Tennessee is best known for Dollywood, Graceland, Jack Daniel’s, and Nashville’s Music Row, but it is also increasingly becoming known for its bookstores. Since the closure of Nashville’s famed Davis-Kidd Booksellers in 2010, followed by the closure of Nashville publisher United Methodist Publishing House’s 38 full-line and 19 seminary Cokesbury bookstores in 2012, bookstores in Tennessee have begun coming back. Some never went away, like 142-year-old Burke’s Book Store in Memphis, one of the 10 oldest bookstores in the country, and 31-year-old Alkebu-Lan Images Bookstore, one of roughly 55 remaining African-American bookstores in the U.S.
One advantage booksellers in the state have, notes Wanda Jewell, executive director of the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance, is that since Tennessee is home to Ingram, they’re able to get their books quickly. “Every dog has its day, and it seems like we’re seeing a combination of things where people are feeling a need for community in part because of politics,” she says. “People are feeling disconnected and looking for ways to feel connected. People who visit bookstores and love bookstores feel safe in bookstores. I think it’s true everywhere, and certainly in the South and in Tennessee,”
Deborah Stewart, manager of Alkebu-Lan Images Bookstore, attributes the store’s longevity to its community and the fact that people are hungry for knowledge that they’re not able to find elsewhere. Given today’s political climate, that hunger has only grown. “People are becoming more aware of who they are and how they’re treated,” Stewart says. “There’s so much going on in the political arena and in everyday living. So there are a lot of people looking for a comfort level and a sense of solidarity—and they come here to find it.”
The store’s bestselling titles in 2017 include Carter Woodson’s The Mis-education of the Negro and Willie Lynch’s The Willie Lynch Letter: The Making of a Slave, as well as books on holistic living, Islamic belief systems, and Christianity. “In today’s world, people of color have no idea what their next move is going to be,” Stewart says. “So the question is where to get that knowledge, and that’s where we come in. That’s what we do.”
Community lies at the heart of Nashville’s the Rabbit Room, one of the state’s many Christian bookstores, which was founded by Andrew Peterson in 2006 as an experiment in creative community. It has made a name for itself by not only selling books and music but, since 2008, by publishing as well. “We had problems finding books we love in the tradition of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy,” says Peterson’s brother, writer Pete Peterson, executive director of the Rabbit Room. “We were interested in keeping our eyes open to the kinds of titles we wanted to publish that helped to form us.”
The road to publishing was a slow one, but the Rabbit Room’s latest title, Every Moment Holy by Douglas McKelvey, a $35 book of liturgies, has done particularly well. Published in November, it sold out its initial print run of 3,000 leather-bound and embossed copies in less than three weeks.
Peterson says that being based in Nashville has been integral to the Rabbit Room Press’s success. “A lot of the people in our community are artists, and over the last 10 years a lot of writers have looked and seen how musicians are making their own route and building their own communities,” he notes. “Authors are following that path.”
General trade stores are also rebounding in Tennessee. Novelist Ann Patchett and Karen Hayes opened Parnassus Books in 2011 to fill the void left by Davis-Kidd’s closure. Parnassus more than doubled in size in spring 2016, going from 2,000 to 5,000 sq. ft. It also added a mobile counterpart, Peggy (short for Pegasus), which it takes to festivals and schools. In summer 2017, Parnassus partnered with the Hudson Group on a store at Nashville International Airport. But Hayes says that she’s not interested in opening additional bricks-and-mortar locations. “There are other ways in which I’m happy to grow,” she says.
Hayes is happy to see the bookselling community grow. “We’re finally seeing stores open up,” she says. “When we opened, there were used bookstores. Now in East Nashville there’s Her Bookshop, which is doing very well. Starline Books in Chattanooga has opened, which is very encouraging, because Chattanooga really needed [a bookstore]. It was a big hole.”
Burke’s co-owner, Cheryl Mesler, says that 2017 was an “interesting” year. “Interesting because I don’t think people think of Memphis as a book town,” she explains. “But after Borders and places like that closed, we were down to just a couple of stores in the city limits—us and Booksellers of Laurelwood. Right after the new year, the owner of Booksellers announced that they were closing in February. But the city came together, and they didn’t close up.” Instead, a 27-person investor group opened Novel in the Laurelwood Shopping Center, in a store about half the size of the former 25,000-sq.-ft. Booksellers.
Matt Crowe, one of Novel’s three managing members, says he thought someone needed to step in. Novel met his three criteria for launching a startup: “Is there a market? Do you have the right people involved? And can it be done with a reasonable sum of money? We knew the market existed because there had been a successful bookstore there for 30 years. We had a deep bench of managers and sellers available to us from Booksellers. And finally, we thought the numbers were good enough to make it work from a financial perspective. We hit up friends, put up our own money, and did it.”
Just three months after Booksellers closed, Novel opened with a 10,000-sq.-ft. selling space, an additional 1,500-sq.-ft. special events area, as well as a 3,100-sq.-ft. in-store café/restaurant, Libro, at Laurelwood. “We have the benefit of Parnassus in Nashville,” Crowe says. “And, in a lot of ways, we try to follow their model. They’ve been very helpful. The entire community has been fantastic. We’re great friends with Burke’s, for example, and we work together when and where we can. We’re aligned together to support local bookselling.”
Novel’s opening has “been very good for us,” Mesler, at Burke’s, says. “It’s brought to people’s attention the importance of independent booksellers. It’s very encouraging. Ten years ago we were on the brink of closing, but people recognized that we needed to be here and people came. We’ve been here 140 years, and I’m going to be here until I die.”