by Tonya Chen
I have a confession. I pick my bookstores by convenience, peruse the shelves for what I’m looking for, and occasionally leave with a receipt, never learning much about the individual stores themselves. But independent bookstores are more than collections of carefully curated literature. They are idiosyncratic cultures that reflect the founders—the bibliophiles of our world. As a visitor, I miss out on their unique aesthetic preferences, expertise, and people. Recently, I decided to be an observer and explored the literary scene of Austin, a culture that walks and breathes with the support of independent bookstores.
There are dozens of independent bookstores in Austin. To get you started, here is a guide to some of my favorites.
Walk into Malvern Books and the first thing you see is the first line of William Langland’s “The Vision of Piers Plowman” painted on the wall. The connection? The Christian allegory begins its journey in the Malvern Hills of Great Britain. Founder and owner Joe Bratcher explained that he wanted to give Langland due honor and that he also simply liked the sound of “Malvern”.
Malvern Books has a distinct selection of literature made up of almost exclusively fiction and poetry from small, independent presses. Everything is selected by Bratcher and his incredibly knowledgeable staff, most of whom are writers themselves.
Bratcher had been running a small publishing press for twenty-five years when he realized he wanted to open a bookstore. “I really like connecting with customers,” Bratcher explained. “As a publisher, I didn’t have much contact with readers. I’d give books to a distributor who gave them to a bookstore. I’ve found that when I went to book fairs, I really loved interacting with people and selling books at the table. I’d miss it when I’d go back to the office.”
Bratcher transitioned into retail and started Malvern Books three years ago with the mission of creating a literary space for the community. Instead of having aisles of bookshelves, Malvern is set up with plenty of open floor space, serving its frequent readings, musical performances, and book club meetings. Events in the upcoming month include a reading by speculative fiction writer Robert Jackson Bennett, a poetry review launch party, and an open-mic theme-inspired spoken word night.
By simply opening up conversation, I was able to learn about the mind behind Malvern Books. Joe Bratcher has a PhD in English from UT, taught English in New York City, and likes different genres depending on the day. He would love it if Charles Bernstein could do a reading at Malvern. He dedicates 30 to 40 minutes every morning to reading. “Don’t ever stop reading books,” Bratcher says. “It’s a surprising way to see your world. Dedicate a time for it every day. You’ve got to make it a habit.”
Bookstore owner Susan Post smiles and greets you from behind the register, just as she’s been doing for the past 41 years. Her store, Bookwoman is a one-of-a-kind feminist bookstore and standing Austin symbol. Like Post, the store advocates social justice campaigns dear to the Austin community. The walls are filled with symbols including pride flags and a Clinton yard sign.
Before Bookwoman, Post worked at the UT library and was originally unsure about joining the female collective that originally founded the bookstore. “When I was first contacted by the collective,” Post recounts. “I didn’t want to go to the meeting. I had no idea how to order books, so I turned them down three times. One day lightning struck, metaphorically of course, and I went. And that’s how I ended up here.”
When the collective dissolved two years later, she was faced with the difficult decision of staying at her library job or working at Bookwoman full-time. “I only volunteered part-time, so I didn’t know the nuts and bolts of running a bookstore. But I felt like Bookwoman needed to go on.” Post’s perseverance is what brings us to today.
Bookwoman is one of the few remaining feminist bookstores in North America. When Post began working, there were 150 others, but the onslaught of discounting and online competition eroded the customer base and rendered smaller bookstores out of business. Over the years, Bookwoman has called four other locations its home, expanding and downsizing with the economy. The store now resides on the corner of N. Lamar and E Koenig, hopefully its new permanent home. According to the Americans Booksellers Association, independent booksellers are bouncing back and quietly resurging across the nation.
Post handed me a list of events in the month of October, pointing to a reading and signing by a pediatric surgeon, a performance by a Celtic, Native American fusion jazz band, and Q&A with a sex educator. Bookwoman has an atmosphere that Post describes like a healing space. “It’s hard to describe, but some people feel it immediately. For others, we help them find what they need, whether it be a book or a social group etc.” She told me about a recent customer who came in, read, and cried in the corner. Other times, people come to her and she would help them find solace through literature.
Tonya Chen is a second year undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in finance and mathematics. She was born in Beijing, raised in Houston, and is currently the intern at Bat City Review.