Interview with a Bookstore: Asheville’s Legendary Malaprop’s
One of America's Best Bookstores
Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe opened in downtown Asheville in 1982. It was founded by Emöke B’Rácz, who settled in Asheville after a year of backpacking through South America‚ a not untypical storyline for many of the inhabitants of the crunchy Southern liberal enclave. Before her backpacking trip, B’Rácz, who was born in Hungary and came to the US when she was 15, worked in the corporate office of Books-a-Million in New Haven.
Malaprop’s is a beloved downtown fixture, but when B’Rácz arrived the city wasn’t the tourist mecca it is today. In 2000, the store won Publishers Weekly’s Bookseller of the Year award, which helped put it on the map—and onto publicists’ radar. More recently, it’s been at the center of the controversy over House Bill 2, the North Carolina law passed in March that’s been described as “the most anti-LGBT bill in the country.” In response to the bill, many organizations and artists announced that they would be boycotting North Carolina. This included Sherman Alexie, who pulled out of a large author event scheduled by Malaprop’s and appearances at two North Carolina schools. In response to Alexie’s cancellation, Malaprop’s general manager Linda Marie Barrett penned a widely discussed op-ed in the Times asking authors “to consider a way of protesting other than boycotting bookstores.”
You’ve been working at Malaprop’s for 28 years, Linda Marie. How did you get involved with the store?
Linda Marie Barrett (general manager): I have a Master’s degree in Russian literature and Slavic linguistics. I was thinking about following that path, but I came [to Asheville] on a leave of absence from Cornell. I walked into the store, and I immediately fell in love with it. I met Emöke and interviewed with her. I loved the European vibe of the store back then and what she was doing in the community. So I started here during that leave of absence, and I never continued my studies. I’ve worked in various roles over the 28 years and I’m general manager right now.
Has the enormous increase in tourists in Asheville over the past ten years—and especially the past few years—been good or bad for Malaprop’s?
Emöke B’Rácz (owner): I think that tourism is really good for us. I think we have a very loyal readership in a way, local customers who support us through lows and highs. It’s good! It’s just a little bit crazy, because the city isn’t built for a lot of people.
Linda Marie: I think it’s been really good for Malaprop’s. Because of our location downtown we have so many people stopping in that I don’t think would necessarily think to come visit us, so we benefit from all the foot traffic past the store. We find that now we’re as busy in June and July almost as we are during the holiday season. So we really benefit from the tourist population.
Does being in a tourist town present any unique challenges for the store?
Emöke: As a tourist town, no. We like tourists. They come through town and they say, “A real bookstore!”
Linda Marie: The people who work here have a hard time finding places to live because it’s hard to find affordable housing here. Booksellers are not paid like attorneys, doctors, or nurses. It’s a challenge as a bookseller to live in a town where housing is so expensive. Also, I think we’ve all noticed that traffic coming in and out of town is kind of a challenge. (Though compared to other cities it’s kind of laughable.) But we do really benefit from tourist traffic, so I wouldn’t want to be negative about that.
What’s your favorite section of the store?
Linda Marie: My favorite section is the staff favorites section. I’d say my second favorite is the book club section. I often find my next reads there, and I love to see what my coworkers are reading.
Apart from the Sherman Alexie cancellation, has HB2 affected your business?
Emöke: Well, there were a lot of quiet moments around it. People were not sure of themselves, and how they felt, and what they could do, and what they should do. So the morale, in a way, was maybe a little bit lower than normal. You know, in business there are highs and lows. We have survived Jesse Helms; we have survived many things, and I knew that this was a passing thing, hopefully, and [HB2] would pass, eventually, that it’s not legal what they’re saying. That’s about it.
Some people thought we were not political enough. We’ve been standing up for many things—diversity—since 1982, before it was an issue in people’s minds. I do feel that all we can do is stay true to who we are here. That’s what we’ve been doing.
A question about your op-ed in the New York Times about the HB2 boycott, Linda Marie. Did you contact the Times, or did they get in touch with you?
Linda Marie: They got in touch with me. After Sherman Alexie cancelled, I wrote an open letter to authors that Shelf Awareness published. It was very similar to the Times op-ed. I think it was titled “Please Don’t Boycott Us.” I pointed out in the letter that children’s authors were going to still come to North Carolina, to our libraries and schools, but they didn’t include bookstores. So in my open letter I asked, why are you excluding bookstores? We do the same things as libraries and schools: we promote freedom of speech and we support authors. The story got picked up nationally. I was contacted by the Washington Post and I was in an article in Slate.
Then an editor from the New York Times called and asked if I wanted to write an op-ed, and I said yes. And that was really good because it put the word out more broadly. Out of the Shelf Awareness letter, the North Carolina indie bookstores got together and wrote a letter to authors asking them not to boycott bookstores because of legislation that they don’t agree with. That’s a problem, because it had to do with censorship and freedom of expression. So it became this big thing, and I was really appreciative of all the support.
Did Sherman Alexie respond in any way?
Linda Marie: I never heard from him directly, only his publicist. I reached out to the publicist about it, and she just expressed that she was sorry it wasn’t happening. Again, it’s always the author’s choice; I understood and respected the reason why he did it, but looking ahead and thinking about it, if authors do this they’ll really be hurting independent bookstores that are so important culturally. I think he did it for good reasons. But whether that was supportive of his allies is another question.
