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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Anyone who has read Adam Ross’s novel Mr. Peanut (or the stories in Ladies and Gentlemen) knows that the man has a pretty magical eye for detail, not just for characters, but for the way those characters are informed by the places they inhabit. In today’s Book Clubbing, Mr. Ross shifts that talented lens to his hometown of Nashville, which is just starting to recreate a bond with the independent bookstore experience thanks to the opening of Parnassus Books.
What’s my favorite bookstore in Nashville? That’s easy. It’s Parnassus, which bestselling novelist Ann Patchett and former Random House sales rep, Karen Hayes, opened just under two weeks ago in Green Hill’s Greenbrier Village shopping center, although my answer reminds me of a joke I saw Peter Sellers make about the USSR on The Today Show in the late seventies. “Not only are Troika cigarettes my favorite brand in Russia,” he said, holding up an imaginary pack, “they are also the only brand in Russia.” Parnassus is the only independent bookstore Nashville’s got right now. That it already happens to be great means we’re very lucky.
On balance, 2011 was a nearly apocalyptic year for Nashville booklovers, one which injected unfortunate irony into its namesake as The Athens of the South. In January our fair city witnessed the shuttering of Davis Kidd, a 30-year-old institution which had passed from the locally-owned hands of Karen Davis and Thelma Kidd to Neil Van Uum’s consortium Joseph-Beth Booksellers, the latter ultimately closing the Nashville store because (and I quote Van Uum from the Nashville Scene article I wrote about its demise), “The Nashville store was profitable but it had a million six in inventory plus a huge rent number, and when you put it all together you didn’t have the level of profitability you needed to fund it.” That’s corporate speak for “not profitable enough,” detonation’s thump and flash that precedes the blast wave, restructuring’s nuclear bomb. Suddenly, Nashville was a city without an independent bookstore.
To make matters even bleaker, the Davidson County Borders shuttered as well, leaving only Books-A-Million and Hillsboro Village’s used bookstore Bookman/Bookwoman to fill the void. For the literary community, it was the nightmare scenario. Nashville was now off the map for touring writers. For booklovers, it was the end of choice itself. Want to buy Mark Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah or James Salter’s Light Years? You could point and click on Amazon, download it on your e-reader if you go in for that sort of thing, or order it through the Cool Springs Barnes & Noble and drive twenty miles to pick it up once it had arrived. Never leave your home or enlarge your carbon footprint to buy a book: a pair of insidious options and, when you think about it, a possible future everywhere. If, however, you wanted to kill some time and let what you wanted find you, well, you couldn’t. End of story.
Enter Patchett and Hayes. The former not only has deep pockets (she fronted the $300,000 in startup costs) but has also spent her life in great independent bookstores all over the country and knows, first hand, the vital impact they have on an author’s livelihood as well as their local literary community. Hayes, meanwhile, is an industry-insider who simply can’t envision a world without books—and by that she means tree books. Hayes was considering a career shift by necessity (Random House offered her early retirement and she feared for her job security if she didn’t take it); Patchett, a native Nashvillian, couldn’t imagine living in a city without bookstore. The rest is history, albeit one of the most well-documented bookstore openings ever, with articles in The Christian Science Monitor, Time, The New York Times, Garden & Gun, and Publisher’s Weekly, to name only a few, the list’s length attributable to Patchett’s star-power and high-stock value gone through the roof since State of Wonder‘s release, a bestseller that’s found its way to the top of so many end-of-year Best Of lists.
Of course, there’s another reason for the attention: Parnassus arrives at a time of widely chronicled economic and industry-wide flux. What is the fate of books? Of brick-and-mortar bookstores? Of print itself? Is Amazon the publishing industry’s equivalent of the Death Star and CEO Jeff Bezos Darth Vadar? Are we doomed to read everything on screens? Is Parnassus the canary in the coalmine or a sign of scalable things to come, another player in the locavore/Occupy Wall Street movement, the Fellowship of the Ring (a book!) allied against the armies of Mordor (Corporate America), the seedling emerging from ash after the earth’s been scorched by the firestorms of the Big Box retail wars and The Great Recession. Is ascribing such significance onto a 2,500-square-foot operation too much for it to bear? We shall see.
