The “Davis” of Davis-Kidd Gets Back into the Bookstore

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Karen Davis does her best Amy Poehler and says YES PLEASE to spending her holidays as a bookseller.

You could say Parnassus has books in its blood, and not just because it’s owned by a novelist and a publishing veteran. Many of the people connected to this store have been working in the book business for years. Case in point: For the past four holiday seasons, we’ve been joined in December by expert bookseller Karen Davis. That’s Davis as in Davis-Kidd Booksellers, the independent retailer known to Tennessee book lovers for decades. Davis created a piece of Nashville history, and having her with us at this time of year reminds us that we are part of a long bookselling heritage.

In the months before Parnassus opened in 2011, Davis freely offered her advice and support — vital help considering we opened in November and immediately faced the holiday shopping season.  Since then, she’s been a friend and advisor. Get to know Davis a bit through the Q&A below, or come see her at the shop before Christmas.

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For those who don’t know, can you give us a quick history lesson on Davis-Kidd Booksellers?

Davis-Kidd Booksellers opened in October 1980 in Green Hills in a 3,500 square foot space about a block from where Parnassus is now. By the time we sold the company in 1997 [to Joseph-Beth, the company that ran Davis-Kidd until closing it for good in 2010], it had four locations in Tennessee: Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, and Jackson. In 1983, we moved the Nashville store to the Mall at Green Hills; then in 1988 we moved to a location just across Hillsboro Road from where we began. That space was 25,000 square feet and included a café. All of the stores were large general bookstores, but the Nashville store was the flagship.

How did you find your way to a bookselling career?

logodkI grew up in Chesterfield, a farm community in West Tennessee; graduated from Abilene Christian College in Texas; then moved around a bit before coming to Nashville to get a Masters Degree in Social Work from the University of Tennessee-Nashville. After graduation I worked as counseling coordinator at Planned Parenthood of Nashville. From my Texas years, I had a good friend, Thelma Kidd, and when she and her family moved to Nashville, we began talking about opening a general bookstore here. Women-owned businesses were a novelty at the time, but with our tenacity we convinced the bank that we were serious and capable and we would succeed. This was not a hobby we were proposing!

What has changed the most in the way people shop for books since you opened Davis-Kidd? 

The greatest change since those days has been the development of shopping online. That was only at its beginning in 1997 when we sold our business. From the business side, the development of marketing via nonprint media in all its forms is very different from the days of marketing by print and radio/TV.

What hasn’t changed?

I think the least change in shopping for books has been in the area of childrens’ books. Parents and adults in general want to read to children from real books and want their children to read books.

Wackiest book request you ever received from a customer?

In the mid-1980s there were two popular (and very different) books: The Color Purple and Color Me Beautiful. Several times we had a customer request “Color Me Purple.” There was also a book in the computer section on UNIX, and we once got a request from the customer: “I would like the computer book on eunuchs.”

How do you envision the future of independent bookstores?

It is almost impossible for me to imagine a time when people will not want books in the paper format. That includes me. I want to hold a book in my hand. I want to underline. I want to flip back to re-read sections. However, all independent businesses — whether bookstores or hardware stores — will have to continue to add value to their product in some way…..impressive service, convenience, knowledge. I also think our communities are short on gathering places and need them. Look at Starbucks. A bookstore is a logical gathering place. Davis-Kidd had an excellent inventory, but more than that it was a gathering place.

gathering place
Readers gathering in Parnassus Books

When you walk into a bookstore as a customer, what section of the store do you gravitate to first? 

New releases, fiction and nonfiction.

What’s on your to-read list?

My to-read stack has Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar, Small Victories by Anne Lamott, and Bear Shadow — a book recently written by my brother, John Davis.

You’re in the travel business now. How did that start? 

Two of my favorite things have always been reading and travel. That I have been able to do both is a double blessing. My travel business actually started in Davis-Kidd Booksellers. Taking a vacation in 1988, I signed up for a week of walking in Exmoor, England. As we walked each day in the beautiful countryside, an idea began to form. I felt sure we had customers at Davis-Kidd who would enjoy this experience if someone planned it and took care of all the details. I asked the guide — who was Welsh — if I brought a group, where should we go? He said the Pembrokeshire Coast of Wales is beautiful for hiking, and he agreed to be our guide.

Following a slide presentation at Davis-Kidd one summer evening saying I would be taking a group of 14 to Wales in the fall, double that number wanted to go. So in September, 1993, I took two groups of 14 walking in Wales. From that first experience, I expanded destinations over time to include hiking in Ireland, England’s Lake District, Scotland, Normandy, Italy, Spain, and Costa Rica. In 1997, Davis-Kidd Travels became KDavis Travels when we sold the bookstore business. Operating from an home office, I now do four or five trips each year with clients returning year after year. It’s great, and books are often the topic of conversation along the trail.

Anything about running a travel business that’s similar to running a book business? 

Yes: taking good care of the client, attending to details, staying in touch, giving clear information, and providing a good experience.

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Davis will be with us only a few more days this season. Then she’s back to the travel biz. Stop in and say hello!