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Twenty years ago, downtown Asheville was a virtual wasteland. Most of the buildings were uninhabited, few people lived in town, and fewer still came downtown.

But a handful of business owners took a chance on things eventually turning around for the better. Emoke B’Racz, owner of Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, was one of them.

B’Racz opened Malaprop’s in 1982, in a small space on Haywood Street that had held another bookstore.

According to Jane Voorhees, general manager and now part owner of the store, “when [Malaprop’s] opened, it was a destination. People came to town to go to Malaprop’s.” Indeed, in 1982, the only other businesses on the street were “a hairdresser, a gay private club and a restaurant,” says Voorhees.

In 1997, Malaprop’s moved down the street to its current location, exchanging 1700 square feet of bookselling area for 5,000.

“I loved the old space,” Voorhees says, explaining that the old wooden floors made it “feel” like a bookstore. “But it had gotten so crowded, we needed a bigger space.”

Malaprop’s has succeeded for a lot of reasons: community involvement, an inspired selection of titles, a location that became hot when Asheville did, and well-trained employees who obviously love books.

But in an age when mammoth McBookstores — all sporting the requisite coffee bar and many now expanded to include music sections — make it their business to steal market share from independents such as Malaprop’s, even surviving takes a bit of luck, as well. [Editor’s note: For a look at other challenges Malaprop’s is facing at the moment, see “Business (not) as usual”.]

“We moved [the bookstore] during the middle of the time when lots of independent bookstores were closing,” says Voorhees. “Every time you turned around you read about another bookstore closing — it was depressing.” Fortunately for Malaprop’s — and for independents everywhere — Book Sense also came along during this time.

Book Sense, a nationwide network of more than 1,100 independent bookstores, is “the marketing arm of independent bookstores in the United States,” explains Voorhees. “They do national advertising, get book reviews from booksellers all over and print them,” and generally provide a voice to non-chain bookstores.

Not surprisingly, “Book Sense is often behind books that might go unnoticed,” she says, such as books produced by smaller presses, books written by regionally popular writers, and books whose readership may be smaller.

This emphasis on sometimes less-well-known books and authors fits in nicely with Malaprop’s’ vision of providing books its community wants.

According to Voorhees, “Emoke did such a good job of building a good bookstore with good selections — it was important [from the beginning] to represent conscious living, gay and lesbian works, good poetry,” she says.

Add to this a regular display of books that have been banned through the years, and you’ll get a definite First-Amendment-friendly feeling from the store’s overall book selection.

While she emphasizes that being an independent in a chain-store economy is still difficult, Voorhees says the arrival of Book Sense has helped even the playing field.

“When Book Sense came along four or five years ago, you started hearing about the good things [happening in the independent bookstore world],” she says.

Voorhees says keeping independent bookstores a viable option is a community responsibility. “In bookselling, to lose independent bookstores is to lose independent titles,” Voorhees explains. “Independents have always supported smaller publishers; there’s so much consolidation of publishing houses [today], and as they do that they’re cutting back on titles.” Keeping diversity of offerings, according to Voorhees, means keeping a diversity of bookstores.

“Communities have to decide it’s important to have a unique downtown and support that decision by supporting independents,” she says. Otherwise, “every town will end up having stores that look like stores everywhere else.”

N.C. Poet Laureate featured in Malaprop’s lineup

• 11 a.m.: Joan Medlicott (From the Heart of Covington), Bill Brooks (The Stone Garden)

• 12 p.m.: Sallie Bissell (Darker Justice, In the Forest of Harm)

• 1 p.m.: Tom Kerr (Underground Asheville Guidebook) and David Reed (The Art and Craft of Stonescaping, The Art and Craft of Stonework)

• 2 p.m.: Peter Loewer (Evening Garden)

• 3 p.m.: Tommy Hays (In the Family Way) and Wilma Dykeman (The French Broad, Tall Woman)

• 4 p.m.: North Carolina Poet Laureate Fred Chappell (Dagon, Family Gathering)

• 6 p.m.: Refreshments and music (with The Vibe)

• 7 p.m.: Co-owners Emoke B’Racz and Jane Voorhees will address the crowd; first round of performance poetry begins with Emoke, Annabeth Watts, Damion Bailey, David Schenck, Keith Flynn, Virginia Rodriguez, Daniel Rojas, Carrie Gerstmann, Gwenda Ledbetter and Patricia Nichols

• 9 p.m.: Second round of performance poetry

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