Two years ago, when Nashville lost its only in-town bookstores, the novelist Ann Patchett decided to step into the breach. Parnassus Books, which Patchett and two veteran booksellers envisioned, designed, financed, and manage, is now open for business and enjoying the ride.
In late February I am in my basement, which is really a very nice part of my house that is not done justice by the word basement. For the purposes of this story, let’s call it the Parnassus Fulfillment Center. I have hauled 533 boxed-up hardback copies of my latest novel, State of Wonder, from Parnassus, the bookstore I co-own in Nashville, into my car; driven them across town (three trips there and three trips back); and then lugged them down here to the Parnassus Fulfillment Center.
Along with the hardbacks, I have brought in countless paperback copies of my backlist books as well. I sign all these books and stack them up on one enormous and extremely sturdy table. Then I call for backup: Patrik and Niki from the store, my friend Judy, my mother. Together we form an assembly line, taking orders off the bookstore’s Web site, addressing mailing labels, writing tiny thank-you notes to tuck inside the signed copies, then bubble-wrapping, taping, and packing them up to mail. We get a rhythm going, we have a system, and it’s pretty smooth, except for removing the orders from the Web site. What I don’t understand is why, no matter how many orders I delete from the list, the list does not get shorter. We are all work and no progress, and I’m sure something serious must be going wrong.
After all, we’ve had this Web site for only a week, and who’s to say we know what we’re doing? “We know what we’re doing,” Niki says, and Patrik, who set up the Web site in the first place, confirms this. They explain to me that the reason the list isn’t getting any shorter is that orders are still coming in.
You may have heard the news that the independent bookstore is dead, that books are dead, that maybe even reading is dead—to which I say: Pull up a chair, friend. I have a story to tell.
The reason I was signing and wrapping books in my basement is that more orders were coming in than the store could handle, and the reason so many orders were coming in is that, a few days before, I had been a guest on The Colbert Report. After a healthy round of jousting about bookstores versus Amazon, Stephen Colbert held a copy of my novel in front of the cameras and exhorted America to buy it from Amazon—to which I, without a moment’s thought (because without a moment’s thought is how I fly these days), shouted, “No! No! Not Amazon.
Order it off ParnassusBooks.net, and I’ll sign it for you.” And America took me up on my offer, confirming once and for all that the “Colbert bump” is real. That explains how I got stuck in the basement, but fails to answer the larger question of what a writer of literary fiction whose “new” book was already nine months old was doing on The Colbert Report in the first place. Hang on, because this is where things get weird: I was on the show not because I am a writer but because I am a famous independent bookseller.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the story.