Author steps up in city lacking bookstores

Julie Bosman / New York Times News Service /

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — This city once known as the Athens of the South, rich in cultural tradition and home to Vanderbilt University, has become nearly barren of bookstores.

A beloved local bookstore closed here last December. Then Borders went bankrupt, claiming another store and deepening a collective panic among Nashville’s reading faithful.

“It was a civic tragedy,” said Adam Ross, a Nashville writer. “The Nashville literary community went into a sort of Code Red situation.”

They have found a savior in Ann Patchett, the best-selling novelist who grew up in Nashville.

She will open Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore, today.

“I have no interest in retail; I have no interest in opening a bookstore,” Patchett said, serenely sipping tea during a recent interview at her spacious pink brick house here. “But I also have no interest in living in a city without a bookstore.”

Patchett, the author of “Bel Canto” and “Truth and Beauty,” is well aware that brick-and-mortar bookstores are closing regularly under pressure from online sales and e-books. The American Booksellers Association, a trade group, currently has about 1,900 independent bookstores as members, down from about 2,400 in 2002.

But she is aspiring to join a small band of bookstore owners who have found patches of old-fashioned success in recent years, competing where Amazon cannot: by being small and sleek, with personal service, intimate author events and a carefully chosen rotation of books.

After news of the bookstore closing broke, Nashville cultural leaders convened meetings in the public library to discuss who could step in and open a new bookstore. One idea, to start a co-op requiring small investments of $1,000, never got off the ground.

“People were greeting each other in grocery stores, at holiday parties, wringing our hands,” said Beth Alexander, the president of the board at the Nashville Public Library Foundation, the private fundraising arm of the library. “We’re home to two dozen universities. We need to have a bookstore other than a campus bookstore, and people were looking at each other and saying, ‘We’re very concerned about this.’ ”

Patchett, meanwhile, hatched a plan of her own. She had money, connections and countless time spent on book tours. Soon she began posing the question to friends: What if she started a bookstore?

In April, she met with Karen Hayes, a publishing veteran who had worked at the Ingram Book Co., a major book wholesaler, and at Random House, where she was a sales representative.

They decided to become business partners and co-owners. Patchett, who has a comfortable income (her last book, “State of Wonder,” reached No. 3 on the New York Times hardcover fiction best-seller list), promised $300,000 as an initial investment. They decided to name the store Parnassus after the sacred site in Greece that is associated with poetry, song and knowledge.

Then she left on a 15-city book tour in June, and promptly began doing research. “I would walk into these stores,” she said, “and the first thing I would say is: ‘How many square feet do you have? How many employees do you have? What are your hours?’ ”

Daniel Goldin, the owner of the Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee, lavished her with advice over dinner at Beans and Barley, a health-food cafe on the city’s east side. Put the children’s section as far away from the front door as possible. Hang signs from the ceiling, and customers will buy whatever is advertised on them. And make your store comforting and inclusive, smart but not snobby.

“The world has changed so much — it’s sort of everybody against Amazon,” Goldin said last week. “The customer relationship is way more important than it used to be.”

Parnassus, like hundreds of other independents across the country, will also sell e-books through Google, to lure the many customers who have shifted to Nooks, Kindles and iPads.