Amid swirls of concern over the death of the independent book shop, Ann Patchett has been bringing "independent" back for the past five years at her Parnassus Books, a thriving book hub in Nashville she owns and runs with business partner Karen Hayes. Named for the mountain in Greece that was the mythological home of music, poetry, and knowledge, Parnassus Books is helping her live out one of her life callings: "[I] believe that recommending books is the birthright of every zealous reader." We
at the Free Library can’t help but recommend a few of her own powerful works, which include the bestselling Bel Canto, The Patron Saint of Liars, and State of Wonder. The PEN/Faulkner Award and Orange Prize winner is back with the tale of an unexpected romantic encounter in her newest book, Commonwealth.
What roles have libraries played in your life? What role do you think they play in our 21st-century world?
Libraries have been so many different things to me at different points in my life. As a kid the library was a place to meet my friends and do my homework, to stumble onto books I never would have known I was looking for. In college and graduate school the library was a place to get inspired. I used to go and look at books of paintings and books of photography to come up with story ideas. Later on libraries meant novel research. I would go to Vanderbilt’s library in Nashville to listen to record albums of old operas when I was writing Bel Canto. These days the library is part of my civic responsibility, helping to bring in writers to speak through a partnership with Parnassus Books.
I think the role of the library now is the same as it’s always been—making books available to readers—while taking on countless new roles: The library is a community center, an information center, a place to use computers, get help filling out a job application, a place for story time and book clubs and ESL classes. Some people think that libraries are becoming obsolete when in fact the opposite is true: They’re growing in every direction.
You have lived everywhere from Los Angeles to Nashville to Iowa to Massachusetts. How has living in so many places impacted your writing?
I did live in a lot of places when I was young. I moved around all the time. But I came back to Nashville (where I grew up) when I was 30 and I’ve been here for 22 years now. At this point I feel like I’m completely planted. It’s great to have friends in so many places, and I travel very easily. Still, I think if I had spent my entire life in Nashville, I’d probably still be writing the same books. I have a big imagination.
What has surprised you about owning your own independent bookstore?
I’m surprised by how much fun it is, how much I love the people I work with. We’re like a sit-com. There are five of us who bring our dogs to the store. We’re all books and dogs and candy from Trader Joe’s. As a novelist I’m used to being alone all the time, so I never knew it could be like this. Andy, our manager, said it was the only job he’d ever had where if the whole staff went in together to buy a lottery ticket and it won, none of us would quit.
To you, the Free Library of Philadelphia is also the Free Library of _____. Why?
The Free Library of the people, for the people, by the people. You can have the best building in the world (and you do), the greatest books, but what makes a library magic are the people who work there, the people who come in to use the services, and the belief that these books and services matter to the community. That’s what the Free Library has in spades.
Listen to Ann's recent conversation at Parkway Central Library with author Jacqueline Woodson!
This story was originally featured in our Fall 2016 issue of Off the Shelf, a biannual publication with news and features from across the Free Library of Philadelphia system.