Any doomsayers lamenting the demise of the printed word are not keeping up with Nashville resident Ann Patchett.
The hugely successful author just penned her seventh novel, Commonwealth, which spans fifty years and sprawls from California to Virginia, telling the story of a blended family marked by tragedy. Like her other acclaimed books—The Patron Saint of Liars, The Magician’s Assistant, Bel Canto, State of Wonder—it is big, chewy, and thought-provoking.
“I think I always write the same novel,” says Patchett, who has received England’s Orange Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award. “A group of strangers are thrown together by chance and form a society. This one is just set a little closer to home than the rest.”
While Commonwealth is available to download, Patchett remains blessedly old-school in her attachment to bound paper. Mention the word Kindle to her, and she bristles. “I don’t use those,” she says.
Patchett does, after all, own Parnassus Books, a Nashville-based bookstore that’s one of the country’s most successful. Open since 2011, it’s a bookworm’s utopia, and Patchett is more than just its public face. As her business partner Karen Hayes says, “She really pitches in to help out during our busy times.”
Patchett’s retail specialty? Giftwrapping.
“That’s no joke,” Patchett says. “I love to wrap. I had no idea how much fun running the store would be. I deeply love the people who work here. We’re like a sitcom.”
Their hard work and humor are paying off. Parnassus, located in an unassuming strip mall on Hillsboro Pike opposite the Mall at Green Hills, recently announced plans to double its size by taking over a 2,500-square-foot space next door. It also bought a van to serve as a bookmobile, venturing out to parks, farmers markets, and other public plazas. “No one goes into bookselling to get rich,” Patchett says, “but we are not losing money. We are doing just fine.”
Patchett has become a de facto spokeswoman for indie booksellers everywhere, pitching their virtues on NPR, Oprah, and the finale of The Colbert Report. In 2012, Time magazine named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. “I’m going on the assumption that the printed word is not going anywhere,” says Patchett, who launched Parnassus after her hometown’s other bookstores closed. “It’s a place where people come and sit and read. I don’t want to live in a city without a bookstore.”
Which is why she opened Parnassus in the first place—she certainly wasn’t going to move. Patchett was born in California, but her family relocated to the country music capital when she was a child. “I love Nashville because I know where everything is,” she says. “I know the plants. I know the people. I’m very comfortable here. My sense of place doesn’t inform my work insofar as I’m not writing about Nashville, but Nashville is home. It’s where I get things done, so I’m sure it informs me in a million small ways.”
She may be a resolute “homebody,” but Patchett tries to avoid regional labels in her writing. “I don’t really consider myself a Southerner, though I guess I am,” she says. “I don’t think about it. I believe Philip Roth in Sacramento would still be Philip Roth and Ann Patchett in Maine would still be Ann Patchett. We pick up details from our environment, but the place doesn’t make you a writer or a greater writer or a lesser writer.”
A place does, however, determine the kind of bookstore that thrives there, and fans say Parnassus—with its open-for-playing piano, five resident dogs, and sizable selection of music-oriented books—is quintessentially Nashville. Frequent shopper Robin Littlefield agrees. “I love Parnassus in the same way I love record stores that doggedly refuse to concede that the efficiency of Amazonian digital is better,” he says. “I want to touch the leaves of the book and meet the local author who wrote it in the same way that I want to run a needle through an LP. It’s edifying to buy a real book from people who love it as much as you do.”
Parnassus takes this community engagement seriously. “We have endless author events,” Patchett says. “We have storytime for kids and jazz workshops and book clubs. Nashville has always been very supportive of all things independent.”
And, too, she adds, “We just love it when Brenda Lee comes in to browse. Who else can say that?”
Where would Ann Patchett take a first-time visitor to Nashville? To Centennial Park, where they’d discover a forty-two-foot-tall statue of Athena, blindingly gilded with more than eight pounds of gold leaf. “You just have to see it for yourself,” she says. The statue is located inside a full-scale replica of the Parthenon (Nashville is known as the “Athens of the South”). Besides Athena, this Parthenon houses an art gallery featuring nineteenth- and twentieth-century American paintings and an exhibition on the grand turn-of-the-century fair for which the structure was built: the 1897 Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition.