December 3, 2012 This week, running counter to common perception that books are dead in the digital era, Parnassus Books in Nashville celebrates its first anniversary as a thriving success. Co-owned by former Random House rep Karen Hayes and bestselling novelist Ann Patchett, Parnassus has garnered widespread attention since its opening was announced in 2011, leading to Patchett’s appearances everywhere from Stephen Colbert’s The Colbert Report to the front page of The New York Times.
No one, least of all Patchett and Hayes, could have anticipated such a response to the opening of an independent bookstore, particularly during a year in which Borders went bankrupt and e-reader sales skyrocketed. In an interview with USA Today about Parnassus’s anniversary, Patchett admitted to being afraid at first that she was “opening an ice shop in the age of Frigidaire.” Then she realized that “People might not use ice to refrigerate anymore, but that doesn’t mean they don’t still want some ice in their scotch and in their tea. There is still a real place for ice. And when the power is out, we are mighty grateful for a bag of the stuff.”
In three recent essays of her own, Patchett writes about the experience of running the bookstore:
In a blog for The New York Times Magazine, Patchett describes her shift in perspective on the holiday season since Parnassus opened: “[Last] year I experienced a Christmas conversion. I didn’t find the true meaning of the season, not even close, but I did, for the first time in my life including childhood, tap into some real holiday joy. And I did it in the most unexpected place imaginable — a retail establishment.”
Her “December Report” for the Parnassus Books website expresses her gratitude toward Nashville readers for their support and enthusiasm for great books and great authors.
Writing for The Atlantic, Patchett provides a detailed narrative of the store’s origins: the spark of an idea in the midst of large-scale bookstore closings, the evolution of her partnership with Hayes, and the experience of promoting her own novel, State of Wonder, while fielding questions about the book business to which she didn’t always have the answers. The advantage of the many book-tour interviews she gave, she writes, is the opportunity to spread the word and hone her message: “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.”
A year later, Patchett and Hayes have moved far beyond a polished script for their hopeful vision. Now they run a robust independent business that puts paper-and-ink books into the hands of local readers. As Patchett writes, “People still want books; I’ve got the numbers to prove it.”
Click here to read Chapter 16’s Q&A with Patchett and Hayes about the opening of Parnassus, and here to read the site’s full coverage of the bookstore and the book tour that launched it.
For more updates on Tennessee authors, please visit Chapter 16’s News & Notes page, here.