Looking Down from the Mountain
Parnassus Books spent the last decade fashioning itself as a cultural lynchpin; Nashville’s literary scene would survive without it.
The happiest place in Nashville was under attack in the spring of 2019 according to The New York Times. Amazon planned to open a bookstore in the Mall at Green Hills, a situation so dire for the fate of the indie bookstore across the street it made the opinion page of the paper of record with the headline, “Parnassus Books Cares about Us. Does Amazon?” Yet, last May when Parnassus announced it would maintain mask requirements as other retailers immediately dropped them, the store didn’t seem all that pleasant, especially for those with certain disabilities. From the onset of the great reopening, Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million had encouraged those with medical issues that masks exacerbated to visit their locations. Given the pandemic-era swooning that Parnassus co-owner, novelist Ann Patchett, earned from Oprah and other national figures, one would expect even more inclusivity than her store’s corporate counterparts. But, in the wake of the CDC’s reversal, Parnassus doubled down on its mask requirements as its social-media coordinator relayed that the store’s lack of a disability exemption was firm. The disabled were not only unwelcome but also a threat to public health. Over the years, Patchett has positioned Parnassus as a business built not on book sales, but on browsing and fostering community. Now, the best they could do for a small but substantial base of customers was curbside pickup. Upon seeing these lofty gestures toward the greater good, a feeling I had long repressed during my regular jaunts to the store over the past decade gripped me: Parnassus only cares about the right kind of reader.
When Parnassus Books opened in 2011 as a partnership between Patchett and former publishing executive Karen Hayes, it filled the gaping hole left by Davis-Kidd Booksellers and the legendary 30-year run the Nashville institution ended the previous fall. As Patchett spent a press junket telling reporters, the demise of Davis-Kidd (and the last remaining Borders location eight months later) left Nashville without a bookstore in its city limits. Many Nashvillians and out-of-towners on daytrips planned their weekends around visits to Davis-Kidd, first in its classic Grace's Plaza location and—for its last few years after selling out to an Ohio conglomerate—in the Mall at Green Hills anchor space that is now home to The Container Store. Though it was technically a semi-indie bookseller, what made Davis-Kidd a destination was its dedication to dialogue and competing ideas. It was a bookstore where fervent Obama supporters could buy his memoirs and scatter to the margins of the DVD section or the Brontë cafe during a Mike Huckabee book signing and feminists could revel in the store’s impressive gender studies section while actor Gene Hackman peddled the wares of his side hustle as a historical-fiction writer.
Until maskgate, Parnassus seemed a worthy, even superior, successor to Davis-Kidd. After all, CNN named it one of the world’s coolest bookstores (and likely the only entry on the list located next to a Chipotle). Nashville had bought into Ann Patchett’s mythical status as the savior of indie bookstoredom so fervently covered by the likes of NPR and The Guardian. She became the authority on independent bookselling to such an extent the celebrity it generated eclipsed Patchett’s reputation as a gifted novelist of literary fiction chronicling domestic life. She laughed it up with Stephen Colbert and became a frequent contributor to The New York Times where she often made Nashville the butt of jokes ranging from calling the Predators poor performers months before their 2017 run at the Stanley Cup in a column that humble bragged about the international “pilgrims” visiting Parnassus to mocking her provincial neighbor’s earnest support of Sarah Palin as Patchett flaunted her status as a Southern liberal so against deplorables that she would even vote in the rain. The evening of the inaugural Women’s March in January 2017, Patchett was in house at Parnassus to introduce an author, but seemed more interested in marveling over the earlier protest. As she told her audience, the store was an oasis from the war on women and racism that now threatened democracy, a place where the majority of Tennesseans were not welcome. Of course, Patchett’s hatred of Trump did not hinder Parnassus from accepting a $204,322 PPP loan from his administration last year. Not coincidentally, President Obama would also deem Parnassus an oasis during his virtual Independent Bookstore Day visit last April—an appearance only reserved for the world’s coolest book retailers.
Though Patchett and Obama’s “oasis” motif is meant as a term of endearment, it also betrays Parnassus’s rigid definition of worthy literature and its contempt for mainstream readers’ taste. To its credit, Parnassus stocks an impressive selection and has served as an incubator for local writing talent, including former booksellers turned nationally recognized authors Mary Laura Philpott and Nathan Spoon. Yet, Nashville boasts one of the most robust populations of bestselling writers of a city its size, especially after The Daily Wire’s move last year when Ben Shapiro, Candace Owens, and Michael Knowles joined the ranks of Jon Meacham, Patchett, and red-state-thriller writer Brad Thor among others. In literary Nashville’s past, each of these authors would have had their scheduled evening at Davis-Kidd. In our present, only Meacham is allowed a seat at the table, the left-center Episcopalian that Patchett has chosen to represent Nashville as the paradigm of her New American South both on stage at the Salon 615 series of book talks co-sponsored by the Nashville Public Library and in her definitive picture book of Music City.
Through her public persona, Patchett has crafted a dissonant identity for Parnassus as perpetually teetering on the edge of oblivion while remaining an indispensable community institution. Her branding has become so effective that the store has retconned much of Nashville’s bookstore history. As Davis-Kidd limped to its inauspicious end, The Scene’s Adam Ross eviscerated management’s decision to cut book inventory in favor of touristy souvenirs. But as Patchett and Co. expanded their reach to include an airport location, a photo in The Scene’s article on the joint venture with chain Hudson News featured the same clutter now refashioned as a testament to Parnassus’s indelible cultural gravitas. Patchett has brought so many literary luminaries to Salon 615, including Zadie Smith, Margaret Atwood, Colson Whitehead, and Dr. Jill Biden, that Nashvillians would be forgiven for forgetting the series originally began months before Parnassus even opened in an initial partnership with Barnes & Noble. The Southern Festival of Books was a staple of the cultural calendar twenty years before Parnassus became its supplier. To hear Patchett talk, Nashville would have had no book-buying outlet without Parnassus, but the region hosted what may be the biggest book event in its history when Sarah Palin sold out the Cool–Springs Costco in 2010 and, according to The Scene, somehow killed Davis-Kidd in the process.
Patchett has spent the pandemic performing her own version of the fireside chat to introduce readers to her store’s new inventory each week. She ritualistically pulls back her mask (even after the husband of her friend Dr. Jill said they were no longer necessary barring the unwashed and unvaccinated), educating her fan base about the books that strike her fancy. Many of her picks end up on the “Anti-racist” booklist published on Parnassus’s website at full retail price—though stacks of the same titles abound in the bargain section of the local Books-A-Million. As Patchett was fond of saying in Parnassus’s early days, Nashville will get the bookstore it deserves. Here’s hoping that’s true.