“I claim sanctuary!”
In medieval England, there was no more powerful a cry. The social station of the person was of no consequence; what mattered was that they were fleeing a pursuer and had arrived at the door of a church. Lift the wooden knocker on the door, utter the three words, and you would be granted asylum within its walls for 40 days.
Sanctuary derives from the Latin sanctus, meaning sacred. It is the same word that gives us sacrosanct. We don’t use these solemn terms much anymore and yet, who doesn’t want a place that we know will shelter us?
Refuge and ritual
Although there is no wooden knocker on the door of Books & Books, for 40 years now this Miami bookstore has been a sanctuary for readers lucky enough to live in, or visit, South Florida. Most of us are not likely to be fleeing pursuers (although this is Miami…). We are seeking refuge of another sort: a refresher for our minds, a respite for our souls.
We come, ostensibly, for the books and for the ritual that entails. Browsing shelves, lingering at tables, turning pages, treading on wooden floors whose reassuring creak signals a certain permanence. But we also come for the community.
Invariably there is someone to talk to, even if we’ve just met. The café and courtyard practically assure this, as they serve up fellowship as deftly as delicious fare. The cohort of hyper-readers—the staff—is equally adept at practicing the ancient rite of independent bookstores, guiding you from one room to the next, each its own literary ecosystem, to the books that seem to have been waiting for you.
Mecca and safe space
And always (even though he might be at another Books & Books location) there is Mitchell. Founder, owner, visionary—Mitchell Kaplan has always understood that despite what early skeptics said, South Florida was a mecca for readers. Or maybe he simply knew how to make it that mecca, cofounding the Miami Book Fair at almost the same time he opened Books & Books.
When the stores had to close temporarily during the pandemic, it meant they could no longer set out their rows of wooden chairs for their continual author events. But the staff quickly pivoted, bringing us authors remotely, night after night, as we sat in our own chairs. During those grim and fearful days, the virtual Books & Books became our safe space, allowing us, for a short sweet time, to escape the incessant worry.
We are accustomed these days to having bird sanctuaries and wildlife sanctuaries, so why not a reader’s refuge? We may not be extinct or even endangered but we are…grateful. Books & Books is where the exploration of ideas, so sacrosanct in a democracy, finds space to be free. You don’t need to knock on the door. Just come in, and you will find sanctuary.
May those wooden floors forever creak.