In late February I am in my basement, which is really a very nice part of my house that is not done justice by the word basement. For the purposes of this story, let’s call it the Parnassus Fulfillment Center. I have hauled 533 boxed-up hardback copies of my latest novel, State of Wonder, from Parnassus, the bookstore I co-own in Nashville, into my car; driven them across town (three trips there and three trips back); and then lugged them down here to the Parnassus Fulfillment Center. Along with the hardbacks, I have brought in countless paperback copies of my backlist books as well. I sign all these books and stack them up on one enormous and extremely sturdy table. Then I call for backup: Patrik and Niki from the store, my friend Judy, my mother. Together we form an assembly line, taking orders off the bookstore’s Web site, addressing mailing labels, writing tiny thank-you notes to tuck inside the signed copies, then bubble-wrapping, taping, and packing them up to mail. We get a rhythm going, we have a system, and it’s pretty smooth, except for removing the orders from the Web site. What I don’t understand is why, no matter how many orders I delete from the list, the list does not get shorter. We are all work and no progress, and I’m sure something serious must be going wrong. After all, we’ve had this Web site for only a week, and who’s to say we know what we’re doing? “We know what we’re doing,” Niki says, and Patrik, who set up the Web site in the first place, confirms this. They explain to me that the reason the list isn’t getting any shorter is that orders are still coming in.
You may have heard the news that the independent bookstore is dead, that books are dead, that maybe even reading is dead—to which I say: Pull up a chair, friend. I have a story to tell.
The reason I was signing and wrapping books in my basement is that more orders were coming in than the store could handle, and the reason so many orders were coming in is that, a few days before, I had been a guest on The Colbert Report. After a healthy round of jousting about bookstores versus Amazon, Stephen Colbert held a copy of my novel in front of the cameras and exhorted America to buy it from Amazon—to which I, without a moment’s thought (because without a moment’s thought is how I fly these days), shouted, “No! No! Not Amazon. Order it off ParnassusBooks.net, and I’ll sign it for you.” And America took me up on my offer, confirming once and for all that the “Colbert bump” is real. That explains how I got stuck in the basement, but fails to answer the larger question of what a writer of literary fiction whose “new” book was already nine months old was doing on The Colbert Report in the first place. Hang on, because this is where things get weird: I was on the show not because I am a writer but because I am a famous independent bookseller.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the story.
Two years ago, the city of Nashville had two bookstores. One was Davis-Kidd, which had been our much-beloved locally owned and operated independent before selling out to the Ohio-based Joseph-Beth Booksellers chain 15 years earlier. Joseph-Beth moved Davis-Kidd into a mall, provided it with 30,000 square feet of retail space, and put wind chimes and coffee mugs and scented candles in front of the book displays. We continued to call it our “local independent,” even though we knew that wasn’t really true anymore. Nashville also had a Borders, which was about the same size as Davis-Kidd and sat on the edge of Vanderbilt’s campus. (In candor, I should say that Nashville has some truly wonderful used-book stores that range from iconic to overwhelming. But while they play an important role in the cultural fabric of the city, it is a separate role—or maybe that’s just the perspective of someone who writes books for a living.) We have a Barnes & Noble that is a 20-minute drive out of town without traffic, a Books-A-Million on the western edge of the city, near a Costco, and also a Target. Do those count? Not to me, no, they don’t, and they don’t count to any other book-buying Nashvillians with whom I am acquainted.
In December 2010, Davis-Kidd closed. It was profitable, declared the owners from Ohio, who were dismantling the chain, but not profitable enough. Then, in May 2011, our Borders store—also profitable—went the way of all Borders stores. Nashvillians woke up one morning and found that we no longer had a bookstore.
How had this happened? Had digital books led us astray? Had we been lured away by the siren song of Amazon’s underpricing? Had we been careless, failing to support the very places that had hosted our children’s story hours and brought in touring authors and set up summer-reading tables? Our city experienced a great collective gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, but to what extent was Nashville to blame? Both of the closed stores had been profitable. Despite the fact that our two bookstores were the size of small department stores and bore enormous rents, they had made their numbers every month. Nashvillians, I’d like the record to show, had been buying books.
The Nashville Public Library organized community forums for concerned citizens to come together and discuss how we might get a bookstore again. Our library, and I will bless it forever, immediately jumped up to fill the void, hosting readings of orphaned authors (myself included) whose tours had already been scheduled with stops in Nashville, and in every way trying to responsibly tackle the problems we faced as a city in need of a bookstore. Someone went so far as to suggest putting a little bookstore in the library, though selling books in the same building where books were free struck me as a bad plan. Surely, I thought, someone would open a bookstore.
