Ann Patchett Gets Real About Running an Indie Bookstore During a Pandemic

Leigh Haber
·9 mins read
Photo credit: Courtesy of Ann Patchett
Photo credit: Courtesy of Ann Patchett

From Oprah Magazine

Some might say novelist Ann Patchett is a patron saint of independent bookstores. After two of the remaining bookstores in her hometown of Nashville closed, Patchett and her business partner Karen Hayes opened Parnassus Books in 2011.

Since then, she and Hayes have run one of the most well-regarded bookshops in the country, and Patchett has emerged as a powerful advocate for all indies. She is one of several prominent writers who have established independent bookstores—among them Emma Straub and Louise Erdrich—and are using their literary clout to help ensure other writers’ words are read.

To commemorate Independent Bookstore Day—a holiday that feels even more worthy of celebrating during a pandemic—I spoke with the Dutch House and Bel Canto author about how she and other booksellers are navigating these rocky times.

I wanted to check in with you on what your store and others are doing to survive in this challenged era of COVID, when many stores have had to close, either temporarily or permanently.

You know, we're all walking around in our blindfolds with sticks trying to find the piñata. Somebody spun us around three times and pushed us into the center of the room. That's kind of how it feels. We haven't figured it out—none of us—though what’s been lovely is that independent bookstore people are really coming together. We've been very supportive of one another, and we're all in touch. "How are you doing? What are you doing? What are you thinking? What is your plan?" People have been very willing to share. "Do you want to partner on this event?"

A lot of bookstores are doing virtual author events that seem to be generating a lot of engagement.

That's true. I talk to Elaine Petrocelli, who runs Book Passage in Marin, all the time. I love her. We discuss how to be independent and competitive but still unite and help one another. She invited me to interview Louise Erdrich for a Book Passage event, and we had about 3,500 live views while having the conversation, and thousands more in the following weeks. Apparently while it was going on, people were calling their friends to urge them to listen in.

I feel a “but” coming…

But Book Passage only sold 17 copies of The Night Watchman during that event, and my store sold just one.

Oh no…but what about your Tuesday Instagram posts, which I love? They must be selling books.

Yes, those started out at first with me just holding up a just-released book and talking about it for 30, 45 seconds. For instance, "I love Such a Fun Age, and this is what I love about it, and why you should buy it." Then I thought, Okay, I've got all of these dresses I’m not wearing now, right? I live in the South. I've got ball gowns. I've got cocktail dresses.

I know, our wardrobes aren’t getting much use these days.

Right. And so I started getting dressed up, in part because I had been wearing sweatpants for such a long time and shorts...and, in part, because anything I can do to get people's attention and sell a few books, I’ll do. And so if I put on jewelry and red lipstick and a ball gown and hold up a book, people seem to pay more attention. If I wasn't so old, I would no doubt be doing it in swimwear.

And then you bring in colleagues. By the way, these happen on Tuesdays because publishers release new books on Tuesdays, right?

Yes, Cat is a staff member who writes these terrific staff newsletters every Tuesday, so I said to her, at one point, "Can we publish your Tuesday staff letters, because then people will know what's really new?" And she said, "No, they're too snarky. And I don't want to have to worry about not being snarky." And they are. So then I said, "Okay, we'll do a video every Tuesday instead."

So on Tuesday mornings we have a staff meeting in which Cat holds up every book and tells the staff about it. Then my colleague Rae Ann holds up all the children's books. And so now we essentially have made that into our IG video—again, it's just trying to take a swing at that piñata, hoping we’ll find the sweet spot.

How else are you innovating, since your store hasn’t fully reopened?

My sister, Heather, works at the bookstore, and she's in charge of shipping, which is hysterical because now that's all we do. Heather approached me and said, "I just want some mellow little job that will see me through to retirement, with no stress." So she took over shipping. That was of course pre-Covid.

Now she's working until 10 pm every night, printing out mailing labels. Together we came up with the idea that we would do Mother's Day gift boxes. When we took our proposal to the staff, they came up with the idea that the recipients would get no input on which book they would be getting, except for price point and genre: "Mystery or romance or lit." I thought it was such a bad idea, but it turns out that that is exactly what people want. They want to be relieved of all choices.

And they want a surprise.

Yes, they want a surprise. So it was like a box of stationary, some socks, two books, and the deal was, "Ann Patchett will write your Mother's Day card." So I wrote like 200 Mother's Day cards, and most of the boxes, I put together. So it was like, "Hey, this is from Katie. And I picked out these books for you for this reason, but I also really thought you'd like this baseball cap or whatever." I did that 200 times.

That's lovely.

That was big. And now we're doing baby boxes and birthday boxes. Hopefully, God willing, Christmas will give us another swell.

Are you planning to reopen soon?

For now we're so deep into just boxing, shipping, printing labels, and curb service. We run books out to the parking lot all day long. We’re not sure what open would look like. We’re going to wait and see what happens this fall. Meantime, we're trying to stay alive. We're being innovative. We are working hard. We haven't laid anyone off. We're still paying everybody's health insurance. Because Karen has been an excellent steward of our money, we have enough money in the bank to operate at a loss for a while.

Many independents have tip jars where you can just make donations if you want to.

Yes, we’re sponsoring an event with Lori Gottlieb, author of Maybe You Should Talk With Someone, and we’re putting out a tip jar for the first time.

Under normal circumstances, what does an independent bookstore offer you and your customers, besides books?

Community. That's what we are all about. A place to come, to hang out, to bring your kids, to come to a reading, to talk to other readers, to talk to the staff. The staff knows you. They remember what you like, all of those things. And it's so moving, because I've been working all these years off the idea of, Okay, you can get your book cheaper on Amazon, but we offer this extra thing. We're offering you community and a warm, safe, loving, smart place to be no matter who you are, where everybody can come together.

They can talk, they can sit quietly. They can read a book, then buy a book or not buy a book. Everyone's welcome. It really is the closest thing that we've got to a community center. It's like a library. Many of which are gone now. But we’ve got our customers’ loyalty. They could get their books more cheaply from Amazon, but they choose to stick with us.

That's wonderful.

It is just enough to make me put my head down on my desk and sob. It's like, okay, we're here for you. Okay. Now you're here for us.

You have been working for a long time on a program that helps booksellers in times of need, right?

That’s right, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, also known as BINC. It’s for booksellers in distress—they’re sick, or short of money. Authors like me, or John Grisham or Stephen King put out tip jars at their events to raise money for BINC, for booksellers who, say, can’t afford health insurance or something else they urgently need. One employee of mine who was very sick received a BINC grant to pay for her rehab. Unfortunately she passed away, and BINC helped pay for her funeral expenses.

That’s wonderful. I have one last question. What are you reading right now?

There’s never just one answer. What I am actually reading right now is called The Index of Self-Destructive Acts by Christopher Beha, because I just met him and I like him. Last night, I finished the audio book of Actress by Anne Enright, which, is one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to. And I am tremendously excited about Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom. It’s brilliant. I also love Black Bottom Saints.

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