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Asheville, North Carolina's idyllic hipster haven, is being hurt by the 'bathroom bill' boycott

Em?ke B'Racz, left, owner of Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe, and Linda-Marie Barrett, right, general manager, talk with a customer. Malaprop's has been a fixture in Asheville since 1982. [Photo for the Washington Post by Jacob Biba]
Published Jun. 29, 2016

ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Emoke B'Racz is resting in the Southern literature corner of her congenial bookstore in this Southern town, a tad disgusted. The daughter of a Hungarian political exile, B'Racz is a woman who is cowed by little. In the face of opposition, she often prevails.

She opened Malaprop's Bookstore and Cafe in 1982, when Asheville was a place well worth driving past, a boarded-up burg of pawn and porn emporiums, slowly withering in a Blue Ridge Mountain valley.

"I had no money and no business experience," she recalls, and yet she helped lead this town's revival to become the popular tourist and life's-next-chapter destination it is today.

Along the way, she deflected criticism from all quarters: lesbians for not operating a gay bookstore (she's gay) and military buffs for omitting military history ("Not my thing"). Malaprop's has endured protests from Zionists (about Jeff Halper's War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification), evangelical Christians (in response to Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth) and, memorably, enraged vegans, who prompted a police presence at a sidewalk event for Fred Thompson's Barbecue Nation — in North Carolina, where barbecue is a matter of faith.

"We are a place where freedom of speech is honored," says B'Racz, who views books and her store as "good medicine." both for society and for whatever ails you.

But nothing prepared her for the economic fallout from the bathroom bill.

In March, the state legislature passed HB2 — officially the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, but known to all as the bathroom bill. It mandates, among other provisions, that transgender individuals use public restrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates.

Within days, North Carolina became the place not to visit but to strenuously avoid, and an economic boycott went into full throttle. Bruce Springsteen and Selena Gomez canceled shows, film and television productions relocated, PayPal put its planned expansion into the state on hold, and the NBA is considering a change of venue for the 2017 All-Star Game. Five states and more than a dozen municipalities banned their employees from making nonessential trips to North Carolina.

Malaprop's is the sort of store where readers visit for an hour, settling into the wooden chairs, some of them child-size, scattered among the concrete posts decorated as trees. Named 2000 Bookseller of the Year by Publisher's Weekly, it's home to multiple book clubs (like WILD, Women in Lively Discussion) and almost daily events throughout town. In 1999, when B'Racz moved down the block to a space more than double the size, the community volunteered to move boxes of books, forming a bucket brigade to pass them down Haywood Street.

Out-of-town visitors are essential to her business. But after HB2, sales slumped in April, and again in May, "at a time when they're up for other independent bookstores," says B'Racz. "Our business is off on a day-to-day basis."

Tourists who couldn't cancel their trips would walk into Malaprop's and other shops in town and announce that they weren't spending money.

Then the big blow: Even as sales were falling, popular authors Sherman Alexie and Mark Z. Danielewski canceled readings. The Alexie cancellation, tied to the children's illustrated book Thunder Boy Jr., hit especially hard; the schedule included a reading at a local theater and school events, and a projected sale of 500 books. Says B'Racz, "Lots of children were denied the chance to get to know him."

Danielewski wrote B'Racz an apologetic note, but Alexie canceled through his publicist and offered no explanation except a tweet: "In honor and support of the LGBT community, I am cancelling all upcoming events in North Carolina. #RepealHB2."

"I have very little patience with stupidity," says B'Racz, who's still furious with Alexie. "There are other ways of protesting and making an impact." She wanted to strip the novelist's books from the shelves, but the staff persuaded her not to, although everyone laments the burden on the bookstore, which is vehemently opposed to HB2.

"I didn't vote for what happened," says manager Linda-Marie Barrett, who has worked at Malaprop's for 28 years and wrote a New York Times op-ed decrying the law's effect on the store's business. "It took us years to build up our author events and get them to come here."

In LGBT-friendly Asheville, where Bernie Sanders won more primary votes than all the Republican presidential candidates combined, it's difficult to find anyone who supports HB2, yet almost everyone seems to be affected.

Although it draws national attention to a cause, an economic boycott can be punitive to small businesses in a vacation destination like Asheville, where one in seven jobs is tourism-related.

