Book smarts

Malaprop’s owner Emöke B’Racz in the former café location at 61 Haywood Street, circa 1987. All photos courtesy of Malaprop’s

Although it seems as if Malaprop’s Bookstore and Café has been here forever, anchoring downtown Asheville with its unique brand of intellectual calm and anything-goes quirk, there was a time before Malaprop’s, as local author Wayne Caldwell (Cataloochee, Requiem by Fire) recalls:

“A long time ago — March, 1980 to be exact — Asheville explored a partnership with a Philadelphia developer to ‘revitalize’ downtown,” he writes to Xpress. “Now, I admit it needed a shot in the arm — but to bulldoze 17 acres and insert a suburban-style shopping mall was a classic case of shortsighted overkill.

“Asheville's downtown book scene was hardly stunning: Chan and Megan Gordon's new store, The Captain's Bookshelf, had not yet blossomed into the rare and fine used book niche it now occupies; the Book Trading Post, a used bookstore run by novelist Pat McAfee and his artist wife, Elizabeth; and an adult ‘bookstore’ called G's. The mall would have eliminated the McAfee’s store and likely run the others out of business.

“Save Downtown Asheville, Inc. fought that monster for a year and a half, finally defeating it in a bond referendum on Nov. 3, 1981.”

Years later, Malaprop's owner Emöke B'Racz told Caldwell that she had watched that campaign closely. When the decision not to raze downtown coincided with the Captain’s Bookshelf’s plan to move in the direction of collectibles and leave its 61 Haywood St. location, B’Racz (who’d been working on an organic farm in Hendersonville) knew it was time to realize her dream of owning a bookstore.

Malaprop’s opened for business in ’82; a year later its cafe opened downstairs — one of the first in-bookstore cafés in the country. That vision was inspired by B’Racz’s years growing up in Europe where “Every bookstore had a cafe next door,” she says, and time she spent in New Haven, Conn., frequenting a 24-hour cafe where she’d read the New York Times over coffee and think, “This is living.”

In the early days, Malaprop’s stocked a lot of poetry and Southern literature. That hasn’t changed, though B’Racz says that many tourists who come through Asheville are unfamiliar with the store’s carefully curated inventory, even though Malaprop’s orders from the same catalogs as every other bookstore. “We’re not afraid to take a stand,” says B’Racz. “And we don’t have to buy everything. I see a wider approach, now, to what’s in the bookstore, but it has to have merit.”

In its 15th year of business, Malaprop’s was presented with the opportunity to move into 55 Haywood St., a larger space owned by a local investment group. The building had formerly housed a no-women-allowed Elks Club; B’Racz couldn’t resist the chance to fill the former boys’ club with a woman-owned business. The move was facilitated by financial help from five customers (including money to purchase an espresso machine — which has recently been upgraded due to the sheer volume of coffee made and sold in the current cafe).

B’Racz spent time in New York literary circles prior to moving to North Carolina and says she didn’t want to be part of that anymore. “I felt that if we kept doing what we do, we’d make it,” she says. “We couldn’t count on New York or anyone.”

The first reading, in the original location, was a poetry event with Jimmie Margaret Gilliam. Poetry has always been important to Malaprop’s: B’Racz is a poet and translator herself (Every Tree is the Forest), and is currently at work on publishing an anthology of 12 local poets. But Malaprop’s is also up on current tastes and trends in literature. B’Racz, Barrett Knopp and children’s book buyer Caroline Green all order the store’s selection of reads and other items. They also consider customer requests, staff suggestions and what’s in the media.

In 2000, B’Racz won the Publisher’s Weekly Independent Bookseller of the Year award. “After that point, we could bring in national, award-winning authors,” says general manager Linda Barrett Knopp, who has worked at Malaprop’s since ’88.

With the 2000 award, “The gates were open,” says B’Racz. Malaprop’s has hosted Yann Martell, Barbara Kingsolver, David Sedaris and Elizabeth Gilbert, among many others. “The authors program has been one of the main engines of the store, and most events are free,” says Barrett Knopp.

Other big changes include a more diverse and more youthful customer base, according to Barrett Knopp. “Our booksellers represent more age groups and tastes,” she says. B’Racz has also noticed a younger generation interested in the printed page over its e-readers. Though, for those Malaprop’s customers who prefer digital to paper, Barrett Knopp says they can keep the local bookstore in the loop by downloading e-books though malaprops.com.

The next 30-plus years kicks off with a proclamation from City Council, read by author/Council member Cecil Bothwell, and a party with food, music and a cash bar from the Wine Studio.

Barrett Knopp says the coming years will bring more author and community events. “We’re open to almost any creative way to be present,” she says. There’s a fear in the publishing industry that there will be no bookstores in the future; some visitors to Asheville mention that they don’t have bookstores in their home towns. Barrett Knopp says that B’Racz has been approached to open Malaprop’s stores in other towns. But B’Racz is focused on the business in Asheville.

“We want to be here,” says Barrett Knopp.

Malaprop’s has amassed quite a fan base over the past three decades — they want the book store to be here, too. Caldwell says that the longevity of the store, rising out of the near-demolition of downtown Asheville, “Made our work worthwhile.”

And, for a piece in French newspaper Le Monde (which asks writers around the world about the cities they know), WNC-based author Ron Rash (who has penned the award-winning novels Serena and Burning Bright, among others) decided to focus on Asheville. “The first thing I talked about is Malaprop’s,” he says. “When I think of Asheville, what defines that city as much as anything I know is that bookstore. The reason I feel that, I think, is because what is best about Asheville — that intellectual energy, that kind of diversity of thought — that store just seems to be the heart of Asheville.” (He also mentioned that a man fainted during one of his readings at Malaprop’s. “Or maybe just fell asleep,” jokes Rash.)

