Storytellers & booksellers don’t just stock libraries and bookstores. Leaders like Mitchell Kaplan, founder of Books & Books, animate these spaces with the exchange of ideas that makes people more open to diversity, prone to empathy and brave enough to be engaged community members.
Interviewed by Samantha Schalit, Editor-in-Chief, Impact.Edition
When Mitchell Kaplan calls, Miami answers. Despite only a few days notice, a hundred people packed into the meeting room at Coral Gables Congregational Church. Educators, business owners, a poet laureate, parents, librarians, the very young and much older; they rallied behind a shared value inherent to democracy – freedom. In this case, freadom.
In the crowded room, among the knees and shins of standing adults, children sat on the floor immersed in their books – including The ABC’s of Black History by Rio Cortez, Love to Langston by Tony Medina and The Hill We Climb by Amanda Gorman. Community leaders and literary advocates like Dr. Marvin Dunn of Miami Center for Racial Justice each took the stage and read from these three books challenged within the Miami-Dade County Public School system. Standing there, the energy for resistance was a mix of outrage, hope and, perhaps, relief that there were others who agreed politics were getting in the way of students’ education.
As Mitchell tells it, after growing up in Miami, he never thought he’d come back. Today, he’s responsible for Books & Books, one of the most successful independent bookstores in town. For over 40 years, he’s been building community spaces where art and culture thrive and where it’s safe to explore what it means to be human (and how to be a better one).
Samantha: When you founded Books & Books in 1982 what was your vision for the store? What is your vision for the future?
Mitchell: I ended back up in Miami, kind of in between what I thought I was going to do…at the time [Miami] was a very bleak place, it was not a place for anyone in their 20s to want to stay. So for me, a lot of the early impetus of what I wanted for Books & Books was that I wanted to help create a community that I want to stay in, that I would want to continue living in. And bookstores were always kind of a place that I loved being in, that I thought could create a great sense of community. What I had started with was a sense of bookstore history, you might say, by learning literary history.
The 20th century was a standout period for activism through literature and within the spaces inhabited by lovers of art, culture and story. Shakespeare and Company, an English-language bookstore founded in Paris in 1919 by American Sylvia Beach, attracted the greatest writers of the Lost Generation era. Serving as store & library, it became a home for writers and a source of new literature. Sylvia published James Joyce’s Ulysses when no one else dared, and in 1941, when Nazis demanded Sylvia rid the store of particular titles, she refused. Resistance came at the cost of her store, but before the Nazis could confiscate her inventory, she hid the store’s books and belongings in an upstairs apartment. Gotham Book Mart in Midtown Manhattan was one of the most iconic American bookstores and served as a meeting place for the James Joyce Society and Finnegans Wake Society. While it was open between 1920 and 2006, it housed thousands of wide-ranging genres including rare poetry chapbooks, contemporary literature and periodicals. Its leaders fought the great first amendment fights, bringing in DH Lawrence and Henry Miller, walking up to the frontlines of the censorship battles. City Lights, in San Francisco, was the great store on the west coast that started publishing writers, amplifying previously unrepresented voices.
Mitchell continues: So all of that was in my mind: that there were these bookstores that were community centers that were places where people could come and meet. I took this road less-traveled of community-building, while at the same time being very selfish, doing it for myself, I wanted a community that I could feel very close to. And the fact of the matter is, when we opened our doors in those early days, the community came. We started holding poetry readings. I brought books to every literary event that I could find. And then we had authors coming in, so that sense of community is part of our DNA. That is why we started: because we wanted to be able to reflect what a community space can do.
When I think about where we are today, I think, wow, it's been 40 years, and how lucky I have actually been, in my own city that I grew up in, I've been able to watch a city remake itself over the last 40 years…Miami has always been a microcosm of what the future holds for the rest of America. So having a seat at that table, it was amazing, and being able to do things in my own small way, like, help start the Miami Book Fair, foster young writers who are now older writers…I don't know that I planned all of this out. I think I just let everything unfold, which is what usually happens, and that as things have unfolded, I then saw things reveal themselves.
I’m launching soon the Books & Books Literary Foundation. So we're going to be able to take all the good work we do, and we're going to be able to expand on that by asking the community to step up and help support us through the Literary Foundation. Developing the next generation of readers is one of the biggest goals that I have. I want to get more authors into the schools, I want to get more books in school, and get them to students if they can’t afford them. For me, it’s the way to take the legacy of Books & Books and move it forward.
Samantha: What do you believe the role of independent bookstores is within local communities?
Mitchell: I like to think of a bookstore, and the Book Fair, as a big tent where the whole community is welcome. By coming into that big tent, that bookstore, the community understands one another better. One of the things that's lost in our world today is the whole notion of empathy. A bookstore can help generate empathy like nothing else. Because a good book is an empathy machine when you really think about it. A book helps open your eyes to other people's lives. That's why I read fiction: to learn other people's lives, to understand what they went through, what their realities are like, because none of us really understand anyone's reality very close to the bone.
At the same time, independent bookstores help save democracy or help promulgate democracy. What I give you is a selection of books to create that big tent based on our community, a diversity of voices that are tailored toward a community. That's how I visualize the indie bookstore. There are basically four ways that any bookstore can really distinguish itself: Ambiance (what the bookstore is like, what it feels like to be there), the staff, the booksellers and people who are there, they make up the bookstore; book selection – what your selection of books are; and the fourth is interaction with the community. Those things make a great bookstore. You know it when you feel it.
Samantha: As you provide a platform for community values, how do you tie that to why an open choice of books is so important?
Mitchell: The overall goal is to create a big tent under which the whole community feels welcome; the other way you can do that is by allowing a diversity of books to be in your bookstore. And those books have to be selected by us and they cannot be determined by the government – that’s a nonstarter. Particularly in a place like Miami where you've got people who've come from fascist countries, we just can't allow our government to basically control anything that we carry. It has to be the individual’s choice. If you're a minor, it has to be a co-choice with your parent, it cannot be a choice that the state begs for you. That is basically censorship.
Dictatorship happens in the dark. It happens when we're not looking and when we're not permitted to understand what's happening…So the only way you can truly serve your community, is by being an independent voice and having a free voice, otherwise we’re all sunk. People get confused with the idea of censorship, they sometimes think that you walk into a bookstore, and if I don't carry something, they go, Oh, you're censoring that book? Well, no, I have the right to select what I want to carry…there's some bookstores that are political bookstores, some that only carry children's books. We're going to be a generalist’s bookshop, so we carry whatever is interesting to us, but we're certainly not censoring. You still have the right to get whatever it is you want to get. And we'll order anything for you as well.
Samantha: What advice would you give to community members outside the public school circle who want to create wider learning opportunities for students and/or make state-banned books available to them?
Mitchell: Vote, vote, vote, vote, vote, vote, change the narrative, and show up at school board meetings. Don't let the Moms for Liberty be the only voice that is being heard. The next battle is a local battle school board elections are really, really important. Volunteer at schools, wherever you can, and volunteer out of school; there are some really wonderful programs that happen in this county. The Children's Trust is doing some great things, the Miami Book Fair, we prepared some terrific children's stuff. But I would say get politically active. Right now, we're at a break the glass moment in politics.
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