Interview with a Bookstore: Parnassus Books
"I opened a bookstore because I didn’t want to live in a city without one."
In the fall of 2011, author Ann Patchett and publishing veteran Karen Hayes opened Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee. “It was never my dream to open a bookstore,” said Ann. “When our bookstores closed, I waited a respectable period of time, certain that someone more qualified or interested would show some initiative, but it didn’t happen. I opened a bookstore because I didn’t want to live in a city without one.” We interviewed Karen Hayes and booksellers about what makes Parnassus special.
What’s your favorite section in the store?
Karen Hayes: Oh, that’s hard to pick. I think the art section. Well, or the music section. I don’t know! I like the whole store. Maybe the front table, actually, because it’s always fresh. There’s always new stuff coming in.
If you had infinite space what would you add?
KH: More event space. It would be fun to have drinks in the store. And I would love to do a bookmobile someday, so we could pop up in different neighborhoods.
What do you do better than any other bookstore?
KH: I know we love what we do. And I know we might be a little unusual: not only do we have lovely human booksellers, but we have canines on staff! Our shop dogs are very cute, and everyone loves being able to bring their dogs to work, but more than that, I think they add to our friendly atmosphere. Kids love them, adults love them. We have people come in and the first thing they ask is, “Where are the dogs?” If it’s a day where the dogs don’t happen to be here, sometimes customers are disappointed. Books and puppies, you can’t go wrong. We even gave them their own blog–“Shop Dog Diaries”–on our store lit journal MUSING.
Who’s your weirdest regular?
KH: Our weirdest regulars are toddlers. They get really excited about the books they like and really vocal about the things they don’t like. Sometimes they have so much fun at the train table that they don’t want to leave and we have to help the parents lure them to the door with stickers. The kids’ section is really close to our back office, too, and toddlers have no fear about walking right on back to the office to say hello or look for a dog.
What’s the craziest situation you’ve ever had to deal with in the store?
KH: Definitely our grand opening. We had close to 3,000 people come through the doors that day. Our store is still small, but back then it was even smaller, about 2,500 square feet. We opened with a puppet show; we had a YA signing in the afternoon by multiple authors; and in the evening, we threw a cocktail party with 30 or 40 local authors. There was so much excitement and SO many people. At one point, we looked around and thought, “Has the whole city come through this little store today?’
What’s your earliest/best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Ann Patchett: The bookstore of my youth was Mills. Mills could not have been more than 700 square feet, and the people who worked there remembered who you were and what you read, even if you were 10. If I wanted to re-create that kind of bookstore, one that valued books and readers above muffins and adorable plastic watering cans, a store that recognized it could not possibly stock every single book that every single person might be looking for, and so stocked the books the staff had read and liked and could recommend—if I wanted to re-create the bookish happiness of my childhood, then maybe I was the person for the job. Or maybe not. I wanted to go into retail about as much as I wanted to go into the Army.
If you weren’t running a bookstore what would you be doing?
I’d still be selling books in one way or another, maybe working for a publisher. I’ve always been in the book and publishing world.
What’s been the biggest surprise about running a bookstore?
The people. This really is a family—my bookselling family. And I’m always amazed at how far people are willing to travel to come to the bookstore.
SLIDESHOW: Parnassus Books Staff Recommendations