Still, a few have managed to not only hang on, they've managed to carve out a niche by doing what the Big Box stores can't: provide more personalized service or a specialized or unique line of products, or interact with the community in an intimate way.
In many communities, few independent booksellers remain in the wake of Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Books A-Million. In fact, there are so few independent booksellers, each time one of these venerable institutions bites the dust, Publisher's Weekly, the book industry trade publication, notes its passing.
Yet some independent stores remain open, and a handful even thrive. In Coral Gables, near Miami, Books & Books, a diverse bookstore, is a mandatory stop for authors on tour in the Southeast. Its founder, Mitchell Kaplan, 52, is hailed as a visionary for bucking the trend by creating a successful bookselling environment that reflects the diversity of the community. He recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of its opening with an all-star gathering of more than 60 authors at a dinner to benefit the local library.
"I never planned to become a merchant prince," joked Kaplan in a recent interview. "I'm not even sure I would even be a merchant at all if I weren't a bookseller. But having a place that is part of the community was always something I wanted to do. Creating something that people love and that brings them together means a lot to me. And to do so with books is even better."
How has Kaplan managed to stay in business, given the proliferation of competition from the big chains? What's his plan?
"Nothing of what I've done is by a business plan," he told South Florida Sun-Sentinel books editor Chauncey Mabe. "I was an English major who didn't know what sales tax was before I got into this business. Basically I've learned this business just by doing. I had a sense of purpose and a sense of mission and a sense of passion. I had a very strong sense of what an independent bookstore ought to be. That's what informed everything I've done for the past 25 years."
For someone with no plan, Kaplan's done extremely well. In addition to his Coral Gables location, he also has stores in Miami Beach and trendy Bal Harbour, and Kaplan will soon open a new store in the Caribbean on Camana Bay, an upscale retail and residential project on Grand Cayman island. That joint venture, Kaplan said, is the way to go. "I'm not an avaricious person and have no interest in opening a bunch of stores for the sake of business alone. It has to make sense and add something to the community."
Author Russell Banks recently wrote.: "Sure, all bookstores, whether chains or independents, provide a service; they sell books (and associated products, including espresso and whole grain muffins and scones). But the rare ones, like Books & Books … can make a city into a place where you want to live. ... And it's not about the books or the associated products — we can find those most anywhere in America nowadays. It's about the specific community of writers and readers that has been nourished and sustained by Books & Books over the last 25 years, the folks who gather there to talk shop and exchange gossip and real estate tips and recommend titles new and old that may never appear on the Best Seller lists. One likes to think that a city has at least one place where its collective wisdom resides, where its imagination and self-knowledge are protected and shared with anyone who comes through the gate looking for them. For twenty-five years now, for those of us who love Miami, that place has been Books & Books, and the keeper of the gate has been Mitchell Kaplan."