The best-selling author of "State of Wonder," ”Bel Canto" and other novels doesn’t tweet, and you won’t find her on Facebook. Her rarely powered-up flip phone is 8 years old. She has a television but doesn’t turn it on. And she’s never even Googled herself.
Now, she’s decided to retreat even further in time: She’s opening an independent bookstore at a time when many retailers are struggling, Borders is going out of business and e-books continue to flourish.
Talk about back to the future.
"I think the time is coming back for the independent bookstore," says Karen Hayes, who has worked for Random House Inc. and Ingram Book Co. and has now teamed with Patchett to sell books.
"You are seeing the chains are failing. And there are people who will always want the printed book — it’s just something special. There are times where even when it’s convenient to read on your e-reader, you want that printed word, you want that piece of art. You want it on your shelf. You want it in your hands. It just means something so special."
Patchett and Hayes are launching their business in Nashville, a town that doesn’t have a first-run bookstore, only shops for used books and remainders. Barnes & Noble recently announced a partnership with Vanderbilt University that will bring another store to Nashville to join Patchett’s, which she hopes to open before Christmas.
"I see this as a gift to the city," Patchett says. "I see this as a charitable contribution … not as an investment, not as a smart business move, but really as somebody who loves Nashville and somebody who doesn’t want to live in a city without a bookstore."
Nashville’s bookstore history is complicated and ever-changing and mirrors the rest of America: The independents were gobbled up by superstores such as Borders and box stores, and then Amazon gobbled up the big ones. And now readers are slowly — but increasingly — turning to e-books.
Music City was so bookstore-challenged that when "State of Wonder" came out, friends who owned framing and alteration shops offered to put Patchett’s book on the counter.
So Patchett decided to sell books, working with Hayes, who focused on independent bookstores for much of her career. They want to open a shop that will connect with true book lovers.
The 47-year-old Patchett plans to hire people who read and who can inform customers of both the latest and the best books. She intends to bring authors into her store to discuss their work, and she’s fascinated by the idea of books as art.
Michael Norris, a senior analyst at market research firm Simba Information, says Nashville’s book scene has been "deprofessionalized," like most of America. Even where books still exist for sale, employees who stock them know very little about them and likely wouldn’t be able to recommend something to fit a reader’s needs. These stores often only carry the latest best-selling thriller and rarely venture beyond the mass market.
"A store like Wal-Mart or Target will just put books at the end of the aisle next to space heaters and if someone picks them up, they pick them up. If they don’t, they don’t," Norris said. "A lot of people get carried away with a lot of the things going on in digital, but if you look really closely at the industry, it’s still really held together selling one book at a time to one person at a time."
While Borders — which began liquidation sales around the country last week— and other major retailers are struggling, book sales are not. The introduction of the e-reader has spurred a boom of sorts that coincidentally spills over into the bricks-and-mortar market — meaning there seems to be room again in the book-selling circle of life for the small indies. The American Booksellers Association reports an increase of membership two years running after years of decline that cost independents more than half their number.
Customers who still seek out bookstores are usually very different from their online-buying counterparts. They often head to the bookstore with a general idea of what they want, but are also looking for help in identifying new things to read. A knowledgeable clerk or in-store event can offer untold vistas.
Patchett and Hayes want to bring that experience to their shop, and Patchett says she’s aiming for something "back on a human scale."
What she’s not really interested in is the bottom line. She needs the store to pay for itself, but beyond that she’s more concerned about what Daniel Goldin, owner of Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, calls the "social profit."
During her recent book tour, Patchett scoped ideas she could incorporate into her own store. Goldin was a beacon in the fog, helping her with the fine details of putting together a store from scratch. He talked about the importance of flooring bids and payroll taxes. But he also talked about the importance of making sure his store is a cornerstone for the community.
"I’m going to make a lot of decisions as if I’m sort of a nonprofit," Goldin said. "I’m going to be very careful about my dollars, but sometimes I’m still making these decisions about what’s best for the community, what’s best for my customers. … The secret is to say you’ve just got to get into the love. It’s all relationship and it’s all emotional reaction."
Though it might seem like an obvious business choice, few well-known authors own bookstores. The best-known author-owner is Larry McMurtry, whose sprawling Booked Up fills four buildings in Archer City, Texas. The Minneapolis-St. Paul area has two, owned by Louise Erdrich and Garrison Keillor. Their stores are small, tucked away in quiet settings and completely reflect the personality of their owners. Like Goldin’s store, Erdrich’s Birchbark Books aims to reap a large social profit.
Birchbark is hard to find, but its tiny 800 square feet contain a world’s worth of ideas. Made from "all reclaimed materials," the store focuses on Native American literature, history and politics, and on the study of sudden, climactic change in society, all interests of Erdrich and her daughters, who launched the store 11 years ago. It’s become much more than a place to buy books.
"We’re a locus for Native American intellectuals," Erdrich said. "It’s not part of our stereotype of the stoic native. The image of the Native American in the United States often does not include a pair of eyeglasses and a thoughtful expression. Our goal is really to talk about the philosophical tradition in Native American thinking and the interesting currents right now in Native American thinking. It’s our bookstore. We have a lot of fun."
Patchett says she has learned the importance of identity well and is applying the lesson. By naming the store Parnassus Books, she hopes for an emotional response from readers in Nashville, dubbed "the Athens of the South." Mount Parnassus was the source of literature, learning and music in Greek mythology.
She wants Parnassus to be the kind of store where readers can completely cut their connections and lose themselves in a new world — just as the characters do in "State of Wonder."
At the book’s heart is a mystery as enigmatic as the Amazon rivers that take Dr. Marina Singh to the rainforest home of the Lakashi, a people who hold the secret to limitless fertility — and drug company profits. Singh, a cholesterol drug researcher adrift in life, has been sent to this unnamed tributary off the Rio Negro to find out about the death of a colleague and to assess the progress of her former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, the Kurtz to Marina’s Marlow in this gentle, moving riff on "Heart of Darkness."
Midway through the book, Marina loses her connection to the outside world when her luggage and cell phone are lost, allowing her to learn things about herself she might never have while plugged into the constant input of the Internet age.
Patchett has created a similarly isolated life. "Email bugs the hell out of me," she acknowledges. Very few people have her coveted email address, and she won’t dip her toe any further into the information age.
"But it’s not like I made a decision and gave something up," Patchett said. "It repulses me, this whole input world that you’re talking about, the constant facts. There’s this tribe in my book, the Lakashi tribe, and I’ve had so many people who are interviewing me say, ‘I’ve been Googling and I can’t find the Lakashi anywhere.’ It’s as if people can’t imagine something that can’t be Googled. No, I made them up, you can’t Google them. Unless you get inside my head, they just don’t exist."
In a sense, Erdrich says, visiting Parnassus Books will be another way to get inside Patchett’s head. And she can’t wait to take a look around.