Friday, April 04, 2008

Books & Books & NASCAR, Too

It's not an exaggeration to say that my husband, Eric, and I moved to Miami because of a bookstore. Once we discovered Books & Books in Coral Gables, it was only a matter of time before we decided to decamp from Massachusetts to Florida for the winter. When we began looking for real estate in earnest, we narrowed our search to the Coconut Grove neighborhood of Miami, only a ten-minute drive from Coral Gables and the bookstore of our dreams.

We had already been drawn to the area because our son, Aaron, spent his college years at the University of Miami, in Coral Gables. Although my parents had lived for over twenty years in Boca Raton, only an hour north of Miami, during our visits there we had rarely ventured to Miami. We thought of it as a high-crime city without much to offer culturally. I did, however, have fond memories of Coral Gables, having spent an idyllic week there in 1969, visiting my college roommate. Her parents' glamorous home featured a "Florida room," a sun-drenched enclosed patio filled with potted palms and other exotic flora, where we dawdled over breakfast before heading to the country club to swim and sunbathe the days away.

Eric and I had been yearning for a respite from New England winters, but we could never picture ourselves living in Boca, with its early-bird specials, homogeneous (read old) population, and its suburban feel, strip malls and all. When we visited Aaron, though, we found Miami to be a city transformed from its gritty past, boasting a dazzling skyline, almost blindingly white compared to the dark brick and stone of Boston. And then there was South Beach, its charming art deco architecture awash in pastels, and Coral Gables, as lovely as ever, with its Spanish tiled roofs and lush foliage. We promised ourselves that in the fall of 2003, after our younger son, Alex, had left for college, we'd spend some time in the Miami area and check out the real estate. We still weren't sure we could actually live there, though. With Miami's reputation for glitz, we wondered if it would suit our more literary tastes.

In November of that year, we flew down to Miami and started looking at apartments. In the evenings, we checked out the vast array of local restaurants. One night, we chose Cafe Abbracci in downtown Coral Gables. We found a parking space about a block away. As we got out of our car, Eric said, "Look. A bookstore." The sign read "Books & Books" and the store appeared to be arranged around an attractive open courtyard. We were already late for our reservation, so we decided to see whether they would still be open when we were through with dinner. To our astonishment, the sales clerk said they closed at the late hour of 11 pm. We surmised that some people in the neighborhood must care about books to justify such long hours.

After a delicious meal at Abbracci, we hightailed it back to Books & Books, which exceeded our expectations. The courtyard was still lively at 8:30 pm, its tables filled with people speaking English and Spanish, enjoying dishes prepared at a small cafe located inside the bookstore. We entered the store through a doorway off the right side of the courtyard. We could see a book group in progress at a table in a small room adjacent to the paperback book area. On the other side of the courtyard, we found not only hardbacks, but a reading in progress in a large back room which housed an impressive-looking collection of art books. From a listing on the bulletin board, we could see that such readings were frequent. Virtually everyday, sometimes twice a day, authors came to talk about their books. We were sold—any community that supported a bookstore as vibrant as this one was a place we could feel at home.

Our faith was not misplaced. Five years later, Books & Books is still one of our favorite spots. We've attended book groups that meet regularly at the store and we've heard authors as varied as Madeleine Albright, Jared Diamond, Dave Barry, Andrea Mitchell, Carl Hiaasen, and Angelo Dundee. These author appearances are not mere book signings. They're full-blown lectures, during which the author talks about the subject of his or her book, perhaps reads a bit from it, and then takes questions. The Dundee event was preceded by a boxing exhibition in the courtyard. Mr. Dundee turned out to be a delightful gentleman, who shared many wonderful anecdotes about his years as Muhammad Ali's trainer. After Mr. Dundee's talk, we were treated to a few words by the "Fight Doctor," Ferdie Pacheco, who became so emotional about appearing with his old friend that he actually cried.

Not long ago, NPR's Scott Simon came by to discuss his recently-published novel, Windy City, and next week, Jhumpa Lahiri will be visiting the bookstore to talk about her new book, Unaccustomed Earth. Some events are held at local churches, synagogues, and hotel ballrooms, to accommodate the enormous crowds well-known authors draw. Dave Barry rated the ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel and Madeleine Albright filled Temple Judea, which seats a thousand.

A recent Books & Books highlight was a performance by the Florida Grand Opera Young Artists, an event which was held at the bookstore. The performers sang selections from The Pearl Fishers, by Georges Bizet. Maestro Stewart Robertson, the Grand Opera's musical director, provided fascinating commentary about Bizet and his work. When the artists began to sing, the power of their voices in that intimate setting was simply breathtaking. Eric and I saw the entire opera a short time afterward at Miami's spectacular new Ziff Ballet Opera House. While I enjoyed the full production, I felt I had really understood the appeal of opera for the first time when I heard the music performed up close and personal at Books & Books.

Eric and I have learned it can be rewarding to attend events featuring authors whose subjects may not be of particular interest to us. A few weeks ago, we decided to take a chance on Liz Clarke, who was speaking about her new book: One Helluva Ride: How NASCAR Swept the Nation. At best, I had an anthropologist's interest in what makes NASCAR fans tick. I expected Ms. Clarke to be a brassy, hard-edged type, with maybe with a tattoo or two. Instead, I encountered a refined, articulate woman, a sportswriter at the Washington Post and a graduate of Barnard, who lyrically described the personalities of the drivers and the dedication of their fans. Eric and I were so inspired, we bought the book. We even persuaded some friends to drive down to Homestead-Miami Raceway the other day to watch some qualifying heats. Unfortunately, NASCAR wasn't in town, so we were forced to settle for Formula One and Grand Am heats this time. But NASCAR, here we come!

All of this cornucopia of book-related activity owes its existence to one man, Mitchell Kaplan. In addition to starting Books & Books, which now has branches in Bal Harbor, Miami Beach, and the Cayman Islands, Mr. Kaplan also co-founded the Miami Book Fair International, an event that attracts book aficionados and speakers from all over the country. He provides living proof that a single individual can make a huge difference in the cultural life of a community. In fact, I can't think of a better motivation to write a book than the opportunity to talk about it at Books & Books.


michael said...

Wonderful account. Makes me want to visit just to go to the bookstore. You're tantalizing us....are you writing that book?

Anonymous said...

Oh Barbara, another beautifully written and delightful blog on the good life in Miami. Books & Books is enough of a perk to make a move for sunny winters. Also the cultural life in Miami today is a strong contrast to the stereotypes of the past.

I am a big fan...more blogs.

Anonymous said...

Welcome Back! If you aren't selling travelogues you certainly should be. I've never had much interest in visiting Florida--now I think I've changed my mind. What beautiful scenes you've depicted. Thanks.


Judy said...

You've been missing from the blogosphere for too long.
Welcome back. So nice to read about your bookstore (and you).

Jennifer said...

Barbara, thank you so much for your wonderful accounting of my workplace. Before I worked here at B&B I frequented events and such too. Working here has been delightful.

Mr. Decent said...

Thank you for your kind words about Books & Books-

We hope you'll visit us at our Bal Harbour location-

-Michael Karpus, Store Manager
Books & Books Bal Harbour Shops