Every December, we get an email from a man named Gerry Byrne, who lives in Arizona. It’s a pages-long list of more than a dozen family members — his wife, his children, an ever-growing number of grandchildren, plus in-laws — as well as notes about books he thinks they might like. We consider everyone’s interests and kids’ ages, add to the list, then pull together a custom pile of books for each person before shipping the presents out west. Our whole staff gets caught up for several days in the excitement of creating an entire family’s Christmas surprise. It has become an annual tradition.
Now that we know the family, we think of them all year. Our booksellers will periodically say, “I wonder if Laurel’s read this yet?” or “This would be perfect for Molly,” or “We ought to set aside a signed copy of this for Sean.” Ann Patchett and Karen Hayes get in on it as well, looking over the list and making suggestions to help match the right book to the right Byrne. (The Parnassus elves always throw in a few surprises for Gerry, too. We figure he spends all year thinking of the right books to give others; he deserves a little personalized Christmas cheer.)
“Working on Gerry’s list is probably my favorite part of Christmas at Parnassus,” says Niki Coffman, Parnassus marketing director. “I constantly pester Gerry to make a sojourn out to Nashville so we can finally meet him and the lovely Laurel.” We love telling the story of Gerry’s list and what it means to us, but it’s even better when he tells the story of what it means to him. So here’s a letter from the man, the legend… Gerry himself:
I have been giving my family books at the holidays for about 15 years. When I moved to Indiana, I developed a relationship with a small, independent bookstore owned and run by three wonderful women who tried valiantly to fight the good fight against “the evil empire” (Amazon, the Kindle, etc.). I spent a good amount of time with the owners each fall going over my list, and then come December we would finalize my list for each family member and place orders. They kept each year’s lists and became very familiar with my family’s likes and dislikes and would make suggestions.
Three years ago, I got a call from one of the owners. She was in tears. She informed me that they “just couldn’t make it anymore” and had to close the shop. I know it sounds totally lame, but we both acted like a member of the family had died.
Hence my search for a new “real bookstore.” One day during the mourning period for my local bookstore I was reading The Wall Street Journal and came across an op-ed written by one Ann Patchett. It was a letter to President Obama, in which she thanked him for visiting Nashville and complimented him on buying several books for his daughters, but took issue with his buying these books at the Amazon distribution center. Ann talked about how important local bookstores are to the community, and to new and emerging authors, and extended an invitation to him to visit Parnassus.
I thought that letter addressed everything I feel about local bookstores (maybe even understated what gems they are) and immediately fired off an email to the contact listed in the article. In what seemed like an almost instant response, I got a return email from Parnassus. I could not have been more surprised, pleased, and excited. I emailed the folks there, who told me to write back with a little information about whom I was buying for, what kind of things they read, etc. That began what is today one of my most precious relationships.
I use three main sources throughout the year to build a list of books which might work for each person: The New York Times weekly book review; book reviews in the Wall Street Journal; and recommendations on the Parnassus site. I would like to say that this is an orderly and precise process, but in reality I have lists on the notes app of my phone, in my briefcase, and on any number of spare scraps of paper I find available when I see or hear about something interesting.
The best part of the process used to be when each person opened the books and were surprised by an unusual book or author. I think now what I like best is the period several hours later when they each look at each other’s stacks of books and wonder, “What did Dad see of you in that one?” I think a book tells someone, “I was really thinking about you — what you like, what you find fun or special, what you want to know about.”
I keep coming back to Parnassus every year, because I get the real sense you want to be part of this process. You’re not just selling me books. I love how you want to know about each member of my family, and that the people at the store think about them as individuals. I still miss my relationship with the store up north, but now — even though I have never been inside Parnassus — I feel like I have a relationship there. I know it sounds goofy, but I think you guys actually miss me when the holidays are over!
Thank you for helping me keep the book tradition alive for Laurel (my wife), Shirley ( my mother-in-law), Sean (my son), Therese (Sean’s wife), Frances/Evie/William (their kids), Tim (my son), Razaan (Tim’s wife), baby Laila, Molly (my daughter), Doug (her husband), Liam (my son), and a new baby due in January.
PS: Have I ever told you our kids’ full names? Each of our children legally has a first name, a middle name, and a third name. Their third names are: Sun, Rope, Heart, and Rug. Remember, my last name is Byrne. Get it? Laurel tells everyone, “It was Gerry’s idea. I had nothing to do with it.”
And we didn’t think we could love him more.
We’d be happy to help you build a customized selection of books to thrill your loved ones. Stop by anytime — and bring your list! (If it helps you get started, here are some great gift lists for everyone from adults to young readers.)
* * *
PS: Right now, we’re celebrating the 12 Deals of Christmas with a different discount or exclusive offer every day. To find out each day’s awesome deal, make sure you’re on our email list (where we share event announcements and surprise sales).