When Karen Hayes and I opened Parnassus Books in Nashville in November 2011, I hadn’t really considered what an enormous boon it would be to my lifelong preoccupation with forcing books on people. There were so many logistics to deal with — finding a space to rent that had good parking, finding employees, finding shelves — that there wasn’t a minute to think about the fun part: recommending books. After all, I’ve been telling people what to read since I was able to recognize words on paper. I was the kid extolling the virtues of “Charlotte’s Web” in the school cafeteria. “Fern saves the runt from being killed,” I told my friends. “And so her father lets her keep him.”
My family has long borne the tremendous burden of my suggested-reading lists. I’ve given books for every occasion: birthdays and Valentine’s Day and Arbor Day. (They’re made from trees, after all.) At my insistence, my sister’s book club picked Héctor Tobar’s “Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free” the month it came out. They might have preferred to wait for the paperback, but I loved that book so much I needed them to get to it right away.
But now that I own a bookstore, I no longer need to rely so heavily on my immediate circle to ensure that people are reading the books I love. At Parnassus, there is a constant river of people flowing past the new fiction releases, past U.S. history and down toward the children’s section, and many have no idea what they want to read. They’ll walk right up to me and say, “I’m looking for a book.” I wait for a minute, thinking surely there’s going to be more to that sentence — “I’m looking for a book I heard about on the radio” or “I’m looking for a book like ‘The Goldfinch’ ” — but often there is nothing else. They just smile up at me, trusting and curious, waiting to follow my instructions. It makes my heart soar. I ask them to tell me the last couple of books they’ve liked, just so I have some idea of whom I’m talking to. Then I lead them gently over to the shelves and get to work.
I am not alone in my desire to press a good book into someone’s hands. We employ a host of talented booksellers who, like me, believe that recommending books is the birthright of every zealous reader. No matter how much we love a book, the experience of reading it isn’t complete until we can give it to someone who will love it as much as we do. Reading a book can be like dropping down into another world, and when we stumble out again, like Shackleton from the Pole or Darwin off the Beagle, there is a tremendous desire to grab the first person we bump into and say, “Let me tell you what I’ve seen.” At Parnassus, we practice a division of labor to cover more ground. Grace is best with Southern literature; Nathan knows poetry; Andy covers history and spy novels; Sissy and Steph are the experts in picture books, young-adult and middle school readers. It’s a kind of matchmaking, and I pride myself on making sure the right reader will be taking the right book to bed.
This is nothing at all like an algorithm. I don’t keep a piece of paper by the cash register and mark down how many of the people who bought “Gone Girl” went on to buy “The Girl on the Train.” I’m a reader who stays up half the night ruining my eyes because I can’t tear myself away from the new Richard Price novel, “The Whites.” When I recommend a book, it’s because I’ve read it, not because I’ve sold a certain number of copies.
And when’s the last time your Internet superstore told you that you might be making a mistake? I recently brought my friend Jane to the bookstore. Jane was visiting from Wisconsin. She picked up a novel that I, too, had been drawn to read. It started out with such promise and then disintegrated into a pile of ashes. I tapped the cover, shook my head. “Not this one.” I can’t always be there to steer people away from the bad book and toward a good one, in the same way I can’t always keep pedestrians from falling down open manholes. But when I see something, I say something.
Miriam, who is very good with fiction, agreed. “You have to know when to give a person a book, but you also have to know when to take a book away from them,” she said to Jane. “Otherwise how can anyone trust you?”
I went and got a copy of Mary Norris’s “Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.” “This,” I said with authority.
Jane said, “I loved this,” and handed it back to me. It had been out for only two weeks. There was no sneaking up on Jane.
Jane had read both of those already.
In the end, she bought a cookbook called “Prune” that I knew nothing about because I’m a vegetarian. The title is misleading. It’s not a book about prunes.
She also got a copy of “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar” by Cheryl Strayed. We keep a big stack of the paperback in the front of the store because many people at Parnassus, myself included, are obsessed with this book. There’s another good reason to own a bookstore: I can sell any book as if it were a current bestseller. I can put it front and center in the window just because I want to: “Act One” by Moss Hart, “Independent People” by Halldór Laxness, “Brother, I’m Dying” by Edwidge Danticat, “A Day at the Beach” by Geoffrey Wolff; we order piles of them, and they fly out the door all day long like they were the hot new Stephen King. When someone asks for a book, chances are they’re looking for something good, which doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be something new, unless it’s Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” because books on social media are always best when they’re fresh.
When Karen and I first opened the store, people went out of their way to tell us we were crazy, that bookstores were dead, that reading was over. They don’t say that anymore. There’s too much evidence to the contrary. Reading is a solitary act, but the transmission of books contains an aspect of joyful sociability.
Recently in the grocery store, one of our customers grabbed my arm. “You sold me ‘The Swerve,’ ” he said, his face lit up with joy. “What an incredible book. I give it to everyone now, and they think I’m a genius.”
I nodded my head in agreement. “A magnificent book.”
“I can’t stop thinking about it,” he said. “We’re all atoms.”
I told him to come back to Parnassus, that I’d find him something equally brilliant. There were books I had in mind.