Announcing our Fall Partner Bookstore: Malaprop’s! (Part One)

Ann Kjellberg, editor

When Emöke B’Racz, then a poet and traveler with a long-running yearning to open a bookstore, arrived in Asheville, North Carolina in 1982, one in every three storefronts in the town was boarded up. Rent, she recalled, was “nearly free,” so she was able to settle down and realize her dream with only the cost of the books. She writes about her store like it’s a friend or a companion: “My bookstore was two thousand square feet of the most magical space in downtown Asheville, and I named her Malaprop’s.” 

Asheville at the time was most famous in literary history for having been the home to which Thomas Wolfe could not go again: his thinly veiled portrait of Asheville’s citizenry in Look Homeward Angel was “so unsparing” that “the local library declined to carry it for years even as it became an American classic,” per The New York Times. It was also remembered as the town in which Zelda Fitzgerald died in a 1948 sanitorium fire and her husband Scott struggled in a craggy mountain resort across the valley to revive his sagging reputation. More upbeat is the legacy of the nearby mid-century avant-garde idyll the Black Mountain School; Jonathan Creasy’s recently revisited the work of these ambitious rusticated freethinkers, see the introduction to his anthology for New Directions, published last fall in The Paris Review Daily. The Fitzgeralds and the Black Mountain Poets and Emöke had in common the seduction of the mountainous landscape and generations of stately architecture left by those seeking refuge in it.

Emöke had arrived in the US at fifteen as a refugee from communist Hungary. When asked later if bookstores were important to her as a child she recalled that she never saw one. “I grew up in the library, and I read in the library. My grandmothers were the cause of all this because they said, ‘If you’re reading, you don’t have to milk the cows.’” One of these grandmothers also said, “Our only wealth is what we have in our heads, because all else can be taken away.” Indeed her own father’s freedom was snatched from him in spite of his efforts to conceal his writings, and the family fled. She says of her eventual arrival in Asheville, “What I saw was not just with my eyes but my heart jumped for joy that I found home after having to leave my homeland.” She wanted to create there “a place where poetry mattered, where a woman’s words were as important as a man’s, where excellence was customary, where good writing had a home, and where she could entertain other people drawn to books.”

Her sprawling bookstore was from the beginning relished for its charm and “European sensibility”: a warren of crammed shelves, books wrapped in brown craft paper with a red ribbon, cozy nooks, student desks, jocular hand-lettered signs, a “continental café” featuring literary drinks like “the Anais Nin (raspberry mocha).” (These details are from Alison Morris’s delightful travelling bookseller post in Publishers Weekly. Alison writes, “When you first walk into Malaprop’s you are greeted by a ‘Staff Favorites’ section that fills three entire bookcases. If that doesn’t send the WE READ BOOKS message, I’m not sure what does.”)

As the years went by Asheville bloomed into a thriving bohemian destination, voted an “ideal place to live,” according to the American Booksellers Association’s Bookweb, by both Rolling Stone and Modern Maturity. “A vegetarian website termed it the ‘most vegetarian-friendly small city in America.’” Fifteen years into Malaprops’ run Emöke moved the store down the street to a building that “had been built by Asheville’s founding fathers … for their Elks club, a place that women could not enter. How could I refuse that kind of redemptive offer?” “On moving day, people lined up on the sidewalk to chain-move the boxes of books,” recalled Emöke. “A man driving by stopped and offered us foldable bookcases.”

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When people talk about the renaissance in Asheville’s downtown, it’s not long before they mention Malaprop’s. A director of downtown development from 1986 to 1993 told the North Carolina magazine Our State that “Emöke created this intimate space where she had relationships with everyone.” She wasn’t “surprised that the bookstore paved the way for more retailers.” The Washington Post called the pre-Malaprops Asheville “a boarded-up burg of pawn and porn emporiums, slowly withering in a Blue Ridge Mountain valley” and said Emöke “helped lead this town’s revival to become the popular tourist and life’s-next-chapter destination it is today.” An editorial in the Richmond [VA] Times-Dispatch encouraging Richmond to follow Asheville’s example said the city’s revitalization is “largely due to Malaprop’s, home to book and poetry readings, book clubs and a decidedly uncorporate, unabashedly progressive politics.”

