The Bookstore Strikes Back

Two years ago, when Nashville lost its only in-town bookstores, the novelist Ann Patchett decided to step into the breach. Parnassus Books, which Patchett and two veteran booksellers envisioned, designed, financed, and manage, is now open for business and enjoying the ride.

Heidi Ross

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, 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.

My friend Steve Turner told me over dinner, “Don’t ever think you can start a business and just turn it over to someone else. It never works.”

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.

Before I left on my U.S. tour, Karen and I looked at some possible spaces. We were like newlyweds in an arranged marriage hunting for our first apartment. Neither of us knew what the other person would like, and our conversations were awkward exchanges followed by long periods of awkward silence. One place had only studded two-by-fours for walls, and a forlorn toilet lying on its side in the center of the dark room. Karen could see the potential. (Karen, as I quickly learned, has a much greater capacity for seeing potential than I have.) She saw it again in a restaurant space that had been empty for four years. We picked our way carefully toward the kitchen, sliding our flashlight beams over grease-covered refrigerators and stoves. I had eaten in this place as a child, and it was disgusting even then. It was also huge. “Maybe we could partner with someone who wants to start a cooking school,” Karen said, looking at the hulking appliances. We were open to all possibilities. I was certain that the men who showed us these spaces had failed to secure bit parts on The Sopranos or in Glengarry Glen Ross but were still practicing for the roles. Often I was grateful for no electricity, certain I would see things in those rooms that I didn’t want to see. I wanted someplace whistle-clean and move-in ready, preferably with built-in cherry shelving. Karen, however, was in the market for cheap. The place we both favored had once been a sushi restaurant and now had a lien against it. When the manager finally gave us an answer, he pronounced bookstores dead and said he wouldn’t rent to us at any price.

And so, without a location or an opening date, I left for my book tour, and on the first day announced on The Diane Rehm Show that Karen and I would be opening an independent bookstore in Nashville. I was vague on every detail, but when asked about the name, I managed to say “Parnassus.”

Early in the tour, I got a phone call from the Beveled Edge, the frame shop in Nashville where I had long been a customer. They asked if I wanted them to sell my new book. My alterations shop, Stitch-It, followed suit. I was extremely grateful to be able to tell people in my hometown where they could go to find my novel, but the experience made me feel the loss of a real bookstore more acutely. Parnassus was a good idea for Nashville, yes, but selling books was also in my own best interest.

State of Wonder was my sixth novel and eighth book, and while I’d been on many book tours, I came to this one with an entirely new sense of purpose. I was going out to bookstores to read and sign, sure, but I was also there to learn. I wanted to know how many square feet each store had, and how many part-time employees, and where it got those good-looking greeting cards. Booksellers do not guard their best secrets: they are a generous tribe, and were quick to welcome me into their fold and give me advice. I was told to hang merchandise from the ceiling whenever possible, because people long to buy whatever requires a ladder to cut it down. The children’s section should always be in the back corner, so that when parents inevitably wandered off and started reading, their offspring could be caught before they dashed out of the store. I received advice about bookkeeping, bonuses, staff recommendations, and Web sites.

While I was flying from city to city, Karen was driving around the South in a U-Haul, buying up shelving at rock-bottom prices from various Borders stores that were liquidating. I had written one check before I left, for $150,000, and I kept asking if she needed more money. No, she didn’t.

At the end of the summer, Karen and I finally settled on a former tanning salon a few doors down from a doughnut shop and a nail emporium. Unlike the property managers we had encountered earlier in our quest, the one responsible for this location was a business-savvy Buddhist who felt that a bookstore would lend class to his L-shaped strip mall, and to this end was willing to foot the bill to have the tile floors chipped out. The space was wide and deep, with high ceilings. The tanning beds were carted away, but the sign over the door, TAN 2000, stayed up for a ridiculously long time. I went to Australia on yet another leg of my book tour, leaving all the work on Karen’s head.

Karen and I finally settled on a former tanning salon a few doors down from a doughnut shop and a nail emporium. The space was wide and deep, with high ceilings.

The word had spread to the Southern Hemisphere: in Australia, all anyone wanted to talk about was the bookstore. Journalists were calling from Germany and India, wanting to talk about the bookstore. Every interview started off the same way: Hadn’t I heard the news? Had no one thought to tell me? Bookstores were over. Then, one by one, the interviewers recounted the details of their own favorite stores, and I listened. They told me, confidentially and off the record, that they thought I just might succeed.

I was starting to understand the role that the interviews would play in that success. In my 30s, I had paid my rent by writing for fashion magazines. I found Elle to be the most baffling, because its editors insisted on identifying trends. Since most fashion magazines “closed” (industry jargon for the point at which the pages are shipped to the printing plant) three months before they hit newsstands, the identification of trends, especially from Nashville, required an act of near-clairvoyance. Finally, I realized what everyone in fashion already knew: a trend is whatever you call a trend. This spring in Paris, fashionistas will wear fishbowls on their heads. In my hotel room in Australia, this insight came back to me more as a vision than a memory. “The small independent bookstore is coming back,” I told reporters in Bangladesh and Berlin. “It’s part of a trend.”