As for the speed with which the whole operation was up and running, it’s undeniable money can move mountains, but Hayes was also generously aided by Rebecca Fitting, co-owner of New York’s Greenlight Bookstore, who spared Hayes months of research and legwork by supplying her with business plans and templates, data for various sections as well as startup figures that made Parnassus’s arrival seem Abracadabra-fast. That’s a good thing, because the store opened in time for the holiday season, had its stock happily decimated by grateful patrons opening weekend, and immediately signed on over 150 people to its Founder Rewards program. Its web site and e-book hub isn’t quite up and running yet, though soon e-readers will be able to buy digital texts through Google via www.parnassus.net. And there are corporate and school partnerships as yet to be formed and direct mailings to customers via Ingram and other as yet unanticipated revenue streams to tap, but no matter. Hayes and Patchett are thrilled: Parnassus has already far exceeded initial sales projections. More satisfyingly, the city’s goodwill has floored both.
The store itself is lovely—a long, rectangular space, high-ceilinged, with exposed support beams and ventilation ducts painted robin’s-egg blue. Small spotlights illuminate the shelves, which are still being restocked since the opening by none other than Karen Davis, Davis-Kidd’s founder, who’s been consulting for the store and appears relieved and happy to be back in retail. The blond hardwoods give the space a mellow, modern feel. As you enter on the left, there’s a bulletin board with an adjacent blackboard detailing events (blank right now since nothing’s scheduled in the near term). There’s a case for staff picks, another for bestsellers and recent National Book Award winners. The fiction shelves run most of the wall’s length and are beautifully curated, reveal only pros at work here, because the experience of browsing them is to be reminded not only of all you have yet to read but never knew you wanted to. There’s a gorgeous upright piano in the far corner which sounds knockout thanks to the joint’s acoustics; above it, a series of Jack Spencer photographs populated with rust-toned, haunted structures and dreamscape figures, all of them on consignment from Cumberland Gallery, one of the Parnassus’s local partnerships, though these sidelines are decorative and, thankfully, minimal—enhancements only. The music/coffee table section at the back is arrayed jacket first (Def Jam Recordings, Elliott Erwitt’s Sequentially Yours, Texas Trobadours) and is arrayed like a set of album covers; it’s curated by Matt Slocum, a part-time employee more famous as a member of the band Sixpence None the Richer. It shares a wall with Parnassus Junior, the children’s section behind it, the area lit by star-shaped fixtures with a child-size entrance framed by a pediment and columns. (For Nashville’s children, all Greek temples are versions of the Parthenon.) New leather chairs just came in and almost all are taken by patrons throughout. At the register, a bookseller is recommending The Family Fang by Sewanee professor Kevin Wilson, the book a double cause célèbre, since Nicole Kidman just optioned the film rights. The quiet, in other words, is interrupted by people talking about books, which is no interruption at all.
And so the annus mirabilis for a major American city’s literary community comes to close with a silver lining, a new beginning—pick your corny, uplifting conclusion to this chapter, though the story is far from ended. Let the triumphal music swell, for now. Hear our city’s sigh of relief. In the meantime, we’ll keep one eye on the “free” market (though recent news of the Fed’s multi-trillion dollar injection to the banks in 2008 gives the lie to that adjective) and the other on the future. And for those reading this in other cities, remember, what happened in Nashville can happen where you live. If you care about books and bookstores, protect them with your wallet or pocketbook and thereby thumb your nose at the discount-only naysayers and end-of-print soothsayers. They are the problem, not the solution, their data is anecdote, and their goal is to sell you not what you need but what they want to you to buy. We Nashvillians lived in a city of free content and point-and-click convenience for a year and it wasn’t pretty. You—we all—have a choice in these matters, but it comes with a cost.
Adam Ross lives in Nashville with his wife and two daughters. His debut novel, Mr. Peanut, a 2010 New York Times Notable Book, was also named one of the best books of the year by The New Yorker, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New Republic, and The Economist. Ladies and Gentlemen, his short story collection, was included in Kirkus Reviews Best Books of 2011.