My guest today is Mitchell Kaplan, a bookseller who has been managing a small business, Books & Books, in the Miami area for almost 40 years. He’s the co-founder of the Miami Book Fair, an international exposé that showcases some of the best authors around the world. Adding even more to his eclectic bucket of work, he’s also a filmmaker and a fellow podcaster.
I kicked off my virtual book tour for “Betting On You” at Books & Books earlier this year, and it was a pleasure to reconnect with Mitchell for this episode. We chat about what it’s like managing a small business during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly with maintaining the community that he’s helped to build in the Miami literary scene. We also talk about keeping employees motivated and how pivoting can help grow your business during challenging times.
This episode of Punk Rock HR is sponsored by the Shift Career Summit on June 17. Mary Ellen Slayter of Managing Editor and I are bringing together some of the biggest names in the world of work to help you take control of your career. The event is completely free, and you can register today at ShiftDigitalCareers.com.
Building A Community
To understand the value that Books & Books provides to the literary community, you first have to hear from Mitchell about the changes that he’s seen in Miami as a bookseller. When he was starting out, there was a generally held idea that Miami was a place for retirees where not much was happening culture-wise. For a glimpse into this world, he recommends the documentary “The Last Resort,” which captures the changes there in the 1970s and ‘80s.
“As soon as I opened up the bookshop, I realized, ‘Whoa, the people here are as sophisticated as anywhere else in the country,’” he says. Mitchell talks about the writers that began flocking to Miami to live permanently, as well as people who were born in the city and became well-known authors. Books & Books and the Miami Book Fair have positively contributed to that community’s growth. “Along with the 400 authors that [Books & Books] brings in a year, that fair brings another 400 or 500 authors,” he explains. “I never imagined that we would take what was thought of as a backwater literary community and turn it into what I think is one of the most vibrant literary communities in the country.”
Show Up as a Leader, and Your Staff Will Show Up For You
What I remember most about my experience with my virtual event at Books & Books was how positive and enthusiastic the staff felt. Even though we weren’t together in person, they still went above and beyond to make it feel like such a special moment. It was such a meaningful experience to me as an author, and it all felt indicative of a workplace environment where there were competent leaders that brought everyone together. “They are remarkable in terms of what they’ve been able to do,” Mitchell says.
When you show up for your workforce as a leader, they’ll show up for you. When you cultivate that type of relationship with your staff, there’s a sense of mutual respect. “I’m very proud of the fact that we have some very longtime staff people,” says Mitchell, “We have people who’ve worked for us right out of college for almost 30 years now. And it’s very gratifying to have this literary family, of which you’re a part of, too.”
Embracing Change is Key to Managing a Small Business
One of the coolest things about the physical space at Books & Books is the totally Zen courtyard area where events were traditionally held before the pandemic. When Mitchell closed the storefronts, this was one of the biggest initial losses. “We couldn’t gather in the very same way. So our business suffered,” he explains.
Mitchell did what any successful business owner does during times of adversity: embrace change. He found new ways to engage with the community and was even able to pick up new Books & Books customers. “What we did is, like so many other people, we pivoted and we became an online bookshop as well as a physical bookstore. And our online store now is basically like our second-highest grossing bookstore.”
While we’re all feeling nostalgic for in-person events (and I know I sure can’t wait for the time that I’m able to make a quick trip down to Miami to be physically present for an event at Books & Books), pivoting to virtual has given small businesses great platforms to attract audiences from all over the world. “With our events and with our sense of community, we are able to do some things virtually that we may continue to do, which will bring people from far and wide together,” Mitchell says. “There’s so much we now can try to do in that sense.”