Novelist Ann Patchett on Running an Independent Bookstore During COVID-19
"We're all walking around in our blindfolds with sticks trying to find the piñata."
Photo: Courtesy of Ann Patchett
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.
View the full story here: Novelist Ann Patchett Gets Real About Running an Independent Bookstore During COVID-19.