Interview with a Bookstore: Malvern Books
A Bookstore Where a Sex Shop Used to Be!
Malvern Books opened in 2013 as a bookstore and community space for literary enthusiasts in Austin, Texas. “Malvern” was chosen in honor of the great Medieval poet William Langland and his epic “The Vision of Piers Plowman,” one of the most significant works of Middle English. We spoke with the team at Malvern about their store.
What’s your favorite section in the store?
Fernando, sales associate: The Fiction-in-Translation section.
Taylor, lead sales associate: I like the g’s, m’s, p’s and s’s in English poetry, the b’s, r’s and z’s in translated poetry and New York Review Books Classics.
Layne, sales associate: The displays that are generally dedicated to new books—coming in and scoping out the new stuff is always fun.
Schandra, assistant manager: We’re a small space with a very specific niche. When I walk into a big-box kind of bookstore, I immediately gravitate to the tiny, improbable section where the kind of small press or local books we carry might be hiding, typically finding myself disappointed by what isn’t there. So, my favorite section at Malvern is the whole store.
Becky, manager: I love our Noir section.
Annar, sales associate: Graphic novels.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
Fernando: A coffee shop.
Taylor: Couches, hammock chairs, a media center with a projector, screen and record player, outdoor seating and window shades.
Layne: Oh lord—enormous couch/blanket/pillow heaps. A shaded patio. This question is *cruel,* playing with my heart this way.
Schandra: If I had a nickel for every time someone said, “If y’all served coffee, I would never leave,” I’d have enough nickels to open a coffee shop in the store.
Becky: More space for face-out shelving, more displays by genre that we could leave set up (now we cycle them through), so we’d be able to have more tables just empty with some sturdy, comfortable chairs.
Annar: What makes Malvern Books so special is that we don’t have infinite space. This restriction forces our team to carefully curate the collection. There’s rarely something on the shelf that I wouldn’t be willing to sell or purchase for myself. But if I did have infinite space, I’d add a secret room—a dungeon, of sorts—where it would always be smoky and dark. In this secret room would be the town’s best talent, challenging each other to poetry battles. Think secret lit society á la Fight Club.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
Fernando: We have the biggest poetry section in Texas, and the largest NYRB Classic titles too.
Taylor: Our selection is unbeatable, as is the knowledge and taste of the staff.
Layne: I mean, we’ve got the “selling small and independent press books from the former site of an adult bookstore” market cornered. (And that’s not a joke. We still occasionally get customers come by that ask, “So wait, this isn’t Dreamers anymore?”)
Schandra: All of our titles are hand-selected with love by the owner and the staff, not by best-sellers lists dictated by big-budget advertising and the whims of the masses. I don’t think many other bookstores can say the same.
Annar: The staff works really hard to familiarize themselves with the collection and understand the various interests of our customers. We go above and beyond to satisfy the people who walk in this door. If you say you like Kafka, and we don’t have Kafka, we invite you to have a seat and introduce you to a dozen writers of tremendous caliber inspired by Kafka. What we do best, I guess, is overwhelm you with a dozen options that we are positive you will be thrilled about.
Who’s your most interesting regular customer?
Taylor: Ken Fontenot (a local writer).
Layne: There’s this one dude that comes in who’s in his early twenties who has the most amazing head of jet black hair I’ve ever seen. It’s like six ravens combined their beings and decided to live on this guy’s head forever. Not long ago by total chance I saw him perform with his band—dude’s got some pipes.
Schandra: One evening in winter a young man blew in wearing a floor-length brown coat, walked directly to a precise point in the store and removed a specific book from the shelf as if he knew exactly what he wanted and exactly where it lived. He immediately came to pay, claiming that he was very sick with the flu, had just experienced a fever dream about Janet Frame, and had to come buy one of her books. I handed him his receipt, and he told me I should probably wash my hands before making a beeline for the exit. He is now one of my coworkers and still knows where to find every single book we carry.
Annar: It is a tie between Ken Fontenot and David Jewell (two local writers). They are so fascinating, patient, and love to talk about writing and literature.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
Taylor: An older man (65ish, with very sad eyes, who spoke limited English) came in looking for the porn shop because a sex toy that he had bought at Dreamers several years before had finally broken. I told him I was sorry to hear that. I told him where Dreamers is currently located but he was unsure of my directions. He asked me to look it up on the computer and he asked me to print it for him. I said I didn’t know if I could. He said please, my wife died several years ago and I’ve been using that sex toy ever since and I don’t want to date another woman, I just want my wife back.
