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Selling Books, Staying Independent - 2003-03-09


Bigger is usually better when it comes to doing business, this "economy of scale" allows large companies to make large purchases at a reduced price and offer the savings to the consumer. National chains, which have hundreds of outlets in cities all across the country, get even more economy by reproducing popular, successful features in all their stores. So how can a small business compete?

Walk through the door to the side of a Mediterranean-style outdoor cafe, and Books and Books seems to be an ordinary bookstore. But walk a bit further, and you're in the midst of a language class. And in the next room, an author is talking about his new book.

"What we're all about is diversity, we try to be as diverse as possible in all that we do. In some ways, it reflects our own sensibility, it comes out of who we are, and a reflection of our community," says Mitch Kaplan, who started Books and Books 20 years ago, and it has grown into a fixture of Miami's literary community, flourishing in the face of competition from large national chains which drove thousands of other small booksellers out of business. Today, it is the only independent bookstore in south Florida.

Mr. Kaplan attributes its success to his commitment to being a part of the community: "Actually, I think our bookstore swims in the same stream as all the great independent bookstores that are around. Many of those stores started in the '70s and '80s, some in the '60s but fewer, and all with the same sensibility: that the bookstore should be community centered, that the bookstore should be a place where people gather, a place where authors presented, a place where people could just be, and feel safe in terms of expressing their ideas and their points of view," he says.

The store accomplishes that mission by hosting a staggering number of events, there's something going on almost every night, well into the evening. Events Coordinator Christina Nosti points out that Books and Books is more than just a bookstore, it's a community space. "We often have cultural organizations that will ask us for space to promote something, either they're doing a new performance they'd like to have here, they'd like to read a portion of a play they're working on, or they actually want to have the launching of a CD, so we work with all kinds of organizations and groups," she says. "We do live music in the courtyard on Friday evenings, we've done brunches, we do kids events, we do in-store book fairs, we really do it all, we're very creative." That sort of creativity creates loyal customers.

"The ambience, the music, the people - the first time I loved it, so I brought a friend."
"Because it feels more like being with friends. You know everyone who works here, they remember your name, they know who you are, so it feels comfortable, it feels homey."

And authors can't wait to be here.

"I owe Mitch a great deal of gratitude, he's been with me since I had zero name recognition, my first book out, just trying to make it. So, I'm always happy to come back here," says Tim Dorsey, who is back at Books and Books this evening to promote his fifth novel, The Stingray Shuffle. He calls this the best store in the country. "Y'know the old joke How do I get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice," he says. "Well, this is the writers' version of that. If you practice hard enough, you can play Mitch Kaplan's store here in Coral Gables."

Staffer: "Tim Dorsey was here about 9 months ago, so let's help welcome him back to books and books."
Dorsey: "Thank you very much, I see some friendly faces."

While Books and Books brings in authors from all over the country, and the world, Mitch Kaplan pays special attention to local writers. He's pleased that his store helps give voice to Miami's literary community. "When we first opened in 1982, nobody really thought of Miami much in terms of either a book-buying public, a book-reading public, or that there was a writing community here at all," he says. "And since we opened, the writing community has developed really, really well over the years, and so I think that in itself has been a really gratifying thing."

While the large chain bookstores have introduced readings and opened cafes and incorporated many of the other elements that made the independents successful, the commitment to the community is something that Mitch Kaplan says can't be mandated by a corporate office. And that local involvement, he says, is what has kept Books and Books going, and growing.