Boulder after the Mass Shooting: Rebuilding Our Spirit

My hometown of Boulder, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world. The city is well known for its vistas of the scenic Flatirons; for its hip, new-agey vibe; and for its fit population of cyclers, hikers, and rock climbers. Over the decades, magazines have dubbed Boulder the fittest town in America, the happiest town in the country, an outdoor mecca, brewpub central, and a health-food heaven.

The memorial for the victims of the 2021 shooting at a Boulder King Soopers ©Laurel Kallenbach

Boulder’s aura of positivity took a hit on March 22, 2021, when it joined dozens of American cities that have experienced a gun-related mass murder. Among the dead are 10 people: shoppers, supermarket employees, and the first police officer to arrive at the scene.

In the shooting’s aftermath, Boulder’s most-visited site is now the memorial at the Table Mesa King Soopers supermarket where the fatal shooting occurred. A collection of heartfelt condolences—flowers, candles, cards, posters, Tibetan prayer flags, stuffed animals, balloons, photos—adorns the chain-link fence that surrounds the crime scene, brought by people in our community and by others who have journeyed here to pay their respects.

©Laurel Kallenbach

These memorial gifts are a small comfort to the families and friends of the those who died. The loss of each person has sent ripples of grief through the community—even through those of us who didn’t personally know the shooting victims. To lose 10 at once is a blow—all that energy and potential gone.

We Boulderites excel at joyous displays of athleticism. One of the largest is the Bolder Boulder 10K race held each Memorial Day (except during the pandemic). More than 50,000 participants run, jog or walk while another 70,000-plus spectators cheer them on.

We clap for elite runners from around the globe, and we shout encouragement to eager but sometimes exhausted runners of all ages and abilities, including those who race despite injuries, disabilities, or medical diagnoses. The fastest of all are the wheelchair racers, many of whom are paraplegics or amputees, who know a thing or two about overcoming heartbreak and difficult times. As an annual Bolder Boulder spectator, I love to holler myself hoarse: “You can do it! Keep it up, keep it up!”

Thousands have come to the memorial to pay their respects to the victims of the shooting at the Boulder King Soopers ©Laurel Kallenbach

A Community Grieves

Right now, the thousands of people who gather along Table Mesa Drive in Boulder every day aren’t there to cheer. We’re there to weep, to pay tribute, to honor the bravery of shoppers and grocery-store employees and a police officer. They were all going about daily life and doing their necessary work when they were cut down. Tackling everyday chores, carrying out work duties, and picking up food for dinner are rarely celebrated publically—not even in positive-thinking Boulder. Though maybe they should be.

People gather mostly in silence at the King Soopers memorial to confront the senseless loss of life, the randomness of death. There’s anger and sorrow. At night, the Boulder Star is lit on a mountainside that overlooks our town. It usually shines only during the winter holidays, but right now we need the hope that beacon represents.

In addition to messages of condolence and support for the families of this lost were posters about gun control. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The City of Boulder has invited people all over Colorado to go outside at 8:00 every evening for 10 days and to take 10 slow breaths, followed by 10 minutes of silence. Each minute of breathing honors a shooting victim. 

For the first eight months of the coronavirus pandemic, I howled  nightly at 8:00 from my porch in gratitude for health-care workers and first responders. That ritual lifted my spirits, especially when I heard neighbors clapping, cheering, and barking at the moon.

Now my phone alarm is set again for the Time of Remembrance: 10 minutes to remember the 10 fallen and their family: Denny Stong, Neven Stanisic, Rikki Olds, Tralona Bartkowiak, Suzanne Fountain, Teri Leiker, Kevin Mahoney, Lynn Murray, Jody Waters, Eric Talley. Collective breathing unites us in sorrow.

Connecting with Community

On Sunday, March 29, my husband and I visited the King Soopers Memorial. It was sunny and 55 degrees, but icy gusts ripped down from the mountains. Spring in Colorado is a season of abrupt changes: one day you’re out jogging in shorts, the next day you’re shoveling snow. One day people dash into a local grocery store for milk or bread or to get a COVID vaccine, the next day that supermarket is a crime scene.

Singers at Boulder’s King Soopers memorial ©Laurel Kallenbach

In shock, the perpetually hiking, cycling, yoga-practicing people of Boulder moved slowly around the King Soopers memorial, reading heartfelt notes addressed to the dead or memories written by a loved one.

Some signs plead for gun reform. “How many more?” asks one designed to look like the state flag that shows a toppled-over heart shape with a bullet hole in it. “Let’s hope our push for change lasts longer than these wilting flowers” says another sign surrounded by bouquets of daisies and roses.

