Parnassus Books in Nashville is thriving in an age of e-books when ordering and reading is a click away and browsing takes on a new digital meaning.
NASHVILLE — When novelist Ann Patchett opened a bookstore here in her hometown a year ago, she wondered if she was "opening an ice shop in the age of Frigidaire."
One year later, Parnassus Books is thriving in an age of e-books when ordering and reading is a click away and browsing takes on a new digital meaning.
As the store celebrates its first anniversary this month, Patchett says, "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."
Parnassus doesn't sell ice. It does sell books, $2 million worth in the past year. Most were the old-fashioned kind, paper and ink.
Ask Patchett, 48, if she's bucking a trend, and she defiantly says, "We are the trend."
Until early last year, she had been busy enough just writing novels. Six in all, including her 1992 debut, The Patron Saint of Liars, set at a home for unwed mothers, and Bel Canto starring an American opera singer held hostage by Latin American terrorists, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award in 2001.
Her latest, State of Wonder, about a research scientist sent to find her former mentor who has disappeared in the Amazon, landed at No. 12 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list last year and spent 28 weeks in the top 150.
But these days the best-selling novelist is a part-time bookseller.
Patchett, who credits her business partner, Karen Hayes, for doing much of the real work, spends a few hours at the store usually every other day. When she's there, she plays literary "matchmaker," as she puts it, introducing readers to books, one at a time, "better than any computerized algorithm."
On a recent afternoon, Patchett is doing just that for a lanky young man in a baseball cap.
The customer is R.A. Dickey, of the New York Mets, winner of the Cy Young Award as the National League's best pitcher, who lives in Nashville in the off-season.
Dickey is there to browse and to autograph copies of his own book, Wherever I Wind Up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball, written with Wayne Coffey.
Patchett asks what kind of books Dickey likes.
He mentions "coming-of-age stories about boys, with happy endings."
Patchett hands him a copy of Tobias Wolff's 1989 memoir, This Boy's Life, which Dickey buys.
"I know he'll like it," she says later. "I don't look at someone and think, 'I'm going to make a sale.' I look at them and think, 'I know a book you're going to love.' "
And Dickey says, "I'm a big fan of places like this. I appreciate the local knowledge and customer service."
What Patchett and Hayes have created out of a former tanning salon in a shopping center four miles south of downtown may seem retro. It's an airy 3,150-square-foot store with 22,000 books and one piano (donated by a local musician, it's used for monthly concerts).
An average Barnes & Noble "superstore" has 26,000 square feet for 125,000 titles, a prominent display of its Nook e-readers, but no pianos. And both Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com offer millions of books online — often at discounted prices that Parnassus doesn't offer.
Patchett and Hayes say size matters — the lack of it. They say their store is big enough to offer a variety of titles, but not so large that "we lose a sense of intimacy, a human scale," Hayes says.
As part of the American Booksellers Association's digital partnership with Kobo, the store offers e-books, but they account for less than 1% of sales. Nor does the store, unlike some independents, sell Kobo's e-readers. Hayes says, "We're focusing on what we know best: books."
She acknowledges that in terms of price and convenience, the store can't match its main competition, Amazon, the online retailer. In the past decade, Amazon's share of the book market, both print and e-books, jumped from 8% to 31%, says Albert Greco, a Fordham University professor who studies the book industry.
At the same time, the number of physical stores selling books, including Walmarts and grocery stores, plunged from 25,137 to 15,533. Borders, second only to Barnes & Noble, went out of business, closing more than 600 stores, including two in Nashville. Greco says the number of general bookstores — chains and indies — dropped from 6,200 to 2,600 since 2002.
But Oren Teicher, head of the American Booksellers Association, says that in the past three years, more indies have opened than closed. Thanks in part to a growing "buy local" movement, he says, stores like Patchett's are part of a "modestly upward trend."
She's not the first writer to own a bookstore, but because of her timing and literary stature — last month she hosted a conversation with J.K. Rowling at New York's Lincoln Center — Patchett has drawn national attention to a small bookstore.
When she appeared on The Colbert Report in February, Stephen Colbert compared her to the idealistic but struggling bookstore owner played by Meg Ryan in the 1998 movie, You've Got Mail.
"You're Meg Ryan," Colbert told Patchett. "And Jeff Bezos (Amazon's CEO) is Tom Hanks." (In the film, Hanks owns a chain that puts Ryan's store out of business.)
"That was the '90s," Patchett shot back. "We're in a new era."
When Colbert held up a copy of Patchett's novel, State of Wonder, saying it's available on Amazon, Patchett quickly added that autographed copies could be ordered from her store's website (parnassusbooks.net). The store ended up selling and shipping 500 copies.
The power of "hand selling" can be seen in the store's sales records. It has sold 352 copies of E.L. James' erotic best seller Fifty Shades of Grey. But the store's most popular title (995 copies sold) is a 1986 novel championed by Patchett: Jeannette Haien's The All of It, about an Irish priest's moral dilemma triggered by a deathbed confession. Patchett wrote the introduction to the 2011 reprint, displayed in the store's front window.
Patchett began thinking about opening the store only after Nashville's local bookstore chain, Davis-Kidd, closed in 2010. Hayes, a former sales representative for Random House, had similar dreams.
Introduced by mutual friends, they went into business in the spirit, Patchett says, of "If we build it, they will come." At first, prospective landlords balked, figuring a bookstore wouldn't last six months.
They located it across the street from the popular Green Hills shopping mall and filled it with bookshelves and fixtures bought at bargain prices in Borders' liquidation sale.
Hayes' retail expertise served as her sweat equity. Patchett invested $150,000, to be repaid over 10 years. They got another $30,000 in contributions from "community founders." Hayes says the store, which has sponsored 200 author events, is healthy, with an 18% profit margin.
For that to continue, it will have to rely on customers such as Ronnie Frieden, 29, an Apple store technician, who not only downloaded the e-version of Steve Jobs, the biography by Walter Isaacson, but also bought a copy of the print book — at full price — at Parnassus.
''I enjoyed reading it on my iPad," he says, "but I wanted a physical copy. I like to have it and to hold it." Paying more "is worth it," he says, "if it means keeping this store alive."
Patchett says bookselling doesn't interfere with writing. She recently completed an essay collection, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, to be released next November. She says it's about the things she feels "fully committed to, married to" — dogs, friendship, her husband, Karl, and, of course, books and bookstores.