We closed Parnassus Books, the bookstore I co-own in Nashville, on the same day all the stores around us closed. I can’t tell you when that was because I no longer have a relationship with my calendar.
All the days are now officially the same. My business partner Karen and I talked to the staff and told them if they didn’t feel comfortable coming in that was fine. We would continue to pay them for as long as we could. But if they were OK to work in an empty bookstore, we were going to try to keep shipping books.
Along for the Ride
In the first week we did kerbside delivery, which meant a customer could call the store and tell us what they wanted. We would take their credit card information over the phone and then run the books out to the parking lot and sling them into the open car window. Kerbside delivery seemed like a good idea but the problem was, so many people were calling that the staff wound up clustered around the cash registers, ringing up orders. No good. We reassessed and decided that all books would have to be mailed, even the books that were just going down the street.
We make our plans. We change our plans. We make other plans. This is the new world order.
Our bookstore is spacious and tidy, with rolling ladders to reach the highest shelves, a long leather sofa, and a cheerful children’s section with a colourful mural featuring a frog telling a story to a rapt pack of assorted animals. The backroom is the polar opposite, a barely contained bedlam jammed with desks, towering flats of broken down boxes, boxes full of new releases, boxes of books to be returned. There are Christmas decorations, abandoned spinner displays, dog beds, day-old doughnuts. We are squashed in there together, forced to listen to one another’s private phone conversations and sniff one another’s perfume.
It is not the landscape of social distancing.
I can’t tell you when the stores closed because I no longer have a relationship with my calendar.
But in the absence of customers coming to browse, the backroom folks have moved to the capacious store front, setting up folding tables far away from each other to make our private spaces. We crank up the music. We pull books off the shelves. The floor is a sea of cardboard boxes – orders completed, orders still waiting on one more book. We make no attempt to straighten anything up before leaving at night. We have neither the impetus nor the energy. There are bigger fish to fry. Orders are coming in as fast as we can fill them.
I think of how I used to talk in the pre-pandemic world, going on about the importance of reading and shopping local and supporting independent bookstores. These days I realise the extent to which it’s true – I understand now that we’re a part of our community as never before, and that our community is the world. When a friend of mine, stuck in his tiny New York apartment, told me he dreamed of being able to read the new Louise Erdrich book, I made that dream come true. I can solve nothing, I can save no one, but dammit, I can mail Patrick a copy of The Night Watchman.
At least for now. We’re part of a supply chain that relies on publishers to publish the books and distributors to ship the books and the postal service to pick up the boxes and take them away. We rely on our noble booksellers filling the boxes to stay healthy and stay away from each other. So far this fragile ecosystem is holding, though I understand that in the distance between my writing this piece and your reading it, it could fall apart. Today is what we’ve got, this quiet day in which finally there is time to read again. So find your local bookstore and see if they’re still shipping. It turns out the community of readers and books is the community we needed in the good old days, and it’s the community we need in hard times, and it’s the community we’ll want to be there when this whole thing is over.