The Best Miami Reads, According to the Owner of Books & Books

His favorite stories of refugees, artists and the city itself

October 21, 2022 6:30 am
Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books
Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books
Mitchell Kaplan

Open since 1982, Books & Books has been a mainstay of the Miami literary scene, hosting famed authors and locals looking to pick up a new title. Owner Mitchell Kaplan grew up in Miami Beach and returned after law school, inspired by the stores he’d seen elsewhere. 

“I started thinking about Shakespeare Company in Paris, and the City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco and the Gotham Bookmark in New York,” he says. 

Since then, Kaplan has opened a number of additional locations — including one in Key West owned by Judy Blume and her husband, George Cooper — and launched the Miami Book Fair. He started a film production copy, Mazur Kaplan, which adapted books like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

But at his core, Kaplan is still a reader. Here are a few of the books focused on Miami that he recommends. 

Miami, Joan Didion

What’s the first book on Kaplan’s list? “You’d have to read Joan Didion’s Miami,” says the store owner. The book was published in 1987, following the lives of Cuban exiles that escaped the nation and settled in Miami following the overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista. Didion also references political events like the Bay of Pigs invasion.  

The Year of Dangerous Days: Riots, Refugees, and Cocaine in Miami 1980, Nicholas Griffin

“I also can’t recommend enough The Year of Dangerous Days by Nicholas Griffin. It’s [about] Miami in 1980, which is around the time we started the bookshop. It tells you what Miami was like back then — and how if we had not taken certain steps as we took, we’d be a different kind of city.” 

Black Miami in the Twentieth Century, Marvin Dunn

“There’s a wonderful book called Black Miami by Marvin Dunn,” Kaplan says. This book details the significant Black-American population in the city over the last century, from the pirates of Biscayne Bay to the segregated neighborhoods that sparked a Civil Rights movement.

Up for Grabs: A Trip Through Time and Space in the Sunshine State, John Rothchild

“There’s a great book called Up For Grabs by John Rothchild that was written a long time ago,” Kaplan says. In this book, a Florida native returns home in the 1970s, writing like both an outsider experiencing the state for the first time and with the knowledge of a longtime resident.

Going to Miami: Exiles, Tourists, and Refugees in the New America, David Rieff

“David Rieff’s Going to Miami is another book that’s quite good,” Kaplan says. This book takes a look at Miami as the “New Havana” following the arrival of Cuban refugees and the success of the series Miami Vice.

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If I Survive You, Jonathan Escoffery

“There’s a new book out right now by Jonathan Escoffery. He was nominated for a National Book Award — a young writer who’s written about Miami and growing up in the Jamaican community here,” Kaplan says. The series of short stories reads like a novel, with a couple fleeing Jamaica for Florida, where they don’t fit in and must deal with a recession and hurricanes.

Miami Blues, Charles Willeford

“To know about a Miami that doesn’t exist anymore, you can read Miami Blues,” Kaplan says. Willeford’s character Detective Hoke Moseley wakes up in the hospital after a surprise attack, and he must put the pieces together to find out what happened. 

LaBrava, Elmore Leonard

“It takes you through a Miami that’s really not around here anymore — a description of South Beach in a way that you probably hadn’t seen it,” Kaplan explains. “It’s not the South Beach anyone knows.” In this best-selling crime classic, an ex-Secret Service agent is pulled into a web of characters in the Miami neighborhood.

Continental Drift, Russell Banks

“Another phenomenal book just to know about where Miami was like Continental Drift by Russell Banks,” Kaplan says. This classic novel weaves the stories of a man from New Hampshire and a single mother from Haiti, both fleeing their homes. 

The Veins of the Ocean, Patricia Engel

“[In terms of] contemporary books that have been written about Miami, there’s a lot of fiction that’s kind of amazing,” Kaplan says. “People like Patricia Engel.” In The Veins of the Ocean, a woman leaves her homeland after serving time for a crime, settling in a sleepy town in the Florida Keys and meeting a Cuban exile.

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