Was it 1982? It must have been, or maybe sometime the following year, and I was hanging out in Little Haiti and down in Islamorada doing research for what became CONTINENTAL DRIFT and like most people not in the know didn't realize that there was an incredibly tasteful bookstore operating over in the Gables. I wish I had known. Because it wasn't until 1985 when CONTINENTAL DRIFT was published and I was invited to read at Books & Books that I got to visit the store for the first time and meet Mitch and in a single evening go straight to the center of the literary world in Miami. For it was already that, -- the store and the readers and writers and artists who hung out together, drawn together by the books and the readings, of course, but most of all drawn together by the warmth and intelligence of Mitchell Kaplan himself.
There are only a few bookstores that we think of as both classic and historically significant. One wants to call them "bookshops" instead, suggesting a place where books are made and not merely sold, because they function as the center of an entire community of readers and writers and artists. Think of Shakespeare & Co., Gotham Book Mart, City Lights, and maybe two or three others. Books & Books is in that league. They all sold books you couldn't find anywhere else in the city then, but they all also had a proprietor who not only loved books and writers and had great taste in both, but had made a personal mission of bringing those books and writers to the wider community -- whether it was the Left Bank in the 1920s or Manhattan in the 1950s or San Francisco in the 1960s. Those bookshops actually shaped their communities' literary imaginations. Which is to say, they shaped how those cities viewed themselves and how they came to be viewed by outsiders. Books & Books has done that for Miami. It's impossible to think of a Barnes & Noble or a Borders even attempting it.
Sure, all bookstores, whether chains or independents, provide a service; they sell books (and associated products, including espresso and whole grain muffins and scones). But the rare ones, like Books & Books and those other classics I mentioned, can make a city into a place where you want to live. That's certainly the effect Books & Books has had on me and my wife. And it's not about the books or the associated products -- we can find those most anywhere in America nowadays. It's about the specific community of writers and readers that has been nourished and sustained by Books & Books over the last twenty-five years, the folks who gather there to talk shop and exchange gossip and real estate tips and recommend titles new and old that may never appear on the Best Seller lists. One likes to think that a city has at least one place where its collective wisdom resides, where its imagination and self-knowledge are protected and shared with anyone who comes through the gate looking for them. For twenty-five years now, for those of us who love Miami, that place has been Books & Books, and the keeper of the gate has been Mitchell Kaplan.