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Arts & Culture

Why Bookstores Don't Reflect Miami's Literary Health

Broward Palm Beach New Times

Many have taken the recent closing of Barnes and Noble in Aventura and the general dearth of bookstores in Miami as an omen, a portentous sign that the city is somehow culturally headed in the wrong direction.

And the easy takedown of South Florida, both nationally and from locals, is that a lack of bookstores is representative of a stupid populace, or an uncultured mass mostly focused on booze and partying.

But bemoaning the death of the bookstore is missing the point. It’s happening everywhere. And it’s not just a South Florida issue.

Last year, I co-founded and continue to operate an organization called Bookleggers, a Miami-based mobile library, meant to fill the void created by the waning lack of community around books. Giving people books for free has been immensely rewarding. We’ve had old and young, all races and types of faces come and take a book of their choosing with a look of gratitude that is worth measurably more than the books themselves.

I never forget some of these personal interactions: an old man in a wheelchair nearly brought to tears over an art book of a French chateau he once visited; a young Latin man who found a particular author from his home country after a long search; or giving a wide-eyed child an illustrated book of fairy tales.

I initially saw this project as a response to the phenomena of bookstores closing. But now I understand the issue as much more subtle and layered.

Credit Miami Beach 411
The terrace outside of Books and Books on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach.

“Bookstores can no longer live on every corner, because corners are expensive,” opines South Florida’s most important book advocate Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books and chairman of the Miami Book Fair International. “It’s also that people are getting their books from different places.”

While it’s true that eBooks and the internet are helping close the doors on big box stores like Barnes and Noble and Borders, the actual economics are more complicated.  What isn’t entirely understood or even discussed regularly is how the globalization of product supply chains contributes to storefronts closing en masse. Most large retailers, such as clothing giants Gap or H&M, operate on a 90% profit margin because they actually make the goods they sell and therefore have much greater control over production costs.

But this is simply not a sustainable economic model for bookstores due to the nature of the publishing industry. Writers need to be paid, and the same goes for agents, publishers, presses and manufacturers. Under this more variable cost structure, independent bookstores frequently operate at gross profit margins of only 40 percent, explaining why it's very difficult for them to move into a high-rent areas such as Miami's Design District or the rapidly growing Wynwood neighborhood.

Mitchell Kaplan is proud of the fact that he is one of the last independent retailers on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach. He points out that “the stock market once rewarded sales, not profits, and that gave people the wrong impression of what the huge expansion of Barnes and Nobles and Borders actually meant.”

Kaplan also thinks people are missing the point when it comes to local bookstores closing.

“We have a Book Fair that’s the envy of most cities. We have a poetry festival that’s the envy of other cities,” Kaplan said. “The broader question is how healthy is literary culture in Miami?”

Indeed, this is the crux of the matter. As formats for consuming content change, so must the manner of distributing books, and the definition of what is important to the history of books and book enthusiasts. I myself have realized that books do not require bookstores, they require a community around books and reading. People do not want to just buy and talk about things online. There is a real need for face to face interaction in the book community, and there are locals working towards keeping that intact.

So the bookstore, while still important, should not be the thermometer of a city's literary health. Other major cities don't have the foundation Miami does. 

As P. Scott Cunningham, director of poetry festival "O, Miami," states: “Literary culture is healthy, alive and well in South Florida. We have always had a good community and will continue to work at it.”

Bookleggers will be at Lester’s Café next Thursday. Come join us for a night literary exchange. 

Nathaniel Sandler is a contributing editor for the arts at WLRN. He is also the co-founder and Head Librarian of the Bookleggers Mobile Library, serving Miami with free books on a monthly basis at literary events throughout the city.
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