The headwinds on bookstores have not been easy the past few years: from the popularization of e-books and audiobooks over physical tomes to the overall shake-up that social distancing created in an already-precarious in-person retail market, it’s no wonder that independent bookstores are becoming a more precious and prized fixture in a community.
Asheville has a long history of supporting the arts, literary arts included, and we’re lucky to have half a dozen bookstores in town. At the center, I’d say, though, is Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe.
I first wandered into Malaprop’s almost 15 years ago, when it was already a powerhouse in this community. Founded in 1982 by Emoke B’Racz, this special gem of a bookstore started out with very cheap rent in a downtown that was basically non-existent. In 1997, they moved to their current location at 55 Haywood Street in the heart of the downtown commercial district, early adopters of what would soon become some of the most beloved blocks of downtown.
You can tell that this store is beloved by everyone involved when you first walk in the door: from displays that showcase the booksellers’ staff picks to the famous “Blind Date with a Bookseller” section of the store, you’ll find little surprising touches that help you understand why the place is so comfortable and enchanting. If you have a kiddo who hasn’t yet fallen in love with books (or family and friends who already have and are visiting Asheville), this is the perfect stop.
Blind Date with a Bookseller isn’t totally unique to this bookstore, but Malaprop’s was the first place I found it. You come up to a wall of books that are all wrapped in plain brown paper. The website describes these books as staff’s favorite picks and books that “fly under the radar” and then they give you a few keywords to help you pick which of the covered-up books to read.
For instance, one book had written on the outside: “wiley creature, strange but true, profound, and world through their eyes,” while another had “Dragons! Shenanigans! More Shenanigans! Surprisingly astute. More Dragons!”
None tells you the exact author or exact title, but they all offer a great opportunity to try something without literally judging a book by its cover. If you buy in-store, you can also return a blind date book for store credit with your receipt, so you really aren’t risking that much, even if you and your blind date clash a bit.
I was very pleased last year when I first tried their in-store pickup option. I don’t always have time to really browse the shelves at a beautiful indie bookstore to find the perfect book for a friend’s birthday or my little nephew’s holiday gift, preferring to find my favorite picks online.
However, I want to keep beautiful bookstores available in our town for when my kiddo is big enough to respectfully shop with me, so I find my book choices online, order them for in-store pickup, and drop by to get them when the booksellers let me know that they’ve arrived.
It’s a simple system that is not much more challenging than online shopping at big box stores, but keeps that money a little more local. Plus, a 5-minute run into the bookstore still fills me with book-lover energy, even if that’s all the time my squirmy kid can handle before he needs to keep exploring.
I knew I was going to write about Malaprop’s a few weeks ago while I happened to be on a walk through downtown. I went past the store and saw a sign with the name of one of my former professors from college, a creative writer who taught my workshops.
I remember so clearly the careful reviews he did of short stories I had written and the way he guided in-class critique sessions to be productive and uplifting while still leaving us growing writers with a list of revisions to complete. He was going to be reading at Malaprop’s from a new book of his only a few days from now – it felt like serendipity.
Malaprop’s is just a little quieter and a bit more “exclusive” feeling after dark: since COVID, they have created a robust hybrid and online literary event schedule, and though there are now in-person events as well, they require advance registration and are limited to just a small audience.
Inside, though, I saw that my professor clearly had a “hometown crowd,” people who were coming up to him and hugging him and congratulating him, not just strangers and literary aficionados. The team gave us a heads-up on the evening’s schedule while setting up a camera so that anyone watching online could enjoy the experience.
If you’ve not done many literary readings, it’s worth trying one. Few adults really get to be “read to,” even though most of us, at one point or another, sat in rapt attention while someone read us a picture book complete with funny voices as a child.
My professor gave a little backstory, since he’d opted to read from a short story collection but a little context never hurts. Then he gave us a rousing rendition, complete with pauses, thoughtful inflection, moments of levity and sorrow.
It was a really lovely experience that gave insight into his own childhood and life in addition to being focused on a fictionalized world. Around us, the bookshelves bore witness to us all listening intently and tracking the movements of every character.
After the reading, as we all shifted back and forth in our folding chairs, the writer took questions from both the online and in-person audience – it was truly interactive by the end for both the online watchers and us in-person visitors.
My professor answered with sincerity and humor as people asked about his influences and his writing process – probably familiar ground for a professor, but still lovely to hear about. In the end, people were given time to buy books and have them signed, with a moment to chat with the author himself.
The online sign-up emphasizes that these events are possible as free and open to the public because people choose to purchase books through Malaprop’s – it’s not a great look to attend their lovely event with a book bought from a big bookseller website to be signed.
I was only too happy to choose one of my professor’s books to purchase for only around $20 – between getting a book and a lovely evening outing, it was still an inexpensive form of entertainment, and I got to read all the rest of the short stories later on.
While a literary reading is a bit of a dream for an introvert like myself, a little outing without a ton of chat, you can also join Malaprop’s’ thriving book club community. There are book clubs about crime and politics, science fiction, romance, food books, and more, and their groups choose whether to meet via video call as they did in the pandemic’s height, or to choose to meet in person.
One of the treats of having a local literary hub is that you may find your new crew of book lovers through one of these clubs and all of a sudden have a fruitful source of recommendations that you can pick up right here at the shop.
In addition, local and regional authors often hold book launches, book conversations, and other kinds of events at the shop or in other spots around town, like the public libraries, with Malaprop’s providing the “books for purchase” on-site.
While of course the lifeblood of a bookstore is the customers who come in looking for their next literary tome among the brightly colored and well-organized shelves, you will find that Malaprop’s’ many decades in downtown Asheville have embedded it into many other parts of community life, making it an even more enriching place to spend time.
Finally, you don’t have to take your new book home immediately: most days of the week, Malaprop’s cafe is open for business, slinging flavorful Counter Culture Coffee and specialty espresso drinks, as well as a variety of other coffee-shop standards, and dishing up tasty baked goods from local bakeries.
With a small seating area and a walk-up window if you want your drink to-go, the cafe is a perfect complement to the slowing-down impulse that a bookstore brings. Even if you just use a lunch break to sip your tea slowly while catching up on a chapter or two, Malaprop’s is a great “third space” in downtown – not home, not work, but still a great fit for visitors and locals alike.
Finally, if you truly aren’t sure what you’ll like, don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations above and beyond the staff picks shelves. One of the most rewarding things for people who love to read is to help you find something you’ll love too, and the team at Malaprop’s can definitely deliver that.
Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe: 55 Haywood Street, Asheville