Layne: It generally stays pretty quiet, but there was one time a guy came in who bragged to me for a half hour about how he played harmonica for Sevendust once. Like, literally one time. It was one of the most hysterical conversations I’ve ever had to keep a straight face for. I wish I could’ve filmed it.
Schandra: We have a life-size bronze lion statue we call Malvern standing sentinel at our front door. Once a very strange man came in, gyrated inappropriately on Malvern, and left. It was awkward.
Becky: When the manager of a shop that used to be next door brought the police in during an event and claimed that one of our readers (who was performing at the time) had scratched her car in the parking lot. He had not.
What’s your earliest or best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Fernando: There were no bookstores in the area I grew up, so my first bookstore experience happened when I was around 18.
Taylor: My mom would always turn magazines over so that I couldn’t look at covers that featured women in “risqué” positions… mostly though I liked libraries.
Layne: I know this is going to sound traitorous coming from the mouth of a small-press bookstore employee, but I just remember going to the Barnes and Noble around where I grew up and feeling insane wonder at this two-story place filled with crisp, new books—the sleepy local library couldn’t really compete. The fact that there was a whole cluster of shelves devoted to fantasy books made me immensely happy.
Schandra: I don’t remember going to bookstores as a child, but I do have a very early memory about going to the Cedar Hill Public Library with my mom. We walked there, and this was just before libraries began computerizing the Dewey decimal system. What I remember most is the feeling of shuffling through index cards in an antique card catalog drawer.
Becky: When I was a kid we normally went to the library every week. I loved the library—what a magical place! And the thought that I had a whole ROOM (the kids room) of stuff to read was overwhelmingly wonderful. I felt giddy. As I got older they took me to Brock’s, a bookstore in San Antonio that was so full of books you’d have to watch where you stepped as things were piled everywhere. Whereas the library was like a well stocked and organized pantry, Brock’s was like a garage sale where you knew if you just dug you’d find a jewel. Both were wonderful.
If you weren’t working at a bookstore what would you be doing?
Taylor: Leading guided adventures in the mountains.
Layne: Applying to work at a bookstore.
Schandra: I’d be an astronaut, but being a bookseller is a close second.
Becky: Probably tech support or working in a library somewhere.
Annar: Malvern Books is the best job in the world. I’m wrapping up my degree, so my schedule is tricky and my job options are limited. That being said, I’m 100 percent sure I’d still be hosting at the Mexican restaurant I worked at for three years prior to landing this sweet gig. Now that it’s summer, I am especially grateful to not be working on a rooftop patio in 100-degree weather.
What’s been the biggest surprise about working at a bookstore?
Fernando: Learning about all the presses, and obscure/neglected titles from around the world.
Taylor: What people buy.
Layne: To be honest, I can’t really think of anything because working at Malvern pretty much lives up to the cozy idea I had of what it’d be like to work there before I was an employee but still there regularly to look at books, going to readings, etc. I get to read an incredible amount and, especially given the books we have in the store that you can’t find just anywhere, that’s an insane privilege.
Schandra: The sheer number of people who walk in looking confused and ask, “Did Dreamers move?”
Annar: The biggest surprise turns out to be exactly what I’ve spent years searching for—during my time here, I have developed some of the best friendships of my life. I admire my coworkers so deeply and am trying to remind myself to cherish every moment I get to spend here. Between the literature on the shelves and the frequent book releases/poetry and fiction readings/open mics, I am constantly being introduced to amazing people and learning so much about the world of writing and publishing. Malvern Books is more than a bookstore, it’s an amazing community that draws in the best and brightest!
What makes a customer the most fun to work with?
Fernando: To be both open and familiar with their tastes.
Taylor: The best customers want a book to love and a book that feels like a discovery.
Layne: I’m always partial to customers who are interested in contemporary poetry, but it’s especially great when our tastes/knowledge overlap a little but not too much—because I tell them who I’m excited about in the store, but then they also tell me who they love and have been reading, which is *awesome.* I love putting stuff in somebody’s hands they haven’t read before, but having an actual back and forth is so great. It’s seriously one of my favorite things when a customer brings up a poet or book I maybe have heard about or is from a press I know, but haven’t read.
Schandra: My favorite customers are the ones who come in not knowing much about our inventory and ask for recommendations. We’re not here to be pretentious or intimidating. We just want to put a really good book in somebody’s hand.
Annar: My favorite customer to work with is hands down the one who knows nothing at all! When someone walks in and says “I just don’t get poetry,” (a phrase I hear at least once a month) I rub my hands together, pulling our best works off the shelf, and make magic happen. It’s an opportunity to shape someone’s taste and inspire them. It is pretty thrilling when you see the twinkle in their eyes.
SLIDESHOW: Malvern Books Staff Recommendations