When I was growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, there were never any independent book or record stores that stocked new material. If you were a perpetually broke, artistically inclined individual living there during the late nineties or early aughts, you had to get creative to find anything the public library wouldn’t carry, or outside the mass-market paperback row of H-E-B.
Luckily, when you first become an insatiable reader, the books you gravitate to tend to be classic paperbacks or anthologies that can be found for next to nothing—in Hidalgo County, you just needed to know where to look. My favorite spot was the tiny Friends of the Library Bookstore inside the downtown McAllen Public Library on Main Street. It held erratic hours, usually from noon to 4 p.m., and a retired volunteer ran the rudimentary register. Paperbacks were a dollar, hardcovers two, and their inventory turned over at a frequent, mysterious pace. This cramped bookstore is where I first saw the names Susan Sontag, Franz Kafka, and even Jonathan Franzen. The copies I read of The Sun Also Rises and Love in the Time of Cholera came from this literary pauper’s haven, where I was only a few blocks away from 10th Street Café and could read in their hidden side alley for hours, sipping coffee, unbothered.
My Wikipedia page says I moved to Austin to pursue a career as a writer—and I suppose, even if you squint to read the fine print, this is true. Outside regular coffee shop open mics with proudly philistine performers, and exclusive institutions like the Michener Center, Austin wasn’t exactly a literary escape. The Texas capital had BookPeople, BookWoman, a few Half Price Books outlets—not a lot of bookstores for a big city, but enough for me to expand my reading horizon. When Malvern Books opened in October 2013, carrying exclusively poetry and fiction from independent presses, it was the first bookstore of its kind, with an entire impressive wall dedicated to verse. The owner, Joe Bratcher, who passed away last year, prided himself in carrying books that were hard to find anywhere else in Texas.
When I moved here, I worked in the food service industry, either as a barista or dishwasher, until I became a bookseller at Malvern Books in the fall of 2014. After almost a decade of living in Austin, whatever delusions I must have had about being a writer just didn’t line up with reality. I knew almost nothing about MFA programs, the differences between large and small presses, the explosion of self-published authors, writing workshops, literary agents, mentors, and so on. Though I rarely made more than $18,000 or $20,000 a year, just being able to live and breathe books gave my minimalist lifestyle the endurance I needed to keep pushing myself as a writer, while surrounding myself with musician friends.
The road to publication was long, filled with pain, rejection, and big tears, with seasoned industry people repeatedly telling me there was no precedent to my style of strange Texas narratives, that Mexican American literature tends to be realist and I was a hard sell. But, with the post-Bolaño boom of translated Mexican literature, including the genre-defying work of Cristina Rivera Garza and Sara Uribe, a new generation in publishing was suddenly interested in uncharted, challenging stories. My first full-length book, Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, was published in 2018, followed by my debut novel, Tears of the Trufflepig, in 2019, and my most recent story collection, Valleyesque.
Mr. Texas himself, Lawrence Wright, said recently in the New York Times that Austin has become something of a literary hub. Having been here for eighteen years—the exact number of years I had lived in the Rio Grande Valley since moving there when I was five—I have to agree. Malvern Books closed its doors the final days of 2022, but since then, Alienated Majesty Books has sprung up in its place, continuing the tradition of selling the strangest, most button-pushing literature, and I’m proud to work the occasional shift in that same building.