When I was at the memorial, a group was singing “Amazing Grace,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and the Beatles song “Let It Be.”

There were posted notices offering contacts for free crisis counseling. Sky, a registered therapy dog, did his part by letting dazed and teary-eyed visitors pet his warm, alive little body.

I stopped to pet Sky, a trained therapy dog. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The winds caused Mylar balloons tethered to the chain-link fence to tug to the east, then the west. Frigid gusts twisted the American flag on its pole so that it flew backwards. I thought about the grief, unyielding as a mountain, that the families of the slain were experiencing.

A Better Future?

I’ve almost given up hoping that gun laws will change, that automatic weapons will be banned, that stricter background checks will be required to buy guns. Boulder outlawed the sale and possession of assault weapons, but two weeks before the mass shooting, a court decided that our city couldn’t enforce the ban because only the state can regulate firearms in Colorado.

I used to believe the only way gun laws would change was if someone started shooting in congressional chambers. The insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, proved me wrong.

So gun violence continues, as do the mass tragedies. What happened in Boulder has occurred in Columbine and Atlanta and Sandy Hook and Charleston and Pittsburgh and Virginia Beach and El Paso and Phoenix and Hamilton and Chattanooga and Roseburg and Aurora and Fort Hood and Thousand Oaks and Seattle and Sutherland Springs and Binghamton and Orlando and Norcross and Minneapolis and Virginia Tech and San Bernadino and Las Vegas and Parkland. A week after the Boulder shooting, Orange, California, was added to the list.

©Laurel Kallenbach

Will these shootings persist until every city and town in the nation has a memorial to the victims of people with guns?

I did take heart in hearing that a local Mennonite church, located just across Broadway from the King Soopers, held a Guns to Garden Tools event on Good Friday. It’s a project of the nonprofit RAWtools, which de-weaponizes donated guns and forges them into tools for planting. In the church parking lot, people got to pound a hammer on a section of a gun barrel over an anvil. 

For now, the time for cheering in Boulder is over. The time of mourning has begun.

While I’m observing my 10 minutes of daily silence for the slain, I touch into my center of calm, and my outlook brightens slightly. Perhaps good things will again be possible. After the meditation, I can believe for a few moments that maybe—just maybe—the “Let It Be” lyrics from the Beatles’s song I heard at the King Soopers memorial on a windy Sunday morning could come true:

And when the broken-hearted people

Living in the world agree,

There will be an answer, let it be.

Laurel Kallenbach, Boulder, Colorado

SOBO is an acronym for South Boulder, the neighborhood where the shooting occurred. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Tramping Through the Snowy Wisconsin Woods

No winter trip to Door County, Wisconsin, is complete without snowshoeing in the woods—it’s always  invigorating to get outdoors in winter and commune with the trees. (And when the weather is cold, hand warmers and toe warmers are the ticket! When activated by oxygen, these little gems keep your digits toasty for six to eight hours.)

My friends and I went walking in a winter wonderland at Peninsula State Park in Door County, Wisconsin © Laurel Kallenbach

At Peninsula State Park, my group parked, cinched up the straps on our snowshoes, and headed out on the White Cedar Nature Trail, an easy, half-mile loop.

We clomped and shuffled our way through ironwood and pine forest, following the green snowshoe markers posted on trees. The woods were hushed in the snow, disrupted only by the husky cries of crows and the snow crunching beneath our snowshoes. The ice-encased cedar fronds were lovely—quintessential Christmas foliage.

Playing in the Wisconsin snow. © Laurel Kallenbach

Afterwards, we tailgated with a few sips of Cherry Bounce, which is essentially Wisconsin moonshine made with cherries. In July, after Door County tart Montmorency cherries are picked, you pour them into a Bell jar, cover them with vodka or brandy, add a bit of sugar, and then don’t touch them until after December 1st. Over the months, the cherries infuse the alcohol, turning it bright red and cherry-flavored. At the same time, the cherries become quite soused with booze. The result is a rib-warming drink with a well-preserved cherry to bite into (watch out for the pit!).

Originally posted: December 2009

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

The White Cedar Nature Center in Peninsula State Park offers a spot to warm up after snowshoeing. © Laurel Kallenbach

Descent into Dachau: Why I Visited a Concentration Camp

On April 29, 1945, American troops liberated the survivors of Dachau concentration camp in Nazi Germany. This anniversary is much on my mind lately because one of the characters in my novel-in-progress is 18 years old when his unit discovers one of Dachau’s Kaufering subcamps, where emaciated prisoners lived underground.

