Friday, September 9, 2016

A Visit to Nashville and Parnassus Books

Five years ago, Ann Patchett went on a tour for State of Wonder, revealing just as it began that she was planning to open an independent bookstore with partner Karen Hayes (she's in the photo below right). The Nashville market had taken a tough one-two punch, with the local Davis-Kidd store and the area Borders closing in quick succession. But Patchett didn't have in mind replacing these megastores. What she was thinking about was the old Mills Boookstore in Nashville. And now, with Patchett coming back to Milwaukee for her new novel Commonwealth (here's the ticket link), I couldn't possibly not see Parnassus Books, bookstore junkie that I am, before her October 19 appearance. And so I set off on a grueling 500+ mile road trip to visit, curious to see whether there was a little bit of Boswell there.

It wasn't exactly supposed to be this way. My original intention was for Nashville to be a side trip on my way with Kirk to visit his parents. Kirk had to pull out to do work complications, but it was like I was already rolling downhill and couldn't stop. So what that the route has got to be one of the busiest truck routes in America, at least in the category of four-lane roads. So what if a front caused downpours so strong that I couldn't see out the windshield. While one was going on, I thought to myself, "It's going to be a miracle if this doesn't end with an accident" and alas, the road was soon closed for over an hour.

Now I've been to Nashville a few times in the past, but there was always some agenda, like a tour of the Ingram warehouse and back office. This time I had a little time on my own and got to explore what everyone is calling the next Seattle. I didn't have that much free time. The first evening I explored the Vanderbilt campus and surrounding Midtown, which like much of the city, was seeing a lot of growth pressure. It was hard to find a restaurant that wasn't a chain or franchise - several independents like Noshville (they still have a location in Green Hills) had closed and it was pretty clear that a teardown and new multi-story construction was on the new menu. Even the place I ate at that stressed it's local sourcing was based out of South Carolina - they had fooled my hotel concierge.

The next morning I headed downtown to wander, hitting a hipster Coffee shop called Crema, visited a Tiny Home open house, and had lunch with my former alley number who moved her photography business to Nashville full-time (and whose work can actually be spotted in the television series Nashville. We had lunch at The Family Wash east of downtown, though I have to say I was tempted by the fried bologna sandwich I saw advertised at another lunch place, but I worried about the no mayo discussion.

Of course I scoped out the old department store sites - Cain-Sloan and Harvey's and Castner-Knott. Only the last one seemed to still be standing and had commemorative plaques out front. The good news is that I actually own late-vintage Cain-Sloan and Castner-Knott handled bags. I did imagine what the Harvey's handled paper bag looked like - did it feature the carousel they used in much of their marketing? And I was interested to see that Nashville is at the intersection of White Castle and Krystal - I usually think of towns as having one (North) or the other (South). Milwaukee was a White Tower town, which is I guess why we have neither.

And yes, I saw a lot of old country music stuff. Had it not been 10 in the morning, I might have stopped in at the George Jones entertainment complex, so I could find the perfect George Jones keepsake I always wanted. If I needed a bail bond, I surely would have gone to Grumpy's Bail Bonds, as that name is practically a promise of satisfaction guaranteed. And may I note that Boswell's Music City is your source in Nashville for Harley Davidson merchandise?

After my very long walk, I headed out to the Green Hills neighborhood for my time at Parnassus Books. Green Hills is sort of like Bluemound Road in Brookfield, only much closer into the city. Our closer-in suburban-like shopping streets have fallen on harder times but this strip was bustling, with a mall, a lifestyle center (the usual suspects that are in Milwaukee's Third Ward, anchored by a Whole Foods), and endless strips, piled one on top of the other. I guess this is what life would be like if Lake Michigan didn't cut off our business to the east.

I mentioned the old Mills store, but that vision had already self-corrected because Parnassus had just completed an expansion, doubling in size. They did a really great job - it's very hard to tell that the store was anything other than what it is now, and boy, is it a lovely space. The floors are wood (like the old Bay View Schwartz location) which I secretly prefer to our carpet, especially because I spent a day last week trying to get fresh gum off.  There's a dedicated stage and like Boswell, the fixtures are mostly on casters so they can convert from a browsing space to a performance space. Parnassus took things to the next level by having an upright piano in the state area. After all, it's Music City.

