Ann Patchett, The bookshop strikes back (Review)

I’m not normally an impulse buyer except, it seems, when I visit the bookshop at the National Library of Australia! I tell myself I’m not interested in little books – you know, the sort bookshops put on their sales counters – but somehow the National Library of Australia regularly manages to break down my resolution. Last year I reviewed Dorothy Porter‘s On passion which I bought from their counter. Today, I’m going to write about Ann Patchett‘s essay “The bookshop strikes back”.

My purchase went like this. I was standing at the counter a few days ago making my purchases when this tiny little 20-page off-white booklet caught my eye. I picked it up, and said to the bookseller, “This looks interesting”. “Oh yes”, she said, “we had them in for National Bookshop Day?” Well, I knew then what I had to do …

I’ve been trying to remember when I first heard that the book was dead, but I think it was back in the 1970s when it was argued that the easy availability of video would spell the end of reading. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same was said when movies appeared, when radio came on the scene, and so on. Surprisingly, though, books seem to survive! Except, it’s not surprising to us readers is it?

Books are facing a new challenge in our digital world – but, so far, the main issue seems to be more about the form of the book (as in print vs digital) than the survival of reading. However, bookshops do seem to be at risk. Ann Patchett suddenly found one day that her town, Nashville, Tennessee, no less, had no bookshops (other than a used bookshop and stores like Target). Apparently the last one to go – an independent that had been bought out by a chain – had been profitable “but not profitable enough”. Patchett’s discovery, albeit on a smaller scale, replicates the situation at my local mall, which is one of my city’s main shopping centres. Fortunately, though, we do have some great bookshops in other parts of the city.

Patchett doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing the whys, though the prevailing view seems to be that the combination of online bookselling giants like Amazon and the rise of e-books are causing the demise of bookshops – both chain stores and the independents. But, Ann Patchett believes things may be changing. She writes:

… all things happen in a cycle, I explained – the little bookstore had succeeded and grown into a bigger bookstore.  Seeing the potential for profit, chains rose up and crushed the independents, then Amazon rose up and crushed the superstore chains. Now that we could order any book at any hour without having to leave the screen in front of us, we realised what we had lost: the community center, the human interaction, the recommendation of a smart reader than a computer algorithm telling us what other shoppers had purchased.

This may be a little simplistic but history does have a habit of repeating itself doesn’t it! So Patchett, who was later “dizzied by the blitheness that stood in place of any business sense”, established, with two other women,  a new independent bookshop in Nashville … and found that on book tours for her most recent book, State of wonder, interviewers were more interested in asking her about her bookshop plans than about her book. She laughs that on the day the bookshop opened in November 2011, the New York Times ran a story with a picture of her on page A1, something that her agent and publisher would never expect to achieve on the basis of her role as a literary novelist.

This is not a highly analytical essay, but it’s a lovely read about the love of books and bookshops. It provides a nice contrast to the fascinating but ultimately sad story of a bookshop I read a few years ago – Annette Freeman’s semi-self-published Tea in the library. Freeman, like many booklovers, dreamed of having a bookshop – one in which readers could come, buy books, stay for a cuppa, and meet authors. She had a lovely vision, but it failed after a couple of years, something she explores openly and honestly in her book.

For Patchett though, so far so good. She’s not sure why they’ve been successful but she says

my luck has made me believe that changing the course of the corporate world is possible.

I hope she’s right – but I guess for her to be so, we need more brave (or blithe) booksellers and more readers who want the personal touch, because, after all, we are in this together.

Ann Patchett
“The bookshop strikes back”
London: Bloomsbury, 2013
ISBN: 9781408847497
Originally published in Atlantic Monthly, November 2012
To appear in This is the story of a happy marriage (Bloomsbury, later 2013)
Available: Online at Atlantic Monthly

37 thoughts on “Ann Patchett, The bookshop strikes back (Review)

  1. Carol D-M in our reading groups lives in Nashville and has written with enthusiasm about Pratchett’s bookshop there. So fun.

