With such evocative nicknames as the Athens of the South and Music City, U.S.A., it only makes sense that Nashville boasts a vibrant indie bookselling scene mashing together books, music, and neighborliness to create a loyal customer base.
Grimey’s, a 21-year-old record store beloved by Nashvillians and housed in a 4,000-square-foot former church, has been selling new and used books since 2013. The 200–300 new titles—30% of inventory—are primarily nonfiction pertaining to music and musicians, although the used-books selection is more eclectic.
“We tend to sell a good deal of Americana books, as well as books about the folk side of things,” says book buyer Jason Bennett, noting that perennial bestsellers are about and by country folk musician John Prine, who lives in Nashville and has performed at the store to promote both books and records.
Though Grimey’s is an institution, the most high-profile indie—a tourist destination in its own right—is Parnassus Books, founded in 2011 by author Ann Patchett and former Random House sales rep Karen Hayes. The double whammy of Davis-Kidd Booksellers’ closing in 2010 and Borders’s bankruptcy a few months later had devastated the two women and other booklovers in a city that has long prided itself on its literary chops.
“We have used bookstores, but the closest Barnes & Noble is 20 miles outside of town,” Patchett told NPR’s Diane Rehm at the time. “I can’t live in a city that doesn’t have a bookstore.”
In reference to Nashville’s classical aspirations, the store’s mission statement declares: “Mt. Parnassus in Greek mythology is the home of literature, learning, and music. We will be Nashville’s Parnassus by providing a refuge for Nashvillians of all ages who share in the love of the written word.”
Less than a decade later, Parnassus has kept that promise. The 5,000-square-foot store stocks 35,000–40,000 books for both adults and children, including a bay filled with signed copies of Patchett’s 12 books, plus her latest recommendations. Because so many customers are musicians, the store maintains a large selection of books about music. The store’s bookmobile, Peggy (short for Pegasus), makes regular stops at farmers’ markets, schools, and festivals, and there is even a Parnassus outpost at Nashville International Airport, managed by Hudson News.
Parnassus sponsors approximately 300 events per year, some in the store and larger ones offsite, with appearances by such local favorites as presidential biographer/historian Jon Meacham, whose latest book, Songs of America, coauthored by another local, Tim McGraw, was, with 1,600 copies sold, a Parnassus bestseller last year. Books by two other local authors topped the store’s 2019 bestseller list: Patchett’s The Dutch House (3,500 copies) and Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl (close to 3,000 copies).
Nashville is in the midst of a literary revival, and Parnassus plays a vital role in this. Along with the Nashville Public Library, NPL Foundation, Bookpage, and Humanities Tennessee, it cosponsors Salon@615, a series that brings more than 30 preeminent authors and other dignitaries to Nashville regularly each year. It is also the official bookseller for the 32-year-old three-day Southern Festival of Books that, after alternating for several years with Memphis, is once again held annually in Nashville and this year runs October 9–11.
A city with a full-scale replica of the Parthenon obviously revels in its eccentricity, and Parnassus, too, celebrates its quirks: not only do four “shop dogs” owned by various of its 30 employees roam the store while their owners are on duty but there is a piano for customers to practice on. Hometown celebrities like McGraw, Roseanne Cash, Robert Plant, and Faith Hill have been spotted browsing the shelves, but it is unclear whether they ever take advantage of the piano, although alt-rock musician Ben Folds’s in-store fund-raiser for NPL in August featured both a signing for his book, A Dream About Lightning Bugs, and a concert.
Amazon opened a bricks-and-mortar store in the mall across the street last summer, but Hayes reports that there has been no impact upon sales—although she admits that the store’s revenues have begun to level out after eight years of double-digit growth. “The real booklovers are not interested in walking into that mall,” she notes. “Amazon’s advertising for employees didn’t even mention books. That tells you everything you need to know. For us, the threat is online.”
Small Stores, Neighborhood Hangouts
On the other side of the Cumberland River from Parnassus, the Bookshop was opened in 2016 by a 20-year industry veteran, Joelle Herr, whose background includes editing stints with Running Press, Workman, and Sterling. Herr says that she had “an epiphany, a vision of a cozy, highly curated shop with a focus on the types of gift books I’d been editing for the better part of my career.” Finding “a great location” in her East Nashville neighborhood, she initially called it Her Bookshop as a pun on her surname, but changed it last year due to customer confusion regarding the bookstore’s target audience.
The store’s size, 550 square feet, Herr says, requires that the 2,000-title inventory be carefully selected, with a combination of books with known customer appeal, as well as books that they may not otherwise discover. Though the occasional tourist ventures into her store, Herr describes it as a neighborhood hangout. Its programming reflects this: rather than focus on author events, the Bookshop encourages interactions, such as a book club, where customers discuss the books they are reading, have read, want to read, and “even those we wish we hadn’t read.”
Late Migrations was a store bestseller last year, as was culinary revivalist Sean Brock’s cookbook, South. Brock—who is building a restaurant complex nearby—regularly dropped by during the holidays to sign stock, which helped drive sales. And Nashvillian Julie Sola’s two children’s books, Run Fast, Milo! and Possum Dreams, are also selling well, in part because Sola has led “some fun in-shop story times, allowing the kids to make their own prints from her original linoleum blocks.”
Music, fun, and personal connections permeate Fairytales Bookstore and More, a children’s store founded in 2008 by Tammy Derr, who died five years ago. Her husband and three teenage daughters have kept the store going, along with one other employee, a former teacher who brings her infant daughter to work with her.
“It was Tammy’s dream to open this bookstore, and her energy is still present here,” John Derr says. “This is her legacy. Her mission in life was to foster imagination and to connect kids with books.”
Like the Bookshop’s Herr, Derr describes Fairytales, which won the 2011 WNBA Pannell Award for best children’s bookstore, as a neighborhood hangout that takes a highly personalized approach to doing business: it doesn’t even maintain a website. The store takes up 850 square feet in a house that also contains an ice cream parlor. One room is filled with books, the other with toys.
“It’s a place for neighbors to come to, and it’s a birthday party headquarters,” Derr says, describing the 3,500-title inventory as emphasizing board books and picture books, though it carries books up through young adult. A section showcases local authors, as well as “a lot of books on music and our music scene.” He adds, “We try to cater to things that highlight Nashville.”
Describing the author as one of his “personal favorites,” Derr notes that John Carter Cash, “Johnny and June’s son,” has appeared at Fairytales to promote all three of his children’s picture books. And when Grammy Award–winning songwriter Scot Sax needed an illustrator for a picture book he’d written, The Mosquito & the Bumble Bee, Derr connected him with Molly Reynolds, then a store employee, who’s “now off as an artist.”
Making such connections is all in a day’s work, Derr says, explaining that he and his family have always strived to run a business where customers “don’t just connect with a retailer: they connect on a personal level with Nashville’s community, which is a melting pot of artists of all kinds: musicians, and authors, and other creatives.”