Kaplan: Still Starstruck
One might think that by now, Books & Books owner Mitchell
Kaplan would have adopted a dispassionate stance toward
the book fair that he cofounded 34 years ago with Eduardo J.
Padrón, now president of Miami Dade College; other independent bookstore owners; and the Miami-Dade Public Library
System. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Looking back over the
years at the roster of authors that the fair has hosted—from
James Baldwin to this year’s lineup including Colson Whitehead (one of PW’s Best Books of 2016 authors)—Kaplan finds
it astonishing. “As a reader and a lover of books and authors, I
get starstruck,” he says.
From the first year, accord-
ing to Kaplan, the fair was a
success, attracting approxi-
mately 50,000 people over
the course of two days. Now,
the fair spans eight days and
attracts hundreds of thousands
of people. Kaplan believes
that the long-term success of
the fair is based on it being an
event that is “by the commu-
nity and for the community,”
he says. “We always wanted it
to be the big thing in which all
of Miami could participate. So what we’ve done, is made sure
it’s extremely inclusive of authors of all kinds, which attracts
audiences of all kinds reflecting the diversity of Miami and
South Florida—and that’s what very exciting to me.”
The fair has been host to countless luminaries of literature
and culture, and Kaplan has mingled with most of them, but
there are a few on his wish list who remain elusive. They
include some enigmatic and rarely seen writers, such as the Pu-
litzer Prize–winning poet Mary Oliver; Philip Roth, recipient of
just about every major literary award; Japanese writer Haruki
Murakami; and Elena Ferrante, whose alleged true identity was
just recently revealed but remains unconfirmed. “They would
be amazing,” the still-starstruck Kaplan says wistfully.
Mendez: Read More Books!
Lissette Mendez, who is director of programs and codirector
of the fair, along with Delia Lopez, director of operations,
echoes Kaplan’s sentiments about an all-inclusive festival of
books and culture. “I don’t like events with even the slightest
elitist attitude,” she says, explaining that the Miami Book Fair
is “an event that makes everyone in this community feel com-
fortable. It doesn’t just belong to the subset that are artistic or
A Cuban who grew up in what she describes as “reduced
circumstances,” Mendez is adamant about “creating a cultural
community in which the barrier to participate is as low as it can
be.” That not only applies to having something for everyone,
but being keenly aware of costs. She proudly points out that
most events are free, the street
fair is only $8 and most week-
night programs are only $15.
But it is the variety and
depth of programming that
makes Mendez most animated.
All new this year is ReadCa-
ribbean, a program devoted to
literature of the myriad coun-
tries and cultures that make up
the Caribbean. “Everyone in
Miami has some sort of foot in
the Caribbean,” says Mendez.
While past fairs have featured
some Caribbean authors and
books, this year’s goes further, featuring not only Spanish-
speaking authors of the Caribbean but Creole as well.
Also new this year is the Kitchen Stadium, a newly built,
outdoor structure that can accommodate up to 250 people. It
will host cooking demonstrations and cookbook authors.
Mendez is equally enthusiastic about long-standing
programs that just keep on growing, such as the expansive
children’s and educational activities that this year will connect
more than 9,000 students with authors in schools and other
venues throughout the fair. And as a huge fan of comics and
graphic novels, she takes personal pride in the continuing
growth of the fair’s offerings in that category.
Mendez doesn’t care whether a book is high-brow or lowbrow; written in Spanish, English, or Creole; illustrated or not;
prose or poetry. What she is emphatic about is the mission: to
encourage everyone “to read more books,” she says.
A few words with Miami Book Fair cofounder Mitchell Kaplan
and codirector Lissette Mendez
By the Community, for the Community
L. to r.: Eduardo J. Patrón, Mitchell Kaplan, Lissette Mendez