Today’s post is written by Frances Cha, author of the new novel If I Had Your Face.
Several years ago, when I was working out of CNN’s Asia headquarters in Hong Kong, I had the idea of pitching a story on beautiful bookstores around the world. This was inspired by Ann Patchett’s essay “The Bookstore Strikes Back,” about the birth of Parnassus, which I had just read in her book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.
In my day job at CNN, I wrote and edited several articles a day about travel and culture, but my passion had always been fiction. I had feverishly read all of Ann’s books after first discovering Bel Canto in my favorite bookstore in Korea, and so loved learning that she had opened her own, and what sounded like such a beautiful one, at that.
I had moved often as a child, and bookstores had been my lifeline in every city where I had lived, as a perpetual awkward new student in a new school in a new country. In Hong Kong, my mother had taken me by bus, then ferry, to get to my favorite bookstore that sold English books, and in Korea, we traveled by train for an hour and a half into the heart of Seoul a few times a year to buy a stack of books that would last me until the next trip.
And so, when my boss at CNN gave the OK, it was the one of the highlights of my news career to interview Ann by email about Parnassus. The subsequent article was viewed by millions of readers the day it went live.
After I had quit my job to try to continue my dream of writing a novel, I often reread Ann’s essay “The Getaway Car,” also collected in This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, about her writing life. It kept me going when I despaired of ever finishing my book. I had to purchase several copies of Happy Marriage because I kept spilling things on it, as I carried it with me everywhere. I’d remember Ann’s words about writing in her head as she served old classmates while waitressing at TGI Fridays — whenever people asked what I did for a living and looked at me with condescension (or pity) when I said I was writing a novel.
After I had moved to New York for my husband’s job and got pregnant with my second child, I picked Nashville for my babymoon (a trip you take while pregnant with the understanding that you’ll never get to travel freely again!) just so I could visit Parnassus in person. It was our first time in Tennessee, and we built our itinerary around the Parnassus visit, for which I had blocked off a whole day as the culmination of our trip. I had also started watching the TV show Nashville, and so my list of places to visit were solely comprised of places in the show (such as the Grand Ole Opry) and destinations Ann had recommended in the interviews I had read — including UAL and the Parthenon.
My visit to Parnassus was as magical as I had expected. I squealed to myself over the store dogs and bought an armful of merch that day — my toddlers have Parnassus T-shirts for every age until adulthood. And in a funny coincidence, I ran into a friend from boarding school who I hadn’t seen in 15 years. She had driven from Texas to visit a friend, and had been looking for a gift book for her host.
After we also stopped by to see the Parnassus Bookmobile in the park, my husband and I went to the Bluebird Café and listened in rapture to a singer songwriter who was performing there for the first time. My husband — a Korean American born and raised in New Jersey — had never listened to country music before, but was mesmerized by the scores of talented musicians we encountered at every venue in the city. And to top it all off, on the way back to New York, we met the Property Brothers on our flight, as they were filming their show in Nashville that season.
Looking back on it now, quarantined as we are and cut off from the world, the concept of a babymoon — taken with the premise that we wouldn’t travel freely again for a while — is particularly poignant. In the middle of a pandemic during which physical bookstores are closed, I am afraid for the livelihoods of these guardians of dreams that kept me going all those years. The only thing I can do is hope that they will all survive, as best they can, so that we can seek them out and take comfort in them again in the aftermath, because we will need them more than ever before.