It finally happened. During a beautiful, spontaneous camping trip to Pisgah National Forest last week, I finally got to visit the famed Asheville bookstore. As the largest independent bookstore in Western North Carolina, located in a city that is known for its support of all things local, organic and independent, Malaprop’s Bookstore and Cafe has been on my to-visit list for some time. In fact, I’ll admit I’ve often felt like a fraud writing a bookstore blog in the southeast without having ever visited Malaprop’s. It’s just unheard of.
We found the shop in its prominent location in downtown Asheville, proudly displaying Shop Local banners from its full-length windows. Two hours and a deliciously roasted coffee later, I can safely say the bookstore did not disappoint our expectations.
My strongest and most enduring impression from the visit was the feeling that I wanted so many things. Yes, I always feel that way when I visit a bookshop and I often leave with more books that I intended to purchase, but this time at Malaprop’s was noticeably different. It was as if the entire stock had been specially chosen for me. I am sure that every customer that comes into the shop must feel this way too. To my mind, this is the truest determinant of a successful bookstore.
Malaprop’s is known across the land for it’s award-winning author events. When they are not hosting authors like Barbara Kingsolver, Charles Frazier and David Sedaris, they host book clubs, knitting groups, and numerous regional author and community events. And if they’re not hosting your event, you can post it on a humongous cork board wall in their shop (on the way to the bathroom). I love seeing bookshops utilizing their space like this. With their position in the heart of a community, it is so natural and, yet, too many bookshops miss the opportunity.
So how is Malaprop’s surviving the times? A brief exchange with owner Emoke B’Racz revealed (via a shrug and a shrewd tight-lipped reply) that they’re doing “okay.” When I was there, the large and playful children’s section was, if not bustling, engaged by a family and a few other browsers. Most of the old fashioned school desks which are tucked into corners throughout the store were occupied by readers young and old. A gaggle of out of towners (like us), in Asheville to see the fall colors were vocal with their oohs and aahs in the Regional Literature section. From what I could tell, there were locals, too, and the cafe was filled with young professionals and students typing away on their laptops.
But they have had to hustle, too. Signs throughout the store alert customers that they can shop three ways at Malaprop’s: in-store, online and in their ebook store. Like Mclean and Eakin Bookstore in Michigan, many of their Staff Recommendation shelf talkers include QR codes linking the book to its ebook counterpart, in an attempt to discourage customers from browsing Malaprop’s and then purchasing the books (often, while in the store) from Amazon.
So is it working? Seems to be. But perhaps it’s still too early to say. Will the doomsday predictions prove true? Are the independent bookstore’s days numbered? Or will these grassroots, community-supported bookstores continue to play to their assets, offering services that are impossible on Amazon: live author events, book groups, community events, coffee, and a hand-curated stock that feels in that magical way only achieved by the best and most intuitive booksellers and librarians, to be specially chosen for each individual that walks through the shop doors?