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

Ann Kjellberg, editor

Poster artist Barry Moser made for Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe. Order one here!

(Read Part One of this post!)

The commitment to the free exchange of ideas at Ashville’s Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe is deeply grounded in founder Emöke B’Racz’s experience of Soviet-era Hungary: “As a political exile from a communist country, I cannot overemphasize my passion to provide a space where freedom of expression is supported,” she writes. This commitment was thrown into high relief in 2016 when the North Carolina legislature passed a bill (House Bill, or “HB,” 2) limiting access to public restrooms to those with the corresponding gender marker on their birth certificate. North Carolina bookstores were quick to register opposition to the legislation, announcing that it was their mission to be open to all and their restrooms would remain welcoming to transgender people. Many joined collective efforts like a Google map highlighting “safe” bathrooms and common signage, such as #IllGoWithYou to encourage supportive accompaniment in bathrooms. Jamie Fiocco, of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, who had joined business leaders at a General Assembly rally in support of the anti-discrimination ordinance that the bill overruled and created a forum for small businesses about how to get around it, told Bookweb, “In general, I don’t want the bookstore to take a political stand because I want to encourage everyone to feel welcome, and I mean everyone. But I feel that this particular legislative action has gone beyond the pale.”

Bookweb reported that Chapel Hill and the neighboring town of Carrboro issued a joint resolution condemning HB2 and encouraging businesses to fly rainbow flags in opposition to the legislation. Scuppernong Books in Greensboro (home of the famous Woolworth’s) created a YouTube video with sock puppets describing the store’s gender-neutral bathroom policy and a sandwich board listing legislators who voted in favor of the bill and, ehem, saying they would not have access to the store’s bathrooms. Co-owner Steve Mitchell told Bookweb that they received a burst of orders in response to the video and sandwich board. “We’ll continue to respond to our community, in positive and constructive ways, I hope. That’s how we see the role of an independent bookstore. For us, it’s part of the mission.”

In a letter denouncing the legislation, North Carolina children’s book authors, illustrators, and publishers said they would “continue to talk about all kinds of books” in the interests of promoting tolerance, inclusivity, and human rights. Nevertheless, as boycotts were called on North Carolina businesses, its book world was starting to get the cold shoulder. Malaprop’s then manager Linda-Marie Barrett told Bookweb, that the store “directly benefits from Asheville’s thriving tourist economy during the summer and fall months. If we see a big drop in tourist traffic, it will have a very damaging impact on our store.” Into this environment, author Sherman Alexie cancelled a planned appearance at Malaprop’s—including two visits with local schoolchildren—on the occasion of a new children’s book, Thunder Boy Jr.

Barrett responded with an open letter, first in the industry journal Shelf-Awareness and then adapted for The New York Times and covered in The Washington Post, calling on authors not to follow Alexie’s example, given that booksellers are in a unique position to foster the very values of tolerance and mutual understanding that can pose a meaningful challenge to measures like HB2. She pointed out the irony that the store had itself often been the object of intolerant protest: “Radical vegans protested an author’s grilling meat in front of our store, and evangelical Christians were angered when we hosted Reza Aslan. I’ve fielded threatening calls and emails demanding we cancel events and been likened to Adolf Hitler when I didn’t back down.” “For thirty-four years we’ve had authors’ backs when their books were challenged or their events protested,” she concluded. “We need authors to have our backs, too.” Tom Campbell, then owner of former Book Post partner The Regulator in Durham, seconded Linda-Marie Barrett’s sentiments and suggested that a share proceeds from authors and others visiting North Carolina be dedicated to organizations fighting HB2. “Come on down here and get in their face!,” he wrote. “Help fire up the troops, here on the ground. Be a thorn in their side, not a silent, empty space.” Author and Nashville bookshop owner Anne Patchett, who included Malaprop’s on a guide to bookstores in The New York Times (“Malaprop’s was the heart and soul of Asheville, NC, when Asheville was a sleepy little hippie town, and it’s still its heart and soul now…, a position Malaprop’s maintained by being unabashedly true to itself”), among others, appeared at the store in solidarity.

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Barrett told LitHub that she convinced publishers to put little Asheville on their author tours by making events available to those who bought a book, proving that a detour to western North Carolina is worth it in sales. Asheville’s small-business-friendly policies created the occasion for open discussion of controversial ideas that an independent bookstore provides; the story of Malaprop’s shows how supporting small business also supports free inquiry and has ripple effects outward through a community. Where else but a state that is adopting legislation like HB2 (“You’re not in North Carolina—just yet,” says Asheville café manager Luke Broussard. “Head ten miles in any direction”) would you want to find a bookstore like Malaprop’s? Where else do you want to send authors to deliver their message?

In Richard Sheridan’s play The Rivals, the character Mrs. Malaprop is a figure of fun, who misuses long words out of context (mal à propos). And yet she (not by coincidence a “she”) slyly reveals herself to be the heart of the play: skewering pomposity and inadvertently disclosing meanings meant to be kept hidden in her strictly rule-bound, elaborately hierarchical society. In naming her bookstore Emöke, an immigrant who dedicated her life to books in an adoptive language, cast her lot with aspiring women who are not afraid to try things out and stir things up. As our country settles ever-deeper into its divisions and entrenchments, we should be doing all we can to spread such characters around and provide them with a secure home.

Read about Malaprop’s
An interview with Emöke B’Racz and Linda-Marie Barrett in LitHub
Linda-Marie Barrett’s op-ed in The New York Times
Coverage of Malaprop’s and HR2 in The Washington Post


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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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