Ann Patchett’s Nashville Bookstore Hits the Road, With Dogs in Tow
by Alexandra Alter
Nashville’s newest bookstore is an old van.
The bright blue bookmobile, which hit the road this week, is a roving offshoot of Parnassus Books, a popular independent bookstore. It will roam around town, stopping at food truck rallies, farmers’ markets and outside restaurants.
The arrival of a bookstore on wheels is a fitting evolution for Parnassus, which is co-owned by Karen Hayes and the novelist Ann Patchett. The store’s name comes from Christopher Morley’s 1917 novel “Parnassus on Wheels,” about a middle-aged woman who travels around selling books out of a horse-drawn van.
Since Parnassus opened in 2011, Ms. Hayes has wanted a traveling bookstore of her own. She looked at taco trucks and ice cream trucks and felt envious of their freedom to take business wherever people gathered, she said.
“A bookmobile made so much sense, because food trucks work so well in this town,” Ms. Hayes said by telephone. “It’s a great way to get our name out there, too. It’s a rolling advertisement.”
Ms. Hayes found the van on eBay last spring, and bought it for $10,000 from a library in Georgia. The van was already outfitted with angled shelves, which keep the books from flying off, but still needed $20,000 worth of work.
It is a logical and efficient way for a small bookstore to expand its footprint, especially as big chains have shuttered locations, leaving a vacuum for enterprising independent stores to fill. A handful of independent stores around the country have taken the trade on the road, in an effort to stir up business and bring books to neighborhoods and suburbs without a bookstore. Little Shop of Stories, an independent store in Decatur, Ga., used a grant from the author James Patterson to turn a used school bus into a mobile bookstore. Fifth Dimension Books, a bookmobile in Austin, Tex., stocks a rotating selection of science fiction and fantasy books from its collection of 100,000 volumes.
Bookmobiles are not about to become as prevalent as food trucks. But their arrival in Nashville and other cities offers another encouraging sign that independent stores are thriving again, after years of decline. Sales at bookstores rose 2.5 percent in 2015 over the previous year, to $11.17 billion, for the first annual increase since 2007, according to the United States Census Bureau.
Dozens of small bookstores across the country are opening multiple locations, expanding into mini chains. Books Inc., a San Francisco Bay Area independent store, now has 11 locations. Third Place Books in Seattle will soon open a new store, its third. Greenlight Bookstore, a prominent independent store in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, is opening a second Brooklyn store in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens.
In 2015, the American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations, a big jump from 2009, when the group had 1,401 stores in 1,651 locations.
“The trend is unmistakable, and we see it not only continuing but growing,” said Oren Teicher, the ABA’s chief executive.
Parnassus is expanding too. It will double in size, adding 2,500 square feet of retail space, when it takes over a recently vacated storefront next door. Its owners considered looking for a second location, but decided the book van would be a better way to expand the store’s geographic range and customer base.
The van packs around 1,000 books, mostly new releases and best sellers — a small fraction of Parnassus’s stock of 20,000 books. Its owners have managed to make the cramped space bright and inviting: customers can walk the narrow aisles between the shelves, and can linger and sample books on one of the padded blue benches.
“One of my hopes is that we’ll be able go into some of the outlying suburbs and cities that don’t necessarily have a bookstore,” said Grace Wright, a Parnassus bookseller who will manage the bookmobile. “There’s nothing like a good bookstore.”
Another bonus: the physical bookstore has four resident dogs — Opie, Belle, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Bear — who love riding around town, Ms. Wright said.
“They seem to have fun in the bus,” she said.