My secret was that I did not much miss those mall-size Gargantuas. The store I really missed had been gone much longer. The bookstore of my youth was Mills. My sister and I used to walk there every day after school, stopping first to check out the puppies in the pet shop across the street, then going on to admire the glossy covers of the Kristin Lavransdatter series, which is what girls read after they finished Little House on the Prairie and its sequels back before the Twilight books were written. Mills could not have been more than 700 square feet, and the people who worked there remembered who you were and what you read, even if you were 10. If I wanted to re-create that kind of bookstore, one that valued books and readers above muffins and adorable plastic watering cans, a store that recognized it could not possibly stock every single book that every single person might be looking for, and so stocked the books the staff had read and liked and could recommend—if I wanted to re-create the bookish happiness of my childhood, then maybe I was the person for the job. Or maybe not. I wanted to go into retail about as much as I wanted to go into the Army.
“You’re like a really good cook who thinks she should open a restaurant,” my friend Steve Turner told me over dinner. I had gone to Steve for advice because he has a particular knack for starting businesses, which has led to his knack for making money. He was trying to talk me down from the ledge. “And anyway, you already have a job.”
“I wasn’t thinking of working in the bookstore,” I said.
He shook his head. “Don’t ever think you can start a business and just turn it over to someone else. It never works.”
In truth, I left that dinner feeling relieved. I’d been to the oracle, and the oracle had told me that mine was a bad idea, which must have been what I’d wanted to hear.
I was thinking of Steve Turner’s admonition when I met Karen Hayes for lunch the next week. We were introduced by our one friend in common, Mary Grey James. Karen was then a sales rep for Random House, and Mary Grey had been a rep for Harcourt. They had both worked at Ingram, a large book distributor outside Nashville. Karen, who is tall and pale and very serious in a way that brings to mind pilgrims or homesteaders or other indefatigably hardworking people, meant to open a bookstore. Her plan was to quit her job and devote her life to the project. All she lacked was the money. I suggested, having neither considered investing in the book business, nor been asked to do so, that I could pay for the store and promote it. Karen and I would be co-owners, and Mary Grey would be the store’s general manager, thus solving the problem of how I could run a bookstore without having to actually work in a bookstore. We hammered out a tentative plan in the time it took to eat our sandwiches. Then Karen pulled a business proposal out of her bag and handed it to me.
“It’s called Parnassus Books,” she said.
I looked at the word, which struck me as hard to spell and harder to remember. I shook my head. “I don’t like it,” I said. How many people would know what it meant? (In Greek mythology, Mount Parnassus is the home of literature, learning, music, and, I think, a few other valuable things.) I had wanted a store called Independent People, after the great Halldór Laxness novel about Iceland and sheep, or perhaps Red Bird Books, as I believed that simple titles, especially those containing colors, are memorable.
“I’ve always wanted a bookstore called Parnassus,” Karen said.
I looked at this woman I didn’t know, my potential business partner. I wanted a bookstore in Nashville, but why should I be the one to name it? “You’re the one who’s going to work there,” I told her.
That night, after talking it over with my husband and then securing a more detailed character reference from Mary Grey, I called Karen. According to her numbers, we would need $300,000 to open a 2,500-square-foot bookstore. I told her I was in. This was April 30, 2011; in two weeks, I was to leave for the U.K. leg of the State of Wonder book tour. The U.S. leg of the tour started June 7. Karen was working for Random House until June 10. “Should I announce this on book tour?,” I asked her. I knew I’d be giving interviews all day long during the entire month of June. Should I tell people what we had planned over lunch? That we had a name I didn’t like but money in the bank, that we were strangers?
“Sure,” Karen said, after some real hesitation. “I guess.”
When I look back on all this now, I’m dizzied by the blitheness that stood in place of any sort of business sense, like the grand gesture of walking over to the roulette table and betting it all on a single number. Anyone I mentioned this plan to was quick to remind me that books were dead, that in two years—I have no idea where “two years” came from, but that number was consistently thrown at me—books would no longer exist, much less bookstores, and that I might as well be selling eight-track tapes and typewriters. But somehow all the nay-saying never registered in my brain. I could see our plan working as clearly as I could see myself standing beside my sister in Mills. I was a writer, after all, and my books sold pretty well. I spoke to crowds of enthusiastic readers all over the country, and those readers gave me confidence. More than that, I was partnered with Karen Hayes, who wore the steely determination of a woman who could clear a field and plant it herself, and with Mary Grey, my dear friend, who had opened a bookstore before. Moreover, Nashville’s two giant, departed bookstores had been profitable every month. I saw the roulette ball bouncing up again and again until finally coming to rest on the number I had chosen.