Malvern Books was founded in Austin, Tex., in 2013 by Joe Bratcher, the owner of Host Publications, which specializes in books by marginalized groups—women, people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ writers. An Austin native, Bratcher launched the publishing house in New York City in 1988 and was living there when he got the inspiration to open a bookstore. “I was enjoying going to book fairs—the AWP [Association of Writing & Writing Programs conference] in particular—and thought it would be great to open a store that sold the kind of stuff they sell there: independent presses; poetry; fiction; chapbooks.”
Understanding that opening a store in New York City would be too expensive, Bratcher moved back to Austin, where he had earned a PhD in English literature at the University of Texas. “I hired Becky [Garcia, the store manager] to help me with the publishing house and to set up the store. She and I have been the two full-time employees of the store since.”
Malvern’s store space previously housed two adult businesses, Dreamers Video and the Pleasure Land sex shop. “We used to have a T-shirt that read, Malvern Books: A Different Kind of Adult Bookstore,” Bratcher said. “But people didn’t quite get it.” Today, the 2,500-sq.-ft. space features repurposed mushroom wood paneling on the walls and blue Marmoleum tile flooring shaped to resemble a river—a design cue echoed in the store’s logo, which intentionally gives off a rustic vibe.
The Malvern name comes from a 14th-century poem by William Langland that takes place in the Malvern Hills in England. “Before I opened the store, I would walk around New York City reciting the name: Malvern, Malvern,” Bratcher said. “I liked the poetry of it.” The first line of the poem is written on the back wall of the store: “In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne.”
Malvern stocks 5,000–6,000 titles from well-known, independent presses, including Melville House, New Directions, and Open Letter, as well as books from less-well-known houses like Prague’s Twisted Spoon Press, which focuses on Czech literature in English, and Wakefield Press, a publisher of esoterica and oddities. “My favorite press of all time is the New York Review of Books,” Bratcher said. “We stock almost every one of their books and have a dedicated section for them.”
Malvern is perhaps best known for its vast array of translated fiction and poetry, which accounts for more than one-third of its stock. “People gravitate to those sections,” Bratcher said. “Almost all the stuff that is translated, especially the poetry, is from top-notch writers.”
This highly curated selection has made Malvern a destination for book lovers visiting Austin, which hosts many academic and cultural conferences. “When the pandemic hit, we had to close the doors and lost all of that tourist business,” Bratcher said. The store has since reopened and closed to in-person shopping several times and is currently allowing in customers by appointment only.
Another blow to Malvern was the loss of events during the pandemic. It has a stage area and room for a lot of seating. It also hosts several book clubs (now all transitioned to virtual): one focuses on an NYRB title each month and is run by Bratcher; another dedicates six months to books by a single author; yet another, called Lone Star Lit, focuses on local authors. Among the store’s reading series is the long-running I Scream Social, which is dedicated to the work of nonbinary, feminist writers and has produced two anthologies published by Host. Unsurprisingly, several writers have worked at the store as booksellers, including Fernando Flores (Tears of the Truffle Pig) and Julie Poole, whose poetry collection Bright Specimen will be published by Deep Vellum in May.
Though Malvern is on the same street as BookPeople, Austin’s better-known indie store and PW’s 2005 Bookstore of the Year, Bratcher doesn’t see it, or any store, as competition. “We just stock so many things you don’t see in other stores,” he noted. “When people see our store, they just flip out.”