"It's incredibly heartening to see large business and big-name entertainers take a very public stand with the transgender community that feels groundbreaking," says Zeke Christopoulos, co-founder of the transgender advocacy group Tranzmission, and the face of an anti-HB2 web ad. "But as a banker and activist who deals with a lot of smaller businesses that are reporting diminished income, some as high as 30 percent, (I see) that (it) hurts their vision and their future."

More than $1 million in hotel bookings have been canceled due to HB2, according to the visitors bureau, and business owners such as B'Racz worry about the vital summer season, which is Christmas in terms of sales for this town of 88,000.

Filmmaker Erin Derham had $1.1 million in pledged funding yanked by a tech company that didn't want to do business in North Carolina. "It was pretty abrupt," she says. "Everyone stopped answering my emails."

Now, she's making shorts for the tourism board, urging folks to visit. Asheville is a mecca for top buskers (as well as lesser ones), the subject of an earlier film, but Derham says they've stayed away so far. "The money and tourists are not here," she says.

"It's like we're being twice punished," says Luke Broussard, manager of Early Girl Eatery, known for its biscuits and farm-to-table Southern food. "First with the legislation, which was over before we knew it was happening, and now with the boycott."

Store-studded streets like charming Wall and funky, patchouli-scented Lexington, usually thronged with tourists and buskers in June, are relatively empty. On a recent weeknight, Nightbell restaurant, acclaimed for its craft cocktails and waffles topped with duck confit, was deserted. Since 2011, Liz Button, whose family owns Nightbell and the Spanish tapas restaurant Cúrate, had watched business explode, up 22 percent each year, only to see sales stall in April and dip in May, when visitors usually flock to Asheville.

Button, who moved here from New Jersey to launch the business and employs 100 people, is no fan of the boycott. "Most people are appalled. The decision not to come hurts across the board," she says. "Nobody wants to go back to the 1970s and '80s, when everything was shuttered."

Although it's well south of the Mason-Dixon line, Asheville, residents argue, is not what outsiders think of when they think of the South. Consider it a smaller, more affordable Berkeley, they say — a progressive, diversity-embracing enclave.

"You're not in North Carolina — just yet," Broussard tells tourists who marvel at the town's River Arts District, food culture and hipster population. "Head 10 miles in any direction."

Yet many parts of the state and the South have also changed. Charlotte passed a nondiscrimination ordinance in February that included protections for the LGBT community. That measure motivated the state General Assembly in Raleigh to pass HB2 a month later.

In presidential elections, North Carolina is a toss-up: Obama won narrowly in 2008 and Romney barely in 2012. It's considered up for grabs in November.

"We don't want people to turn away from the South and North Carolina," says Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, a Harvard Divinity School-trained minister and executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality, who is slated to become Buncombe County's first openly gay commissioner next year. (She won the Democratic primary and is running unopposed in the general election.)

"But if everyone leaves when they turn 18, as historically many gay residents did, we won't have equality," she says. North Carolina is home to 336,000 LGBT residents, according to one survey. Of them, 37,800 are transgender.

SB — it's just SB — is transgender and runs Lightning Bolt Ink print shop. "We should be slammed. It's slower, for sure," says SB, who moved to Asheville from Mobile, Ala., in 2001. After the bathroom bill, the shop printed more than a thousand "Don't Legislate Hate" T-shirts, distributing them free to the community that has made SB and general manager Bernard Stephens, who identifies as genderqueer, welcome for years. Asheville is also awash in rainbow heart posters that read "Y'All Means All," which hang in almost every storefront window.

SB understands that "boycotts quickly raise awareness, but the right response is not to be knee-jerk. Visit North Carolina. Seek out local businesses."

In April, Louis C.K. performed three Asheville shows, with all proceeds benefiting state LGBT organizations.

On the evening of Alexie's canceled May reading, a gathering of local authors, including Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants) and Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain), headlined a Kill the Bill benefit that raised $5,000 for area LGBT groups.

"I don't think we should be punished for the government's stupidity," says B'Racz, sipping iced tea in her store. "I think we should protest the government's stupidity every chance we get."

In the meantime, she plans to "be frugal" in the store's operation to make up for lost sales.

On a recent Saturday, Linda-Marie Barrett married her longtime boyfriend. She was back at Malaprop's by Tuesday. "We can't be complacent," she says.

It's summer, the busy season — or so she and B'Racz hope. The honeymoon will have to wait.

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