Such successes inevitably led to perils and temptations. When asked if there is anything she regrets about Asheville’s tourist boom, Emöke says, “It’s a challenge as a bookseller to live in a town where housing is so expensive.” Real-estate costs are a number-one problem for independent booksellers—not only their own, but the pressure they place on employee salaries and the ways they shape the surrounding community. Asheville has made active efforts to resist such dangers. Franzi Charen, director of the Asheville Grown Business Alliance, told a local paper: “Asheville’s hit the green light for the chain stores: They’re seeing the money.” “With an influx of big chains,” the article continued, “come rising real estate prices, cheaper foreign products and a loss of the very character that has attracted people to the city. ‘When you have chains come in, it creates this race to the bottom. The entire landscape changes for everyone. And even if the individual enterprises are small, their collective economic impact is significant … Local businesses,’ notes Charen, ‘generate three times more value per dollar in the community than when you shop at a chain store. The secondary jobs—bookkeepers, Web designers, accountants and lawyers—small businesses hire locals to do that.’ National chains, however, ‘centralize that stuff, and all that money leaves our community.’” Asheville, in large part with Emöke’s leadership, made a conscious decision to resist the lure of chains and to rest its fate with small business. (Of Amazon, Emöke told Blue Ridge Public Radio: “Barnes & Noble was not out there to kill us, to have every book buyer in their store. Amazon is another story. It’s taking business from the local economy who’s supporting your children’s school. It’s thoughtless and it’s unkind to the economy. Each person has to make a decision that saving $2 is not worth losing the culture.”)

Asheville’s approach to supporting local business worked. In an article for the Charlotte Business Journal, Dane Huffman wrote in 2019 that the county containing Asheville “had the lowest unemployment in the state, at 3.3%. And while that’s perhaps understandable for a tourist town, what jumps out is the county’s year-over-year growth in education and health services jobs (7.7%), manufacturing (7.3%) and construction (7.1%) … Kit Cramer, president and CEO of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, says the city’s ‘cosmopolitan feel’ makes it appealing for people who visit.” In encouraging Richmond to follow Asheville’s example, Michael Paul Williams wrote that Richmond should “dispense with its top-down approach and tap creative minds to cultivate a grass-roots vision for a dynamic and distinctive downtown … Richmond could start by encouraging local entrepreneurship and abandoning its constant search for a Downtown Savior—a single project that will turn things around.” Malaprop’s gives credit for this environment to a generous landlord and the support of customers and local philanthropists. “We’ve had a couple of visionaries who've been willing to invest in their vision of a revitalized downtown,” a local journalist told Michael Paul Williams.

This individual creative energy in reimagining the city shows up, for example, in the arts-and-crafts gallery housed in a defunct Woolworth’s: the gallery restored the vintage lunch counter and commemorates the Woolworth’s sit-ins down the road in Greensboro that launched the Civil Rights movement. A toy shop in a former Hooter’s repurposed its bar as a “toy bar” where kids can sit and play games. In response to an increase in panhandling caused by the city’s growing inequities, Asheville businesses sought a positive and compassionate approach. “Our panhandling issue is a product of our success in downtown Asheville,” said Dwight Butner, owner of a local restaurant and a director of the Asheville Downtown Association. “Fifteen years ago, there was no panhandling problem because there were no people downtown. It’s not an issue that is going to go away … but one that we will have to manage for as long as we remain successful.” The Association created the Spare Change for Real Change program to channel on-the-street donations toward organizations helping the homeless. Wrote one observer of the policy, “I believe that some of Asheville’s success is due to their openness to all sorts of people: protesters, hippies, independent business people, homeless people. They’ve sought to make their city a place hospitable to everyone, not just a select ‘desirable’ demographic.”

This spirit is visible on Malaprop’s web page, which has a virtual tip jar to support their café’s baristas during the covid lockdown, and a link to a web site, Asheville Strong, for donations and gift cards to support local businesses, as well as a link to the donations page of the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC), which gives grants to booksellers in need. Malaprop’s waited to reopen until there was a statewide mask requirement to protect its staff, and it is open by appointment to North Carolina residents, both as a gesture toward neighbors and to offer employees the protection of the statewide policy. In 1988 Emöke created a sister used bookstore, Downtown Books & News, in response to customers who said they could not always afford new books. Malaprop’s makes their cafeteria available as a gathering space to locals: then-manager Linda-Marie Barrett told Bookweb on the occasion of Malaprop’s twenty-fifth anniversary: “A group of writers of children's books meets here and we create space for them. We free up room in the caf for other regular groups like the Western North Carolina Atheists. People come here because we have wi-fi and four cyber-stations. We charge a low fee [for use of the cyber-stations]. It's a good draw for us ... hotels send their guests here to check their e-mail.” They also offer their space to local nonprofits and donate books to them. Malaprop’s thoughtful consignment policy is designed to nourish and support local writers, in particular its Poetrio program, which pairs self-published poets with published poets for events. The poetry events have always been popular according to Barrett, and Emöke has said that the poetry shelf is her favorite part of the store. (Read more in Part Two, coming soon! HB2 comes to North Carolina)


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Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, in Asheville, North Carolina, is Book Post’s Autumn 2020 partner bookstore! We support independent bookselling by linking to independent bookstores and bringing you news of local book life as it happens in their aisles. We’ll send a free three-month subscription to any reader who spends more than $100 there during our partnership. Send your receipt to info@bookpostusa.com.

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Photo: From Alison Morris, “Props for Malaprops” in Publishers Weekly