Mitchell Kaplan: Sire of Storytelling

It's still that one weekend in November at Miami Dade College that gets Mitchell Kaplan's pulse racing a little faster
It's still that one weekend in November at Miami Dade College that gets Mitchell Kaplan's pulse racing a little faster
Photo by Stian Roenning

In this week's Miami New Times, we profile 30 of the most interesting characters in town, with portraits of each from photographer Stian Roenning. See the entire Miami New Times People Issue here.

If Mitchell Kaplan were an author instead of Florida's sire of storytelling, it's a good bet he'd fit the Mark Twain mold.

No, we're not suggesting Kaplan's fate is tied to the romance and mystery of America's riverboats. Few authors wrote with more variety -- pulled forever by wanderlust, intellectual curiosity, and plain stubbornness -- than Twain. The man behind Huckleberry Finn never stood pat, publishing dozens of travelogues, political essays, and bits of poetry amid his timeless literature.

Kaplan could rest on his own laurels: He's the man, after all, who cofounded Miami Book Fair International and then shepherded it into the nation's preeminent celebration of literature, poetry, and journalism.

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But that's not Kaplan's game. Instead, these days his hands are in everything from movie production to book publishing, all while pulling off the improbable feat of expanding his indie bookstore in the age of Amazon. The Miami Book Fair, meanwhile, is ever-evolving, adding a new partnership with the National Book Awards this year to feature all the winners in person.

It all speaks to a man who loves writing and the culture of books every bit as much as he did 30 years ago, when he helped organize a small fair downtown.

"It takes a certain type of passion to put up with the organizational work it takes to keep a fair like this running at a high level," Kaplan says. "It's a part of my heart and soul at this point."

Born and raised in Miami, Kaplan began his career as a high-school English teacher before jumping into the hardcover business with his first Books & Books location in Coral Gables in 1982. Two years later, he helped launch the event that would grow into Miami Book Fair International.

Both have followed skyward trajectories even as the publishing industry has stumbled in the internet era, with Books & Books expanding from the Gables to Miami Beach to the Cayman Islands to its newest locale, an Adrienne Arsht Center outpost soon to open.

The book fair celebrated its 31st edition with the usual embarrassment of big names such as Ira Glass and Patricia Cornwell, plus new twists like a Florida-centric performance space and the National Book Awards partnership, which gave Kaplan the chance to name the finalists live on NPR. "Being a news and radio junkie, that was a huge thrill for me," he says.

Kaplan, who earned a 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Awards for his work, has continued developing movies with a film production company working on an adaptation of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows' bestselling novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

But three decades in, it's still that one weekend in November at Miami Dade College that gets Kaplan's pulse racing a little faster.

"When you stand there during the fair and you see the gigantic tent and the crowds, you realize it's one of the few community-wide events in Miami that everyone comes to, all the disparate groups in this town," he says. "And it's all done through literature and wanting to meet writers and to see their books... It's beautiful."

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