How a thriving indie bookseller is taking on Amazon’s bricks-and-mortar insurgence
She didn’t intend to be flippant. But when asked how her independent bookstore will fare with an Amazon store moving in across the street, author Ann Patchett replies:
“They don’t have a deaf border collie who jumps through hoops.”
Sure enough, Patchett’s store, Parnassus Books in Nashville, has a border collie named Marlee, among a handful of shop dogs, that greets customers. It also has a bookmobile, a satellite shop at the airport, events such as a Where’s Waldo scavenger hunt and the author appearances that keep independent bookstores going in the digital age.
But none of that is really the key to her store’s success, Patchett says. Her best weapon: Geography. Being near an airport with many nonstop flights from cities a couple of hours away so authors can easily stop on a swing through the region — that’s key.
“The things that constitute success often are the things you don’t think about,” Patchett says. “It’s getting authors to come to the store. That’s where the profits are. You’re going to get a lot of people to come. They’re going to buy a lot of books.”
She spoke to The Times in the middle of a book tour for her eighth novel, “The Dutch House,” which is on the Los Angeles Times and New York Times bestseller lists. She ends her tour with a Southern California stop, in Pasadena on Nov. 5 in an appearance sponsored by Vroman’s Bookstore.
Patchett was born in Los Angeles but grew up in Nashville. Starting the bookstore with partner Karen Hayes in 2011 was a gift to her city and a tribute to the memories of bookstores she loved growing up.
As much as she’s a bestselling author of such novels as “Bel Canto” and “State of Wonder,” Patchett is an advocate for the future of independent booksellers.
“I’m sure from the outside it looks like indie bookstores are scrambling to stay relevant. But that’s not what it is,” she says.
Things are good in the indie bookseller world, she says. Such stores have always been in touch with their communities, and the events now considered vital for survival come naturally. “We tend to be creative people.”
Patchett notes that a recent store appearance by artist James Dean, illustrator of the “Pete the Cat” children’s books, featured a store employee dressed up in a giant Pete the Cat costume. Likewise for the Where’s Waldo scavenger hunt, necessitating a discussion about which store employee looks the most like the bespectacled character.
Sales at all types of bookstores in the U.S. were down 10.3% in August compared with August 2018, according to preliminary figures from the Census Bureau. But as of Oct. 10, year-to-date sales among members of the American Booksellers Assn., which represents independent bookstores, were down just 0.26% from the same period a year earlier.
Over the last five years, ABA member stores enjoyed a 7.5% compound annual growth rate.
“I believe we’re still here because we’re a fierce bunch: leaders, thinkers, activists, organizers, collaborators, and builders,” Jamie Fiocco, ABA president, wrote in a July letter to members. “We do not give up easily, and a challenge is often an opportunity for positive change.”
If Patchett had it to do over, would she still open a bookstore? “In a heartbeat,” she says. “The bookstore for me has absolutely no downsides. It’s an absolute positive in my life. I love recommending books. I get to see all my friends who are authors because they come to Nashville for reading. My joy is this project.”
Parnassus Books has been profitable every year it’s been open, Patchett says. Employees receive health insurance and 401(k)s, and profits are invested back in the business. “By the standards of our expectations and goals, it’s going well,” she says.
Just as important, the store has become a gathering place for the community.
“In Nashville, millennials are going to bookstores,” she says. Some high school students have been coming to the store since they were kids. “They have a level of loyalty and devotion to the store.”
Then along comes Amazon. The Seattle-based online retailer has confirmed it plans to open a bricks-and-mortar store in the shopping center across from Parnassus Books in a sort of next-gen version “You’ve Got Mail.” The 1998 film featured Meg Ryan as an indie book shop owner threatened by a chain bookstore overseen by Tom Hanks.
“I don’t love it,” Patchett says. “I wish it wasn’t happening.”
But those who just want to buy a book at the lowest price can already stay home and do just that on Amazon’s website, she points out. She predicts Amazon’s mall store will prioritize peddling its Alexa-enabled devices, Kindle e-reader and Prime memberships.
She’ll continue to offer a quiet, comfortable space where visitors can pick up a book, cuddle with a dog and read, whether they buy something or not. And she’ll do what she does best, arranging author appearances — many courtesy of her contacts in the literary world — and conducting in-store interviews. She also writes for the store’s online magazine, which carries such stories as the arrival of a Fender “Splattercaster” guitar to hang over the store’s music section (it being Nashville and all).
From going on so many book tours, she’s learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.
“I’m so used to working events, cutting open the box,” she says, “I forget what side of table I’m supposed to be on.”
She tacked the Pasadena stop on to her book tour largely because she’s in town for a Library Foundation of Los Angeles charity event organized by fellow author and friend Judith Krantz before her death in June. Patchett also has extended family in the area.
“I love Los Angeles,” she says twice, noting the irony of her strong relationship to a city she hasn’t lived in since she was 5. Several of her books — “The Magician’s Assistant,” “This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage,” “Commonwealth” — have parts set here.
She ticks off her favorite California bookstores: Book Passage in Corte Madera, Copperfield’s in the North Bay Area, Kepler’s in Menlo Park, Diesel in Brentwood, Book Soup in West Hollywood, Warwick’s in La Jolla, Vroman’s and the out-of-business Dutton’s in North Hollywood.
That last one elicited the lament of a book lover with one fewer store in which to tarry: “I miss that.”
A book detour
Patchett’s latest novel emerged after she threw out the first draft after two years of writing.
“I made a mistake with the book,” she says. “It’s like driving someplace and you get on the wrong freeway, suddenly you’re in the San Fernando Valley and you wanted to get to Santa Barbara” — an analogy true to her L.A. roots.
“If this had happened to me at 25 or 30, I would have cried for two weeks,” she says. But at 55, she just got back on the right road.
“Because of the detour, it ended up being a better book.”
The novel follows a brother and sister over five decades through losses that harden and temper their bond. It’s being called a fairy tale by many reviewers. Patchett said that label has followed her since a New York Times reviewer used it in a critique of her first book.
“It’s not like a fairy tale,” she says. While she takes the comment kindly, “It’s a kind of laziness among book reviewers.”
She’s thrilled that actor Tom Hanks recorded the audiobook for “The Dutch House.”
“The idea that I wrote a book … and then you get Tom Hanks interpreting it with his intelligence,” she says, “it grows exponentially.”
Info: Book talk by Ann Patchett, sponsored by Vroman’s Bookstore, 7-8:30 p.m. Nov. 5, All Saints Church, 132 N. Euclid Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $30, includes book.
Fawthrop is a multiplatform editor at The Times and a former book reviewer for the Seattle Times.
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