Setting up shop

When I told friends I was opening a bookstore in Austin, Texas, some predicted my financial ruin while others suggested I was having a (slightly belated) midlife crisis. But I had no desire to buy a Harley Davidson or take up Tai Chi: I just wanted to sell books. Specifically, I wanted to sell the many strange, brilliant, shocking, and hilarious books put out by indie presses.

For the past twenty years I’ve owned and run Host Publications, a small press that specialises in literature in translation — everything from Brazilian short stories to Serbian poetry. Publishing these wonderful works was satisfying, but getting the books into people’s hands was the real challenge, and I realised that this was what I cared about most. And so, in a moment of madness, Malvern Books was born. I envisaged a cozy bookstore that showcased works from lesser-known and emerging voices and provided local literary enthusiasts with a welcoming venue for discussions and performances.

Terrifying

Of course, enthusiasm aside, opening the store was still a terrifying decision. After all, giant chains were closing branches left and right, and gloomy publishing types were predicting that e-books would soon make bricks-and-mortar bookstores obsolete. Fortunately, I have a talent for ignoring common sense, and I chose instead to be buoyed by small signs that the recession was easing, and by the cheering news that many independent bookstores were actually experiencing increased sales. The huge amount of work that goes into opening a store also provides a welcome distraction from the attendant worries: if you want to open a bookstore, make a list of all the things you think you’ll need to do and then multiply that list by 587.

Reaching out to the community has been a crucial part of that preparation, and we’ve put a lot of effort into keeping people up-to-date via our blog and Facebook. And the support we’ve received in turn has been incredible! We held our Grand Opening  at the end of last year, and were thrilled with the impressive turnout; I think it’s safe to say we achieved maximum occupancy. I was amazed when people came up to me to say thank you for the bookstore — it just goes to show that readers still have a place in their hearts for their local bookshop. Since we opened, the store has been busier than I expected and we’ve been able to sell enough books to cover our rent.

Personal

The support we’ve received suggests that much of the doom-and-gloom we hear about bookstores doesn’t apply to indies. For one thing, the type of stuff we sell lends itself to a good, old-fashioned ink-on-paper read—powering up your e-reader to enjoy a bilingual, facing-page edition of a Latvian poetry collection just feels… wrong. And although people will still feel tempted to stay at home in their pyjamas and do a little laptop book-shopping, it seems that plenty of readers are craving an experience that’s more personal and engaging than buying online or wandering the Fifty Shades-paved aisles of Branch #485. When a bookstore offers an eclectic selection of hand-picked titles, knowledgeable staff who care about books, and a welcoming space that feels like an extension of your living room and smells of books and coats and old wood rather than a Bookstore-themed air freshener… well, it makes it worthwhile to put on a pair of pants and head out into the world.

Joe W Bratcher III spent twenty years in publishing, before opening independent bookshop Malvern Books in Texas last year.