My act was on the road, and with every performance, I tweaked the script, hammering out the details as I proclaimed them to strangers: All things happen in a cycle, I explained—the little bookstore had succeeded and grown into a bigger bookstore. Seeing the potential for profit, the superstore chains rose up and crushed the independents, then Amazon rose up and crushed the superstore chains. Now that we could order any book at any hour without having to leave the screen in front of us, we realized what we had lost: the community center, the human interaction, the recommendation of a smart reader rather than a computer algorithm telling us what other shoppers had purchased. I promised whoever was listening that from those very ashes, the small independent bookstore would rise again.

What about the e-books?, the journalists wanted to know. How can you survive the e-books?

And so I told them—I care that you read, not how you read. Most independent bookstores, and certainly Barnes & Noble, are capable of selling e-books through their Web sites, and those e-books can be downloaded onto any e-reader except Amazon’s Kindle, which works only for Amazon purchases. So you can support a bookstore in your community and still read a book on your iPad.

Say it enough times, and it will be true.

Build it, and they will come.

In Melbourne, I gave a reading with Jonathan Franzen. I asked him if he would come to the bookstore. Sure, he said, he’d like to do that. Down in the Antipodes, my mind began to flip through my Rolodex. I know a lot of writers.

Meanwhile, back in Nashville, Karen and Mary Grey had hired a staff, and together they washed the warehoused Borders bookshelves again and again while they waited for the paint to dry and the new flooring to arrive. In a burst of optimism, we had hoped to open October 1. Lights were still missing when Parnassus finally did open on November 16. We had forgotten to get cash for the register, so I ran to the bank with my checkbook. That morning, The New York Times ran a story about the opening, along with a photo of me, on page A‑1.

Imagine a group of highly paid consultants crowded into the offices of my publisher, HarperCollins. Their job is to figure out how to get a picture of a literary novelist (me, say) on the front page of The Times. “She could kill someone,” one consultant suggests. The other consultants shake their heads. “It would have to be someone very famous,” another says. “Could she hijack a busload of schoolchildren, or maybe restructure the New York public-school system?” They sigh. It would not be enough. They run down a list of crimes, stunts, and heroically good deeds, but none of them are A-1 material. I can promise you this: kept in that room for all eternity, they would never land on the idea that opening a 2,500-square-foot bookstore in Nashville would do the trick.

The bookstore that did in fact open in Nashville is so beautiful, I can’t even make sense of it. While I’d spent the summer talking, Karen had taken her dreams out of the air. She made the ideal bookstore of her imagination into a place where you can actually come and buy books. I realize now that my business partner is something of a novelist herself. She attended to the most tedious details, and then went on to make a work of art. Through every color choice, every cabinet, every twinkling hanging star, she had conjured a world that was worth inexpressibly more than the sum of its dazzling parts, the kind of bookstore children will remember when they are old. Parnassus, I could finally see, was perfectly named, as she had known all along it would be. Every time I walk through the door, I think, Karen was the one person I met who wanted to open a bookstore. How did I have the sense upon meeting her to sign on for life?

On opening day, NPR wanted an interview from the store. They wanted background noise, but too many people made too much background noise, and we had to retreat to the back corner of the storage room. The Early Show called at 4 o’clock that afternoon. I would have to get on a plane in the next two hours to be on CBS the next morning. When we had our grand opening the following Saturday, an all-day extravaganza that stretched from early-morning puppet shows to late-night wine and cheese, an estimated 3,000 Nashvillians came through the store, devouring books like locusts sweeping through a field of summer wheat. All of us who worked there (not a number I normally include myself in, but in this case I was among them) had waited so long for customers that once they finally came, we could not stop telling them what we wanted them to read. One more joy I had failed to consider: I could talk strangers into reading books that I love. The shelves we had so recently washed and dried and loaded down were startlingly empty. Karen kept running back to the office to order yet more books, while I kept climbing onto a bench to make yet another speech. Every local television news program came, and every local newspaper, along with People magazine. I was interviewed so many times that a person walking past the window of our bookstore on his way to the Donut Den might have thought we had won the Kentucky Derby, or cured cancer, or found a portal to the South Pole.

“You know,” I had told Karen early on, “you’re going to wind up doing all the work, and I’m going to get all the credit. That could get really annoying.”

But she didn’t seem annoyed, either by the abstract concept or, later, by the omnipresent and unavoidable reality. “You just do your job,” she told me. “I’ll do mine.”

My job has become something I could never have imagined, and while it surely benefits Parnassus, Parnassus is not exactly the point. Without ever knowing that such a position existed, let alone that it might be available, I have inadvertently become the spokesperson for independent bookstores. People still want books; I’ve got the numbers to prove it. I imagine they remember the bookstores of their youth as tenderly as I remember mine. They are lined up outside most mornings when we open our doors, because, I think, they have learned through this journey we’ve all been on that the lowest price does not always represent the best value. Parnassus Books creates jobs in our community and contributes to the tax base. We’ve made a place where children can learn and play, where they can think those two things are one and the same. We have a piano. We have two part-time store dogs. We have authors who come and read; you can ask them questions, and they will sign your book. The business model may be antiquated, but it’s the one I like, and so far it’s the one that’s working.

Maybe it’s working because I’m an author, or maybe it’s working because Karen toils away like life depends on this bookstore, or because we have a particularly brilliant staff, or because Nashville is a city that is particularly sympathetic to all things independent. Maybe we just got lucky. But this luck makes me believe that changing the course of the corporate world is possible. Amazon doesn’t get to make all the decisions; the people can make them, by choosing how and where they spend their money. If what a bookstore offers matters to you, then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read a book. This is how we change the world: We grab hold of it. We change ourselves.