Admit it — when you heard that a bookstore was only going to sell physical books from independent publishers, you thought it wouldn’t last. And yet, Malvern Books reached its fourth birthday this month. The store celebrated with cake all weekend, 25% off books, and then donated all proceeds to Americans For Responsible Solutions. Those three elements (food, impetus to buy books, and supporting good things) are typical of the bookstore and vision of owner Joe W. Bratcher III.
“I wanted a store that was comfortable for people to sit down and look at books. I didn’t want you to feel overwhelmed,” said Bratcher. “I decided to focus on small presses because I knew I had to be different. It dawned on me that could be my niche, that way I’m not competing with the large bookstores and because I only carry fiction and poetry, it allows me to go deep into the backlist of the presses. It seems the people who come into Malvern are very intrigued because they’re seeing books they aren’t seeing in bookstores. ”
Bratcher grew up in Austin, left to complete a bachelor at Tulane, returned for graduate school at The University of Texas, then moved to New York City in 1995 with now ex-wife Elzbieta Szoka. In addition to teaching, Bratcher continued publishing international literature through Host Publications which Szoka and Bratcher founded in 1987. Bratcher returned to Austin in 2011 and opened Malvern two years later.
“While I was working with Host, I really began to enjoy selling the books at book conventions and book fairs more than I liked the production aspect of editing and choosing text and proofreading and doing the printing and all those things. I prefer being able to put hundreds of different books in people’s hands instead of five or six a year at most.”
With that aspiration and his knowledge of small presses, Bratcher brought on Becky Garcia as store manager to help with the Malvern project.
“She helped me open the store, and if it hadn’t been for her, I don’t know if I could have made the store work,” said Bracher. “She knew retail, and I did not. I thought I knew retail, but then again I thought I could run this and a publishing company at the same time. I thought I could run them from New York. She is a priceless asset to the store and I can’t thank her enough for how she’s helped me form Malvern and keep it going.”
The bookstore embodies a rich personality. A large lion statue greets customers at the door. Poetry flanks one side of the squarish room and fiction on the other. What I enjoy most, is that an entire corner was designed to be the stage for readings. There are no shelves on the walls around the reading stage, instead the two walls are covered in gnarled planks of wood. When readings occur, guests seated in comfortably cushioned chairs can turn their entire attention to the writer without the distraction of customers browsing or checking out.
“Malvern is making its own way. In the last year, things have really started to turn around. We’re able to pay the bills and keep the doors open with what we sell. We’re even able to have benefits every once in awhile. There’s been a growing base of reliable customers that come back. We’re beginning to become known on the map nationally as a small book store to visit.”
Bratcher’s care in creating Malvern, from selecting chairs that are “comfortable for twenty minute,” listening to his employee’s suggestions in order to keep store selections relevant and broad, and I Scream Social readings (which includes ice cream and toppings) blend into a space that is full of warmth and can be a home to all readers and writers.
“I’m ecstatic just with the ways the community and everyone has taken to Malvern. I’ve been so fortunate in finding such enthusiastic staff that really make it a fun, comfortable atmosphere. I couldn’t be more happy [with] the way things are,” stated Bratcher. “The enthusiasm the community shows for it, it just heartens me and makes me feel great.”
During American Short Fiction’s second annual The Stars at Night, a beer-and-boots gala, Joe W. Bratcher III will receive the Community Star award for his generous service. Purchase your tickets to the gala today.