Novelist Patchett has Nashville bookstore customers swooning

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In this Thursday, June 25, 2020, photo, novelist Ann Patchett, right, and her business partner, Karen Hayes, left, pose in their independent bookstore, Parnassus Books, in Nashville, Tenn. Their bookstore that opened and thrived while others were closing their doors is once again defying the odds during the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Nashville bookstore that opened and thrived while others were closing their doors is once again defying the odds, thanks, in part, to its famous novelist co-owner.

Throughout the pandemic, Ann Patchett has appeared on the Parnassus Books Instagram account, often in a ball gown or cocktail dress (because, as she says, "the alternative was staying in yoga pants for the rest of my life”), to offer charming and compelling book recommendations. How could pandemic-stressed book purchasers resist a read she describes as a “cross between a puppy and a warm bath”? Or how about the book that Patchett's friend, the nun Sister Nina, says is the best thing she's read in years. “Author tested, nun approved,” Patchett tells viewers.

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If the unusually well-punctuated comments are any indication, fans of the bestselling novelist are loving it.

“It's so comforting watching Ann recommend books,” writes one viewer.

“This brings me joy,” another commenter writes.

“My TBR (to be read) stack is out of control, and you are NOT helping!” reads another.

Patchett is even gracious in speaking about how her latest novel, “The Dutch House,” lost out to “The Nickel Boys” for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Wearing pearls and a gown, Patchett says Colson Whitehead's novel beat hers because “It's the better book.”

“It's a national treasure, like Colson,” she says.

In addition to the book-related customer comments, a lot of posts also ask where Patchett gets her dresses. So far, she has not replied, but she revealed the secret in an interview.

“My clothes are all old,” Patchett said.

Parnassus opened in 2011, shortly after two large Nashville bookstores — the once-independent Davis-Kidd and the chain store Borders — shut down in quick succession. The received wisdom at the time was that bookstores would never be profitable again — even physical books might soon vanish to be replaced by the Kindle.

The decision to open in such a climate put Parnassus on the front page of The New York Times and Patchett on the “Colbert Report,” where Stephen Colbert quipped, “Oooh! Independent bookstores! I should buy one of those on Amazon!"

Despite the naysayers, Parnassus thrived. It was profitable even in its first year, says Karen Hayes, the Parnassus co-owner who handles the business end of the store. Five years after opening, Parnassus doubled in size to 5,000 square feet.

The store's success stems from a combination of factors that surely include Patchett's fame and a good location, but Hayes has never just waited for people to drop in and buy books. She has worked hard to actively attract customers with a children's storytime, book clubs, author readings, a bookmobile and a first-editions subscription box, among other enticements.

There was a flurry of excited consternation among local book lovers last year when media reported that an Amazon Books store would open in the mall across the street from Parnassus, but Hayes says they haven't seen any loss in business.

“Our main competitor has always been Amazon online,” Hayes says. “When they introduced same-day shipping a few years back, our holiday sales were flat for the first time.”

Hayes says she has never shopped at Amazon and quit going to Whole Foods after it was purchased by the online behemoth.

Hayes does not take the success of Parnassus as a given. Having worked in the publishing industry for years before opening Parnassus, she saw many independent bookstores struggle, so she has been putting money in a rainy day fund from the beginning.

“I was always cautious, always making sure money was set aside,” Hayes says. “Although I never thought it would be this bad.”

After closing the retail store to the public in March, Parnassus accepted a COVID-related Small Business Administration loan and hasn’t had to dig into the rainy day fund yet. But Hayes also has no idea when the store will be able to reopen. The retail floor has essentially become a distribution center, filled with rolls of brown paper and mailing envelopes, so it is not practical to let people inside, even if it could be done safely.

Parnassus is doing great mail-order and curbside-pickup business, but in normal times, more than 20% of sales comes from events. Still, Hayes says they’ve been able to keep all of their employees on staff at their pre-pandemic salaries and with health insurance.

But back to Patchett and those dresses. Does she find it weird that nearly as many people comment on her appearance as on her book recommendations?

“Here's my magic secret,” she says. “I am not on any form of social media, so I have never seen any of the videos and never read any of the comments.”

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