A History of Malaprops by Emoke B’Racz
A History of Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café By Emoke B’Racz My love of books came naturally: it is an inheritance from my grandmother, who always told us that our only wealth was what we had in our heads, what we learned, because all else can be taken away. My love of books came naturally: it is an inheritance from my grandmother, who always told us that our only wealth was what we had in our heads, what we learned, because all else can be taken away. As a Hungarian, she knew this well, having lived through two world wars, a revolution and communist rule. I still hear her words, and they are my guide in everything I do.
Although the business side of bookselling was new to me, the incessant drive to have my own store finally bore fruit in 1982 when the opportunity arose to play hard at what I believed to be the best thing anyone could ask for. I didn’t have a million dollars to invest. Still, to me, my bookstore was 2000 square feet of the most magical space in downtown Asheville, and I named her Malaprop’s.
I wanted Malaprop’s to be a place where poetry matters, where women’s words are as important as men’s, where one is surprised by excellence, where good writing has a home, where I could nurture my addiction to literature, and play, enjoy, and entertain people drawn to quality books.
The abandoned state of downtown (you could walk 3 blocks in any direction before you found a door not nailed shut) gave me the chance to invest all my money in inventory, since rent was almost free. My biggest inventory was in poetry and Southern literature. I wrapped every purchased book in the European tradition of craft paper and red ribbon. This was one of my earliest creative innovations that paid back a million times. Even today we wrap books and our customers specifically request the Malaprop’s wrap. Continuing this European flavor, we fixed up the basement and turned it into a café. By 1983, we were serving fruit salads, bagels, and really good coffee. This was a great success, in spite of the steep stairs customers had to negotiate to get down and up.
In our fifteenth year of business, Malaprop’s was approached by a local investment group to relocate into their newly purchased building down the same block. Interestingly enough, it was a building that the founding fathers built for their Elks club, a place where women could not enter. How could I refuse that kind of redemptive offer?
The move was a financial challenge, but we received assistance from a group of customers and this enabled us to go ahead with our plans. This was a great delight and gave us wings to fly in our new location. People lined up on the sidewalk to chain-move the boxes of books. A man driving by stopped and offered us foldable bookfair bookcases, making our move a snap. Our successful move was a direct result of this kind of community support. We are as committed to the community as they are to us.
We are very involved in promoting the health of our community. The Women’s Shelter has received many good books from us for twenty-five years. The rape crisis center receives monetary assistance. We assist the YWCA by being role models for young girls. I was chosen as Ms. October in one year’s calendar, and I am quite proud of that accomplishment. The local NPR stations receive hours of book talk and, during a fund-raiser when they broadcast from our location, they raised the highest amount ever in four hours. The local TV station frequents our shop for interviews and opinion polls. We have been elected the best bookstore in Western N.C. for many years now. But most of all, I know our success when a grandmother brings her granddaughter visiting from a big city to her bookstore, or when a college student brings his visiting parents to show them the fave hangout. These are the most precious moments in this bookseller’s life.
Our staff could and can get better jobs. The word is out there that we hire and teach the best staff. Our staff has worked at the Manna food bank, started a free newspaper called The Asheville Global Report, graduated from Bryn Mawr at age sixty, received the N.C. Film Fellowship, been published in the North Carolina Literary Review, and awarded membership by the N.C. Watercolor Society. They dance in church services to poetry and music, teach Philosophy, English, and Russian Literature at college level, translate poetry, write poetry and fiction, and still find time for the old man looking for the water closet.
Our title selection is done by two madwomen who believe in themselves and their choices and passionately promote a good read. Book buyers are also booksellers and rarely would you find them in another city, off the floor, at a loss for a good read recommendation. Building book by book, our dream grows at a very manageable rate. No cancerous uncontrolled growth is supported or practiced. We are like the organic farmers who keep their eyes on the weather and the soil, and pay attention to them. We reap what we sow.
Our much-admired newsletter is written, edited, and designed by our staff. We have built a readership of 1500 customers who pay only postage to receive it in the mail. Our lowest print run is 3500, our highest 5000, and we publish it four times a year. We have a web presence at malaprops.com, where reading our newsletter and ordering books through our e-mail is a fact. Look us up and enjoy!
We have evolved into the meeting place in our town. Our café has a literary menu and provides a safe, clean place for the community. Groups of children (unattended) are allowed to come and drink hot chocolate. The music in the air is always music for the heart.
Twenty-five years after the birth of Malaprop’s, our goals are the same as the ones we committed to in 1982: 1. To be the best little bookstore in the land. 2. To enjoy what we do while we are doing it. 3. To be aware and supportive of financial needs and ensure that bookselling is a fine and noble profession.
As a political exile from a communist country, I cannot overemphasize my passion to provide a space where freedom of expression is supported, where important literaturefrom authors backed by major publishers to those who self-publishis available to all, where censorship has no place, where respect and service are practiced daily, where women feel safe, where all are welcome, and where the books are the stars. www.malaprops.com