    I think we have historically read for the stories and for information to enrich our lives. But there are so many ways to get those things these days – we have movies and television and computer games and all the little reading and other devices. It’s not just about big box stores or the internet or people not reading. Pratchett is totally right – the loss of our bookstores is very complex. I don’t know about the cycles – I do hope she’s right though.

    • I immediately thought of Carol and guessed she might know it, Bekah. I loved the fact that in the essay she says she wanted to name the bookshop, Independent People, after Laxness’s book. That reminded my of my old BGL friends too.

      I hope she’s right too.

  2. Yes, I tried to leave a reply earlier, but my wifi cut out. I haven’t been to the bookstore, but Ms. Patchett has brought many authors to Nashville. It’s almost like having a continuous book festival. She works with the public library to sponsor. They call it 6:15, and usually, they will speak at 6:15 on a Tuesday night — big crowds for such an event. She has a new book out about her life that I will be getting to at some point. Heck, at some point, I’ll make it over to the bookstore, which is small but important. She went to school with my baby sister Linda.

    There are a few good things about Nashville and Ann Patchett is one of them.

    • Oh thanks Carol for joining in. She talks in the book about how as soon as the bookshop closed the library stepped into to help with author talks etc, the sorts of things the bookshop had done. There was even talk of a bookshop in the library complex … Briefly anyhow. You should go and report back. Patchett comes across as a lively, spontaneous, lovely person. I should read another of her books … Besides Bel canto.

  3. This is a great post. I’m an utterly huge fan of Ann Patchett. I didn’t realise she owned a bookshop. Good on her!

    The thing is that to have a store in a mall, you need ‘Profitability’. That’s the bottom line. Nothing else. Not personal service, personal taste, uniqueness, originality. Nothing else but PROFIT. That’s why, increasingly, you visit malls the world over, only to find the same shops.

    I also suspect you’re right about movies, radio, etc, spelling the end of the book. The book as a physical entity may decline, but the story will not. Readers will always need to read. It may not be on paper, but it will be in some format. For a start, I always read a transcript rather than watch the video, mainly because I read faster than people speak. Also, books always, with few exceptions, are so much better than the movie.

    • You’re right Louise. My favourite stores in our local mall are the independent ones … They are few in number, and often don’t last but they are what makes going to the mall a pleasure. It’s the same the world over, isn’t it? The US, Japan, Hong Kong … The places I’ve been to most recently.

      I’m a bit like you … I tend to read the transcript in preference … ABC program’s, oral histories. I feel I take it in more … That’s probably my personal learning style. I’m more verbal than visual and aural.

  4. LOL, the National Library Bookshop really knows how to get you to impulse buy! But what a nice buy you made. I remember hearing about Patchett opening a shop so I am glad it is doing well. And thanks for the link to the online version of the essay!

  5. Retired teacher distant cousins live in the Old Rectory of Elsworth – just outside Cambridge. It’s the house where the Revd Wilbert AWDRY (he was priest there in the mid-latter 1940s) wrote some of the earliest Thomas the Tank Engine books. The church (now next door through the fence) is Holy Trinity.The incumbent in the early 16th century was the theologian John WATSON – the Master also of Christ’s College in Cambridge – and a friend and correspondent of Erasmus – some suggest he may have at least passed through Elsworth? What made me feel at home there when visiting nearly a dozen years ago was that Alan’s books not only filled all the bookshelves but in piles were marching out from the base of the bookcases! His wife – not too dissimilar to my own wife re my books-taking-over scenario back in Japan where we then lived – made pointed if tenderly-expressed jokes about the situation. Fast forward to these days – my purchase of hard-copy books has almost – but not quite – come to an end. All the many bookcases at home now in Australia – are filled with thousands of books. Two weeks ago a book launch at Sydney’s Kinokuniya Bookstore saw me purchase two volumes: journalist/editor/historian Ian McARTHUR’s Henry Black (On Stage in Meiji Japan) and ABC journalist Walter HAMILTON’s book on the children to Japanese mothers left behind by Aussie BCOF servicemen and the then Australian Government – in Kure.Tthis coming week I’ll again be in Sydney to get the Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist – Wilfred BURCHETT – in book form. Yet recently I read on-line via Google the passionate Dymphna CUSACK autobiographical teaching book A Window in the Dark. And I have filled 15 shelves with digital books on my iPad Mini from iTunes – and on my iPad Mini Kindle app. via Amazon – another shelf is filling – two of the three there – courtesy of a niece in NY – being by Kurt VONNEGUT. When I was a boy I read all the books in my primary school library – then did my best with the high school library. Half my life ago I gave up smoking (after twelve years) and found books. In one of my former lives and last will and testaments – I had left my not inconsiderable OZ LIT collection to a university – but in these changed days I imagine everything is already digitally available and recorded – and that “bequest” no longer wanted! Hard copy not needed! The scene changes – but not the need for stories against which to measure our lives and and our world – of morality – of history or literary fiction or biography – of the spectrum of cultural and religious and technological expression!

