Don’t Tell Ann Patchett That Bookstores Are Dying

TIME loved the novel State of Wonder. We talk to its author about her new venture, Parnassus Books.

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Last week in a Nashville strip mall, a new bookstore opened its doors — a rarity in these days under the reign of Amazon. Parnassus Books (its name is derived from the Greek mountain that is the mythical birthplace of literature) is co-owned by bestselling author Ann Patchett, a Nashville resident who decided to bankroll the venture after coming to the bleak realization that, other than university shops, her hometown was without a bookstore. Patchett, author of this year’s State of Wonder and 2001′s Bel Canto, joins Larry McMurtry, Louise Erdrich and Garrison Keillor in that tiny club of successful writers who are also booksellers. Patchett spoke to TIME about the small-town feel of strip malls and the awkward dilemma of how to display her own books.

Parnassus is modestly sized (2,500 square feet) but its opening made national headlines. Did you expect to become a spokeswoman for bookstores?

There’s this feeling that Amazon is killing the bookstore. And the eBook has gotten an enormous amount of press, to the point where people are saying, ‘So I guess it’s over.’ And it’s like, ‘No, it’s not.’ I’m standing up and saying no, the book is alive, the bookstore is alive.

I am speaking for bookstores all across the country. These people are my friends. These are the people who welcome me into their stores for readings, who take me home and cook me dinner and let me sleep in their guest rooms. These people have made me, made my career, made me what I am. So now I can say, ‘Go and support your local bookstore.’ What an enormous privilege that is for me. But I had no idea that that would be what this was about.

When I am selling my own book, it’s so different. If you were talking to me right now about State of Wonder there is no way I would say ‘I have written a great book and I have done something important’. But this is an opportunity where I can say I am doing something so important.

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What needs to change if a new store like Parnassus is going to survive?

People are not mean spirited, but they really do go into bookstores with their iPhones, scan the barcodes of the books they want and order them on Amazon. They say, well, ‘I can save $10 that way.’ We need to have someone say, ‘This isn’t good.’ If you like the warm feeling you get in a bookstore — the sense of community and the support to the local tax base — then you can’t do that. You need to buy your book here. At least you need to buy a book as a present.

In Nashville, Davis-Kidd, a Tennessee independent, filed for bankruptcy late last year, and then Borders followed this spring. How quickly did you make your decision to fill that void?

Right around then I was talking to Michael Zibart, whose parents used to have the Zibart Brothers bookstore, [a former Nashville institution], and I told him he should open a bookstore. He said ‘I would never open a bookstore but I know somebody who would want to,’ so he set me up with Karen [Hayes, her partner]. We met for the first time at the end of April and decided kind of on the spot to go in on it together.  When I first got involved it was to financially back her and then we evolved into being partners.

She’s the person who does all the work. She’s is running the store, working there, picking out the paint for the walls, while I am promoting the hell out of it and also unpacking some boxes myself.

Did you really put up $300,000 of your own money?

Yes, $300,000, which I have not spent by any means, because Karen is the thriftiest human being on the planet. It’s hysterical – I am putting up all the money and she is doing all the shopping. God help us if it had it been the other way around [because] I know how to spend money.

Karen bought a used fridge for the store off of Craigslist. Who does that other than undergraduates? I think at this point she has spent less than half of [it] through sheer thrift. She rented a U-Haul and drove around the South to Borders stores as they were closing. She’d tell me, ‘Next Thursday the shelves in Alabama will be marked down another 20 percent!’

Is there a little perverse pleasure in picking up bargains from a chain store that helped put many small bookstores out of business?

If there is a pleasure, it is not perverse. Borders was a great chain and I’m glad that a little piece of that lives on in Parnassus. When my third book, The Magician’s Assistant, came out, Borders was incredibly kind to me. I am no way dancing on Borders’ grave. I wish they had survived.

Did you think, I might never see that $300,000 again?

Yeah. And I feel fine about that. I have done well, obviously, if I can put up that money and think, ‘I may never see that again.’ I am a smart businessperson and I bet you anything that at the end of the day, this will turn into a money-making project. But I really see it as a charitable contribution to the city of Nashville. I could have given this money to the symphony, to a school, to a homeless shelter, but this is how I chose to donate my money. And if I never see it again, it’s not like I’m throwing away the money. This is something that I want to give to my city.

How does Parnassus, with its strip mall setting, compare to the favorite bookstores of your Nashville childhood?

The one I really went to was a Mill’s bookstore that was probably 700 square feet. My sister and I would walk home from school every day and we would go there and then go to the pet store and look at the puppies. I suppose I am taking my money and whatever power I have in the literary world and I am recreating a happy memory from childhood. Maybe I’ll open a pet store next. But I’ll give away the puppies.

This strip mall is this bastion of love. It is this little village of shop owners and restaurateurs who have been so supportive and kind. The Donut Den brings us a box of warm doughnuts every morning. The art gallery, LeQuire, has been receiving our big boxes of books for us before we opened. There’s like this 1950s neighborhood feeling. Who knew?

Is Parnassus going to turn Nashville into a hot spot for author tours?

There are all these weird advantages of having an author own a bookstore. I know everybody. Booksellers, authors, agents – I could get to just about anyone from any angle. I’ll be able to tap friends and say, ‘Come read, you can stay at the house, we’ll make dinner, it’ll be fun.’ But we don’t have an events schedule yet. Give us until February, until we get through the holidays and get on our feet. I still have to learn how to use the cash register.

But you’re not going to give up writing for selling, are you?

No! I’ll probably be here a lot through December. And I’ll be blogging for the store’s website. Every month, I will recommend a few books, which is a huge joy.

Finally, where are the Ann Patchett books kept at Parnassus? Stored under P, or elsewhere?

[Laughs] We had this long table in the window and we didn’t have anything for it — we don’t have the ordering quite worked out – so today that front table is nothing but Ann Patchett books. But that is more a matter that we have a lot of them. We’ll get new releases in a couple of weeks so that it doesn’t look like the Festival of Megalomania.

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