It would be my luck that the one day I was able to get to Parnassus Books, which writer Ann Patchett co-owns in Nashville, the store was closed for remodeling to double its size. Good news for the locals and visitors who would be coming in three days but not for my itinerary. Nevertheless, my brief but absorbing tour of the Parnassus On Wheels converted bus that was situated across the parking lot breathed the spirit of people who will go to inventive lengths to promote books and reading. Barely four of us could squeeze into the narrow aisle inside the turquoise van packed with staff picks and favorites of Ann and co-owner Karen Hayes, who established the independent book store for book lovers in 2011.
Parnassus Books sits in the most unamazing location in a nondescript strip mall, tucked in among Chipotle, The Vitamin Shoppe, Ten Thousand Villages and other small businesses whose exteriors are dull caramel trimmed in dark chocolate. You might pass it a couple of times on the left as you drive out Hillsboro Pike, so look for the bustling Green Hills Mall across the street (and don't go so far as the Bluebird Cafe, the mecca for indie songwriters and their fans in yet another strip mall beyond on the left).
Outside Parnassus on Wheels, I believe that was bookseller Bill Long-Innes who was holding forth from a lawn chair with another patron; I could tell by their gestures that they were engaging in the easy dialogue that people share over reading.
I love independent bookstores. They are community centers for the intellect and the soul, an inviting y'all come atmosphere. Sometimes they have lofty literary names like Parnassus, which in Greek literature was the home of the muses, the goddesses of literature and art. You can depend on their well-informed staff booksellers who truly know their stuff and often have their own stories to tell. It's all very personal, like friends. I think of Book Passage in Marin County and San Francisco's Ferry Building and Paragraphs Bookstore, which has become a quasi-community center along South Main Street in the central Ohio small town of Mount Vernon. Or Kramer Books near DuPont Circle in Washington, D.C., which enchanted the nation's capital when it opened in 1976 with Afterwards Cafe and bar and become the hottest destination in town. Like Kramer Books, Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon, migrated from its beginnings in the 1970s to a larger operation but still retains its indie feel and happily caters to its expectant audience, including those of us frequenting the Portland International Airport (PDX). When visiting Copperfield's in Petaluma, part of a regional chain in the North Bay north of San Francisco, I passed a phalanx of young moms with strollers marching in for a workshop about children's books.
Many of these stores survive thanks to visionary investors, who value the presence of independent bookstores in their own communities, or the persistence of dedicated founders whose vision drives their continued success and following. As such, they are very personal - to wit founder Elaine Petrocelli's regular presence at Book Passage or Lois Hanson who assumed the helm at Paragraphs. Competing against big box bookstores and Amazon, these stores are sometimes found off the beaten path where real estate is cheaper or in neighborhoods closest to their core audiences and, like Parnassus, may take extra effort to find. As unadorned temples of rich imagination, they may be roomy like Cooperfield's or tiny and fairly under the radar, like First Street Books in Kentfield, California. In common, though, they share a culture of appreciation, with volumes of carefully chosen books piled high on tables, packed in shelves and randomly accompanied by personalized notes from booksellers, who cite the remarkable essence of a particular selection in the same way that wine merchants scribble handwritten notes for a precious vintage. Some independent bookstores are set up as living rooms with wing-back chairs; others resemble public libraries, where you can get lost in reading behind a secluded stack or in a quiet corner. You can have your own space and disappear into reading for a time.
As venues for writers, who generously share their journeys, admiring audiences enjoy an inside perspective on creativity on a week night or Sunday afternoon. When I published The Artist's Eye: Vernon P. Johnson's Watercolors of 1950s Small Town America, I savored the first-hand conversations with individual readers who in fact inspired me as I signed piles of books at Paragraph's.
Ann Patchett (best known for Bel Canto) wrote about setting up Parnassus in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, whose chapters I occasionally re-read as guideposts along a writer's journey. While Ann Patchett wasn't on the premises when I stepped into Parnassus On Wheels, I purchased my own signed copy of Happy Marriage, so the visit to the mobile Parnassus wasn't without very happy results.