Entering the gate into the historic site of the WWII-era Dachau Concentration Camp. The words “Arbeit Macht Frei” are ironic. They translate to “Work will make you free.” ©Laurel Kallenbach

I’ve studied and written about the Holocaust since I was young, but I didn’t visit a Nazi concentration camp until a trip to Germany in 2017. I was spending several days in the beautiful city of Munich, where I was enjoying the food, the opera, and museums. There were so many enjoyable options in the city—and then there was Dachau, the original prison camp/concentration camp that Hitler opened in 1933 to detain political prisoners.

Though it’s built 19 miles outside Munich near the village of Dachau, this hellish camp casts a long shadow. It was the dark side of Munich, a city best known for its jubilant Oktoberfest celebration, overflowing with Bavarian beer, pretzels, and sausages.

I see-sawed: Yes, I would go to Dachau. But no—why drag myself into the horrors of history when I could enjoy far more lighthearted pastimes in Munich?

A guard tower and barbed wire at Dachau Memorial Site. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Gates of Dachau

Ultimately, I took the S-2 train from Munich and caught a bus to the Dachau Memorial Site. I have never regretted it. Admission is free, although there was a charge for the guided tour in English.

First I watched a film that covered some of the history of Nazi Germany, including the intense nationalism and anti-Semitism whipped up by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. It explained that the camp was for men only, and that at first most of those incarcerated there were political prisoners—anyone who opposed Hitler—including Catholic priests, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roma (gypsies), and conscientious objectors. After Kristallnacht (a pogrom in 1938), more and more Jews were arrested and sent to Dachau, where they did slave labor, often working on armaments.

The tour in English, led by a wonderful interpreter named Rafaela, was so wonderful, especially since I was traveling alone. First, Rafaela emphasized that Dachau is now a memorial site where we come to honor those who suffered and died there. Like any sanctified place, there is no eating or smoking on the grounds, and appropriate attire and a quiet demeanor are requested.

The grounds of the enclosed camp are vast. They were once filled with barracks except for an open area where prisoners lined up for roll call twice a day. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Dachau served as a model for all later Nazi concentration camps. Essentially, it was a school of brutality and fanaticism for member of the SS who ran it. During its twelve years of existence, more than 200,000 men from all over Europe were imprisoned here and in its numerous subsidiary camps in the outlying area. Though Dachau was not a mechanized “death camp” like Auschwitz in Poland, 41,500 were murdered there.

Rafaela led us through the concentration camp’s notorious iron gate which says in German, Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work will make you free.”). Passing through that gate made me swallow hard, because the only “freedom” Dachau offered was death, and men were literally worked to death.

Survivors of Dachau called it “The lie on the gate.” The reality was that Dachau marked the beginning of genocide, planned by Nazi leaders and carried out on a massive, industrialized scale.

Survivors in Dachau packed into overcrowded sleeping quarters, where seven men had to share two small beds. The bunks were three-tiered, and anywhere from 350 to 800 men slept in a single room crowded with 120 beds. Photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park

Inside the camp, we had a history lesson about how Germany went from being a democracy to a dictatorship in just months. As Hitler and the Nazi Party took power, the nation’s constitution was abolished. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to a fair trial were revoked. It reminded me that the freedoms afforded to us by democracy are not to be taken for granted or lost because of apathy.

History and the Politics of Hate

The grounds of the enclosed Dachau camp are vast. They were once filled with prisoner barracks (all destroyed except for historic recreations so that visitors can witness the cramped conditions), and an open area where the imprisoned men were lined up for roll call twice a day—morning and evening.

Large signs at Dachau show WWII-era photos. In this one, Dachau prisoners are lined up for roll call. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Rafaela described how roll call sometimes lasted for hours if the number of prisoners present didn’t match the number on the roster. Sometimes dead corpses had to be dragged out for the endless counts. If someone was missing, everyone stood motionless outside until the person was found. Sometimes roll call lasted all night, and people often died from exposure to the elements.

My tour group stood on the gravel-paved site of the roll calls. It was early February and semi-overcast with a slight breeze, and I was cold even though I was wearing a down parka, a wool hat, and gloves. I can’t imagine how the men felt with their bare heads shaved, wearing only thin shirts and trousers and clogs made of canvas. Survivors reported they got cramps in their toes from trying to keep the loose shoes on their feet while they were running.