    • That’s it isn’t it, Jim, our need for stories. Why people keep proclaiming the death of books or reading is beyond me … The forms in which we “take” our stories might expand, but we still love stories and we still read. Will text ever be completely replaced by the aural and visual? I really can’t imagine so.

  6. While I think that what Patchett did is admirable, I don’t know how it translates to the rest of the bookshop world. Any independent business is hard to run under the best of conditions as the self employed must save for their own pensions, buy their own health insurance and suffer the slings and arrows of workman’s comp. I was hit last year with a 20,000 bill for flood insurance for my building, for example, while my health insurance has almost doubled. How would a bookshop owner handled that? Many small business are no longer sustainable. Period.

    Patchett is famous, has a following and, I assume, has some money to spend on this. Regular people/owners don’t have the resources or the clout.

    • Oh you realist you, Guy! But, you have a point, particularly in the US, when you talk about social welfare issues like health. Patchett does recognise that her name may be a factor … Though you still have to run a shop well. I think too it’s a matter of what you are prepared to live on … A chain has shareholders who have to be “fed”. I’m not seeing a resurgence of independents here but several are surviving while the chains have gone … And that’s a little win. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years … With Patchett’s store and with others!

  7. I must admit that one of the things that is curtailing my bookshop purchasing is my frustration at what to do with the book once I have read it. I’m really trying to curtail all the clutter I seem to surround myself with. I use the library a lot and feel a bit guilty that I am not contributing financially to the author beyond the copyright payments they get. But increasingly I find myself weighing a book in my hand and asking myself “Am I really going to read this book more than once? Do I really NEED to have my own copy of it?”. Much of the time, the answer is ‘No’.

    • Oh yes, RJ, as I get older and thinking of downsizing, I’m starting to feel the same. I’m tending to go electronic more though, rather than the library, as I still like to feel I HAVE the book. I must say I haven’t got a lot electronically yet but that’s the way I’m thinking. It’s definitely the way I’ve gone with music.

  8. If an indie bookshop owner wants a self-saved pension of 30,000 a year, he’d better have 750,000 tucked away (25 years of .04% of nestegg and given typical pathetic interest rates). What bookshop owner is going to be able to save that? It’s just getting less feasible.

    • Yes, I’m sure you’re right Guy … I think two women are backing the shop and a third managing it. Presumably the two backers have other sources of income. (Well, Patchett clearly does.)

