For years, the struggles of the bookstore market has made headlines aplenty as more and more consumers turn their attention to being visually entertained via phones, tablets and televisions. From quick online videos via YouTube to longer pieces via streaming sites, consumers’ are embracing video streams like never before. And for those book-minded consumers, rather than picking up a physical book, many consumers have embraced the ease and accessibility of today’s e-books.
And while the printed page is still very much preferred by the majority of bookstore consumers, independent booksellers continually grapple with capturing the attention of consumers who are bombarded with entertainment avenues aplenty. They also need to compete with large retailers such as Amazon, who can often offer deep discounts on popular book titles.
For one independent bookstore, Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, the hard work of winning the hearts of consumers is paying off. Parnassus was founded in November 2011 by Karen Hayes and bestselling author Ann Patchett after all of the bookstores in Nashville, both independent and chains, closed.
“Since we’ve been open, we’ve doubled in size, hosted an average of 300 events each year, and even partnered with Hudson Booksellers to open a location in the Nashville airport,” says Sarah Arnold, marketing and communications manager, Parnassus Books. “We’ve experienced a lot of change over the past ten years, but our mission has remained the same: We want to provide a venue for writers to connect with readers, and for readers to connect with books.”
One of the biggest draws of Parnassus Books for the consumers who visit is the fact that the store is owned by one of the industry’s most beloved authors, Ann Patchett.
“We sell tons of copies of our co-owner Ann’s books – she signs every single one and will even personalize them if you’d like. Her most recent book, a collection of essays called These Precious Days, was our top seller in 2021, even though it only came out in November,” Arnold says. “We also sell quite a few copies of books by our local authors. Jon Meacham, Mary Laura Philpott, Margaret Renkl, Ruta Sepetys, and so many other talented authors who call Nashville home, and we love being their hometown bookstore. Our customers are any and all book lovers in Nashville and beyond. We ship worldwide, and we’ve gotten orders from as far away as Australia.”
In addition, the indie bookstore offers a series of book recommendations – from staff’s favorite picks to Ann Patchett’s latest favorites to popular pre-orders. They strive to provide ample options for customers to find their next favorite read. The store also features almost daily events, both in-store and virtual, to further connect with customers – including visiting authors, book signings, and book club events. Also, the bookstore offers a unique first editions club, a membership based club whereby members received monthly signed first editions for their book collections.
Of course, to survive in the increasingly different realm of independent bookselling, a retailer has to make a name for itself and make an effort to offer a unique experience to today’s discerning consumers. As such, Parnassus Books boasts both human and canine staff. On any given day, there will be up to six dogs roaming around the store, greeting customers and asking for treats.
“Our customers love them as much as we do,” Arnold says. “We also have our own online literary magazine, Musing. We post our staff recommendations there every month, along with author interviews, book excerpts, and the Shop Dog Diaries, a blog written by the shop dogs.”
In addition, the team at Parnassus Books strives to create a unique, memorable customer service experience that entices customers to return, and to provide the much-cherished word-of-mouth marketing that specialty retailers crave.
“We have an incredibly smart and friendly team of booksellers who can recommend a book to anyone, even the pickiest of readers. We set ourselves apart from Amazon and other online retailers by offering the things no algorithm can: real, knowledgeable people who know what you read last and what you should read next,” Arnold says. “Our goal is always to create a warm, engaging, bookish environment for our customers.”
And while the hiring landscape has changed so much over the last year or so, the biggest asset Parnassus Books offers to potential employees is a tight-knit, fun culture that they’ve built. As Arnold explains, the nature of retail is for booksellers to come and go, but they really value their team and try to build a fun working environment.
In addition, Arnold and the rest of the book buying staff at Parnassus have developed a rapport with the publishing representatives that grace the market.
“All of the major publishers have reps who travel to meet with our book buyers periodically throughout the year. We’ve come to know them well, and we trust their opinion when it comes to the books they think will be big sellers for us,” Arnold says. In addition, Parnassus Books is a member of the American Booksellers Association, plus some informal social media groups of booksellers where people share tips and ideas.
Although earning the trust and confidence of their customers is paramount, especially in terms of gaining new customers though referrals, Parnassus also uses social media as one of its biggest tools to connect with customers – both existing and potential.
“We’ve built a significant following on Instagram, as well as Facebook, Twitter, and most recently, TikTok. We try to bring the experience of the store to folks virtually as best as we can,” Arnold says.
As such, Arnold recommends specialty retailers in any industry keep their community at the forefront of their mind, including your staff, your customers, and your community at large.
“They’re the ones who will keep you in business,” Arnold says. “And use social media to your advantage. Invest time and effort into building an organic following, and develop an aesthetic and social brand that reflect your business.”