Much has already been said of the category signs that are chalkboard and the library ladder that probably needs a permanent keep-off guard. The store has nicely printed staff recs, including a good amount from Patchett herself. In addition to championing independent bookstores, the bookseller role has given her a strong voice to champion books that she's loved.  We'll be featuring a number of her picks - who can forget the explosion of sales we had for Jeannette Haien's The All of It? One of the books she'll be recommending will be Lucy Dawson's Dogs As I See Them. It turns out there's a second volume, Dogs Rough and Smooth, but it doesn't come out till November 1, just a few weeks after our event. She's also a big fan of Matthew Desmond's Evicted, and while the book is in our top ten bestsellers most every week, we're excited to have another voice championing this very important book.

Let me just say that Parnassus is one dog-crazed store. There was always at least one dog wandering around, and yes, I bought one of their limited-edition prints (another really great idea I don't see too often) for The Dogs of Parnassus. Karen says I bought the last one, but they're thinking of repurposing the image on something else, much like we turned our Read Like a Monster tee shirt into pint glasses. And yes, I bought a Dogs of Parnassus print to hang in the store. Now that we're selling prints with some success, can a Boswell print be far behind?

One tradition that they've carried over from the Davis-Kidd days is their book club, which is still run by Kathy Schultenover. Davis-Kidd's most recent location was just down the road at the Green Hills Mall. The program is so popular that they have three sessions. I've always thought we could add a daytime session for the in-store lit group. Maybe this is just the boost we need. Their August pick was Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. Hey, that would be a great December pick for us? It's on my shortlist. (the framed print goes here)

I should note that Parnassus is not quite finished with expansion. Their kids area is adding space as well. The area has some Parthenon style columns, which plays off of Parnassus's name. Another table is similarly done up. The Nashville association with the ancient Greeks goes back to the construction of the Parthenon in Centennial Park, a replica that was created for the tn Central Exhibition, per Wikipedia.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the tour was a visit to Pegasus, the Parnassus bookmobile, though I'm sad to say I didn't take any photos to prove that I saw it. Now of course anyone who has read Christopher Morley's Parnassus on Wheels, the bookmobile is of course named Pegasus, or more casually, Peggy. It brought me back to my childhood where the Queensborough Public Library parked a bookmobile every week in front of PS 213, being that our neighborhood wasn't walking distance from a library. Truthfully when I got older, it was walking distance from at least seven libraries, but the Goldin family's love of books was only matched by our love of walking, only my dad was the walker and my mom was the reader. It should be no surprise that their son turned out to be someone who would walk very, very far to go to a library or bookstore. Karen brought me over for a visit, and it was just delightful. Alas, I'm pretty sure I don't have the energy to steal this idea, but boy is it cool!

It was also exciting to see Patchett signing advance copies of Commonwealth. I got to chat with a number of Parnassus folk. Niki and I had a lot to talk about - they are doing some killer events, and we bonded over a love of Chris Cleave. Being that we were near their galley shelves, I talked up Nicholas Petrie's The Drifter, as Putnam had just done a finished copy mailing to booksellers, and Elinor Lipman's On Turpentine Lane, which comes out next February. I ran into Peter, former Schwartz receiver, who is now transferred his skills to Tennessee. And that of course led to me catching up with former Schwartz bookseller/manager Mary, who has been in Nashville for almost ten years, first at Ingram and now at United Methodist Publishing House, which operates the publisher Abingdon and the retailer Cokesbury.

Were I living in Nashville, I'd be a very happy reader indeed. Next time I visit I'll have to see BookMan BookWoman in Hillbsboro Village (new and gently used) and Howlin' Books, which is housed with Grimey's Music and a Frothy Monkey Coffee Shop. Each bookstore seems to have a distinct personality. And with a city as bustling as Nashville, that makes sense. So what's my next bookstore quest?  The truth is that even before I wrote this post, I made another bookstore trek, but that's for another blog.

Congrats to Hayes and Patchett and all the Parnassussians (I'll have to find out the proper way to say that) on a wonderful store. And since turnabout is fair play, I got some great ideas for Boswell during my visit.

Don't forget, our event with Ann Patchett (in conversation with Jane Hamilton, whose new novel The Excellent Lombards has a staff rec from Patchett at Parnassus) is Wednesday, October 19, 7 pm. Tickets are $28 and include a copy of Commonwealth. If you're reading this before September 13, you can choose to pick up your copy on pub date or any time before our event. On September 13 or after, we only have the pick up on the night of the event option. See you there. Here's another ticket link.

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