How I got here: Lissette Mendez, director of programs, Miami Book Fair

We’re in the middle of Miami Book Fair, the most wonderful time of year in Miami for word lovers.

As the largest consumer book fair in the US, it’s a year-long effort to pull it off, bringing in authors and other notables from around the world (this year: Bernie Sanders and Trevor Noah!).

And the one who makes much of that happen is Lissette Mendez, the director of programs. She plays a key role in choosing all the amazing writers and other creatives who descend on Miami this week. If you fall in love with a new writer at this year’s fair, chances are Mendez had a lot to do with getting them there.

Lisette MendezMendez joined Miami Book Fair in 2004 and has been director of programs for three years now. But she first started coming to the book fair as a high school student in the late 1980s, a few years after arriving in the U.S. with the Mariel boatlift, and has missed only one book fair since – when she took a family trip to Louisiana.

“I was, like, devastated. I was so sad. Louisiana, family, awesome road trip… but book fair! Ohhh!” she says, describing how torn she felt. “I made sure never ever to leave again by coming to work here.”

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Were you always a book lover?

Oh my god, I’ve always been a crazy, compete book nerd. As far back as I remember, I couldn’t be without a book. I was always reading something. It got to the point that one of the things that was causing me the most anxiety was not having a physical book with me at all times or being about to finish a book and not knowing what else I was going to read. I developed this habit of always having two books going at the same time.

Now I think I probably have to say… I am a big electronic AND paper reader. Now I can have any book I want on my phone at any time. I still primarily read paper books, but it’s very comforting to know that at any point I can have something to read no matter what. I do worry about lack of electricity at times. What happens if my phone dies and I can’t plug it in and I don’t have a paper book?

How did you first get into the book world here in Miami?

I grew up on Miami Beach, I went to Miami Beach High, and I spent a lot of time in the public library on Miami Beach. I was this weird person that used to skip school and go to the library.

I became friendly with Raquel Roque, who now also works with Mitchell [Kaplan, the founder of Books & Books]. She had a store called the Downtown Book Center.  I always wanted to go work in that bookstore or any bookstores. Every so often I would ask her for a job. I never managed to make it work to work with her. There weren’t any book clerk positions.

I would go to Books & Books on Lincoln Road all the time too. Sometimes I remind Mitchell about things that used to happen in that book store in the 1980s. Back then it was just the bookstore and like one restaurant. Even the independent cinema that came and went on the beach, The Alliance, they used to show their films at the bookstore on a projector with a pull-down shade.

In grad school, there was a gay bookstore and gift shop on Lincoln Road, GW (the initials of two owners), that I worked at. The owners were very close friends of mine. I went to work in that store just managing everything. We were like a little family. It has a really big book section at one point. We also had all kinds of other stuff. It was a gift shop, a little bit of a sex shop, a little bit of everything.

It went through some changes because unfortunately Gabs passed away. This was in the early 90s, when HIV/AIDS was hitting really hard. Even though we were on the dawn of finding these amazing drugs, at that time it wasn’t quite as common.

I did books there and then they closed when Lincoln Road went through that big transition. Most small, independent businesses on Lincoln Road didn’t survive.

How did you get this job?

After grad school, I went to work at Books and Books, then The Wolfsonian, then I came to Miami-Dade College, to the publications department. Then I came to Book Fair.

A lot of people might think, “You knew Mitchell.” I had worked with Mitchell, but I’ve never been the kind of person to have the balls to pick up the phone and be like, “Hey.” When the position opened up, I applied for it. I interviewed and I got hired.

What was the first book you chose for yourself, rather than your parents choosing for you, that you really fell in love with?

I grew up In Cuba. I had a lot of books in my house that had belonged to my dad and my mom.I used to spend a lot of time looking through the books. We used have a big collection of old National Geographics. The first book I just picked from the bookshelf for kids or younger people was Treasure Island.

I remember looking at the cover. It was this really old cover, tattered. It was this photo of an old street and the waterfront and you could see the pirate in the darkness. That was the first book I remember reading that just blew my mind completely. That opening sequence of his peg leg going up the street, thump, thump, thump. And the boy heang that and narrating what’s happening – it was like the ultimate proof of magic in the universe. It was everything. To this day I remember where I was when I read it, I remember how it felt. It was like the gateway drug to a serious story addiction.

Right now my sons read a lot, especially my oldest son, but he’s always been a little bit more scared of the mysteries and things like that. Its one of those books I kind of want to read with him, to vicariously have that feeling again.

What’s your personal mission for Book Fair?

The thing that is most important to me is something that is a core value that the Book Fair founders, Mitchell and Dr. Padròn, have. The both of them had this kind of driving value of inclusion, of offering a space where everyone could come and get something out of it. Dr. Padròn was definitely already thinking of those things when he came to Miami-Dade College’s Wolfson Campus. He was the president of campus to build this kind of institution that would have its doors open to everyone: Democracy’s college.

It’s easy to have a jaded attitude to a statement like that, but it’s true. This institution is that thing for people in this community. If your family can’t afford to help you go to another kind of institution out of state, you can get an amazing education right here. It doesn’t matter who you are. And Mitchell dropped out of law school to become a teacher. When they came together to form this book fair, I’m not sure they were setting it up with a written statement of these lofty goals… but it’s definitely who they are. I came along and really connected with that. I also am carrying those core values in helping to build book fair for the next however many years. My co-director she feels exactly the same way. We don’t sit around and have these convos like we’re builders of democracy, but it’s definitely a guiding factor.

Waking up the day after the election where my candidate didn’t get elected and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the president we did elect, what is my role today? Moving forward is to continue to put together an event in which everyone can find something they feel represented by. That might not be politics, I might just be romance novels or poetry or a book about the environment.

This event has such low barriers to participation. Anyone can come and be a part of it. We work with a lot of organizations in the city to ensure people who can’t afford $8 to come in on the weekend… can come in other days. Children are free, teachers, older people receive discounts. We’ve been able to fundraise to subsidize all of what we’re doing here.

You can come out with your tribe or find them. You can also find a whole other tribe by going to a session featuring authors you’ve never heard about.

What do books do for the world?

I hate to think about books as a form of education… I want people to think of books as pleasure and sometimes education, though pleasurable for me and many others, has this sort of institutional feel to it. For me it’s more about enjoyment. I want people to come and find books they can enjoy, that allow them to feel like they went someplace by reading them.

What’s a great day at work look like?

A great day for me is when I’ve had a chance to talk, even for one second, with every single person I work with and they are happy, whether it’s a student assistant or my co-director. I’m looking around the room and everyone that works here is happy and fulfilled and feels good about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it.

I’ve always said, you know the fair is a wonderful thing. I’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s always going to imperfect. The fair has been here for 33 years, it’s going to be here another 33 years. The most important thing for me is not having a perfect fair anymore, but knowing everyone I work with is really happy putting this fair together.