An Interview with Mitch Kaplan
by Charlotte J. Robertson
Unique in the handling of the flurry when midnight, June 20th, arrived and Harry Potter V could be unpacked, Mitch Kaplan had his "Owl Express" service ready to run. The huge volumes of the much-anticipated book were delivered to homes overnight so that children throughout Miami-Dade County could wake up to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on their doorsteps. When Les Standiford dropped Brewster Milton Robertson and me off at Books & Books in Coral Gables, Florida – an hour from where we were staying in Fort Lauderdale for SEBA (and we without transportation back) – I questioned our sanity. When we arrived on the scene for Books & Books’ 20th anniversary party – and what a party it was – I began to understand why. When we entered the bookstore and approached the handsome, charismatic owner, Mitch Kaplan, and he interrupted a television interview to hug Brewster and welcome me, my enlightenment increased.
Authors from all over the United States had gathered to share with Mitch in this special moment. Among those were Rick Bragg, Dan Wakefield, Pat and Sandra Conroy, Les Standiford, James W. Hall, John Dufresne, Lynn Barrett -- a veritable Who’s Who of literati.
The street was blocked off and umbrella-shaded tables and chairs were set up before a huge stage. Entertainment ranged from Flamenco dancing to Cuban music, to dramatic readings and presentations, to Dave Barry’s band, “The Rock Bottom Remainders.”
Mitch Kaplan is the enthusiastically-involved owner of the excellent bookstore which is housed in a marvelous 9,000 square-foot Mediterranean Revival building featuring bookcases towering twenty-three feet to vaulted ceilings. The antiquarian nook bordered by an energetic children’s room, a welcoming café, two elongated rooms evocative of the stately libraries of British manors, and an open, sunny central courtyard create the ambiance of the structure foretelling the quality of what goes on within its walls.
Mitch is the heart of the portion of the literary world he represents. Books & Books is a gathering place for people – from all walks of life – who are looking for cultural enrichment. As we stood outside the building following readings from Irrepressible Appetites in early May, I overheard a young man forewarning his date as they entered the courtyard for the Cuban music playing, “Now this is a bookstore. There’s liable to be a lot of nerds in here.” Not likely.
How did you get into
the bookselling business?
Tell us a little about the move from the original site of Books & Books to the present site.
I was at the same location for 18 years, and then moved into our new space just over 2 years ago. Our old space became too small to do all the things I wanted to do, and the new space, with its courtyard, high-ceilinged front rooms, just called out to be a bookstore. Like our old space, this location is housed in an historic 1920s Mediterranean styled building.
When I was last in your store on a Friday evening in May, you had a gallery of art showing, graduation projects of local architectural students on display, Brewster Milton Robertson reading from and signing The Grail Mystique, and a Cuban band playing in the courtyard. Is this unusual? Approximately how many authors do you host each month? Why do you do this?
We present over 50 different events each month. On any given night we mount readings, lectures, exhibitions, concerts, and we host scores of meetings and discussion groups. Just last Friday night, we presented Gary Shteyngart in a reading, DJ Le Spam spun old jazz, blues and Latin music albums in the courtyard, and a poetry reading was in full swing in our old books room. So, no, that night was not an exception. We do all of this as part of our mission to be a community center; we want to present to readers in Miami programming that is unique and smart and which doesn't take anyone for granted.
Again, I think Books & Books is one of those spaces that is essential to a community. A space that has earned the appellation of a "great, good place." A place that is a third place, outside of the home and the office, where people can come and easily feel comfortable while interacting with others.
Right now I'm the vice-president of the American Booksellers Association, an organization that I believe is responsible for keeping the light going for independent booksellers everywhere. I'm also on the Board of ABFFE, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, an extremely important 1st amendment group, fighting the good fight in this the age of Patriot Acts.
What motivated you to found the Miami Book Fair International?
Just over 20 years ago, a group of us felt Miami should be the home to a festival which celebrated the written word. Some of us were booksellers, some community activists, and some from the community college. All of us felt that Miami suffered from an image that it wasn't a very serious place. This was in about 1982, before Miami Vice, before Art Deco, before South Beach; Miami was thought of as a place that didn't have much of a literary sensibility. I was confident that this wasn't true and was sure, from my own experience at Books & Books, that there would be audiences for writers of all types. And that very first year, with James Baldwin, Marge Piercy, Allen Ginsberg, among others, making appearances and drawing large and enthusiastic crowds, we knew we were on to something important. And now, twenty years later, the Fair presents over 250 writers and 300 exhibitors and draws over 350,000 visitors from all over the world, and has been replicated in cities all across the country.
I understand Les Standiford created a fictionalized version of you in which you were killed off. How did you react to that?
I was flattered. Les and I talked extensively about the bookstore wars of the 90's and he wrote a wonderful John Deal mystery set in the middle of them. I found it quite ironic that his original title of Book Deal was nixed by his publisher for fear of alienating the chains. It was published as Deal on Ice, but Poisoned Pen Press has reissued it with the original title.
What are you, yourself, reading right now?
I just finished a marvelous novel by Tim Gatreaux. It's called The Clearing, and it's set in post World War I Louisiana, in a sawmill town in the bayou. Large issues are played out here; a central theme is a meditation on the nature of violence. It has Pulitzer written all over it. I'm really looking forward to selling it.
What is your all-time favorite book?
I don't really have an all-time favorite, but I do remember books like Catcher in the Rye and the Dharma Bums, which influenced me a lot as an adolescent.
You host a number of Hispanic writers. List a few of your favorites along with their works.
Cristina Garcia's Monkey Hunting, Ana Menendez's In Cuba I Was a German Shepard, Guiellermo Cabrera- Infante's Three Trapped Tigers, Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, not to mention the works of Julia Alvarez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Pablo Neruda, Isabel Allende... The list goes on. This is a rich, rich period for Latino authors, and I know I've not named nearly all the ones I admire.
You are a committed family man and a highly-motivated, aggressive salesperson – as well as a champion of the written word – creating for yourself what could be a high-stress life for some people, yet you seem laid back in the midst of flurry and always have a smile on your face and a moment to speak to each of your customers. How do you explain this?
I guess looks can be deceiving. I'm reminded of Woody Allen when he said, " I don't get nervous, I just grow tumors." I guess, seriously, when you have a passion for something, it's easy to be driven. I love what I do, and to be able to keep doing it requires an amazing amount of time and hard work, particularly during these rough economic times we're living in.
© 2003, Charlotte J. Robertson, All Rights Reserved