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Parnassus emerges as Nashville’s literary center

When the door swings open to Parnassus Books, the scene is one familiar to book lovers.

High gloss oak shelves loaded down with books line the walls from floor to ceiling. Crisp hardback books creak when their spines are forced open. Customers mill between the displays as soft, folksy tunes play. In other words, just like any typical bookstore.

But Parnassus is no standard bookstore.

The Green Hills independent store was born out of a partnership between best-selling author Ann Patchett and publishing veteran Karen Hayes and has developed into a community hub.

Now celebrating more than a year in business, Parnassus’ beginnings center around what many had dubbed the end of the independent bookstore in Nashville.

In December 2010, Nashville mainstay Davis-Kidd Booksellers declared bankruptcy and closed its doors. That left a hole in a city used to frequent literary tour stops but it also created an opportunity, Hayes said.

Following the initial announcement of the closing, Hayes and her friend began talking about opening a bookstore of their own – jokingly, at first.

“I always thought that’s crazy but then I thought, no, that’s not crazy. This town needs a bookstore,” Hayes said.

Two months later, Hayes opted to take an early retirement option offered by Random House Publishing to start crafting plans.

While Hayes’ ideas were coming together, financing them was still a major concern until Patchett got involved.

The two met through mutual friend Mary Gray James, now the children’s manager at Parnassus, in early April 2011.

“I think it was fate because I’m the only one that each of them knew,” James said. “Ann and I were talking over lunch when she started talking about opening a bookstore … she said yes, I really want to own a bookstore, I don’t want to be in it, I don’t want to run it but I want to own a bookstore. Then I said ‘There is someone you really need to talk to.’”

Over lunch at Fido’s, James and Hayes laid out a presentation complete with a five-year financial plan.

“Ann just listened politely and then quietly said, ‘Or I could just write a check,’” James said.

Patchett’s underwriting of Parnassus freed up Hayes to design all of the elements for the store, including the name, which she said came from title of a 1917 book called “Parnassus on Wheels.”

“It’s a real lovely little book and I thought let me see what else Parnassus means. I looked it up and Parnassus in Greece is considered the home of the Muses. The home of poetry, literature, art and music,” said Hayes. “I thought, ‘This is the Athens of the South, so it’s like that’s the perfect name for a bookstore in Nashville.’”

Patchett wasn’t so keen on the idea of the name at first, but “finally embraced it.”

Patchett wasn’t the only one embracing Parnassus. Six months later, the store opened to national media attention.

Shortly after a founders’ party held at the store prior to the grand opening in November 2011, the New York Times published a front page story about Parnassus that led to a crowd of people and an earlier-than-expected opening, said Hayes.

USA Today, BBC and even Oprah Winfrey have now all published something about the independent bookstore.

“We had to hit the ground running because it was the holiday season, but the community was so supportive. They were so ready for a bookstore. They have just not let up on that support,” James said. “They truly love the store and have kind of claimed it for their own, which is what we wanted.”

To continue building this relationship between store and community, Parnassus has adapted a variety of programs built to cater to the neighborhood. These events vary from high-profile author book signings, twice-weekly storytimes, monthly educational presentations by the Nashville Jazz Workshop and local gallery partnerships.

“We are trying to just continually looking for different ways that we can be of value to the community and value in other ways too,” said Hayes.

Partnerships between the store and the Nashville Public Library, Humanities Tennessee, the Library Foundation and Belmont University have developed as a way to expand community outreach and to make the events “even bigger than Davis-Kidd could.”

Now with a whirlwind 15 months behind her, Hayes is certain about not just what keeps her business on track, but what keeps customers coming back.

“We fit our community,” she said.

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