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Author Ann Patchett Opens Own Indie Bookstore

Nov 16, 2011
Originally published on November 17, 2011 12:35 pm

The world of independent bookstores has a new member: Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., opened its doors on Wednesday. The store has a marquee name behind it — it is co-owned by best-selling novelist Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and State of Wonder and many others. Patchett talks with NPR's Melissa Block about first-day jitters, and why she decided to open a small, independent bookstore at a time when similar stores are closing:

On what the bookstore looks like on opening day

"It is beautiful, Melissa; I wish you were here. The ceiling is incredibly high, and it's pale blue, and the walls are very warm, and we have floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. It's opening day, but we're still doing a lot: We're filling up the card rack right now and the magazine rack and learning how to use the cash register. It's exciting. It's crazy."

On how little the store is, and why small size matters

"Compared to the two bookstores that closed here in Nashville in the last year — Borders and Davis-Kidd [Booksellers], which were both over 30,000 square feet — yes, we are a shoebox of a bookstore [at 2,500 square feet]. But this is the way bookstores used to be. This is the bookstore of my childhood, and I feel fantastic being back here. ...

"People are really coming all the way back around to the beginning of the [big-small bookstore] cycle and saying: I want the little store. I miss the little store. And I think there are a lot of small stores that can really thrive in this environment."

On being confident about the future

"I feel nervous like first day of school, not nervous like I'm embarking on a business venture that might go bust. I actually think this is going to go really, really well."

On making a hefty financial investment in the bookstore

"I think of this as my gift to the city: This is what I want to see in Nashville, and if I want to live in a city with a bookstore, then I'm willing to pay for it. ... The big work of the store is really being done by my partner, Karen Hayes. It's easy enough to put your money into something, but she's putting her back into it. That's what's really important."

The best advice she got from a bookstore owner

"Put the children's section in the farthest back corner of the store, so if the kids run away and make a break for it, you have plenty of time to catch them before they get out the front door."

The really best advice she got from a bookstore owner

"In a smaller store ... you are the person making the choices to get really good books. You are the one who, by your intelligent ordering and good reading, is sort of cutting through a lot of the junk and bringing books that people really want to read. ... We've all had the experience of going into a three-story Barnes & Noble and saying, 'I didn't really find anything I wanted to read.' But you can go in to a small store with an intelligent staff .... [and] well-displayed, well-chosen books, and come out with five books that you're dying to read. And that's what we're going to do."

On the story behind the name "Parnassus"

"It is that mountain in Greece where literature and music and poetry were born. We are the Athens of the South here in Nashville — we have a full-size replica of the Parthenon. And so we wanted to be part of that great tradition of our city."

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The world of independent bookstores has a new member. Parnassus Books opened its doors today in Nashville. And the store has a marquee name behind it. The best-selling novelist Ann Patchett is the co-owner. She's the author of "Bel Canto" and "State of Wonder," among many other books. And she joins us from her bookstore on opening day. Ann Patchett, congratulations and welcome.

ANN PATCHETT: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: And look around, tell me what you see in your bookstore.

PATCHETT: It is beautiful. Melissa, I wish you were here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PATCHETT: The ceiling is incredibly high, and it's pale blue. And the walls are very warm, and we have floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. And it's opening day, but we're still doing a lot. We're filling up the card rack right now and the magazine rack and learning how to use the cash register. And it's exciting. It's crazy.

BLOCK: And how big is it, Ann?

PATCHETT: Twenty-five hundred square feet.

BLOCK: OK. So smallish, I would say that is.

PATCHETT: I would say compared to the two bookstores that closed here in Nashville in the last year - Borders and Davis-Kidd, which were both over 30,000 square feet - yes, we are a shoebox of a bookstore. But this is the way bookstores used to be. This is the bookstore of my childhood, and I feel fantastic being back here.

BLOCK: So fantastic. Nervous, though, given that so many independent bookstores have had to close. How do you think you can...

PATCHETT: No, no...

BLOCK: ...compete?

PATCHETT: ...no, I'm not nervous about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PATCHETT: No, I think we're going to do really well. I'm just nervous because it's opening day, and we haven't unpacked the magazines, and there's just so much going on. I feel nervous like first day of school, not nervous like I'm embarking on a business venture that might go bust. I actually think this is going to go really, really well.

BLOCK: I gather you have made a pretty hefty personal investment in this. Have you talked to people who say, boy, and I don't know about that, you might think about putting your money into this?

PATCHETT: I think of this as my gift to the city. This is what I want to see in Nashville. And if I want to live in a city with a bookstore, then I'm willing to pay for it. And I should also say that the big work of the store is really being done by my partner, Karen Hayes. And it's easy enough to put your money into something, but she's putting her back into it. That's what's really important.

BLOCK: Do you have a sense of what other indie bookstores have done wrong, the ones that have had to close?

PATCHETT: I don't think that it's a matter of doing something wrong. I think it's just a cycle. I think that the indie bookstores did really well. They made a lot of money, and then they got bigger, and they got bigger. But then Barnes & Noble came in, and they were even bigger. And then the little store couldn't support their larger rent. And then Amazon came in, it's like a food chain and crushed the bigger store. And now, people are really coming all the way back around to the beginning of the cycle and saying: I want the little store. I miss the little store. And I think that there are a lot of small stores that can really thrive in this environment.

BLOCK: You, I'm quite sure, spend a lot of time in bookstores as you travel around on book tours. And have you been talking to store owners, getting advice, getting tips from them?

PATCHETT: Absolutely. I was on book tour all summer for my new book "State of Wonder." And I find book tour really exhausting, and it was a whole lot more fun this time because I knew I was opening the store. And every night, I would walk into a new bookstore and say: OK, how many square feet do you have? Where do you get your greeting cards? You know, who is your inventory person? And what's your best advice for bookstores? And it was great. It was like I was on a summer-long fact-finding mission.

BLOCK: What's the best advice you've gotten from other bookstore owners as you've traveled around?

PATCHETT: To put the children's section in the farthest back corner of the store, so if the kids run away and make a break for it, you have plenty of time to catch them before they get out the front door.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: I see.

PATCHETT: I thought that was genius.

BLOCK: Never knew that.

PATCHETT: You never knew that. That's why the kids' sections are in the back.

BLOCK: And that's the main takeaway piece of wisdom?

PATCHETT: Well...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PATCHETT: …no. Probably the main takeaway piece of wisdom in a smaller store is that you're the person making the choices to get really good books. You are the one who, by your intelligent ordering and good reading, is sort of cutting through a lot of the junk and bringing books that people really want to read. And I think that's an important point because we've all had the experience of going into a three-story Barnes & Noble and saying, oh, I didn't really find anything I wanted to read.

But you can go into a small store with an intelligent staff, which we have such a good staff, well-displayed, well-chosen books and come out with five books you're dying to read. And that's what we're going to do.

BLOCK: And we should say the name Parnassus Books is carefully chosen.

PATCHETT: Yes, it is. And it is that mountain in Greece where literature and music and poetry were born. So we are the Athens of the South here in Nashville. We have a full-size replica of the Parthenon, and so we wanted to be part of that great tradition of our city.

BLOCK: I've been talking with the writer Ann Patchett. She's the co-owner of Parnassus Books, which opened today in Nashville. Ann, thanks very much.

PATCHETT: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.