Shelf Life

Why it’s important for communities to have bookstores

Tess Vigeland Jun 27, 2011
Shelf Life

Why it’s important for communities to have bookstores

Tess Vigeland Jun 27, 2011

Tess Vigeland: Back when Barnes & Noble and Borders began their takeover of the bookstore market, the biggest worry was about what would happen to the local corner bookseller. Many of them closed. Today, the bigger question is the survival of the brick-and-mortar bookstore. Borders went bankrupt. Barnes & Noble is up for sale.

In at least one community — Nashville, Tenn. — there are no longer any bookstores. So resident Ann Patchett is stepping into the breach. She’s the bestselling author of Bel Canto, now on tour promoting her new novel, State of Wonder. And she’s here to tell us about her other project. Welcome.

Ann Patchett: Hi.

Vigeland: It’s hard to imagine a major city like Nashville with no bookstores.

Patchett: We have some great used bookstores, but frankly, as a writer with a new book out, that just doesn’t do me a whole lot of good.

Vigeland: And so the idea that sprang out of this is to start your own.

Patchett: Yes, and I had that idea after Davis-Kidd closed. I have to get in there and start a bookstore. I looked into it. I realized I had no idea what I was doing. A friend of mine said you’re like a really good cook who thinks she should open a restaurant because she knows how to cook, and it’s not the same thing.

Vigeland: A little more to it than that.

Patchett: Yes. And then I met a terrific woman named Karen Hayes who was a sales rep for Random House and she was opening a bookstore and so what I’ve done is partnered with her. And I’ve thrown myself into this, in this project, and I’m really excited about it. It’s going to work.

Vigeland: What are you finding most surprising about that entrepreneurial effort?

Patchett: I think that what’s amazing to me is that we go and look at these properties that have no walls and there is a toilet sitting sideways in the middle of the floor and no ceiling. And Karen looks around and says, “You know, I think this place has great potential.” I’m like, let’s just leave now before a rat bites us. I have no vision. I want everything to be clean and perfect and neat. I sort of expect to go into a building and see the shelves already there.

Vigeland: But for a living, you make up things in your head. You bring things up out of whole cloth. So this should come naturally to you.

Patchett: You’re right! I should be able to do this. There is a real discrepancy between the person who makes the product that’s sold in the store, and the person who makes the store that sells the product. But I keep thinking if I was a watchmaker and all the jewelry stores went out of business, I’d have to open a jewelry store. Right?

Vigeland: Right. Why do you think it’s important for a community like Nashville — and any community — to have its own bookstore?

Patchett: I think that it really is an important part of the fabric of the community. For one thing, we have to raise up readers. So you’ve got to have a store where you can take your children and let them play, and look at books, and go sneak off and look at a couple of books yourself. I think it’s a community center. People come together for book groups and for public readings. I don’t think that it’s something that needs to be 30,000 sq. feet anymore. But I think 2,000 sq. feet, 4,000 sq. feet — that’s something that the community can sustain and really needs. The outpouring of love and joy that we have had since we announced that we are going to do this bookstore has been overwhelming.

Vigeland: Presumably the departures of the previous bookstores owed a lot to technology. And I have to say, I’m newly a convert to reading all my books on my iPad. I download them from Amazon. Oh, I know. She’s making a gun pointed at me. Yeah, I’m not your best friend, I suppose, any more?

Patchett: I’m with you until say, “I download all my books from Amazon.” Because I do think that there are other e-reader options, where you’re going to be able to go in and buy your electronic book in your local, independent bookstore. Number one — the thing that’s most important to me — is that people read. And how people choose to read, I am glad that there are more and more options. There are a lot of people I know — my husband being the top on the list — who read so much more now that they have e-readers.

Vigeland: I find, same thing.

Patchett: Absolutely. I think that’s great. But I think that there is still a place for a bricks-and-mortar bookstore selling books with paper. Not everybody is going to want to read in the same way. And the thing that a bookstore is going to offer that your e-reader is never going to give you is you’re going to be able to say, I just read this book, I loved it so much, and recommend something like that. And I’m going to be there to do it, or Karen’s going to be there to say, what you need to read this and put a book in your hands.

Vigeland: Well if I had Ann Patchett recommending my books for me in person, I would be there.

Patchett: Exactly. That’s really what we’re banking on.

Ryssdal: Ann Patchett, her new book is called State of Wonder. Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

Patchett: Thank you.

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