It is a truth universally acknowledged that any book lover in possession of a place to call home must be in want of a good bookstore.
If you love Jane Austen, you’ll know that I borrowed–and reimagined–her immortal opening line from Pride and Prejudice, my personal favorite of her six much-revered novels. It was in July that I first walked through the doors of Interabang and was immediately smitten (unlike Elizabeth Bennet, when she first encountered Mr. Darcy in P&P.) For starters, this year marks the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, and small stacks of her six novels were enjoying the spotlight on one of the store’s large front tables. Paperbacks, but not just any paperbacks. Lovely Janes, each cover similar but a little different, like six sisters blessed by a great gene pool. I wanted to snap up one of each to replace my aging dog-eared copies at home, but forced myself to shop for other books instead. It wasn’t difficult. The store seems a perfect size–not too big, this one’s just right, as Goldilocks said in that book about her run-in with the three bears. The friendly staff knows their books and is happy to make recommendations, or they’ll graciously let you explore the wonders of the place on your own.
Interabang had its official opening a week ago Monday, and there was a launch party that evening. Everyone was welcome, and I was one of 300+ people who stopped by. The place was packed; the vibe was great: live music, waiters wandering the crowd to offer wine, beer and nice hors d’oeuvres. The main draw, however, was Ann Patchett, another novelist beloved by many readers around the world. She’d come to Dallas–not to promote her own novels–but to cheer us on and applaud our support for a grassroots movement to bring back the Independent Bookstore. The cause is close to her heart. She lives in Nashville, TN, and by early 2011, the downtown area’s last two bookstores–a Borders and an Independent purchased by a chain a few years earlier–had closed their doors. Even though both were profitable. Bookstore lovers there were sad, but nobody came forward until Ann decided to put up the money and partner with a woman who worked as a sales rep for Random House. Together they realized a dream and opened Parnassus Books in late 2011. And it was that achievement–that debut–that landed Ann on the front page of The New York Times. That’s remarkable. Ann has been book-famous ever since her breakthrough, award-winning fourth novel Bel Canto became a Best Seller, but the release of a new book isn’t page A1 News. It took opening an indie bookstore to get her that free publicity.
The day before the Launch Party a friend of mine who rarely reads novels (other books, yes) raved to me about an Audible book she was listening to, Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett. “What a coincidence,” I said, and told her about Ann coming to Interabang. She insisted on going. We were in the children’s section when she ran into an old friend who’d moved away twenty years ago. Soon we three were talking books & life with an ever-expanding circle of strangers and acquaintances and all the while, the woman’s nine-year-old daughter–fresh out of ballet class–pirouetted past the Picture Books. The girl appeared to be the only child at the party, but she didn’t look out of place.
“Interabang: a punctuation mark in the form of a question mark superimposed on a exclamation point.” The Free Dictionary
“The Bookstore Strikes Back” is an article Ann Patchett wrote for the December 2012 issue of The Atlantic magazine, a year after Parnassus Books opened. In it, she talks about how she wanted to re-create the bookish happiness of her childhood with “a store that recognized it could not possibly stock every single book that every single person might be looking for, and so stocked the books the staff had read and liked and could recommend.” She consulted an entrepreneurial friend, who told her it was a bad idea, especially since Ann planned to turn over the running of the business to someone else. Once she met her future business partner, she threw that advice in the paper shredder and decided to go with her gut. It was the spring of 2011, and she was about to start a book tour for her latest novel, State of Wonder, and she decided to tell everyone she met about her future bookstore. Most people said things like, books will be dead in two years–along with bookstores. And yet her bookstore was all the journalists who interviewed her wanted to talk about. They told her about their favorites and, off the record, wished her success. Ann didn’t believe books were dead. She refined her pitch. “The small independent bookstore is coming back. It’s part of a trend.” After the independents were crushed by the big chains and then Amazon crushed the big superstores, she further explained, “We realized what we had lost: the community center, the human interaction.”
I not only hope she’s right, but I believe she’s right. Parnassus Books, Ann told us, is profitable. That means it serves a need and gives customers what they want. If they have to pay a little more, they’ll do so if they can. There’s room for everybody: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, some of the other chains, and the Independents. We have more power than we know.
At the end of her talk at Interabang, Ann implored us, Don’t leave this store without buying anything. Even if you read your books on a Kindle or a tablet, there are many beautiful gift items you can buy to support the store. And there are: pens, pencils, reading glasses & eyeglass cases, notecards, Zen puzzles, etc. But the emphasis is on books. When I left, the line to buy was out the door. I had to be somewhere else and didn’t obey Ann’s edict but I didn’t feel too guilty about it. I’d bought a number of books a few days earlier and knew I’d be back in the near future.
Do you have an Independent bookstore in your city/town? Or a favorite one from your childhood? How do you prefer to read your books? (Or do you listen?) Please share.