Novelist Ann Patchett Opens Parnassus Bookstore Because She Had To

Aug 7, 2012

Nashville has always had a thriving arts and literature history. But last year two major bookstore chains unexpectedly closed, leaving "The Athens of the South" without one. Best-selling, award winning novelist Ann Patchett stepped in along with partner Karen Hayes to do something about it.

The result? The Parnassus bookstore was born out of necessity.

On a recent visit to the store, WKU Public Radio's Joe Corcoran found out the effort's about a lot more than just books.

Ann Patchett's written a half-dozen novels in her nearly quarter century career including "Bel Canto" and "A State of Wonder" as well as works of non-fiction and essays. But that wasn't what landed her on this year's Time magazine list of the 100 Most Influential People. At a time when many would be looking to take it a little easy, she's just begun a new career mixing art and commerce.

She says she was as surprised as anyone about being included on the list, "I've been a novelist all these years," she laughs, "now I'm a famous retailer."

Along with co-founder Karen Hayes, Patchett opened Parnassus Bookstore last November, just before Thanksgiving, not because she wanted to, to hear her tell it, but because she had to. Two big box chains, Joseph-Kidd and Border's, had just closed even though they were profitable, both corporate decisions. Barnes and Noble was still around but that was a half hour out of town. Nashville itself, the "Athens of the South", was left without a bookstore.

"It was really not my dream to open a bookstore," Patchett says, "I really sat around and hoped someone else would do it but nobody did."

Patchett thought if two 30,000 square foot stores could make money, they probably could too. And now their 2,500 square foot store is doing just that...and more.

Patchett's co-founder Karen Hayes is the hands-on presence in the store. After 20 years as a publisher's rep selling books to the big box stores, she was wondering what she was going to do next. She didn't know it, but both she and Patchett were hatching the same idea at the same time.

"I'm basically living here right now," she says. "I feel like it's a baby and you have to spend that much time with a baby the first year. I think the model for the future is back to the neighborhood bookstore that we used to have that fits the community."

Those are words you hear a lot when people talk about the Parnassus Bookstore: independent, neighborhood and community. Ann Patchett says she thinks people woke up in their communities and realized they missed being able to go to a bookstore for events, meeting authors, story hour and a place to bring their kids orĀ  a place just to hang out.

"The bookstore I wanted to replicate was the one I went to as a child here in Nashville," she says. "It was probably half this size or less and they sold only books and it was full of smart people who worked there. They remembered you and they remembered what you liked to read and they wewre always ready to recommend a book. That's our strength."

The store's Events and Marketing Manager Niki Castle says she's been busy since being hired and that it's exciting to watch Nashville become a literary destination for authors.