In late March, in the wake of a spate of bookstore closings both big and small, Chapter16.org's Margaret Renkl put forth what seemed to be at once a bold statement and an open-ended question. In an article penned for The City Paper, one passed about the city's reading community like a good paperback, Renkl stated what many still believe.
"The Athens of the South can absolutely support a community bookstore," she wrote. "If someone will simply build it, we will come."
With the news that novelist Ann Patchett and business partner Karen Hayes, a former Random House sales rep, will be opening Parnassus Books — the first bookstore selling new books to open in Nashville since the bloodbath — the if-you-build-it part of Renkl's equation is in the works. The announcement, dropped casually by Patchett weeks ago on NPR's The Diane Rehm Show, resulted in several days of Internet excitement — yet another irony in the ongoing battle between print and electronic media.
But no one disputed the reason for the hubbub. At the time Renkl wrote her column, the city was just beginning to accept the loss of Davis-Kidd when news came that the West End Borders would soon be selling its shelves — literally. The fact that both had fallen victim to far-off corporate troubles was little consolation.
"By the time it closed, thanks to a whole bunch of boneheaded decisions by its out-of-state corporate owners, Davis-Kidd had fallen so far from its origins as an independent bookstore that I honestly thought losing it was a symbolic loss more than a true blow to the literary culture of this city," Renkl told the Scene in an email last week. "Then Borders closed too, and I — like everyone else who loves real literature — got an object lesson in how truly awful it is to live in a town where used bookstores and the pitiful offerings of Books-a-Million are all we have."
Renkl, a Scene contributor, reiterates that Davis-Kidd's local management was not to blame. They did their best, she says, considering the "ridiculous corporate structure" they found themselves in. Furthermore, neither Davis-Kidd nor Borders was ever short on literate, book-loving customers.
Once both were gone, though, that didn't matter. True, Steve Guynn's Sherlock's Books keeps limited hours downtown, and Yusef Harris' Alkebu-Lan Images Bookstore is now in its 25th year on Jefferson Street. Used copies of recent titles also frequently appear at McKay's on Charlotte. But for the most part, if you wanted a new book in the Athens of the South, you had to hit the highway to the suburbs — or join the online hordes of Amazon explorers.
The upside, if any, is that local used bookstores have not sat idly by. Instead, each has tried in its own way to shrink the void, even if they can't fill it completely.
Among those is Hillsboro Village's Bookman/Bookwoman, owned by Saralee and Larry D. Woods, whose efforts were recently profiled in Publishers Weekly. The industry mag noted that the shop around the corner of Belcourt and 21st Avenue is bucking a trend, much as the nearby Belcourt has proved a corrective to death-of-the-indie-arthouse obits. Already full of used and out-of-print books, Bookman/Bookwoman is adding new titles to its shelves, including books they hope will end up on the best-seller lists. Better still, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. The shop has recently become a reporting bookstore, which means their sales numbers contribute to the hallowed New York Times list.
Status as a reporting store puts Bookman/Bookwoman on publishers' radar. To a publisher, book signings, readings and other author events are about connecting a writer to his or her readers, sure — but only if that connection can lead to sales that might contribute to possible best-seller status. If that sounds cynical, it shouldn't: If you want your favorite author to keep writing, it's best that the publisher and the Times know it.
The Woods are working on that. Since the loss of Davis-Kidd, they have scheduled more events at their store and are offering 20 percent off on all new titles. Boxes of free books await children tagging along with their browsing parents. But there won't be any profit-padding yoga mats or scented candles, the tchotchkes that have distracted so many book retailers from their mission. Chatting in between stacks of sci-fi, the Bookwoman half of the shop, Saralee, says that's not what it's all about.
"You don't go into the bookstore business to make money. You get in it because it's something you want to do," she says. "Everyone knows that this store is an excuse for my husband to buy more books. It's not drugs, it's not other women, and it's not booze. It's books."
A similar reverence for books powers Fred Koller's Rhino Books, which has a location on Charlotte Avenue as well as Granny White Pike. Koller, also a prolific songwriter — he co-wrote John Prine's immortal "Let's Talk Dirty in Hawaiian" — started selling books in 1974. As with the Woods' Hillsboro Village emporium, Rhino bears the stamp of its owner's tastes. Koller's shops reflect a love of the classics, some of which can be found in first editions or signed copies bearing signatures such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
As valuable as these stores are, however, the one thing they have a hard time providing is a link to what's happening now. Newer titles take a while to show up at a place like Rhino Books, and Hemingway isn't available for signings. Along with places where the classics (and their lightly read descendants) are preserved for rediscovery, a healthy literary community needs a place for readers to get their hands on — actually get their hands on — a broad selection of new titles.
For a model of what we need, and perhaps what we'll get in Parnassus, we might be best served by looking to the children. Tammy Derr owns Fairytales Bookstore & More in East Nashville, where she's providing for children and teens what the rest of us have been wishing for. Fairytales, the 2011 Pannell Award Winner in the Children's Specialty Store category, has been less affected by the digital age — not many kids own Kindles. But Derr's commitment to making her store a place where kids and their parents want to spend time is like that of any successful bookstore, regardless of demographic.
Along with daily story time, Derr has brought in illustrators and musicians to engage students with their craft, always tying it back to books and reading. When folks were picking Borders' bones for near-free books, Derr was buying shelves to expand her store, and she has plans of starting a nonprofit afterschool art program. In her view, the death of superstore bookselling isn't so bad.
"I actually think this is a good thing," she told the Scene. "It's going to open the doors for people who really do care about books, where it's not just wholesale. It's not a Wal-Mart, it's an art form."
As Nashville waits for the bookstore that will give its literary community a hub — as the Elliott Bay Book Co. does for Seattle, as City Lights does for San Francisco, as Square Books does for Oxford, Miss., a town approximately 1/30th Nashville's size — Renkl is confident that indie booksellers will succeed, but only if our patronage matches the enthusiasm of our tweets and statuses.
"If we want a bookstore that hosts great author and children's events, a bookstore with a knowledgeable staff who can guide us to the books we've never even heard of but that seem written just for us," she said, "we're just going to have to spend our money there. It's as simple as that."
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