  9. A friend of ours who’s an economist says that online sales will transform retail over the next 15 years or so, and that what we will see in shopping centres in the future will be service industries i.e. services you can’t buy online such as hairdressing, restaurants and so on. There will be warehouse-showrooms which will make their money by charging a fee to let the customer inspect the washing machine or sofa and talk to an expert about the different brands and models, and then the customer will head for the computer in the shop or at home, and buy the product online (the showroom getting a commission for having made the ‘introduction’).
    If this scenario is correct then the only way bookshops will survive is if they offer a social experience i.e. service that the online store can’t offer. I am not talking about coffee shops in-store, I am talking about book groups, author talks, book launches, story time for little kids, loyalty cards and so on, complemented by email newsletters with links to their online presence so that the impulse factor can be harnessed and the book can be purchased online there and then. And they need to have a niche: it’s pointless them trying to compete on price with popular bestsellers stocked by department stores, they need to offer a great semi-exclusive range in some niche that makes it easy for the buyer to follow their interest e.g. art books, travel, literary fiction, whatever…
    My favourite bookshop (Benn’s Books in Bentleigh) has most of these features and that is why I buy many of my books from them, using online stores only for books that they don’t stock i.e. obscure novels in translation, old Nobel prize winners and hard-to-get classics.
    Sentimentality, trying to make online book-buyers feel guilty, and carrying on about the global market won’t do a thing to stave off this transition in retailing which applies across the board not just to books. The ones who survive are the ones who adapt!

    • That’s exactly what I’ve been saying to Mr Gums, lately, Lisa, as we’ve seen not so much the malls but our little shopping centres be transformed in recent years to mainly restaurants and other services. The things, as you say, you can’t do virtually. So I think your economist friend’s scenario is correct because it is happening here – Kingston is a perfect example. The furniture shops, the antique shops, the clothes shops, etc have gone. Restaurants galore, a gym, the PO etc make up the majority of what’s there now.

      So you are right about bookshops, and that’s exactly what Patchett says — author talks, bookclubs etc. Also the niche market as you say … as long as it’s a big enough niche! You probably don’t go into it for the money — but then a lot of us don’t choose our careers for the money do we!

      • Yes, it’s the same in our local strip shopping centre too, and I think they’ve adapted quickly because that’s how they’ve adapted to the mega-mall. I’ve overheard people in our mega-mall talking about how when they’ve shopped in the chains that have obliterated the small boutique shops, they head for the local eateries that are quiet, the hairdressers who have stable staffing, the gift shops that have distinctive products that you don’t get elsewhere, and the greengrocers who stock produce from Aussie farmers – and also take phone orders and deliver! They also like being able to park nearby, because the truth is that ‘convenient’ mega-mall parking often involves a long walk for the elderly or infirm. I suspect that as petrol becomes more expensive more people will rediscover shopping locally, I hope so…

        • I hope so too … our local centre still struggles a bit though coffee shops have proliferated in the last year or so. The big independent dress shop went. Its problem is its design … it’s a bit warrrenish rather than open, not a strip, and not inviting but there are good shops there … real butcher, green grocer, Asian goceries, Italian food store, etc.

      • I meant this:

        “Sentimentality, trying to make online book-buyers feel guilty, and carrying on about the global market won’t do a thing to stave off this transition in retailing which applies across the board not just to books. The ones who survive are the ones who adapt!”

        • Yes .. Agree with both of you. Life after all is about change and adaptation … Though too often we don’t like it when it’s in our own patch. In my profession, the change I hated most was the need to become entrepreneurial … But I think that’s the way it s now and nothing is going to change it in the near future.

  10. I really hope that Pratchett succeeds – could not believe that Nashville did not have a proper bookshop. The history of bookselling in UK is a complex one and reading about its history warns one against too much nostalgia but there was a brief period in 1980s/90s where there was a really strong bookshop presence in most towns and Waterstones chain probably did set new standards. That is long over and all the main high street bookchains are either dead or moribund. It is important to suppoert the remaing independents remembering that the ones that have survived are often superb.

    • Oh thanks for filling us in on the UK situation Ian … I knew of Waterstones of course but really nothing else about what’s been happening over there. Amazing how quickly things change eh?

  11. I do fear that there will be a lot less bookshops in the future. I do think some will survive and thrive. I think those that do will follow the model of a the hangout for bookish people who like the atmosphere and society that really good independent bookshops provide. I also hope and think that we will see a kind of interesting in high quality hard cover books that people will want to collect and that folks will buy in bookshops. Kind of like the way that vinyl records have made a major resurgence (at least they have in the USA).

    • I think you’re right Brian re the high quality hard cover books … I’ve heard that mentioned around the traps. Vinyl records have a following here too. (But I must say that when it comes to music I’m very happy to go digital). The old days of playing LPs that you had to flip over every 20 or so minutes (or stack on a stackable turntable) are well gone to my mind (I’m afraid!)

