It’s easy to forget, now, that five years ago the idea of opening an independent bookstore was seen by many practical people as akin to firing up the forge and opening a blacksmith shop. The venerable Borders chain was dead. The surging popularity of ebooks seemed to be a threat to the existence of physical books themselves. And over it all like The Fog lay Amazon, the hyper-efficient web retailer whose Kindle readers and cutthroat prices on physical books virtually sneered at the idealism that beats in the hearts of local bookstores.
As a poor college student, I spent hours at the old Davis-Kidd Booksellers, the one with the wide, green-carpeted stairway leading up to the children’s section and cafe. It was my museum, my cultural experience, my third place. When it closed the Nashville literary community, to its credit, recognized what was being lost. There was consternation, and there were meetings.
As it played out, Nashville’s former Random House book rep Karen Hayes and novelist Ann Patchett stepped up to open Parnassus Books, which celebrates its fifth birthday today. In that time, the store has doubled its space, bought a bookmobile that serves outlying areas, and brought authors, hundreds of them, to town. It has hosted high-profile events like a parking-lot block party with David Sedaris and a sold-out evening with Stephen King at The Ryman. But Parnassus plays an equally vital role, most nights of the week, in offering appearances by authors for all ages and interests, both famous and emerging.
Those are big-picture things, but it’s the small pictures that together compose the portrait of a community bookstore. Parnassus is where I bought The Selected Letters of Willa Cather by one of America’s greatest writers—Cather is the author of My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop, among other classic novels. She expressed clear wishes that her letters never be published, and they were not published as long as her nephew and estate executor, Charles Cather, lived. But he died in 2011, and the letters were published in 2013. I bought the hardcover version of the book from Parnassus, had a crisis of conscience over Cather’s wishes, and have never read a word of it. For readers, a bookstore is inevitably interwoven like that with books themselves. The acquisition is part of the lore, and the provenance is part of the story.
I remember back in those college days when I would see master bookseller Roger Bishop behind the customer-service counter in the back of Davis-Kidd. This is well before I was lucky enough to know Roger himself, but I used to watch as customers asked for a particular book, or even just a type of book. He would light up in those conversations, eyes bright over the rim of his glasses. I thought he might have the best job in the world. Now I have the best job in the world, and part of the reason I feel that way is that I get to work every day with people who love books. And no one loves books more than the people at Parnassus who order, sell, recommend, and, yes, write them.
I have watched quietly from the back hallway as harried tourists, fans of Ann Patchett, barrel through the door and then, almost visibly, relax. It’s a space to be savored, with its high ceilings, tall shelves, hanging star lanterns, friendly shop dogs, and of course books, stacked high and deep. Every reader knows there are books for different days and seasons, and the Parnassus booksellers know that, too. Go to an event, and take comfort in the easy conversation of friends and strangers around you. Meet an author if you like, and get your book signed, or be shy and lurk. Your bookseller understands.
You can’t go anywhere on the Internet these days without an algorithm following closely behind you. If you look at Fitbit exercise trackers on a website, an ad will pop up in your Facebook feed. After you watch one movie on Netflix, Netflix tells you what other movies you might like. But what those algorithms are attempting to do, laughably and imperfectly, is to replicate the experience you get when you shop locally and talk to actual humans. Walk into Parnassus and mention that you recently read Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, and a kindred spirit will guide you to the next title you are sure to love.
As we congratulate Parnassus on five years in business, we don’t overlook the numerous other bookstores in town, most of them independents and all of them with the same level of passion and service that Parnassus provides. But Parnassus is unique in its ability to draw the very best, and best-known, writers in the country to Nashville. A big part of that power comes of course from Ann Patchett, whose respect in the literary community and friendships with writers across the country have resulted in a Who’s Who of authors making Nashville a book-tour destination.
Parnassus recognizes the unique role it plays in the Nashville literary community, and in a very quiet way it spreads the wealth—both literally and figuratively. Last year, the store opened its doors after hours for a benefit concert for Humanities Tennessee. Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn performed, and one hundred percent of those proceeds went back to this organization. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this kind of support, which translates into real dollars that help organizations like this one continue its work.
And we are far from the only beneficiary of Parnassus’s philanthropy. The store commits a percentage of its own net proceeds to schools, the Nashville Public Library, and other area nonprofits. Katie McDougall, co-founder of The Porch Writers’ Collective, gives credit to Karen Hayes: “Not only has she participated on The Porch’s board since its nascent stages, she’s also on the board of NIBA (Nashville Independent Business Alliance), involved in Nashville Reads, and was initially on the advisory board for Oz Arts. Karen is a force for good in Nashville.”
Five years into what we hope will become as much a Nashville institution as the Loveless or the Ryman, we have seen a passion turn into a place. This place has held weddings for staff members and for shop dogs (a benefit for the Nashville Humane Association). It has held a fundraiser for a beloved staff member with cancer. It has hosted sold-out events for bestsellers with thousands of readers in the audience—and for debut novelists with only a handful of people sitting on the front row. Parnassus Books exists because we, the readers, exist. We keep it alive with our own passion. We are grateful for it, and we will keep reading.
Serenity Gerbman has served as Director of Literature and Language Programs at Humanities Tennessee since 2001. A recipient of the Malcolm Law Award for Feature Writing from the Tennessee Press Association, she lives in Murfreesboro.