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How Miami’s literary legacy flourished

“I grew up in a time when authors were my heroes and books were artifacts through which culture was transferred,” says Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Miami’s beloved Books & Books and cofounder of Miami Book Fair International, one of the most important events to shape Miami’s cultural trajectory since the 1980s.

What started as a pet project for Kaplan and a group of local booksellers interested in bringing book fair culture to Miami quickly gained an international following. Now, 32 years later, Miami Book Fair International is the largest consumer book fair in the United States, attracting hundreds of the country’s most celebrated authors, literary agents, and publishers from across the world.

“A higher calling”

While Kaplan acknowledges that being part of bookstore and literary culture was a “higher calling” for the then 24-year-old high school English teacher, timing turned out to be everything. In the early 1980s, Miami was on the verge of becoming irrelevant — rampant with crime and regarded as a magnet for superficial partygoers and aging retirees.

Those on the outside looking in dismissed the notion that there was any intellectual thought brewing in Florida’s deep south. “I wanted to create a world that was my own. I wanted to do something that was for everyone,” Kaplan says.

He opened the first Books & Books location in Coral Gables in 1982. Cognizant of street fairs held in other major cities like Boston and New York, Kaplan realized that none had been able to create a street fair that included author appearances and public readings. “No one was doing it — it was always either the street fair or the authors. So we decided to combine both,” Kaplan says.

His plan was quite an ambitious undertaking in a city that had yet to experience a cultural awakening. “I met Mitchell when I first moved to Miami to become the director of the new Creative Writing Program at FIU,” says Les Standiford, a historian and author who’s served as the director of Florida International University’s Creative Writing Program since 1985. “We became friends immediately and he began to talk to me about this huge book fair — this was the height of the Mariel boat lift, when there was a lot of people riding boats with their shirts unbuttoned, but not a whole lot of people reading books — and I remember thinking, ‘Oh boy, Mitchell, come back to earth.’”

Kaplan, however, claims he never had any doubt that a book fair in Miami would be a huge success. “I knew there was an audience, so I was very confident I could make this happen,” he says. Rallying fellow booksellers and literary types across the city, Mitchell befriended Dr. Eduardo Padrón, the current president of Miami Dade College, who then served as the president of the Wolfson campus. “Eduardo knew what a book fair of this caliber could do for Miami, and he insisted on hosting it at MDC’s campus Downtown,” says Kaplan. “He was really the spirit behind the college.”

For Padrón, the book fair was just the antidote to revitalize a rundown area of Downtown Miami, and reinforce the College’s mission to meld community engagement with higher learning. “I’ve always felt that an education should take place in the classroom and in the community,” says Padron, “and the Miami Book Fair was a way to do that.”

Catalyst of culture

In November 1984, after over a year of planning, Padrón and Kaplan cofounded the first book fair, then called Books by the Bay, a two-day event that drew roughly 75 authors to MDC’s downtown campus. “The first edition was truly an irresistible offering of respected authors and publishers,” says Padrón, noting that hundreds attended the Book Fair’s inaugural event. Today held over an entire week, Miami Book Fair International is widely regarded as one of the finest literary events in the country, with this year’s fair drawing over 600 authors for readings and literary panels.

Since its inaugural year, Book Fair has seen no shortage of growth, attracting world-class authors, publishing houses, and cultural agents from across the globe. “I think we had every major writer of the 20th century — names like Saul Bellow and Joseph Heller and Isaac Singer — and now we’re getting the best from the 21st,” says Kaplan. “We’ve even had other fairs come and copy us. L.A., Chicago, Seattle — they all visited the fair and adopted its model.”

And the years haven’t passed without color. Standiford recalls the moment when Peter Mayle announced he had just found out his 1989 autobiographical novel A Year in Provence had just printed its 27 millionth copy, an unprecedented success for a writer at the time. Or when Hunter S. Thompson took to the stage with his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “The auditorium was packed and people were wasted and smoking marijuana,” he says. “The guy who introduced Hunter came up and uncorked a fifth of Jack Daniels, took a big swig, and left the rest to Hunter.”

Truly a catalyst of culture in Miami, the Book Fair has created a rich environment for both young and established writers, enhancing or launching new creative writing programs at almost every major university in South Florida. “Book Fair has made it very hospitable for writers to be here,” says Kaplan. “The MDC Writers’ Institute started, every major college has an MFA program, and MDC has Book Fair programming all year long.” Padrón notes that thanks to the Book Fair, his students have direct access to writing and literature. “Our student newspaper The Reporter and our student literary magazines are among the best in the nation,” he says. “Few higher learning institutions can offer programs of that caliber. It’s the result of a combined effort and hard work.”

It’s also ignited the flame for many local writers and young authors whose love of literature was crystallized by the years they spent visiting the Book Fair. “I went to Book Fair long before I wanted to become a writer,” says local author Chantel Acevedo. “I grew up in Hialeah, so it was a big thing — getting on the Metrorail and coming Downtown to spend the day browsing books or listening to readings. It shaped my love of writing.”

For Standiford, the Book Fair nudged him to take his career as a writer to the next level. “It motivated me, because as the director of Creative Writing at FIU, I was constantly being asked to introduce people,” he says. “I realized that I wanted to be the one being introduced, so I finally pushed myself to write my first book. I’ve since published 23.”

The Miami Book Fair legacy

But the Book Fair’s impact goes far beyond the literary world, playing a pivotal role in Miami’s cultural transformation from millionaire’s playground to a multicultural center for arts and culture. “The existence of the fair is like a cultural metaphysical monument that hovers over the city year round. It’s made Miami a different place,” says Standiford. “I think you can argue that Book Fair has truly galvanized an interest in culture. I don’t think there would be an Arsht Center or a new art museum without it.”

“The Miami Book Fair has grown alongside the city where it was born,” adds Padrón. “I don’t think there is another event out there that compares in terms of diversity and cultural richness.”

For Kaplan, Miami Book Fair is a legacy, a tribute to the city he was born and raised in. “It’s so interesting to have this perspective, and then try to explain it,” says Kaplan. “In my lifetime, I’ve been through more Book Fairs than I haven’t. We’ve given Miami a literary history, because all of these people have interacted with Miami in one way or another. The Book Fair has really shown the world that Miami has life.”

Miami Book Fair International is happening from November 15 –22 at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson campus.

By Nicole Martinez
Nicole is a freelance writer and crop top enthusiast based in Miami Beach. A lifelong 305-er, she loves finding new stuff to love in her city everyday.