Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, Downtown Books & News find new owner in veteran employee; this story would not be possible without local landlords’ help, Ellen and Bob Carr and Julian and Rachel Price.
After 37 years, treasured businesses in downtown Asheville are getting a new owner who shares its founder’s vision for diversity, inclusion, and commitment to the city.
Seventeen-year veteran employee Gretchen Horn is the new majority owner of Renaissance Bookfarm, Inc., which owns Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe and Downtown Books & News. Emöke B’Racz will remain as founder and minority owner. The transition ensures that both bookstores will stay in Asheville, and it renews the business’ commitment to a vibrant local economy.
B’Racz said she has “total faith” in Gretchen Horn to carry the business. “She has managed to learn all operations of the whole store and assisted me for many years.”
‘Every town in this world deserves a good bookstore’
B’Racz owes her love of literature to her family. She grew up in communist Hungary at a time when every citizen was granted one pair of shoes, one uniform, and one coat, “if they were lucky.” Her family, dedicated readers, were one of the only families she knew of with a library.
“My father’s mother was a peasant,” B’Racz remembers. “She worked the fields. There were crops and geese and daily chores to tend to. She said to me, ‘If you’re reading, you don’t have to do the chores.’ So, what do you think I was doing?”
B’Racz read anything she could get her hands on, often escaping into British novels translated into Hungarian. Her grandmother told her, “Our only wealth is what we have in our heads—what we learned—because all else can be taken away.” After her family fled to the United States as political refugees, she found her first job in a bookstore. Eventually, B’Racz decided she wanted to own a bookstore of her own and set out to find the right city for it.
“I got in my car and drove down south, and I found Asheville, the mountains, and its architecture. I knew that I’d arrived home.”
In 1982, B’Racz opened the bookstore of her childhood dreams in a 1,600 square foot space at 61 Haywood Street. “I wanted a bookstore that was diverse and global. Every town in this world deserves a good bookstore because it is a center of education and freedom.”
B’Racz said she wanted her store to be a place where poetry mattered, where a woman’s words were as important as a man’s, where excellence was customary, where good writing had a home, and where she could entertain other people drawn to books. Eventually, Malaprop’s outgrew that location. With the help of its customers, the store moved its entire inventory, one box at a time, 3 doors down the block, to 55 Haywood Street, where it has remained.
In 1988, Downtown Books & News at 67 N. Lexington Ave. was opened, in response to local demand for used books. “We created a place with gently-used books, newspapers, and magazines.” Today, the two bookstores provide 11,000 square feet of bookspace, promote 9 monthly book clubs, and host hundreds of author events each year.
Emöke B’Racz was instrumental in reviving Asheville’s downtown economy, and has been recognized by the city for excellence; voted best by Mountain Xpress readers since its inception. B’Racz was also awarded bookseller of the year in 2000 by Publisher’s Weekly. Today, Asheville boasts numerous independent bookstores, a cultural wealth B’Racz says is essential to the city’s vibrancy. “We do not compete with other bookstores, but we complete a picture. Competition is for a football field, not for a bookstore.”
Cats, coffee, and a vision for the community
Gretchen Horn grew up in the Silicon Valley of California, in a world as different from communist Hungary as possible, save for one similarity: “There were no independent bookstores there.”
Horn said she didn’t come to appreciate independent bookstores or their role in a community until she started working for Malaprop’s as a barista in 2001 while attending University of North Carolina-Asheville.
“At the time, I just really wanted to work in a coffee shop,” Horn remembers. Once she was hired, she quickly learned that Malaprop’s wasn’t quite like other coffee shops she’d known. “There were cats … all over the place. Little cat figurines and decorations.” (And dogs, too. As customers know, well-behaved pets have always been welcome at Malaprop’s.)
Working evening barista shifts also allowed Horn to sit in on the bookstore’s frequent evening author events. “Those events, seeing people from the community share something they’re excited about, that was when working at Malaprop’s became so much more than a job for me. That was the start of the love.”
Horn worked in the café as the Café Manager before being promoted to assistant financial manager of Renaissance Bookfarm Inc. in 2005. B’Racz invited her to become financial manager of the business two years later in 2007. Since then, Horn has worked as the director of operations as well, allowing her to learn every facet of the business.
“So I’ve gotten a lot of free coffee, free books, and free events for the last 17 years,” Horn jokes. “I love it here.” She says she can’t imagine working anywhere else or for anyone else. “I work for Emöke,” she says. “And I essentially still will be because I want to retain her vision. I will always work for Malaprop’s, which is a place that Emöke created.”
Evolving a tradition of service
“Work is love made visible,” B’Racz said, quoting Lebanese-American writer Kahlil Gibran. She said she’s confident Horn shares her love of books and of Asheville. The two have been discussing the future of the business for years. Both say they’re happy with the transfer of ownership and excited for the future of the business.
B’Racz said she’s looking forward to having time to read and write, but she doesn’t consider herself “retired.”
“I don’t know how to retire,” she said with a laugh. “That’s my new job, to learn how to retire. But I’m up for it. I’m up for that challenge.” For now, she plans to complete a book her father started writing, to publish a book of her own poetry, and to spend time with her family.
That’s not to say B’Racz be absent from downtown Asheville, though. She will continue to be a part of Malaprop’s and Downtown Books & News, and will remain as founder and minority co-owner of Renaissance Bookfarm Inc. She said she “will always be there for Gretchen and the bookstores.”
Horn said one of the most important skills B’Racz taught her was not to fear change. “We can change with change or we can weather it. And both are okay.” Certainly, B’Racz and Horn have both navigated the business through seismic changes in the industry. Their success, B’Racz said, is the result of a commitment to customer service.
Part of that service includes selling books at community and school events, donating hundreds of books each year, and a new Malaprop’s pop-up bookshop in Hendersonville.
Opening Feb. 23, the pop-up shop will be located at 125 S. Main St. within The Center for Art & Inspiration. Customers will be able to browse a curated selection of new books and will have access to the inventory at the Asheville store. Customers will be able to place orders that can be picked up in Hendersonville. Book clubs, author events, and literary festivals are all in the works for the new location, too.