Malaprop’s has programming—speakers, signings, book clubs, etc.—almost every night of the week. How are you able to do so much?
Emöke: I have good people! It all depends on the staff, and that the community is interested in meeting authors.
Linda Marie: We have two women who are our main author event coordinators, and we have a number of booksellers that assist in different ways: with marketing, and social media, and ordering books. Most of us are trained in how to set up an event, and how to introduce an event.
How do you get so many big-name authors to come to our small mountain city? My wife saw Ann Patchett and Barbara Kingsolver speak two weeks ago.
Emöke: Ann Patchett came because of HB2. There were a lot of authors who sent books and comments and stuff in support, and she was one of them who called and said “I’m coming because of this, I can bring some customers to your store.” And Barbara Kingsolver said, “I’m coming too.” I’ve never heard 300 people laugh at the same time, including the speakers. It was a really fun evening.
In 2000 we were named best bookstore in the country by Publishers Weekly, and I think publishers noticed us. Since then we have become one of the focal bookstores in the Southeast. Where else would they go?
Linda Marie: We were the first Southern bookstore to get that [Publishers Weekly] honor, and after that we became really well known to publicists in New York. At that point major publicists were more aware of us, and we also showed our ability to support sales at big events. I was the author event coordinator when we started the concept of a book as a ticket: having people purchase a book in order to come to these big events. That’s how we were able to show that we could support an author coming here with a lot of sales. Otherwise, if they send a really big author here and we sell 10 to 20 books, we will probably not get that author again. I don’t know if we were the first, but we were one of the first stores to do ticket events.
If you weren’t running or working at a bookstore, what would you be doing?
Emöke: Painting. Writing. Gardening.
Linda Marie: I also enjoy writing. I’m working on some young adult fiction and I’m in a writing group, and I would love to spend more time doing that. I really admire the [local] literacy council and other nonprofits. I could see myself really enjoying something that empowers people in some way or helps the community in some way.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
Emöke: That I haven’t cried. In the 34 years I’ve been open, I always look forward to coming in.
Linda Marie: We do really well with our programming but sometimes we don’t have as big of an attendance as I’d expect. I think when you’re on the inside of the bookstore you see how valuable that programming is, but if you’re on the outside you may not take advantage of all that’s offered to you. I know it’s not exactly what you’re asking but it’s one of those things that surprises me sometimes. I think, “Wow, we have these incredible authors.” We usually have good attendance, but sometimes we’ll have a National Book Award-winning author here, and we worked really hard to get 30 to 50 people, and we think “this is such an opportunity for our community.” That’s our challenge, to educate.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Emöke: Sometimes at the author events we have people who are heckling the author, for one reason or another, and that’s a little bit difficult. We had a cookbook author, grilling outside—vegetables and meat—and a group of people were just viciously protesting and writing us nasty letters afterward.
Because of the meat?
That’s very Asheville.
Emöke: That was one that was a bit uncomfortable. There are some people who need to be asked to leave. They’re following good-looking women around the store, or doing things in their pants, or are watching crazy videos on their phones.
Linda Marie: One of the craziest, funniest things I’ve ever dealt with was when I was an author event coordinator and we had Jill Connor Browne. She was called the Sweet Potato Queen, and was dressed in this kind of drag outfit. At the time she was really popular, and I thought maybe we could do a parade down the street. I arranged this parade, and it mushroomed into something way bigger than I thought it was going be. The streets were filled with people; there were so many customers on here standing on chairs waiting for her to approach. We probably broke fire code that day. It was very exciting, but the stress level was scary at the same time. We’ve never done anything like before or since.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Emöke: My original dream was really new and used. So If I had my way, [Downtown Books, the used bookstore Emöke also owns] would be in the same spot. I would add a little bit more performance space.
Linda Marie: I would love to have a designated author event space. We have to rip up the cafe every night for events, and I’d love to honor the cafe a little bit more with a special space and make it more comfy and have a dedicated space where we could host events. If we had more space I’d love to have more comfortable seating around the store and add the possibility of our cafe having wine and bourbon. And I’d love us to expand our publishing efforts and have an office for that.
Sometimes we joke about taking over Zambra’s [the tapas bar downstairs]. It’s the most beautiful restaurant in town, and we’d have the most beautiful used bookstore down there. I’d love to have the used bookstore be with the new books.
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Emöke: As a child I was not visiting bookstores, but I got books for every occasion I can recall. The end of the school year, the school gave books to students. My father collected books; I grew up in the library, and I read in the library. My grandmothers were really the cause of all this, because they said, “If you’re reading, you don’t have to milk the cows.”
Linda Marie: I was more of a library child, so my memories are all tied up with visiting libraries. My one of my earliest memories is getting my library card, and the woman checking my hands to make sure I washed them.
Our family was not that able to purchase books. There were five kids, and at the time our parents were challenged. So we were always going to the library or we went to used bookstores. So I have a strong connection to libraries and used bookstores.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Emöke: I want to give anyone who steps into the store an experience they enjoy. Sometimes I visit other bookstores, and there’s too much inventory, whatever. When I’m here, I’m here for the books and the customers, not for the accountant, or for the publishers, or for the money—because then I would shoot myself.
Linda Marie: There are two things: our customer service and our title selection. I don’t know if they’re “better,” because I wouldn’t want to be competitive, but we’re really good at choosing titles and connecting customers with the books they need. That’s something in our training that we strongly emphasize.