Local store Malvern Books navigates COVID-19 pandemic

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Joe Bratcher, the owner of Malvern Books, in his West Campus store on Feb. 9. February marks nearly a year since Malvern Books shifted to online sales due to the pandemic.

Photo Credit: Kirsten Hahn | Daily Texan Staff

Under a blue neon sign reading “Malvern Books,” owner Joe Bratcher prepares for a solitary day fulfilling curbside pick-up orders. Located near campus on West 29th Street, Bratcher said he opened the bookstore in 2013 to create a community event space for the Austin literary scene.

“(I wanted) people to feel comfortable here,” Bratcher said. “I wanted that kind of space where you could just browse and be helped. That energy has been lacking since March of last year.”

February marks nearly a year since Malvern Books shifted to online sales due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Manager Becky Garcia said staying afloat as an independent bookstore has been difficult yet rewarding.  

“Now that we don’t have people coming into the store, the inventory isn’t moving as quickly as it used to,” Garcia said. “That’s always a challenge.”
 
Bratcher said Malvern specializes in poetry and fiction from small presses, so their staff members are resident experts in emerging authors and less mainstream literature. 

Their focus on localized stories attracted Sophia Kontos, an international relations and global studies and Plan II sophomore, who purchased four translated fiction books through their curbside pick-up service.

“The collections of books that they have … are a little off the beaten path, and having the help to navigate that (field) was really useful,” Kontos said. “I’d like to go talk to them in person (after the pandemic).” 

Although in-person shopping is currently unavailable, the bookstore hosts book clubs, author readings and open mics virtually through Zoom.

“It’s very exciting … because we can have people in the Zoom conferences from all around the country,” Bratcher said. ”But it’s disappointing because none of it really converts to sales.” 

Although Malvern sees many returning customers, book sales can be heavily dependent on face-to-face interaction.

“If we got people into the store for an event … chances are real good they’d buy something,” Garcia said. “That’s not so much the case now.”

When curating their catalog of books, the bookstore often orders titles based on customers’ demonstrated interest. Garcia said they have started using social media more to connect with their audience.

“We really tried to up our social media game so (customers) can see what’s in the store,” Garcia said. “It’s been really gratifying when we (recommend) something on Instagram and (then) people will call and say, ‘Hey, I want that book!’”

While Malvern is handling these new circumstances, they are eager to return to in-person shopping as soon as they can ensure staff and customer safety.

“We’re a very concerned bunch,” Garcia said. “We always err on the side of caution.”

Malvern continues to serve as a virtual community space for booklovers, and they hope to open their doors to the public in the near future. 

“There's something about going to a bookstore and picking a book out … with some friends or just bumping into somebody at the store,” Bratcher said. “Just the serendipitous kind of meetings like that don't happen online. I'm looking forward to that.”

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in The Daily Texan's February 12 print edition.