Mitchell Kaplan: Well actually like a lot of bright ideas it was the confluence of many different elements that caused the book fairs to really happen. I was a young book seller at the time. Our book store had been open just a couple of years. The president of Miami Dade College was the president of the campus where the book fair takes place, Eduardo Padrón, and he had been the president just a few years. Downtown Miami was undergoing a horrific period in its history. The Mariel Boatlift had just happened; this was 1983 when we started planning. There was a perception that Miami was sort of Paradise Lost, in fact Time magazine had a cover story entitled “Paradise Lost.” So the civic pride in the city of Miami and counties of South Florida was not very high.
I had been to a number of different sort-of book fairs around the country, in Boston and in New York there had been some books fairs that no longer exist now, the same fair. Eduardo had been to Barcelona and seen the Barcelona Book Festival. And so when another group called us all up and said, “Hey we want to put some tables in the park here in downtown Miami do you want to participate?” light bulbs went off for myself, for Eduardo, for a couple of other book sellers at the time. We said “you know we can do something right in the heart of broken-down, downtown Miami and try to bring back some of that civic pride that’s been lost.” And so Eduardo turned over the campus to us, turned over resources to us, and was involved himself and we said, like in an old Mickey Rooney movie, “Let’s put on a book fair!” And so we did! We, you know, sort of had to fight through that perception of Miami not being a very serious place. Eduardo was able to secure some funding, we got sponsors, and we literally mounted the very first book fair in 1984. People ask, “Well to were you surprised to see how it grew?” And to our credit, I think all of us thought pretty big, back then; we all thought it would become a very significant fair. So we planned for it being that way and we had, at the very beginning, James Baldwin was one of our first authors, Marge Piercy, we knew that for it to really take hold it would have to be something very, very special. And it turned out that it was. And it turned out that Miami responded in a way that many other cities might not have at the time. And one of the reasons why it did is because Miami as a “book town” flies in the face of what you think of when you think of Miami and South Beach and hard bodies and old people and non-prescription drug books and all that sort of thing. So the idea of a book fair became a surprise to so many people who experienced it.
And Miami itself, Miami was aging, fading, it was like right out of Fellini’s Amarcord; it was this aging, fading, seaside tourist town which had this influx of people from the Caribbean and Latin America. It was playing out all the cultural neurosis that we later saw happen in cities all over the country. So Miami was kind of a microcosm for what the rest of the country was to go through. And writers who came here began really recognize that and fall in love with, you know this kind of Casablanca-like city right in South Florida. So we found support really, really, build in subsequent years after those first years. And in fact many writers who came down here began to live here. So the writing community began to grow. And then other writers, people like Russell Banks and Irvine Welsh and a bund of others took apartments here and would come down and write periodically, or people went back to their hometowns, or their cities, or their countries, and wrote about this crazy place called Miami. So the growth of the fair really parallels the growth of South Florida as well.
Jo Reed: I lived in South Florida years and years and years ago, so when I come back it is stunning to me to see how Miami has just blossomed as a city, it’s extraordinary.
Mitchell Kaplan: Well for me personally, I grew up here. I grew up in Miami Beach. And it’s unusual for someone to be able to live in the city they grew up in and watch it re-make itself and then have a small part in its “remaking.” To watch Miami become, just completely a different place, for me, is astonishing. When a kid growing up on Miami Beach the median age was 68 and now it might be 28 -- I’m not really sure. It was a very, very different place. And this is a real, real wonderful story of a city re-discovering, or actually not even re-discovering; it’s kind of remaking itself. It’s becoming a brand new place.
Jo Reed: Well let me ask you, since you’re one of the organizers of the book fair, what role do you think the arts played in the remaking of Miami?
Mitchell Kaplan: I think the arts are the reason why Miami has remade itself; if you consider “the arts” being very broad. Clearly, clearly, Miami Beach, for instance, came back because of the interest in architecture; art deco, the reviving of art deco. The valuing of this very strange seaside town really led to a flock of people coming in. On top of that, like many cities that were gentrifying, artists became the vanguard of people kind of taking over these buildings that were run down and decrepit and kind of remaking the buildings, remaking neighborhoods. Once those people came, once artists came, there were amenities that had to follow. And I think you saw that a lot in parts of Manhattan and other cities, Williamsburg happening right now in Brooklyn. So the arts really, really I think are the kind of driving force, are the engine really that’s causing Miami to become something new and different, because the industry that we have down here is really tourism. It’s really a hospitality industry, there isn’t really a lot of manufacturing that goes on down here. And so those kinds of amenities are very important to attract people to this area.
Jo Reed: You know what’s interesting is walking around, well South Beach most particularly because that’s where I’m staying, is that there’s so much in the arts, sort of “official arts” and I use inverted commas: there’s the ballet, there’s theater, there’s music. But on the street you really see art, there’s so much public art going on.
Mitchell Kaplan: It’s really been great. I mean one of the things that the city has tried to do -- Miami Beach, Miami to some extent -- is attract good architects, interesting architects. There is an Art in Public Places program that goes on here. Every developer has to portion a certain amount of their budget for the arts, so there I a lot of that going on here. There’s a concern -- and, you know, because we have such a diverse community, a lot of people coming from other cities, other communities: Latin America, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, lots of those folks -- you know art is extremely important in their lives, and in those cities as well and a lot of that has been transported here.
For instance there are some remarkable art collectors who are in Miami, there is a new museum that has just been developed, there’s a performing arts center that just happened. Frank Gehry’s building for The New World Symphony on Miami Beach, Herzog & de Meuron are doing a parking garage in a building right on Miami Beach, they’re also doing the Museum of Art here as well. So, there’s an amazing school of architecture here in Miami, at the University of Miami and FIU both have good schools of architecture. There are good writing programs that have cropped up. And all of this happens because the amenities are beginning—you know began years and years and years ago. And I think the Book Fair acted as a vehicle and a conduit for making the transition to Miami…more smooth.
There are people who discovered Miami for the first time through the Book Fair; guests coming in from out of town, visiting authors. Remember we’ve had -- we’ve probably presented close to 10,000 authors. That’s a lot. Now the bookstore itself, Books and Books, we present, probably close to 700 authors a year. So the literary community here has been growing and we all know that books, story, literary culture, is the engine that drives the arts to a large extent. You know it’s the one thread that kind of crosses through all the arts; whether it’s film or art, so many things get played out in books, literary theory, art theory, monographs. So to have a strong literary community, I think, is extremely important.