Emöke B’Rácz has survival in her blood. In 1956, Her father came to the United States from Hungary as a political exile. B’Rácz was 15 years old when she and the rest of her family followed him to Connecticut.
“I did not speak the language. In Hungary, I was an ‘A’ student, and in the United States, I was at the bottom of the class,” she recalled because I couldn’t say anything very well.
Novels and poetry were her bridge to acclimating. But assimilating? B’Rácz has resisted that since arriving in America.
She moved to Asheville in 1981 with the sole purpose of opening a bookstore. Even then, it was a dicey proposition. A previous bookstore had just vacated the Haywood Street storefront that would become the home of Malaprop’s Bookstore. Barnes & Noble hadn’t yet become a retail giant, and Amazon was more than a decade away.
B’Rácz and Malaprop’s have spent 37 years defying and surviving cultural and technological trends.
“Endurance and frugality (are) very important when you’re establishing a business,” she said. “Going out to eat every day? No. Rice and beans every day? Yes. Walking to work? Yes. There are lots of ways you can cut your expenses. I learned that in my home country, Hungary, you do what it takes. If you have the dream, it will happen if you keep that in sight.”
B’Rácz’s work ethic is almost a caricature of a bygone discipline. She recently stepped back a majority owner, turning over the reins to the store’s longtime director of operations and financial manager, Gretchen Horn.
“I never wanted to and never did marry. I have 500 children. They all graduated from the bookstore,” B’Rácz said. “You can’t do everything. I was very focused on the bookstore. I didn’t look up. I just woke up 36 years later and said ‘Wait a minute, I’ve been working too long.’”
Before coming to Asheville, B’Rácz spent nine years working behind the scenes at a Waldenbooks in Connecticut. She had plenty of ideas about how to do things differently with the store she dreamed of opening: Shelves devoted to international literature and poetry and employees compensated with solid wages and health insurance.
Other things would take time. Customer service compelled B’Rácz to overcome her own introversion.
“It’s like being an actress on stage. You get over it,” B’Rácz said. “Talking to people and connecting them to the last book I read that was really great, that’s not really being out there. It’s a healing process for me and the customer. I was very quiet when I went home.”
Business initially was, in B’Rácz’s words, very poor. She weathered the blame from some for the departure of Captain’s Books, the previous tenant at 61 Haywood Street—Malaprop’s eventually moved three doors down to its current home.
B’Rácz never begrudged the growing presence in this region of Barnes & Noble, but the incursion of Amazon is still an ethical sticking point for her, extending from Jeff Bezos to the people who shop with Amazon.
“Barnes & Noble was not out there to kill us, to have every book buyer in their store. Amazon is another story,” B’Rácz said. “It’s taking business from the local economy who’s supporting your children’s school. It’s thoughtless and it’s unkind to the economy. Each person has to make a decision that saving $2 is not worth losing the culture.”
After the first year of Malaprop’s, B’Rácz stopped setting budgets for the store. She hired a bookkeeper in part to shield her from the store’s financial concerns, so she could make decisions based more on her own instincts than any calculus of popular taste.
In her semi-retirement, B’Rácz plans devoting more time to painting and to writing and publishing her poetry. You’ll also find her, at more times than she’d like, inside Malaprop’s.
“It was not a business, it never is a business, although we observe some business practices, like paying our taxes and rent,” she said. “It’s more living a good life and healing people who come to the store by giving them good stuff. I just had the utmost faith a good bookstore is essential for a city.”