In this dark moment for free speech, when Florida leads the nation in book banning — pulling more books from public school shelves than any other state — a homegrown beacon of literacy is broadening its reach, a spark of hope that we need in Miami.
Books & Books, the beloved bookstore that has served South Florida for decades, has started a literary foundation to accept grants and charitable donations. The new nonprofit will focus growing the store’s public and community programs while keeping the book-selling separate.
The nonprofit will be doing important work — critical, really. Those programs, more than 400 a year, demonstrate the value of free speech right in our back yards, one book or writer at a time. That individual touch can help build connections, inspire conversations and foster creativity. As our low-turnout elections show, not enough of us feel as though we have a real stake in our community.
Power of the word
Books have divided some of us these days, at school board meetings especially. But they can also can serve to unite us in powerful ways. These Books & Books programs aren’t simply community events; they’re also a way to bridge the widening gaps of our society. This is an opportunity, and Books & Books owner Mitchell Kaplan has seized it. We in Miami are the ones who will benefit from it.
Kaplan has a special, trusted place in the Miami landscape: He helped launch the Miami Book Fair 40 years ago, now one of the country’s largest. The fair and his bookstore have put Miami on the literary map. Books & Books has become a cultural touchstone for generations of South Floridians. To walk into one of his Books & Books shops is to walk into a haven of words and ideas.
That has never been more valuable amid current politics. When Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Stop WOKE Act led to books being removed from public school libraries across Florida, Books & Books stood up for free expression. It offered a counterweight, co-hosting a “celebration” of the freedom to read and giving away thousands of copies of removed books in the past year.
By splitting off the foundation from the bookstore — a hybrid model that has been adopted by other independent bookstores across the country — the company will also be able to bring writers and book events into places that might not normally get them. Books & Books is working with Exchange for Change, a prison writing-class program, to create libraries in local jails. Kaplan has other ideas, too: establishing a mentorship programs for people who want to start bookstores in their communities, internships for minority students in publishing, maybe even trying to find ways to create book clubs as part of youth basketball leagues.
The first fundraising goal for the foundation: $100,000 by the end of the year.
Miami can be a tough place. It can be hard to have meaningful conversations or meet new people or feel like you’re part of something larger, a real community. We’re transient. It’s sprawling city. We’re stuck in our cars, and too many of us are afraid to venture beyond our well-worn paths.
For years, Books & Books has been the exception. It has been one of the few consistent forces to bring people together to read, discuss and find common ground, no matter our differences. And, with this new foundation, maybe books can serve, yet again, to bring us together, not divide us.
Miami, we need more of this.
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