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Paperback Magnate: Rochester's Milton Kaplan's businesses flourished when the printed word was king

The Rochester businessman and community leader died earlier this month at 101.

Milton Kaplan
Milton Kaplan.
Contributed
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ROCHESTER — In the 1970s, Milton Kaplan's bookstore, Readmore Books, was the reigning seller of paperback books in Rochester when paperbacks were king.

Kaplan told a funny story about the reading public’s infatuation with paperbacks in a 1971 interview with the Rochester Post Bulletin. In the early 1950s, paperback books went from 25 cents to 35 cents. Minnesota book and magazine distributors held their collective breath. Who would buy them at that inflated price, they fretted?

They needn't have worried. The price hike did nothing to quench the public’s insatiable reading habits. If anything, they only grew. Nothing could discourage readers from buying paperbacks. When they climbed to an incomprehensible $1.95 a copy in the 1970s, Kaplan’s Readmore Books boasted a stock of some 91,000 books with 4,000 different titles.

Along with his two brothers, Ben and Hyman, Kaplan built flourishing Rochester businesses over half a century by selling and distributing books, magazines and newspapers.

The printed word was the thing. People got their news, found out TV schedules, learned recipes and got road directions by reading it on paper. Before cell phones, fax machines and iPads, there was the printed word. And business was good for anyone who served that burgeoning reading public.

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Milton Kaplan
A clipping from a November 1971 edition of the Post Bulletin shows a story about increasing paperback book prices featuring longtime Rochester business owner Milton Kaplan.
Post Bulletin archive
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Kaplan’s other print-oriented businesses included Rochester News Agency, a wholesale distribution business that sold books and magazines to supermarkets and newsstands, and Subway News Stand, a business fixture inside Mayo Clinic.

Kaplan lived a long, fulfilling life. When he died March 3 at 101 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Rochester was not only a different place, so were its reading habits.

Kaplan used hustle, charm, and street smarts to work his way up from poverty-straitened circumstances in a tight-knit Jewish community in Milwaukee to well-to-do prominence in Rochester. He had his own paper route as a boy. When he bought Rochester News Agency in 1947, Rochester was a town of 27,000, no bigger than Owatonna is today.

“It was hard to go from a bigger city to little Rochester,” said his son, Steve Kaplan of Rochester. But the timing was right, because Rochester was growing and so was its reading public.

Kaplan bought Readmore Books, located at 107 First Ave. SW, when the then-owner couldn’t pay the bill for the magazines he bought from Kaplan. Kaplan offered to buy the bookstore from him. And the bookstore changed hands.

Milton Kaplan
Milton Kaplan, lower left, with family.
Contributed

He understood the value of humor in lessening the sting of misfortune, in keeping things light, and in dealing with ornery customers.

“Sometimes, there might be some kind of rift or tiff about something, and he would use humor to smooth things over. And that was a really good characteristic to have,” Steve Kaplan said.

When the Mayo Building was being constructed, Kaplan met with Mayo official Bill Harwick about opening a newsstand in the new building.

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“He said, ‘We’d been thinking about it. Send me a letter, and I’ll put it in my file,” Kaplan recalled in an interview with the PB. “They hadn’t started the building yet. About nine months later, he called me to meet with the architect.”

Subway News Stand opened in the Mayo Building in 1955 and migrated to various locations before settling in its final landing spot in the Gonda Building.

Clientele included celebrities, movie stars and athletic greats. Harmon Killebrew, Bill Cosby, Garrison Keillor and Archie Manning became newsstand regulars. Billy Graham would stop by and autograph his books for customers. After a 57-year run, the partnership between Mayo Clinic and the Kaplans ended when the newsstand closed in 2012.

As his businesses prospered and his profile grew, Kaplan’s name was bandied about as a possible mayoral candidate. He was civic-minded, serving on several boards, donating books to the library he helped create and helping found Rochester’s YMCA.

He would have been Rochester’s first Jewish mayor if he had successfully run. But he and his wife, Mildred, moved outside city limits to set up their “dream home” and he became ineligible to run for mayor. He also started the first Jewish cemetery in Oakwood Cemetery, where his remains are now buried.

At the height of his business success in the 1970s, TV Guides flew off the shelves to the tune of 1,500 a week. When Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” rose to the top of the bestseller list, Kaplans sold about 8,000 books.

Like paperbacks themselves, Kaplan’s businesses thrived in a Rochester that would be unrecognizable to its citizens today. At Readmore Books in downtown Rochester, customers could pick from a wide variety of out-of-state newspapers, with daily issues from New York, Los Angeles, Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis and Winnipeg.

Kaplan didn’t make money on selling newspapers. He considered it a service to the transients who visited Rochester.

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“If we break even, I’m happy,” he said.

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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