We spoke with Becky Garcia, the manager of Malvern Books in Austin, Texas, in this installment of the Bookstore Spotlight series.
Tell us about Malvern Books. When were you founded and where are you based?
We opened in October of 2013 here in Austin, Texas.
You specialize in literature from independent publishers, with a focus on lesser-known and emerging voices. Why did you choose to prioritize independent publishers in this way, and why is this important?
Joe Bratcher, the owner of Malvern Books and its founder, started a small press called Host Publications in 1988. Host focuses on fiction and poetry, with a real emphasis on works in translation. Throughout that journey, he became familiar with other small presses and the great books they carried as well. And he saw that without the huge marketing machines of the big publishers behind them, these wonderful books often didn’t get the wide distribution of their “big publisher” counterparts. When Joe thought about opening a bookstore, he always envisioned trying to highlight books like those he published, and to feature small independent presses, just like Host Publications. He wanted readers to be able to connect in person with books from all over the world.
On your website, you say, “Our inventory is lovingly curated and delightfully idiosyncratic, with one common thread running from shelf to shelf: we sell books we love to read.” Can you tell us more about your curatorial approach at Malvern Books?
It really is just that. While Joe still does all the actual buying, he relies heavily on our staff for suggestions as well. Our staff are all readers, and they like to contribute their opinions of what we should carry. In addition, we also know the publishers whose books do best with our customers, so we look carefully at anything by those presses. And, of course, customers help out too! We’ve had calls from people asking about books we don’t have and we will normally ask about it—who publishes that? when was it published? is it fiction or poetry? how did you hear about it? Our poor callers—they must think we’re interrogating them! But really we just want to know if this is something we should have, and if it is, we try to get it in.
Malvern Books is also a community space. What are some of the book clubs and events you host?
Book clubs have been great for our virtual space. Our longest running book club is the NYRB Classics Book Club, which reads titles from the NYRB Classics series. We also have Line/Break, our poetry book club; Suspense & Speculation, our multi-genre book club focusing on mysteries, suspense, and speculative fiction; Smashing!, our feminist book club; and A Season Of, where we read books from one author or read an especially long book over multiple months. The first “season” featured books by César Aira, and for the current season we’ve just started reading Ducks, Newburyport, a 1,000+ page prize-winning book by Lucy Ellman. Last but not least, there’s our LoneStar Lit Book Club, featuring writers living in Texas—for this one, we discuss the book and then the author joins to answer questions.
In the “Before Times” we hosted book launches for well-known as well as lesser-known writers. For nationally known authors, we’d be thrilled when we’d be able to host them and get the word out about their books. We also tried to provide a space for local authors too—we had a monthly event called “Novel Night” where we would invite 1-2 local authors to read. It would give them a chance to invite their friends and family to hear them read and often buy their books. We’d video the event and then they’d have something they could put on their website. We loved hosting events featuring the work of local professors from the many colleges and universities in the area and also hosting nights to celebrate the work of the students in these programs. Events focusing on chapbooks by local authors, events for local and small national publishers, celebration parties for student literary magazines like UT’s Spanish & Portuguese Department’s Pterodactilo, ACC’s Creative Writing Department’s Rio Review, Borderlands, Ocotillo…. so many I can’t name them all.
What are some of your top-selling—or favorite—books by independent literary publishers?
A consistently great seller is Fernando A. Flores’s Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas (Host Publications). Other bestselling fiction in 2020 includes A King Alone by Jean Giono (NYRB Classics), Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls (New Directions), and During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase (NYRB Classics). In poetry, Jericho Brown’s The Tradition (Copper Canyon Press), Etel Adnan’s Time (Nightboat Books), Danez Smith’s Homie (Graywolf Press), and Lucille Clifton’s Blessing the Boats (BOA Editions) have been strong sellers. Two anthologies have also done especially well, When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nation Poetry (W. W. Norton) and The Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction (Dalkey Archive Press). There are so many publishers we love, including Feminist Press, NYRB, New Directions, Archipelago, Wakefield for their strange and wild fiction, Wave Press for their wonderful poetry… finding great small presses is easy; the hard part is finding shelf space for all their wonderful titles!