After Dwyane Wade, Miami's most revered man: MItchell Kaplan.
If like me you’re worried that the maniac stampede toward Kindles and iPads and ebooks will inevitably kill the independent bookstore, then good news! Mitch Kaplan, co-founder and chairman of the Miami Book Fair, is thriving with his store, Books & Books.
The disappearance of independent bookstores (and even chain stores, like Barnes & Noble, that somewhat mimic them) will be a cultural catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. Bookstores don’t just sell content you can read — they serve as community centers for people who like literature in particular and culture in general.
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I’m not a social scientist, and I’ve never played one on television, but I’d bet my eyeteeth that cities and towns with a good bookstore are more tightly knit communities than those without. And if I lost my eyeteeth, how would I see what I’m eating?
In a long, thoughtful story in yesterday’s Miami Herald, business reporter Elaine Walker details the vigor and creativity that has enabled Kaplan to expand over the past five years, a time when many independents have gone under and even the behemoth Borders chain teeters on the brink of extinction.
“Instead of feeling victimized by what was happening in the marketplace, I decided to look at the value we’ve built up over the years and try to transfer it to other things,” Kaplan said. “You have to find ways to monetize the value. Otherwise, you can’t stay relevant.”
For Kaplan, staying relevant means expanding the cafes in his store — the Miami Beach location has become, writes Walker, a dining destination. It also means more children’s books, doubling the number of author appearances and special events, offering more art books, and selling ebooks on the store’s website.
“If I lose some sales, then I will make them up by selling other things,” Kaplan tells Walker. “We’re not where we were five years ago, when we didn’t have the kind of competition that we have now. It’s a real testament to Miami that we’re still around. There are lots of big cities that lost significant independent bookstores.”
Among Kaplan’s more dramatic innovations: Expanding to four new locations — the Cayman Islands; West Hamptons Beach, N.Y.; the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale; and Miami Airport — with marketing and license partnerships with other owners. His partners get the benefit of his business model and brand, while shouldering most of the financial risk.
Best of all, Kaplan’s creativity arises from his love of literature. When I did a story on the 25th anniversary of Books & Books
in 2007, Kaplan said he became a bookseller when he realized he didn’t have “the patience or talent” to be a writer.
“If you had asked me in college, I might have harbored ambitions of becoming an author or being creative in that sense,” Kaplan, a former high school English teacher, said then. ‘Somehow, acting as a conduit between authors and readers assuages the creative urges I have.”
Yet, much as Kaplan loves books and writers and readers, he’s a tough-minded businessman, too. For decades he resisted the temptation to open a store in nearby Fort Lauderdale, despite the large numbers of Broward readers who begged him to. “I just can’t make the numbers work,” he once told me.
Kaplan is also about to roll out the Newstand by Books & Books, with a smaller selection of books and magazines plus coffee, tea and frozen yogurt. Five locations should be in operation by the end of the year. If successful, the new brand will expand to the rest of South Florida.
If that’s not enough, Kaplan’s also entering the movie business. He bought the rights to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society before it became a bestseller. Filming is scheduled to begin later this year, with Kate Winslet rumored as the star and Kenneth Branagh as director.
If you’ve ever seen Mitch mobbed by grateful readers (and no, I’m not kidding: mobbed!) at the Miami Book Fair, which he founded in 1984 with Eduardo Padron, president of Miami Dade College, you’d think he’s the most popular man in Miami this side of Dwyane Wade. He’s admired nationwide, too.
“Books & Books has absolutely been a leader in terms of their willingness to reinvent themselves and find new ways of doing business in order to remain competitive in an ever-changing world,” says Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association. “But there isn’t one formula that works. That’s part of the challenge.
“You can’t take what Mitchell has done in Miami and replicate it in Chicago.”
Ah, but if Mitch Kaplan lived and worked in Chicago, he’d adapt to local conditions and opportunities, just as he has in Miami. That’s what being creative means.