Miami Is a Bookstore Desert

Andres Viglucci, Miami Herald, November 2, 2007

Next weekend, during Miami Book Fair International, the lecture halls and streets in and around downtown’s Miami Dade College will become the nation’s largest bookstore as mobs of readers snap up 70,000 books from 300,000 titles on display.

But if you’re looking for a comprehensive, general-interest bookstore within city boundaries any other time of the year, buena suerte. There is none.

You read that right: Miami, a major city of more than 360,000 people, has not a single such bookstore anywhere. Not downtown. Not in Coconut Grove. Not in the Upper East Side. There is no Borders, no Barnes & Noble, no multilingual independent beyond a smattering of niche stores.

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And there isn’t much in the offing, apart from a planned independent store in the Grove. The city’s two new retail developments—Midtown Miami and Mary Brickell Village—have no bookstores and no immediate prospects.

Certainly, Miami has some well-established specialized booksellers—among others, Lambda Passages, a gay and lesbian bookstore on upper Biscayne Boulebard and Afro-In Books & Things in Liberty City. It also has a few Spanish-language stores, including Libreria Universal, long a beacon for Cuban literary culture and history on Southwest Eighth Street.

And there are general-interest bookstores aplenty in the suburbs—from chain stores in Aventura and Kendall to the redoubtable independent Books & Books, with branches in Coral Gables, Miami Beach and Bal Harbour.

So why should it matter that in Miami—with its diverse population, the region’s largest employment center downtown, an ostensibly sophisticated international repute, and a recent wave of intense urban redevelopment—there’s zilch?

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And can Miami claim to be a center of arts, culture and commerce without a major bookstore in its city limits? How can a city have a new half-billion-dollar performing arts center but no bookstore?

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MANY FACTORS

Why the lack of stores? No one is quite sure, but many factors may play a role, including high rents, a large non-English speaking population and the absence of a retail district with foot traffic sufficiently heavy and deep-pocketed to sustain the low-margin business of bookselling.

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“It’s tough,” said Miami Book Fair co-founder Raquel Roque, owner of the tiny Downtown Book Center, which her father opened in 1965 after arriving from Cuba. Though she still carries some English-language books, newspapers and magazines, she said, “we’ve had to switch to Spanish to survive. It just reflects finances and the population.”

Her store’s clientele, she said, is mostly now recently arrived immigrants looking for English-instruction books and bargain novels. She keeps the doors open thanks to a thriving wholesale Spanish-language book distribution business.

Other Spanish-language bookstores in the city also look beyond a local clientele to Web sales. Customers for Libreria Universal’s broad stock of Cuba-related books are all over the country, said owner Juan Manuel Salvat.

The trend is clear, Salvat said: General-interest bookstores, especially those trading principally in English, have gone where the biggest concentrations of book-buyers are, in well-off enclaves like Pinecrest, Coral Gables and Aventura.

Census estimates tell part of the story. Book-buying is closely linked to education, experts say. In 2006, only 22 percent of adult Miamians had a bachelor’s degree. In Coral Gables, it was 58 percent.

Chain stores in particular have developed location formulas that demand lots of well-heeled, well-educated people, said Gibbs, the Michigan consultant: within a five-mile radius, 75,000 people with a bachelor’s degree or higher and annual incomes of $75,000 or more.

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