A former president of the American Booksellers Association, Mitchell Kaplan’s four-strong indie chain has crested the wave of US independents’ resurgence. Gayle Feldman meets Books & Books’ aspirational owner
American independent bookshops, many of which were looking into the abyss at the turn of this century, have experienced a remarkable resurgence in recent years. Having weathered 40-plus years of successive waves of mall store chains, superstores, big-box discounters and Amazon—not to mention the financial crisis of 2007/08—indie numbers have rebounded, and in the past half-dozen years increased by 27%. Take Books & Books, a Miami-based four-store cluster: it is alive, well, and more than thriving, doing what a bookstore does best—and then some.
Books & Books’ bearded proprietor Mitchell Kaplan [pictured], a man of soulful eyes and luxuriantly tousled salt-and-pepper hair, looks far too young for his 60 years. Tanned and zipping around from store to store in a Saab convertible (preferably with the top down), he might be mistaken for a well-off, grown-up hippie.
Yet Kaplan, who was president of the American Booksellers Association (ABA) from 2004 to 2006, is acknowledged by fellow shop owners and publishers alike (think Knopf’s Sonny Mehta) as one of the finest independent booksellers in the US, combining a love of books, community involvement and entrepreneurial nous to expand his business well beyond the four successful shops he owns.
A law school dropout who preferred to try his luck with literature, Kaplan started with 500 sq ft of space in 1982. He moved to his current 9,000 sq ft (4,000 of which is bookselling space) Coral Gables location 17 years ago. A second store, in Miami Beach, occupies 2,500 sq ft; and a third, in the upscale Bal Harbour Shops (he describes the development as “the most successful mall in the world when measured by dollars per square foot”) is housed in 3,000 of them. Kaplan opened the smallest of his shops a couple of months ago in downtown Miami, and it is likely that he will open a fifth shop—again, not big—in the foreseeable future, in balmy Key West.
Venturing to a new business model, Kaplan has also leveraged his brand into “affiliate” relationships, with three Books & Books stores that are owned by others. One is close to home, at Miami International Airport; another is in the Cayman Islands; and the third is more than 1,100 miles away, in New York’s Hamptons. The last is owned by Jack McKeown, formerly of Harper and Perseus, and his advertiser wife Denise Berthiaume. Affiliates pay for the brand and back-end services, and also benefit from joint marketing.
The Bigger Picture
A really good bookseller, like a really good publisher, excels at spotting potential, and knows the powerful symbiosis between page and film. Six years ago, Kaplan began parlaying his book hunches into another business, forming a movie production company with filmmaker Paula Mazur. Currently, MazurKaplan has more than a dozen projects under option, including adaptations of Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrow’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and A S A Harrison’s The Silent Wife.
Four years ago, Kaplan started Books & Books Press, a provider of publishing services to would-be authors. There have been five “highly curated” B&B Press books thus far, mainly illustrated fare, although one title is a memoir. Ingram now provides the back end and distribution.
Then there is that other activity. In 1984, two years after opening his original store, Kaplan joined forces with Eduardo Padron—an educator at Miami-Dade College (a huge community-based system)—and a few others to co-found the Miami Book Fair International (MBFI). The event has grown to take place over eight days, welcoming 500–600 authors and 200,000 fair-goers each November. It is the model for other festivals around the country, and Kaplan continues to serve as MBFI chairman.
Yet above all, the heart and soul of what he does and who he is resides in his four stores. “I believe in creating spaces where people can congregate and where you can give back to the community,” Kaplan emphasises, paraphrasing a line from Abraham Lincoln: “of the people, by the people, for the people”. He rents the spaces, as opposed to owning them.
