Out of Borders' Ashes: An Indie Bookstore Battle Plan

Indie bookstores on the rise as chains have closed

Bookstores should act as community centersEmbrace web sales and e-books to boost profits

Parnassus Bookstore
Credit: Ashley Hylbert
Parnassus Bookstore

Here’s the plotline: A celebrated author grieves for her home town as one big bookstore after another shuts down. Then she opens her own plucky little bookstore and makes it a howling success.

That’s the real-world business story novelist Ann Patchett is trying to write in Nashville, where Borders closed this year and readers still mourn the loss of a beloved independent bookstore, Davis-Kidd.

Patchett, author of the bestseller "Bel Canto," committed $300,000 to launch an independent bookstore after the last Nashville store selling new titles was gone. Case in point: Because there was no bookstore in her hometown of Nashville for fans to buy her latest novel, "State of Wonder," it had been propped up in the shop window where she gets her clothes altered, giving the tailor shop a busy side business in book sales.

That fact only reinforced her feeling that the community was missing something.

She joined veteran former Random House representative Karen Hayes to found Parnassus Books, which holds its formal grand opening Saturday, in time for Christmas shoppers. Meanwhile, Patchett has become a media evangelist urging booklovers to bypass online discounts to keep bricks and mortar bookstores alive.

It's not that she was looking to be the owner of a small business, but when she met Hayes, who was taking early retirement from her job at Random House, and was looking for her next career, Patchett realized she could be a driving force behind the effort.

And although she didn’t set out to be a public advocate for independent bookstores, Patchett has embraced that role.

The novelist now tells people they don’t have to accept the inevitable loss of bookstores. “Be willing to pay a little more for your book, and you get a smart person to recommend books, jobs for your community, and a tax base,’’ she said.

So far, the Parnassus story is following a classic underdog victory plot. The partners found a sympathetic landlord in Nashville’s major shopping district, Green Hills. Among the flood of job applicants, some offered to work for free. A membership drive yielded cash contributions, and a musician donated a piano.

But can even a popular hometown author succeed where so many have failed, including a huge chain that went bankrupt?

Independent booksellers have been facing fierce competitive pressures from discount sellers, including bookstore chains, big-box stores and Amazon. Now e-books offer a cheaper alternative to print. What’s more, customers these days cruise bookstores like showrooms, then go home and buy online.

Patchett and Hayes took advice from indie booksellers nationwide who survived, and Parnassus became an “homage’’ to those creative mentors, the novelist said.

The Parnassus opening ceremonies reflect its master plan to become a “community center,’’ Hayes said. All-day author readings start with children’s books, then fill the evening with grown-up fare. “We want to make sure this store appeals to all ages,’’ she said.

Parnassus will reach out to the rich population of artists of all types in Nashville, known as “Music City.’’ Rolling bookshelves can clear space in the 2,500 square-foot store for performances and readings, while the walls will feature local artwork.

Parnassus Bookstore
Credit: Ashley Hylbert
Parnassus Bookstore

When top-selling authors appear, Parnassus can host the events at the Nashville public library. Plans are in the works for book club meetings, a First Editions subscription program, and classes, Hayes said.

Michael Norris, a market research analyst for Simba Information, said stores like Parnassus are crucial for the survival of the publishing industry. Their expert salespeople help customers discover books that get them addicted to reading. Every "Harry Potter" book sold in a bookstore lifted sales of other titles, Norris said.

Publishers should give traditional booksellers an edge, such as early access to hardcover releases, the analyst said. Instead, publishers push their blockbusters into discount chains where customers find books on pallets next to unrelated merchandise. “What value is it to publishers if they also buy socks and underwear?’’ Norris asks.

"Be willing to pay a little more for your book, and you get a smart person to recommend books, jobs for your community, and a tax base." -author and co-owner, Parnassus Books, Nashville, Ann Patchett,

Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, said a trickle of new store openings has recently reversed the decline in the number of independent booksellers he represents. ABA membership has grown by several dozen to 2,170. The struggling sector is getting a boost from big bookstore chain closures, cheaper software technology for their own online sales, an emerging “buy local’’ movement, and growing support from publishers.

Teicher says independent bookstores should not be scared away from online sales and e-books; instead they should build those elements in to their business formulas. The ABA has helped independent bookstores, including Parnassus, to link their web sales operations to Google e-books, where customer purchases are credited to the small store. Teicher urges indie bookstores to promote their online sales sites throughout their stores with posters and handouts. Revenues are lower for online e-book purchases, he said, but the store bears no costs for shipping, unpacking, and storing a print book.

Bookstores can profit from both, he said. “Our members are not going to become multi-million-dollar publicly traded companies, but they can make a living,’’ Teicher said.

So far Parnassus has spent only half the $300,000 Patchett committed, due to Hayes’ careful management, Patchett said. The novelist said she’d be happy not making a dime on the venture. But the Nashville response to Parnassus got her thinking.

“You know what, I will bet you anything I will end up making money on this,’’ she said.

email: patricia.orsini@nbcuni.com