It was another rainy morning in Austin and I was scheduled to meet up with a man named Joe at a bookstore not too far from my apartment. I walked no more than three blocks in the rain before I wondered if he would even be there because it had been pouring all morning.
I made my way to the front of the store and I pulled on the door of the new Malvern Books.
Story and Photos by Helen Fernandez
It’s locked. I make one more attempt at the door. I lean in on the foggy store glass, only to have my vision obstructed by a yellow post-it note: “In the back. Knock loudly.”
Joe walks over to the door, unlocks it and welcomes me in. His hello was reassuring and his demeanor was friendly as if we’d been friends for years.
His store, Malvern Books, was warm and welcoming, as well.
There was something different about this bookstore, though. The typical towering bookcases and the harsh fluorescent lighting were replaced by books, stacked neatly in rows by their genre, along three of the store’s walls.
When you walk into Malvern Books, your eyes are drawn to the long, wooden tables adorned with a variety of literature. You also notice the picture perfect lamps hanging above the tables, providing just the right amount of light for a day of book browsing.
Joe Bratcher is originally from Austin. He moved to New York in 1995 to run a publishing company after graduating with a Ph.D. in English from The University of Texas at Austin. He moved back to his hometown in 2004 and says he had already been thinking of opening up a bookstore for five or six years because he saw it as “another way to get books into people’s hands.” Bratcher says he knew that he wanted to open up something unique where people would feel welcome to come in, stay and read. “I just really want this to be a community kind of space,” Bratcher says.
The selection on the shelves of Malvern Books is strictly poetry and fiction. “And it’s all from small and independent presses. You don’t find Random House. You don’t find Forrest Strauser Row and other things like that here,” Bratcher says.
Bratcher says that the reason for this is that he understands how the literature from smaller presses is “underrepresented in stores, and there’s an interest in it.” “The other reason is that if I carried large presses here then I’d just be throwin’ myself up in competition with any other bookstore, Book People, Barnes and Noble, online book retailers. It wouldn’t be different,” Bratcher says. Malvern Books is located near The University of Texas at 613 W. 29th St. Bratcher says he chose this location because “it’s close enough to the university but it’s far enough from the university that I can still get locals to come here.”
Bratcher says he has had a very hands-on experience with the opening of the store. He’s done everything from picking the 4,000 books on the shelves to deciding the decoration on the walls. He also fought for the positioning of the pirate and lion statues that are placed at the front of the store, to the dismay of the store designer. This location was a favorite of Bratcher’s when he was looking at possible spaces, but he says it was one of the hardest things about opening up the store.
The lion at the front of the store is named Malvern. Bratcher says he tends to blame the lion for inspiring the name of the store. However, the real story lies behind Bratcher’s favorite poem, titled The Vision of Piers Plowman, written in 1335 by William Langland. “It’s a long poem, quite lengthy, and it takes place in the Malvern Hills in England. I wanted to study medieval old-English when I was in graduate school, but I could not get along with Latin,” Bratcher explains.
This Medieval English allegorical narrative poem also inspired the interior decoration of Malvern Books. When you walk in the store you can see a quote on the back wall that reads, “In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne.”
“I always loved this poem so I decided that if I opened a bookstore then it would be called Malvern books,” Bratcher adds.
Malvern Books is closed Mondays, open Tuesdays through Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.