Here, readers, writers, workers and coffee drinkers recall their fondest moments in Malaprop’s.

“The old Malaprop’s: Seemed to act as an oracle. The queries of my soul seemed to be answered by books falling off the shelf in response. Rumi dropped into my palms for the first time. It was a beginning of a long love affair

“The newish Malaprop’s: I worked there in the late ‘90s like every newcomer poet and writer. I never really took a paycheck home — it was more like an exchange program, as I turned my paycheck back over and took home every interesting book that entered the store. 

“Working at the city’s creative hub, I was fed spiritually and intellectually, while fueling my reading addiction and meeting all sorts of fantastic poets and writers. Malaprop’s has nourished so many.” — Glenis Redmond, poet (Under the Sun, Backbone)

“Even though I shopped there as a little girl with my dad, and went to readings there as an adult, when I picture Malaprop’s I am always 14 years old and wearing Doc Martens, fishnets and a terrible floppy Guatemalan hat. My friends and I used to spend hours on end on the back porch, nursing a cup of black coffee and playing cards.

“For several years that back porch was our hangout for coffee drinking, card playing, homework, reading, flirting, singing Doors songs. I could make my cup of coffee and one free refill last all afternoon, unless one of us was feeling flush and then we would all share a smoothie. In retrospect I realize how incredibly tolerant the Malaprop’s staff was! As long as we stayed out on the porch: We were a little loud for the café.” — Eleanor Trollinger, customer

“Like many others, I've had the opportunity to eat, drink, talk, laugh and cry with the very best writers passing through the WNC area, thanks to Malaprop's Bookstore/Café. I think about arguing with Tim Gautreaux over the exact sound a drunk makes when barfing up Cajun food, and trying to convince Roseanne Cash that Asheville's streets were not deliberately designed to get one lost. I still hear Russell Means' spirited defense of his right to fondle a woman's breast in response to their unbidden grasp of his hair braid. I hear Liz Gilbert giggling uncontrollably while swapping filthy limericks. I see Steve Almond guessing everyone's hidden hangups, much to everyone's astonishment and dismay. I think about Daniel Quinn getting all misty-eyed seeing Asheville anarchists’ graffiti referring to his novel Ishmael; Jeff Biggers and Mickey Mahaffey trading Sierra Madre survival stories over rivers of coffee. I recall Tony Earley pleading earnestly for an introduction to Asheville's ghosts, Gene Hackman looking like a kid in a candy store while browsing Malaprop's history section and almost every writer without a chauffeur worrying about where to park in town without getting towed.

“Just as people get the government they fear and the newspaper they deserve, I think a town gets the local bookstore it needs. And for Asheville, Malaprop's is a blessing any way you look at it.” — Brian Lee Knopp, author (Mayhem in Mayberry)

“Malaprop's yearly inventory was at the end of February, which happened to be my birthday. Normally working on your birthday is a drag; however, those were three of my favorite birthdays ever. Surrounded by people you really enjoyed seeing and working with each day. Oh, I almost forgot, there was always really good cake.

“I was not a bright and shiny morning person back then. I was usually still a little hungover, tired or lacking coffee, and set the alarm off several times in one year. My favorite morning was after I am sure an evening/late night, when we had two separate stereo systems. Classical music was played outside to deter the sidewalk crowd, and our in-house system. I loaded and cranked up the wrong system and had no idea that I was blasting Rusted Root for all to hear at 6:45 in the morning. I remember someone calling and obviously complaining, and the whole time I was apologizing to the apartment tenant I was also laughing to myself going, ‘Oh yeah … whoops. I just wondered where the music went.’” — Suzanne Connelly, former café manager

“Over the past three decades Malaprop’s has grown in embody the literary soul of our community. And I’ve been around to see much of that evolution take place. As host of Writers at Home a reading series that the Great Smokies Writing Program has been meeting at Malaprop’s for a decade, I’ve gotten to know many of the staff, and I can’t think of a more thoughtful, intelligent and generous group. As a writer who’s lived here 23 years, I’ve been on the receiving end of much of that generosity. Malaprop’s couldn’t be more supportive of local writers, hand selling their books and bringing to customers’ attention books that the chains would never carry, or if they did, would bury behind mountainous ‘dumps’ (that’s publisher’s lingo for those cardboard displays) of Grisham and Danielle Steele. Under Emoke’s guidance and direction, the staff works hard to create the kind of bookstore that the moment you walk in, you’re gone, drawn into the companionship of books. For me, walking into Malaprops is like going home, and I can’t think of a more essential treasured cultural resource in Western North Carolina.” — Tommy Hays, author (The Pleasure Was Mine, In The Family Way)

“Most people talk romance behind closed doors, but not at Malaprop's, where I lead the All Romance All the Time book club. We assemble monthly to discuss the good, the bad and the downright steaminess of this popular fictional genre. In the process of reviewing contemporary, paranormal, sci-fi and historical romance, we've become friends. That's what talking about books can do for you. I look forward to book club because I know it will always be inspiring and reaffirming, but most of all, it will be fun!” — Susan J. Blexrud, author (Love Fang) and book club leader

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

what: 30th anniversary party
where: Malaprop’s
when: Saturday, June 30 (all day, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. https://www.malaprops.com)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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