Monday, October 27, 2014

The book evangelist

Author Ann Patchett will be honored next week in New York with the 2014 Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement. Patchett honored the Kenyon Review last weekend with her presence at the Kenyon Review Literary Festival in Gambier, Ohio. I was there for half a day Saturday and got a double dose of the engaging writer.

That afternoon at the Kenyon College Bookstore, she participated in a panel discussion on the future of independent bookstores with other bookstore owners and managers. In addition to being a full-time writer and the author of such books as State of Wonder and This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Patchett is co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn.

Patchett said she usually comes in every other day for a few hours and is the only unpaid staff member. No need to feel sorry for her, however, as so many of the store's customers stop in primarily to see her, to buy her books and to get her to sign them. Thus, owning a bookstore promotes her primary career as an author.

She describes herself as a "book evangelist," someone who is quick to promote certain books she regards highly. Among the books she said she lately has been advocating for are Marilynne Robinson's novel Lila and Station Eleven, a science fiction novel by Emily St. John Mandel.

In addition to urging customers to buy certain books, she also, unusual for a bookstore owner, tries to talk them out of buying certain other books. "I am somebody who is always taking books away from people," she said.

As successful as her Nashville store may be, Patchett said she has no interest in expanding the size of the store and adding a second location. "My goal is to not succumb to 'bigger is better,'" she said. "The point of success is not getting bigger." Growing too big without having people at the top capable of managing a business of that size was the main reason way Borders failed and why Barnes & Noble may be in trouble, she said. The problem for large book dealers is not the lack of customers but the lack of proper management, she said.

Nor is Patchett interested in selling gift items or anything other than books in her store. "I want nothing to do with the coffee business," she said.

Next time I will share what Patchett said about writing in her lecture later that day at Kenyon College.

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