Ann Patchett: Writer, and purveyor, of books

An author who pursues his or her craft by the book still won't enjoy success unless enough people BUY the book -- a lesson, Lesley Stahl of "60 Minutes" tells us, one respected writer has taken to heart:

Ann Patchett doesn't just write books, like her latest bestseller, "Commonwealth"; she sells them, at Parnassus Books in Nashville, her very own bookstore.

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Her own books are on sale, too. "It's very unseemly somehow -- the Catholic girl in me is like, 'I shouldn't be selling my own books.' But look, we are."

As you might expect from a novelist, there's a good story behind Parnassus Books, and it's one that's bigger than just one bookstore.

She has been called the "patron saint of independent bookstores." 

"And I am!" she laughed. "It's not just Parnassus Books in Nashville I promote. I really promote independent bookstores." 

Six years ago, at a time when bookstores were closing all over America, Patchett met Karen Hayes, who had just taken early retirement from a publishing company, and decided to partner up. Hayes had the experience, but not much money, so Patchett became the financier. "That was sort of our deal: 'I'll pay for everything, you do all the work, and we'll have a 50/50 partnership,'" Patchett said. "And it's really worked. You look around this store, this is all Karen."

Patchett isn't just the money bags, though.

"I know all the authors, and I have all the connections, and I'm the person who can get Yo-Yo Ma in the store, or get John Grisham to come, or whatever," she said.

When Yo-Yo Ma came, he brought his cello and played for 25 minutes.

One of the things indies do to bring people into their stores is have famous authors come and read from their latest books, like David Grann and his best seller, "Killers of the Flower Moon." Readings and signings help the authors and the indies sell books. 

"They've really woven themselves into the communities and become these wonderful cultural centers for authors to reach readers, and readers to reach authors," Grann said.

The store has doubled in size since they opened it in 2011, even though in the beginning very few thought they could make it.

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Bestselling author and independent bookstore owner Ann Patchett.

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"There were a couple of places that just didn't want us," Patchett recalled. "They said, 'Oh, bookstores are dead. You'll go out of business.' And they wouldn't rent to us. Are they crying now!"

lot of folks thought independent bookstores were dead. In fact, said Oren Teicher, head of the American Booksellers Association, "That's quite, totally untrue.

"There was the rise of the superstores, then the mass merchandisers, and then of course there was the Internet. And each year there's been some wave that was going to swallow us. But we're still here."

Independent bookstores fell from more than 3,000 to only 1,650. But there's been a healthy comeback. There are now 2,300 stores. Yet Amazon still controls about half of all book sales.

"Amazon gives huge discounts, it's so easy, you really don't have to get off the couch," said Stahl.

But Teicher noted, "You can't discover books online. You know, when you browse the shelves of a bookstore you're gonna find out about books you didn't know about."

Patchett said, "I think that what's happening is that people are missing the community that independent bookstores provide. We're creating an environment that is for a lot more than just selling books."

Stahl interrupted Patchett: "I have to stop you for one second, I'm hearing a dog barking in the background…"

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Lesley Stahl with shop dog Mary Todd Lincoln Coffman.

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"Because there's always a dog barking here at Parnassus! Somebody is always barking."

The so-called "shop dogs" of Parnassus are a big part of the store's homey appeal, and part of the draw. "You're not gonna get a dog on Amazon!" Patchett laughed.

The dogs are a lure for children whose books amount to a quarter of sales in all bookstores. Patchett was told you must always locate the kids' books in the back of the store.

"I would think, well, that's because you want the parents to walk through the store and shop," Patchett said. "No. It's because parents get involved with whatever they're looking at, and kids make a break for it. And you wanna have as much distance between the children's section and the front door because you don't want them running out the front door. You wanna have enough area that you can catch them. And it's really true!"

Teicher said, "You've got to create a place that people want to come to. Lots of stores have restaurants, they have bars associated with them."

Yep, Spotty Dog Books and Ale, in Hudson, N.Y., offers booze AND books.

No mixing drinks with Dostoevsky at Parnassus; Ann Patchett's celebrity is the draw, as is the case with other authors who've opened their own bookstores, like Judy Blume (Books & Books in Key West, Fla.), Garrison Keillor (Common Good Books in St. Paul), and Jeff Kinney (An Unlikely Story in Plainville, Mass.).

Truth is, Patchett doesn't spend that much time at the bookstore; she spends most of her time at home, in her second floor office, writing. She's produced 10 books so far, about friendship, family and human nature.

She's said she can't write villains. "I am terrible," she said. "I see their point of view, I feel for them. I'm really a total failure at bad people."

What she's great at is showing how everyday people can make the best of a bad situation. She says all her books have fundamentally the same theme: "Two groups of strangers are thrown together by circumstance and form a society or a family."

Much like "Bel Canto," her most famous book. It's the story of South American terrorists who hold diplomats and an opera singer hostage.

It's been staged as an opera, and will soon be a movie starring Julianne Moore. 

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Somehow Ann Patchett managed to turn even a book about terrorists into a love story. 

We wondered if there was any way she could create a bad guy.

Stahl asked, "So, if you were to write a book about independent bookstores up against some gigantic force from out there? Maybe something called Barnes & Noble? Or something called Amazon? You could probably create a villain!"

"I couldn't even make Amazon a villain," she replied, "because I think about people in rural Kansas, in tiny towns in Mississippi, where not only they don't have an independent bookstore, they don't have a Barnes & Noble! So my main thing is, I want people to read. So there is a place for all of us. I'm sorry. No villain!"

   
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