Et Tu, Julius?

Literary savior Mitchell Kaplan's lawsuit against his uncle reveals a rift in the family business

In the summer of 1981, Miami attorney Julius Ser began contemplating life after litigation. He dreamed of opening a bookstore, an intimate den filled with his favorite rare texts. "I thought it would be great," he told the Miami Herald, "just sitting around, selling a few books and talking with my friends." To help him realize the dream, he recruited his nephew Mitchell Kaplan, then a young high school English teacher. Together they bought a small watch-repair shop on Aragon Avenue in Coral Gables, lined it with bookshelves, and opened for business.

Prosperity ensued. Books & Books evolved into South Florida's premier bookstore, climbing into the ranks of nationally renowned shops such as Elliott Bay in Seattle and The Hungry Mind in St. Paul. Kaplan is widely credited for the success. The wiry 43-year-old engineered profitable contacts in the literary community. He cofounded the Miami International Book Fair, was named to the board of the influential American Booksellers Association, and, perhaps most important, fostered the careers of numerous South Florida writers. Along the way he opened a second store on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. In a 1996 Tropic magazine profile, crime novelist Paul Levine dubbed Kaplan "Saint Mitch," a title echoed in the headline and reinforced when Kaplan posed as a convincing Christ figure nailed to the stacks of his store.

It's a trying time in the public life of Saint Mitch. Like dozens of independent bookstores across America, his Books & Books is weathering a transformation of the business. Corporate chain stores are squeezing out smaller shops nationwide; a 32,000-square-foot Barnes & Noble superstore operates only two blocks from Kaplan's Coral Gables location. Sales of Internet retailer Amazon.com have increased in two years from $15.7 million to more than $400 million. More change is on the way. Kaplan frets about the possible impact of rocket books, an emerging technology that can load up to 5000 pages of computerized text into a palm-size computer.

Yet these epochal industry shifts are not the most pressing of Kaplan's concerns. Late last year Kaplan sued his uncle in circuit court for dissolution of their partnership. "It's a family matter," says Kaplan, who is reluctant to discuss the lawsuit in detail. "It's a very painful, complicated family matter. It is an extremely detailed, nuanced situation. It's sad."

Legal complaints are often packed with tedious boilerplate language. Not so the complaint filed the day before Thanksgiving by Kaplan's lawyer, former U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey. Coffey's argument for the partnership's breakup is written in clear and evocative language appropriate for a bibliophile of Kaplan's stature.

The complaint begins by describing Ser and Kaplan brainstorming about the bookstore. "For Kaplan," Coffey wrote, "this dream embodied a lifelong love of literature and the written word." Ser, age 70, is depicted as the moneyman, not a working partner.

Coffey's complaint continues: "In the spring of 1982, Books & Books held its grand opening. From that day forward, the shop was managed and operated by Kaplan, who provided the energy, creative spirit, and later the nationwide network of literary contacts that would define Books & Books as a major literary institution.

"While Ser's contributions were essentially in the realm of financing, it was initially proposed that he act as a chief financial officer to oversee systems and budgets. Almost from the beginning, however, Ser, who also engaged in the practice of law and had an extensive portfolio of investments, had neither the time nor the patience to become significantly involved in management. Even years later, when he ceased the active practice of law, his role in the core operations of Books & Books was limited."

The crux of the dispute is ownership of the Aragon Avenue building. In the complaint Kaplan claims he acquired the property in 1984. At Ser's request it was titled in the name of Ser and his wife, Mildred Ser, "who informed Kaplan that due to their much higher earnings, they would benefit from tax deductions that would be relatively meaningless to Kaplan in light of his low level of compensation," according to the complaint.

The document proceeds to detail Kaplan's niggardly wage. Despite reportedly working more than 3000 hours each year, in 1983 he received only $9300. By 1991 he still earned less than $22,000 per year. The small salaries were expected to be eventually offset by the increasing value of the real estate.

"In recent times the once-close relationship between Kaplan and Ser has deteriorated," the complaint states. "It now appears that Ser, anticipating an eventual dissolution, endeavored to revise the history of the Books & Books property" by claiming that Kaplan had been renting rather than buying the Aragon Avenue shop. To put it more simply, Kaplan contends Ser is attempting to block him from sharing the wealth tied up in the building.

Ser could not be reached for comment despite New Times's phone calls and a visit to his house on Miami Beach. His wife Mildred referred all questions to attorney Thomas Seymour. "The nature of the allegations is seriously overstated," Seymour clarifies. "The dispute ... between the two of them has been resolved in principle. We're still in the process of sending proposed settlement agreements back and forth. I suspect the issue will be resolved in the next week or so."

Seymour declines further comment. Kaplan is similarly taciturn. "I really don't want to talk about personal stuff," the bookseller says. "The issue is being resolved amicably. It's kind of a crucial time and we are very close to resolving this."

ra_powell@miaminewtimes.com

 
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