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A bricks-and-mortar bookstore in an online world

Tess Vigeland Nov 20, 2011
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Tess Vigeland: One of the few upsides of a down economy is that recessions tend to be incubators for new businesses. People lose their jobs and decide to become entrepreneurs. Well, Ann Patchett, the acclaimed author of “Bel Canto,” didn’t lose her job. But she did decide to open her own business this year. She looked around Nashville, where she lives, and realized that its bookstore business had become nearly obsolete. So last week she opened Parnassus Books. We spoke with her about it a few months ago when she was in L.A. to promote her latest novel, “State of Wonder.” She said she couldn’t live in a city without a special place to buy books.

Ann Patchett: 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 being 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-square feet anymore. But I think 2,000-square feet, 4,000-square 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 ’em 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 making my book recommendations 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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