Out of Chaos, Discovery

Parnassus Books is opening this weekend in Nashville, and Chapter 16 has the inside story

by Tristan Hickey

For the first of my two job interviews with Mary Grey James, the general manager of Parnassus Books (a.k.a. “Ann Patchett’s bookstore”), I wore a dress shirt with a collar so tight I feared I’d faint and be left lying on the cool floor of the Green Hills Branch Library, still unemployed, with irony fluttering about my brow. I barely had enough air to last. The email Mary Grey sent that night kindly and ever-so-perceptively informed me that my second interview, this one with both her and Parnassus co-owner Karen Hayes, required only the most casual of dress.

Casual, as I quickly realized, was to be a theme of the store’s entire genesis. Not the theme, however: the one true constant of this whole build-a-bookstore process has been chaos. Throw in whatever qualifier you prefer—daunting, manageable, baffling, inspired—Parnassus’s chaos has been each in turn, and following no formula. On September 16, Mary Grey and Karen hired me to be a full-time bookseller; on November 19, Parnassus will have its grand opening. The time in between has been an exercise in controlled chaos.

We’ve worked through days of choking dust, gotten high on citrus-scented Goo-Gone and every spray cleaner on the market, and peeled, scraped, swept, and painted our way into completion. We’ve made it through epic email threads devoted solely to delays and endured erratic Internet service through wireless networks which connect to our inventory system only when they feel so inclined (and inclination seems rarely to strike during peak receiving hours).

Waist-deep in it, all of us—owners and staff—have each joined in with our own casual approaches to whatever corner of chaos we’ve found ourselves in. We’ve done so out of a determined love because we all wanted and willed this store: no job was too nasty, no delay too daunting. I’ve never belonged to such an even-keeled crew before. As the grand-opening date approached, I asked Ann if she felt ready. “I’m completely ready,” she said. “I scraped the paint off the toilets. I’m there.” I’ve also never felt the thrill of being a part of this kind of creation. I asked Karen if she felt the same way: “To create something on this scale—I’ve never done anything like it,” she said, “And what’s so cool about it are all the people who are helping, who want to see it work, who are looking past whatever flaws there are. That has probably been the most surprising thing—what a collaborative effort it is and how everybody is pitching in and how excited everybody is.”

Excited, yes, despite the endless hours spent painting the children’s shelves and the cash wrap (that’s fancy retail jargon for the custom-built counters which house the Parnassus registers), and dusting the rest of the shelves free of an entire warehouse’s worth of dirt. Everyone on staff has known qualms silent or audible. Opening a bookstore is incredibly difficult, even in an atmosphere as unceasingly inviting and supportive as Nashville. Some of us knew that from the beginning, and the rest learned it immediately. But in the end such struggles produced a bookstore staff long before the staff produced a bookstore—and the eerie part, the hair-raisingly cool part, is that the bookstore’s ready now, too.

When you step through the doors at Parnassus, the cash wrap is to your right, and a notice board for announcements and events lies directly to your left. Beyond that stands the first of the shelving, which holds titles recommended by the staff, and afterward the fiction section rolls onward (full of autographed local titles by the likes of Adam Ross and Kevin Wilson and, yes, Ann herself), culminating in mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, and YA in the back-left corner. You’ll need no directions to find our packed children’s section. Bring every kid you’ve ever known, and they’ll each find at least twenty books to claim—and a mini-model of the Parthenon to walk through, as well. Past a series of tables and comfy chairs in the middle of the store are shelf islands, which hold everything from Christmas children’s classics to photography to an extensive collection of crossword and Sudoku workbooks, among other games. Our nonfiction shelves share the right-hand wall with our glorious, stain-glass-backed coffee bar, from which we strongly encourage you to partake.

The staff, of course, will be everywhere: working the registers, filling the coffee pots, keeping stock of stock, but we’re more excited about getting to know that most important element of any great bookstore: its customers. For the past two weeks, this space has seemed both full and empty to us—we’ve shelved the books and cleaned the floors, but so far we’ve had only hints of the community we hope this bookstore will be: so many of you peering through the windows to watch us prepare, dropping by to wish us well, checking in to make sure the grand opening is still set for November 19. The enthusiasm extends well beyond Greenbriar Village: “Everyone is so excited about the store; there’s so much love and support,” Ann says. “People stop me in the grocery store and tell me they plan to camp out the night before the opening.”

The doors of Parnassus Books open this Saturday, and we hope it will prove the first day of a partnership between Parnassus and the Nashville community, a partnership that lasts long into the future. Ann says the collective emotions surrounding the store’s launch reminds her of a wedding, and I’ve come to hope that’s exactly the case: all of us united, sharing in a commitment to humanity’s oldest love, its oldest need, the root of learning and knowledge and truth. Come help us rekindle discovery. Come to Parnassus and discover literature and a love of reading all over again. Follow your old heroes, find new ones, and let us be there when your kids discover theirs. We’ll have everything ready for you—the newest classics alongside Melville and McCarthy, Plath and Austen. There will be coffee and puppets and the new Paolini and King. Come quickly, Nashville, and in force: Parnassus, finally, awaits.

Published Wednesday, 16 November 2011