So, the wi-fi has been down most of today at my house while we await an upgrade (I’m writing this from the Bird Man coffee shop in town). This meant that I had to read the stack of magazines sitting by my chair. If I hadn’t done that, I wonder if I would ever have read Ann Patchett’s wonderful Atlantic essay about how she and her business partner defied conventional wisdom and launched an independent bookstore, Parnassus Books, in Nashville. Patchett begins by talking about the feeling in Nashville, where she lives, when two big-box bookstores closed down:
Our city experienced a great collective gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, but to what extent was Nashville to blame? Both of the closed stores had been profitable. Despite the fact that our two bookstores were the size of small department stores and bore enormous rents, they had made their numbers every month. Nashvillians, I’d like the record to show, had been buying books.
The Nashville Public Library organized community forums for concerned citizens to come together and discuss how we might get a bookstore again. Our library, and I will bless it forever, immediately jumped up to fill the void, hosting readings of orphaned authors (myself included) whose tours had already been scheduled with stops in Nashville, and in every way trying to responsibly tackle the problems we faced as a city in need of a bookstore. Someone went so far as to suggest putting a little bookstore in the library, though selling books in the same building where books were free struck me as a bad plan. Surely, I thought,someone would open a bookstore.
My secret was that I did not much miss those mall-size Gargantuas. The store I really missed had been gone much longer. The bookstore of my youth was Mills. My sister and I used to walk there every day after school, stopping first to check out the puppies in the pet shop across the street, then going on to admire the glossy covers of the Kristin Lavransdatter series, which is what girls read after they finished Little House on the Prairie and its sequels back before the Twilight books were written. 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.
And here is where it gets really interesting. Patchett is an established author with a big following. Plus she knows something about marketing. She tapped into what she discerned was a story the media wanted to tell: independent bookstores are not destined to die! The key here is that she believed that she had the power to make this story come true:
My act was on the road, and with every performance, I tweaked the script, hammering out the details as I proclaimed them to strangers: All things happen in a cycle, I explained—the little bookstore had succeeded and grown into a bigger bookstore. Seeing the potential for profit, the superstore chains rose up and crushed the independents, then Amazon rose up and crushed the superstore chains. Now that we could order any book at any hour without having to leave the screen in front of us, we realized what we had lost: the community center, the human interaction, the recommendation of a smart reader rather than a computer algorithm telling us what other shoppers had purchased. I promised whoever was listening that from those very ashes, the small independent bookstore would rise again.
What about the e-books?, the journalists wanted to know. How can you survive the e-books?
And so I told them—I care that you read, not how you read. Most independent bookstores, and certainly Barnes & Noble, are capable of selling e-books through their Web sites, and those e-books can be downloaded onto any e-reader except Amazon’s Kindle, which works only for Amazon purchases. So you can support a bookstore in your community and still read a book on your iPad.
Say it enough times, and it will be true.
Build it, and they will come.
Read the whole thing. It’s a reminder that history is not fated.
I’ll tell you why this essay meant something to me this morning. Just yesterday I was driving around Baton Rouge with my 13-year-old son Matthew. We crossed College Drive, which made me think about Elliott’s, a small independent bookstore that closed ages ago, when the shopping center it was part of got bulldozed to make way for a Wal-mart. Elliott’s was the first bookstore I ever saw that wasn’t Waldenbooks at the mall. I was a sophomore in high school, and was introduced to Elliott’s by my English teacher, who took me and a classmate with her when she went to Baton Rouge one day to do errands. I was amazed that a place so wonderful could exist. It was small and intimate and not so much managed as curated by the people who owned it. I doubt very much at the time that I could have explained why Elliott’s was different from Waldenbooks, but boy, it sure was. The store at the mall sold books; Elliott’s was a clubhouse for readers.
When I studied at LSU, and stayed on in Baton Rouge for three years after graduation, I loved going to Elliott’s to hang out, to hold the books in my hand, to think about what I wanted to buy, and simply to be around other people like me. I bought the first edition of Douglas Coupland’s “Generation X” there in 1991, and a few months later, after Doug and I became friends and he came to Baton Rouge with a PBS camera crew to make a Gen X documentary, I took him to Elliott’s, where he signed copies of the book that would make him famous and give our generation its name. I used to love to buy a new book at Elliott’s and then walk over to nearby Coffee Call, a Baton Rouge coffee shop, and drink steaming cafe au lait and eat beignets and read.
I moved away in 1992, and one day, can’t remember when, I came home for the holidays, and Elliott’s was gone. I’m pretty sure this was long before Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million opened stores in town, so you can’t blame them for driving Elliott’s out of business. Truth to tell, I don’t know exactly why Elliott’s closed. These days when I’m in Baton Rouge and want to go to a bookstore, I swing by Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million. I am glad they are there. I don’t really care where people buy their books, as long as they buy books, and are reading. Every bookstore is an outpost of civilization, and should be celebrated and supported.
But these places aren’t Elliott’s, and never could be. I found myself wishing I could take my son, a library volunteer who is as crazy about books as I was at his age, to Elliott’s, and show him what a bookstore like Elliott’s is like — that is, what it’s like to buy your books from a clubhouse for readers, and to have a place like that to call your own, even when you don’t have money to buy books, and you just want to be in the presence of books, and in the company of people who love them.
Sounds like Ann Patchett and her team have created something like this in Nashville. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming book tour in April, 2013, ends in Nashville, I think. I have no idea if I’ll be appearing officially at Parnassus Books, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, or just what (I don’t arrange these things; my publisher does), but one way or another, I’m going to get over to Parnassus, if only to say, Thank you, ladies, and bless you.
UPDATE: It occurs to me that I read that Ann Patchett essay in a paper version of a magazine. I check in several times daily on The Atlantic’s website, but I don’t always see things there that are in the magazine. The Patchett essay is available on the site, but I’m not always going to see things like that, given my scanning habits. If you read an actual magazine from cover to cover, you’re going to run across things you might not otherwise see. Funny, but going to a bookstore, versus ordering online, is like that too. I’d say many books on my shelf at home are books I didn’t set out to buy, but ran across while browsing the stacks at a bookstore, fell in love with, and bought.