Opening an old-fashioned bookstore in the age of the iPad ranks somewhere between brave and foolhardy. But that’s what Ann Patchett, the best-selling author of Bel Canto, has just done in Nashville’s Green Hills neighborhood. “Print isn’t dead,” Patchett says, days after finishing the tour for her latest novel, State of Wonder. “This notion that, just because something else has come along, we all say, ‘Oh, print is dead. It’s all over, we should now throw the books away’ is crazy.”
She needn’t look beyond her own mailbox for proof. Lately, it’s been crammed with résumés from Nashville residents hoping to work at Patchett’s newly opened Parnassus Books. “People I don’t know, that I have no idea how they know where I live, are saying, ‘I’ll work in your store for free. I would do anything to work in a bookstore.’ ” They seem to get that there’s more to a neighborhood bookstore than just commerce.
Richard Howorth, the owner of Oxford, Mississippi’s famous Square Books, can recount all the hard parts—the nickel-and-dime counting, the promotional tasks, the constant dusting. “It’s retail,” he insists. But he also says bookselling is tremendously rewarding. If he wasn’t worried about sounding too romantic, he’d even call it magical.
If anyone can imbue Parnassus with magic, it’s Patchett, who has a gift as a novelist for revealing the beauty of seemingly ordinary places. She and her business partner, publishing veteran Karen Hayes, hope to channel some of the quirks found in long-standing independent bookstores such as Milwaukee’s Boswell Book Company, where the owner displays his personal collection of tin Band-Aid boxes. “We’re going to have a piano,” Patchett says. “We’re going to have a dachshund.” Plans also call for the 2,500-square-foot Parnassus to host readings, children’s story hours, book clubs, and musicians. “We want to create a real community gathering space,” Hayes adds.
And of course, they’ll do what traditional booksellers have always done—recommend books, in this case with a healthy dose of Patchett’s own current favorites. “I would open a bookstore just to sell The Family Fang,” she says of Tennessee author Kevin Wilson’s debut novel. “Also Moss Hart’s Act One and Halldór Laxness’s Independent People and weird books people haven’t read. I love what’s coming out this week, but there are all sorts of missed treasures that are just forgotten.”
Parnassus is Patchett’s gift to Nashville, the city where she was raised and where she lives with her husband. Sure, Nashville folks could buy their books on Amazon, but Patchett believes there’s still something special about a bookseller who knows your name, about holding a book in your hands, about just wandering the stacks. “That’s where people want to go after dinner, it’s where mothers want to bring their little kids,” she says. “How can I live in a city where there’s a dress store selling tiny little dresses for eighteen-year-olds every third store in the city? Isn’t there enough room for a bookstore?”
Probably, says Howorth, noting Nashville’s size and university community. Besides, while it’s hard to beat the speed and convenience of online retail, an equally powerful consumer trend is afoot. “I think that the go-local movements have gained traction,” Howorth says. “Five or ten years ago, people just sort of talked that game, and now people are really practicing what they preach.”