Kaplan wants to be clear: “You can’t make them into a formula. The stores grew out of the community’s need. It’s the proprietor’s job to make sure to articulate that value to the customer. If you don’t, the community won’t feel invested. You have to be a good corporate citizen and develop customers one by one. We have more than 700 events each year, almost all free.” Most of them take place in the hacienda-style main store in Coral Gables, which was begun as a garden city in the 1920s, and is one of the most stylish communities in the greater Miami conurbation. Entering that store—or its newest, smallest sister, which is housed in a listed 1929 Art Deco tower downtown—a visitor from New York or London is struck by the beauty of the place.
The pathway to the main store is through a plant-filled courtyard, where people read, talk, laugh, eat and drink—anything from tea and coffee to wine and beer—at tables shaded by terracotta-hued umbrellas. The series of rooms that stretch around it like a “C” includes an exhibition space that changes each month; individual rooms devoted to general trade; children’s books and toys; art books; a consignment space (currently housing high- end art and lifestyle titles published by Assouline); and an indoor café lined with arresting photos of the literary lights who have graced the store. If the two dishes I had are anything to go by, the food is delicious.
Wandering from room to room, a visitor is struck by the amazing number of books displayed face-out and by the sheer amount of handsome wood shelving that looks tethered to the floor but can be moved and reconfigured, allowing for all those events.
Kaplan was asked by the local history museum, located down the street, to diversify into yet another enterprise: a full-size gift shop featuring an international selection of artwork and crafts, ranging from collages by British paper artist Clare Goddard to Tunisian textiles and Haitian paintings. Kaplan’s wife, an estate agent, does some of the buying.
The new, downtown tower store is hip, cool and sleek, sited cheek- by-jowl next to the city’s César Pelli-designed performing arts center. It boasts a courtyard restaurant and a full bar, which Kaplan has established in partnership with a local celebrity chef. Think pre-concert dinners, post-performance nightcaps. Physically, it serves as a bridge between the landmarked tower—the oldest Art Deco building in a metropolis renowned for them—and Pelli’s sweeping hall.
Books Without Borders
Considering where indie bookselling was and where it is now, Kaplan gives much credit to the ABA as a “galvanising force. Very few small trade associations are as effective; the ABA has been able to mentor very, very small businesses. The good news is that lots of indies are healthier, because they have gained more of a market without Borders, and some people are turning away from superstores. Last year many stores had their best year ever, and the mood at ABA’s Winter Institute was really high. So many younger people were there, and are seeing bookselling as an opportunity.”
Kaplan has travelled to the UK and admires what James Daunt has done: “It was very smart of Waterstones to call on him to resurrect itself.” After his own experience in Miami, he sympathises with the business rates and rent struggles being faced by many UK high street shops.
When he opened his third store, on Lincoln Road—now an upscale shopping and dining street in Miami Beach—it was a funky area clawing its way back, where rents were $6 per square foot. Now he pays more than $500 per square foot, but that was negotiated a while ago. “When my current lease is up, I will have to make some decisions,” Kaplan admits. “I’m having to compete with expensive chain stores for rent.”
A happier topic is what is in those books he sells. “I am so pleased to see the quality of writing I can offer. We’re in a wonderful period of good writing and a lot of smart publishing, from large to small. In many ways, the crux of the confusion in publishing has nothing to do with what people are writing—it’s about the delivery system, how people can get what’s being written. It will have to play itself out.
“Of course, online is a problem right now, a monopoly until it’s broken up—as it should be. However, we sell Kobo [devices] and they work for us, we sell quite a lot of them. It’s not that they generate much money; what they do is give our customers an option. But really, I don’t think we’re about digital. We’re about real places and real books and creating environments for people—that’s where we rise or fall. I give very little thought to [Amazon founder] Mr Bezos, because I have to take care of what I do.”
In the end, Kaplan asserts, “the notion of the long tail is a fantasy. There has always been a very narrow tribe of devoted readers, yet today so many books are being published. It becomes about selection; you need booksellers whom you can trust to put a book in your hand that you will like. It’s better done in the physical world. As far as I’m concerned, bookselling is a lifestyle choice: you do it because you love it. There are better ways to invest your money, but there’s no better life.”