  12. I do admire Ann Patchett for opening a book store. The only other writer I can think of who has done that is Louise Erdrich with Birchbark Books.

  13. I’d love to go visit either or both of these bookstores just to see them. Sad to say I live in California and it’s a rare time I get to Nashville or Minneapolis – although I do go to both cities so … next time (10 years?) (heh). I’m reading Erdrich’s Love Medicine now – she’s uneven but this is a goodie.

  14. Hi Sue, an interesting reflection on Patchett’s book and the whole issue of how the online environment is having a negative economic impact on bookshops.

    A few thoughts.

    Firstly, where I live, an Australian town of 22,000 people, we’ve recently lost our last remaining bookshop; now I have to drive an hour south to a city of 350,000 to buy a physical book. Poor me.

    Secondly, I still far prefer physical books. By far. I like turning off all the machines, going OFF-line, sitting on the couch, and getting lost in reading. I simply don’t need an electricity-powered machine to do this; I like the stillness and immersion, and I don’t feel I get that from machines.

    As opposed to others, I love keeping the books, having them in my library (of sorts).

    Recently I read a novel for a judging panel I’m on and the only way I could get access to the book in time was to download it. I read it, and even though I wasn’t thrilled with the book, I still ended up buying a physical copy to add to my collection. I DO re-read books, and sometimes I think that I might like a certain book more later in life (when I’ve become an old man of considerable wisdom and maturity, he says hopefully). I believe there are many others who feel the same. But is there enough to keep bookstores alive? I think there will be in the bigger, more educated cities, but they’ll be rare.

    I’m not at all denying that there are many advantages of e-readers, and that to a writer (like me) I love knowing that what I write is available both physically and electronically. That’s a very positive advancement. I also like how someone might read an article or review on-line, they click on a link, and then – woops! – they’ve just ordered the book and it’s on the way to their front-door. Another very positive advancement.

    Having said all that, I’m one of the millions of people around the world who buy vinyl records. I have a four-year-old turntable (i.e. it’s not steam-driven) and I buy quite a few records each year. Why? Because they sound better. I also like have a physical product. More importantly, however, just like with books, I like sitting on the floor and listening – truly listening – to the music.

    Invariably people ask me where I buy records and ‘aren’t you just buying the old classic rock albums in second-hand stores?’ I buy NEW records, and I buy them from a record shop (found in the same city where I get my physical books). Are they expensive? About $30aud but more often than not that also includes a free download, and sometimes a CD as well. Yes, all for $30. If you don’t believe me, check out

    (I particularly like this para: “We never expected the vinyl resurgence to become as crazy as it is,” he said. “But it’s come full circle. We get kids calling us up and telling us why they listen to vinyl, and when we ask them why they don’t listen to CDs, they say, ‘CDs? My dad listens to CDs — why would I do that?”)

    I’m not wishing to deny the very real and significant pressure that physical bookshops are under, and that bookshops will probably continue to dwindle. But too many readers completely and utterly love the physical – bodily – experience of reading.

    To prove the point, I will now turn of this laptop and spend the rest of the day on the couch, under a blanket, a cup of tea beside me, and read a novel made out of paper and cardboard…

  15. Good for you Nigel! I hope you had a lovely time. i love to veg out on the sofa with my book. I still prefer paper too, and I still love to own physical books. and I feel I read paper better, if that makes sense. But I am starting to see that my future is likely to be a smaller house … I’m preparing myself mentally. And I do love e books for travelling.

  16. This sounds like a great essay and ties in very nicely with National Bookshop Day. I agree that trends do have a cyclical aspect and perhaps, in the next decade or so, bricks and mortar bookstores will be on the rise again. We want the serendipity of finding ‘that’ amazing read, that little gem and that won’t happen if we’re buying online. The convenience is there but the atmosphere? No. It’s a bit like the slow food movement, farmer’s markets – all those are hip and in vogue now.

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