On the same day that Ann Patchett held the grand opening for her new bookstore, Parnassus Books, in Nashville, Tennessee, last month, another Parnassus Books was celebrating its move from one location, across a creek, to another, in Ketchikan, Alaska. Owner Maggie Freitag says that the publicity from Patchett’s store generated a fair amount of attention for Parnassus North. “I got e-mails and calls from people, not just locally, but also from customers from out of state!” she says. “I assured everyone that nobody ‘stole’ the name from us and that there are several bookstores around the country with the name ‘Parnassus,’ which comes from the mountain that plays a prominent role in Greek mythology.”
Parnassus Books was started in 1985 by Lillian Ference, who was known as Ms. Lillian by just about everyone who knew her. Freitag began working there in 1996, not so much to work in a bookstore, she says, but to be able to work with Ms. Lillian, who she calls “so kind, nonjudgmental and such a pleasure to be around. . . everyone’s Jewish grandmother.” Ms. Lillian, a friend to many in the book industry in the Northwest, died in September.
“Lillian never really sat me down and taught me things,” Freitag says.”I had one day of orientation from her previous employee before I was turned loose on the shop. It was trial and error . . . with plenty of errors.”
After working with Ms. Lillian for eight years, Freitag bought the shop with another local woman who sold Freitag her interest after two years.
We asked Freitag a few questions via email.
Will you tell us about your customers? Our customer base varies with the seasons. Of course, year-round we have our dedicated local customers but during the summer, we have tourists and crew from the cruise ships, as well as from commercial fishing boats who return year after year. There are also independent cruisers who sail or motor on their own boats who always make Parnassus Books one of their stops. Our busiest times are the holidays and during the summer cruise ship season, which begins in early May and lasts thru the end of September.
What’s a CD that would make a great soundtrack for your store? Perhaps Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters. It’s bluesy and soulful, all Joni Mitchell songs sung by well-known artists, including poetry with the voice of Leonard Cohen.
What’s the best lunch within walking distance? Right down Stedman Street is the Ketchikan Coffee Company. They open early for coffee, serving locally roasted Raven’s Brew. Each day they feature homemade soups and delicious salads and sandwiches for lunch. They’re partnered with Ketchikan’s classiest hotel, The New York Hotel.
What other shops do you like to visit in your neighborhood? The building I just moved from
houses Ray and Michelle Troll’s gallery, The Soho Coho. I can still see them from my new location! The Soho Coho is one of the coolest shops in Ketchikan. Down Stedman Street from Parnassus Books are three other fun to visit shops, Ketchikan Dry Goods, Chinook and Company and The Cedar Chest. All are locally owned and are year-round businesses.
Why did you decide to move? The location in the former Red Light District at 5 Creek Street was on the second floor of an old dance hall, with the Soho Coho downstairs. It was quite charming and sales had always been good in spite of the upstairs location . . . until this summer.
The advantages to this new store are many. I am now on the main street with large windows so you can’t miss it. Right next to the shop is the Chief Johnson Totem Pole that is on our walking tour map that is distributed for free to visitors. There are two entrances . . . one on the main street, the other on a large parking lot. There are no steps. The shop is all one level. It’s bright and I get to see the sky! . . . People I used to deliver books to (who couldn’t manage the stairs) can now come enjoy the shop.
We recently quoted Alaska author and National Book Award finalist Debby Dahl Edwardson, (My Name Is Not Easy), as saying ”. . . Alaskan books are still largely on the fringes of the publishing world—voices in the wilderness, as it were, speaking of experiences as remote as the moon to mainstream readers.” What do you think about that? I agree 100% with Debby’s statement. There are so many wonderful Alaskan authors. I have received letters and emails from customers to whom I have recommended Seth Kantner’s Ordinary Wolves and Shopping for Porcupine and Velma Wallis’s Two Old Women, just to name a couple.
Every two years, Alaska names our Writer Laureate. These writers are outstanding but have little notoriety outside of the state. The advantage I have in my position in a little independent bookstore in a tourist town is that people who find Parnassus are those who understand the idea behind independent bookstores. They know they can ask questions and get informed answers. I can guide them to mysteries by John Straley (Writer Laureate 2206-2008), nature writing by Richard Nelson (Writer Laureate 2000-2002), or lyrical poetry and essays by our present Laureate, Peggy Shumaker.
Alaskan authors are an active group of creative and approachable individuals. And, like most people in our state, they are fiercely proud to be Alaskans.
With Edwardson’s success and David Vann’s and Melinda Moustakis recently being recognized as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 Writers, it seems like there’s a lot of national attention to Alaskan stories right now. What’s going on up there? I think that each year Alaska becomes increasingly more popular. It may have to do with the world becoming “smaller” with the Internet. But, in spite of the notoriety, there remains a mystique about our state. We have a rich history that really doesn’t parallel that of other states. Our native populations remained intact far longer than most indigenous people in the lower 48. With the 2010 census, the population of our entire state reached 700,000. There is so much to write about.
David Vann, who spent several years during his childhood in Ketchikan, was here in late October for a few days. His event was attended by some folks who lived across the street from him and who brought photos of him from his youth!
What are some Alaska books that you return to again and again—for reading and for handselling? The books I return to year after year include Seth Kantner’s books. Shopping for Porcupine is a book of essays that describes an Alaska that most people cannot fathom. I can pick it up and re-read the stories and still renew the wonder I felt the first time I read them. Seth’s books are easy for me to sell to locals and visitors.
Velma Wallis’s Two Old Women is probably our best-selling book year-round. There’s a new book of essays The Hard Way Home by Steve Kahn and there’s Where the Sea Breaks Its Back; The Epic Story of Early Naturalist Georg Steller by Corey Ford. John Straley not only writes mysteries drawn on his experience as a private investigator, but he creates poetry that makes you laugh and cry at the same time. Libby Riddles, the first woman to win the Iditarod, has penned two childrens books and an account of her Race Across Alaska.
As you gear up for the holidays, what books do you think will do well for you this season? I expect that Parnassus Books will sell several copies of Shel Silverstein’s new book, Every Thing On It, The Chronicles of Harris Burdick with the beautiful illustrations of Chris Von Allsburg, Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs. Locally, there’s a self-published author, Tammy Jones, who wrote Alaska Bound about her experiences with her husband as they adventured to Ketchikan from Oregon to build a house on an island across the Tongass Narrows from town. She’s planning to do a couple booksigning over holidays.
Another Alaskan author, Matthias Breiter, will be in town for our Winter Art Walk to sign his book, Inside Passage, a collection of his stunning Alaska photographs and thoughtfully written essays.
I have just received copies of Land of Mists by Alaskan author Patricia Roppel, who gave Parnassus Books permission to have this local treasure reprinted. My expectation is that this guide book to our surrounding wilderness will be my most popular title for the holidays.