Last Wednesday, novelist Ann Patchett appeared on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show to discuss her new novel, State of Wonder. It was in many ways a routine discussion about a much-anticipated book by the bestselling author of Bel Canto and Truth & Beauty, but nearly an hour into the conversation, Patchett casually dropped a bombshell: She and a business partner, former Random House sales rep Karen Hayes, were about to open a new independent bookstore in Nashville, a city that has been without one for the past six months. “We have used bookstores, but the closest Barnes & Noble is 20 miles outside of town,” Patchett told Rehm. “I don’t know if I’m opening an ice shop in the age of Frigidaire, but I can’t live in a city that doesn’t have a bookstore.”
By Thursday, news sites and literary blogs and Facebook pages and Twitter feeds were buzzing, and Nashvillians — those, at least, who could actually bring themselves to believe the news — were giddy: short-story writer Lydia Peelle called Patchett a “literary superhero.” Novelist Adam Ross observed that Patchett and Hayes “have rescued the Nashville literary community from the edge of despair.” “Sounds to me like Nashville’s about to get its soul back,” noted nonfiction author David Dark. (See Chapter16.org for more reactions from Nashville authors.)
On Friday Chapter 16 caught up with Hayes and Patchett separately — Hayes was finishing her last day as a sales rep for Random House, and Patchett was in a car leaving a Boston bookstore, where she had given a reading — and talked with them by phone about their plans for their new shop, Parnassus Books, and about the story behind the store. (To avoid repetition, the interviews have been spliced together, but no words have been changed in the process.)
Chapter 16: Ann, you’ve made it clear in other interviews that your desire to start a bookstore was really more a desire to have a bookstore nearby than a desire to run one. So this is more of a financial investment for you? You’re not planning to give up your day job?
Patchett: To me, it’s like the gift I want to give my city, the city that I love. I love Nashville, and I know that people want an independent bookstore. In terms of giving money to something that I believe in, I believe in having a bookstore.
But it is [also] really weird to have a book and not have a place to sell it in your hometown. Months ago, the Beveled Edge, the frame store, called me and said, “Do you want us to carry your book?” And I said, “God, I would appreciate it so much!” Because I’d like to be able to say to my friends, “Go to the Beveled Edge; you can buy my book.” I’ve been shopping there since I was in high school, and they were just offering a good customer a place for her book.
Chapter 16: Have you thought at all about what your day-to-day role might be once the store is open?
Patchett: My joke is that I’ll giftwrap. I’m really good at it. And, actually, I sort of mean that. I can definitely see myself being in there when things are busy, when somebody’s sick. But will I have a regular shift? No. I don’t want to do anything to get in Karen’s way. I don’t see myself coming down and saying, “Oh, I want this architect and not that architect,” or “I think the cash register should be there.” I really do see my job as supporting her vision — which is an excellent, excellent vision.
Chapter 16: Karen, rumors are swirling in town that the store will be in the space the old Belle Meade Cafeteria occupied. True?
Hayes: That’s one of the spaces that we’re looking at, [but] we’re looking at a whole range of possibilities — from about 2,000 square feet to about 5,600. We did look at the Belle Meade Cafeteria, and there are plusses and minuses to that space. I love the location, and I love the idea of reinventing a space that has meant so much to so many people, but it’s a big space — 5,600 square feet — and it needs a lot
of work, so the startup costs for would be huge. It’s still under consideration, but it’s not at all set in stone.
Chapter 16: After 18 years as a Random House rep, Karen, you’ve seen a lot of different kinds of bookstores. Do you have a sense yet of the kind of store you’re hoping to build?
Hayes: I’ve called on independent bookstores across a huge area — from Cleveland to Kansas City to Austin to the East Coast — and they’re just amazing stores. They’re all different, but they all really fit their communities, and that’s why they’ve lasted. So I’ve seen a lot of different ways this can work and, I hope, learned a ton that will allow me to be able to do this.
Patchett: That’s one thing that we both have: We are two women who have been in, between us, probably just about every independent bookstore in the country. We really have a very well-developed sense, I think, of what works and what’s good.
Chapter 16: When you picture this store in your mind, what do you imagine?
Hayes: Well, it will be dictated in part by the space, but I know I want it to have a great look, so that it really showcases the books. And I want it to be a place for families as well as for lovers of literature; children’s books are so vital for a bookstore because that’s one way to reach out to the community and to be part of the community. I want space for people to be able to sit down — I do want chairs and benches, so that people feel comfortable. I’m hoping there can be an opportunity for a cafe, too, because that does help with making people feel comfortable.
Chapter 16: Apart from literary fiction and children’s books, what kinds of books do you foresee stocking?
Hayes: It’s going to be a general bookstore. There’s certainly going to be commercial fiction, too. We’ll have cookbooks; we’ll have some spirituality and religion; we’ll have great nonfiction, history—and I’m hoping that because we’re in Music City I can highlight that in the store. A lot of our great musicians are writers themselves, and I want cater as much to the music community as I can—maybe develop some partnerships, team with maybe the Bluebird or Grimey’s. It’s all pie in the sky right now because I haven’t had time to talk to anybody or explore those possibilities, but I love Grimey’s, and I consider them an incredible model for how you can survive in the world as an independent.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage, including an excerpt from Ann Patchett's just-released novel State of Wonder and a Q&A with Patchett about the book — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.