What does it take for a bookstore to survive in Miami?

Literary communities work a little bit like tech scenes. Books aren’t programs, of course, but both need to grow ecosystems in order to make products that people actually want to buy. And bookstores, with their cafes, events, and curated catalogs, are the coworking spaces and startup incubators of the literary world.

But while Miami now has 13 different coworking spaces, it’s actually lost two bookstores in the past five years. The Kendall Book Barn closed this January, and Aventura’s Barnes and Nobles closed back in 2013 as part of that chain’s nation-wide cutback.

The growth of e-commerce and the decline of traditional retail bears some responsibility for the loss, but it’s also just damn hard to run a successful bookstore.

Major retailers like H&M and The Gap Co. manage to squeeze every last cent out of their storefronts by owning the entire supply chain behind them. But there’s no way a bookstore could work on that model – bookstores can’t go around commissioning books and publishing the authors, so the margins are much smaller.

“You’ve got to be passionate about what you’re doing, otherwise you wouldn’t put up with the challenges,” says Mitchell Kaplan, the owner of Books & Books. His Miami-based chain of eight independent bookstores is one of the most successful in the country.

But even as local bookstores are closing, “There are a lot of people here who care about books,” says Connie Ogle, an editor and writer at Miami Herald, and the paper’s former book editor. She runs the super busy Miami Herald Books Facebook group.

Ms. Ogle points to the growth of the Miami Book Fair as evidence of the city’s burgeoning love for literary culture. She credits the fair for introducing literature to a whole new generation of Miamians.

But if there are more readers, why are there fewer bookstores? We reached out to some of our favorites to learn their stories – and what it takes to survive.

Books & Books

265 Aragon Ave, Coral Gables, FL 33134

Mitchell Kaplan founded Books and Books in 1982, after stints as a law student and high-school teacher. It’s since become one of the most successful independent bookstore chains in the country. There are eight Books and Books locations, including ones in Key West and The Bahamas. The flagship store in Coral Gables serves a mean cortadito, and on its own hosts more than 800 literary events a year.

Books and Books has weathered the rise of e-books and slow death of American retail at the hands of Amazon by offering customers a highly curated literary and dining experience.

“The internet is not a place,” explains Mitchell, “and I still believe that people want place.”

The chain’s Aragon avenue location is modeled on an old Spanish Villa, and lets readers enjoy their just purchased book in a cool, outdoor courtyard.

“There’s a tradition of great community bookstores reaching back into the 1910s, starting with Shakespeare and Company in Paris,” Mitchell explains.

By focusing on keeping an enticing catalog, and hosting consistently exciting author events, Mitchell has managed to turn the stores into a cornerstone of the Miami literary community.

But he warns that his model might not work for anybody else.

“Every bookstore has it’s own story,” he explains. “There are no generalizations. If there was a formula in this business, every bookstore would survive.”

The Bookstore In the Grove

3390 Mary St #166, Miami, FL 33133

Felice Dubin opened this beloved Grove institution because “the community didn’t have a bookstore.”

For more than a decade the business quietly built up a reputation for excellent food and unpretentious charm. Dubin sold it earlier this summer so she could retire (although it was an 11th hour save – for a long time it looked like she would just have to close it down), and now the new owner is looking to generate more revenue and excitement while still keeping the place rooted in community.

For Amanda de Seta, founder of Lointerhome, a local real estate development company, purchasing the bookstore was about quality of life.

“I can build pretty, fancy things and that’s great, but if the community that I’m building in gets plowed under and loses its vitality then what’s the point?” she says.

De Seta has leveled up the menu with the help of Glass and Vine chef’s Adriana Egozcue and Amber Rapicavoli. The menu features a local burrata salad and a crunchy avocado toast. De Seta hopes to expand the offerings to include lunch and dinner.

She also wants to add a wine and beer selection and a small gourmet grocery store, all the while hosting literary events and keeping up with book sales.

The game plan is to expand the bookstore’s money making services and make it something more high end while still keeping the loyal customer base happy.

“We only closed for renovations for a single day, and people were still knocking on the door trying to get their coffee,” Ms. De Seta recalls.  

Dunbar’s Rare Books

7061 SW 46th St, Miami, FL 33155

Mary Ann Talmidge doesn’t run a community bookstore. She doesn’t sell food or coffee or booze or burrata and she doesn’t host authors or events. But that doesn’t make her store any less important.

Squirreled away in the back of a light industrial warehouse complex across the 826 from Tropical Park, her collection of 40,000 books is something rather different than what you’ll find in the aisles at Books & Books or The Bookstore in The Grove.

“I just sold a book from 1616 called The Concordance of Years. I was the only one who had it,” she boasts with a wry grin.

The elderly Mary Ann owns the warehouse building where her bookstore is located, and she started the shop as a retirement project almost 30 years ago after a tenant abandoned a lease and left a bunch of books behind.

Her eye for the unusual, the strange, the weird, and the wonderful means that her shelves carry a unique selection possibly found nowhere else in the world.

“I’m always looking for unusual books. I mean, if there’s 50 copies of it, I don’t want it,” she explains.

She makes most of her sales online rather than in person. “I don’t feel like I fit in the literary community down here,” she say with a sigh, before returning to a corner desk overflowing with rare books for cataloguing.

Libreria Revistas y Periódicos

7971 Bird Rd Suite 10, Miami, FL 33155

Latin America has a bookstore culture that’s pretty untouched by Amazon, and any major city on the continent includes dozens or perhaps even hundreds of independent booksellers, each with their own unique catalogue and story.

When Eduardo and Norma Durán founded their store 27 years ago, they decided to model it after the bookstores they knew and loved in their native Colombia.

“This isn’t a business, or even work,” explains Eduardo Durán, “it’s something that we love.”

They originally called the bookstore “Magazines and Periodicals” because they made most of their money selling Latin American magazines and newspapers to recently arrived expatriates, but now their business is mostly focused on Spanish-language books. “We sell everything from Don Quixote to translations of Danielle Steele,” he says.

Though they rent their storefront, rather than own it, and sell neither food nor drink, their selection of over 30,000 Spanish language books sells just fine, and they love getting to know their customers. “The people who come here are the ones who carry intellectual curiosity in their soul,” explains Eduardo.

By Mario Ariza
Mario Alejandro Ariza is a Dominican immigrant who grew up in Miami. A Michener Fellow in poetry at the University of Miami’s Master in Fine Arts program, he is currently working on a nonfiction book about South Florida and Sea Level Rise. On a day with a good swell and northeasterly breezes, you’ll find him surfing on South Beach (yes, there’s actually surfing Miami.)