Magazine article Book

Public Access: At Books & Books, Mitchell Kaplan Has Created a Great Space-And a Thriving Community. (Shop Watch)

Magazine article Book

Public Access: At Books & Books, Mitchell Kaplan Has Created a Great Space-And a Thriving Community. (Shop Watch)

Article excerpt

MITCHELL KAPLAN MAY JUST BE THE MAN WHO PUT MIAMI ON THE literary map. The co-founder of the largest book fair in the country, the week-long Miami Book Fair International, Kaplan has created a tight-knit community in South Florida. And his store, Books & Books, is a literary hothouse right at the center.

Writers have long slogged through this flat, humid landscape: Ernest Hemingway threw back a few beers in Key West, Robert Frost wintered in South Miami and Isaac Bashevis Singer strolled the hot sidewalks of Surfside. But when Books & Books opened in 1982, publishers were skeptical. Kaplan says they thought of Florida only as a retiree's heaven. "I would ask them to send authors down here, and they would say, `Well, we've got this new nonprescription drug book.'"

Ironically, it was a television show--Michael Mann's Miami Vice--that got people to pay attention to the area's literary legacy. With the pastel cop drama on the tube every week, people outside the region finally noticed that Charles Willeford, Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan and other thriller writers had wrapped police tape around a whole ecosystem wriggling with psychotic hoodlums, corrupt politicians, violent sociopaths and bumbling baddies.

The new wave of crime writers rallied around the store and Kaplan. Hiaasen and Buchanan became regulars. Les Standiford turned to Kaplan for help sketching out his 1997 thriller, Deal on Ice--and repaid the favor by basing a character on Kaplan and then killing him off.

Soon, it wasn't just the criminal element that called the place home. Kaplan gave up a desk in the store's back room so that journalist David Rieff could write The Exile: Cuba in the Heart of Miami. He stood by as Erica Jong honored the store with a poem. He watched Jimmy Carter gallantly kiss an old girlfriend here, and listened as Salman Rushdie, finally keeping an appointment that had been postponed seven years by the fatwa, murmured about freedom. "It's all it's cracked up to be," Rushdie said, as he gleefully signed copies of The Satanic Verses.

"I operate from the belief that people want to go places," Kaplan says. "They want a sense of community." With at least one event planned every night of every year, Books & Books has created exactly that. Miami Beach poet Campbell McGrath says that Miami's literary community is "far stronger than in New York or Chicago, where everything is factionalized and full of rivalries and back-biting. In Miami, there is a kind of common purpose, and I think Mitchell is at the center of that. Books & Books is the center of the literary universe here, and it is a consciously inclusive and democratic one. …

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