For 25 Years, Malaprop's Offers the Right Word to Asheville

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe has thrived in Asheville, North Carolina, for just short of 25 years. The now 6,000-square-foot bookstore was founded on June 1, 1982, by Emoke B'Racz, a Hungarian emigre. In 2000, B'Racz was honored as Publishers Weekly Bookseller of the Year.

The store opened in a deteriorated downtown, lined with empty storefronts, which B'Racz said enabled her to pay "almost nothing for rent, and invest all my money in inventory," for the 2,000-square-foot space. B'Racz also noted, in her written history of Malaprop's, that she tried to infuse many aspects of the store with a European sensibility; books were wrapped in brown craft paper with red ribbon, a popular tradition that has continued to the present. After less than two years, B'Racz opened a continental-style cafe in the basement.

Malaprop's, which expanded in a spacious corner storefront down the block from the original store in 1997, also operates a 17-year-old sister store nearby -- Downtown Books & News, which carries a large selection of newspapers, over 1,000 magazine titles, and about 35,000 used books.

In 1988, Malaprop's General Manager Linda Barrett Knopp joined the staff, which now numbers 30. Knopp told BTW that Malaprop's is a place people are drawn to for many reasons. Foremost, its vast book selection, which includes major sections devoted to local authors and regional titles -- fiction and nonfiction, and poetry, a particular passion of B'Racz as well as many of the store's patrons.

"Poetry events are hugely popular," Knopp said. "We get 30 to 50 people for all our readings. We run monthly series, our Women on Words workshop, Blind Date With Poetry and open mic, and Poetrio, a reading usually with one local poet and two touring. We have a new one for young adult readers of poetry."

The crowd at Malaprop's for a recent event featuring Amy Sedaris (below).

The store also runs a number of book clubs for customers of different ages and interests. The cafe is the venue for club meetings and the store's frequent author events. Charles Frazier and Amy Sedaris are among the nationally noted authors who recently visited Malaprop's.

"We run author events Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; meetings of community groups are held here every week," said Knopp. "A group of writers of children's books meets here and we create space for them. We free up room in the caf for other regular groups like the Western North Carolina Atheists. People come here because we have wi-fi and four cyber-stations. We charge a low fee [for use of the cyber-stations]. It's a good draw for us ... hotels send their guests here to check their e-mail."

Asheville's downtown has become a vibrant, prosperous place over the past 25 years. "There are now a lot of downtown residents," Knopp said. "And that has helped the store. The downtown has a lot to offer now. There are retirees, but there are also a lot of young people. [Asheville] is extremely diverse."

It has been voted an ideal place to live by both Rolling Stone and Modern Maturity. A vegetarian website termed it the "most vegetarian-friendly small city in America." Knopp noted, "There are five health food stores within walking distance" of Malaprop's.

Asheville has not imposed restrictions on the size or ownership of the stores in the downtown, according to Knopp. But, she added, most are local independent merchants and vendors. "We try to support each other; we take out group ads in the newspaper. We give gift cards to the other businesses for prizes."

Malaprop's has developed a way to educate customers, when it sells Book Sense gift cards. Knopp explained, "We love the gift cards and sell many of them. A lot of people get them, or purchase them, and don't know about Book Sense. We sell [the cards]in a cardboard jewel case with a bookmark that explains the program and why it's important to readers.

"We find other ways to spread the word about Book Sense: When authors come for readings, we check their websites -- if they're not using to sell their books, we ask them to add it. Most of the time they are eager to use it once they realize that it's an alternative."

Knopp told BTW that the store gets a lot of orders through its site. I love having that template -- people can get so much information from our site." By next spring, the website will feature special activities and events planned for Malaprop's 25th anniversary celebration in June.

In her history of the store, B'Racz described her belief in the importance of books and reading by recalling her grandmother who "lived through two world wars, a revolution, and communist rule. She always told us that 'our only wealth was what we had in our heads, what we learned, because all else can be taken away.'" --Nomi Schwartz