The Dachau Museum included extensive information regarding the lives of the men imprisoned there, including everything from music in the camp (including choirs and an illegal orchestra) to medical experiments performed on live inmates. ©Laurel Kallenbach

We also toured the “bunker,” the euphemism for the prison, which also acted as the center for torture and detention. Our small group walked in silence down the Bunker corridor, and our shoes on the cement echoed, sounding like harsh SS jackboots in the hall of cruelty. We passed various types of cells, including hunger cells, total-darkness cells, and a vertical “coffin” cell too small to sit or lie down in. There were even cells for SS men who had discipline problems or were too lenient on the prisoners.

One of the more famous prisoners held in Dachau’s prison was Georg Elser, who tried to blow up Adolf Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels in 1939. He was kept alive so that Hitler could mock him after he won the war, but when it was apparent to the Germans that they were losing the war, he was executed in Dachau just 20 days before liberation.

The crematoria were built in summer of 1940, after prisoners from countries other than Germany were arriving at Dachau and the camp’s mortality rate increased. About 11,000 bodies were cremated here. ©Laurel Kallenbach

If Dachau’s prison and the torture center (in the large and gripping museum) weren’t enough to sober me up, Rafaela led the group to the area where we saw the camp’s crematoria—so familiar looking if you’ve seen any Holocaust-era photographs or documentaries. They epitomize the evil of extermination camps—which Dachau was not—although with our guide’s help, I realized that any concentration camp has massive fatalities due to starvation, overwork, murder, and rampant dysentery and disease.

Next, I was shocked to learn that Dachau had a gas chamber. Rafaela did not lead the group into the building with the gas chamber, but she gave us what little information there is about it while we stood outside. The gas chamber is disguised to look like a shower room and some accounts claim that it was never used to kill anyone, just that it was for training SS officers who would later be posted to extermination camps in the East. Other scholars think the gas chamber was used just once; still others say two or three times. Regardless, not viewing the gas chamber is always an option. Indeed, only a handful of people on our tour, including me, walked into this ultimate tool of evil. It was sterile, and did appear like a shower room. There were holes in the ceiling, where there once were mock showerheads—but instead of water they flowed with prussic acid poison gas, called Zyklon B.

I did not take a photo of the gas chamber. I did not linger. Perhaps some people could feel the dead. I could not, though I could feel my own anger and fear at the disastrous consequences of state-sanctioned hatred, hyper-militarism, and racism.

The first memorial at Dachau was this sculpture, known as the “The Unknown Prisoner,” a bronze by Fritz Koelle. It was erected on April 29, 1950 (the fifth anniversary of the camp’s liberation) north of the old crematorium. ©Laurel Kallenbach

During the Nazi regime, Dachau was termed a “protective custody” camp. Meaning, I suppose, that it protected those of the so-called “Aryan race” from those who believed in peace not war, from those who spoke out against tyranny, from homosexuals, from those of Jewish or Slavic or Roma or African cultures.

Why subject myself to the pain of witnessing the relics of inhumanity? When I was 16 year old, I wrote a lengthy research paper for my Honors English class about the literature of the Holocaust. I remember having a dream while I was writing it: an image of a single flower poking up its slim shoot from the trampled-down soil in a Nazi concentration camp. I knew the next morning that the title of my paper was meant to be “A Flower Grows in Auschwitz.”

The flower is a symbol of hope amidst hopelessness, of a sliver of love against an empire of hate. I’m not nearly so idealistic as I was at 16, but I do cling to the idea that nothing good comes from suppressing the vicious, ugly side of human nature. Yet, if we acknowledge that we have the capacity for extreme evil, we also possess the capacity of unshakeable love.

Near the crematoria, which is in the back of the Dachau site, are several churches where people of faith can seek solace. Our tour guide pointed out the Jewish Memorial, the Mortal Agony of Christ Chapel, the Protestant Church of Reconciliation, and the Russian Orthodox Chapel as places individuals could visit after the tour. Then our somber group ambled back toward the camp’s entrance to the  International Monument, the place where people have created art to express the lesson that something like this should never happen again. “Never again” is the reason we need to be vigilant about human rights abuses—large or small—around the world, including in US prisons and detention centers. None of these should be allowed to get even close to reaching the epic proportions of the Shoah.

Art and Remembrance

Except for the crematoria, most structures on the stark grounds of the former Dachau concentration camp appear fairly mundane at first glance. Birds swoop from the trees; cars drive by on roads at a distance. But Dachau’s artwork shatters any sense of normalcy. At the end of the tour, Rafaela led us to Dachau’s International Monument, a place of art, where people come to pray, meditate, and remember. “Never Again” is the place’s mantra.

The visceral bronze sculpture by Holocaust survivor Nandor Glid ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Monument is dominated by a huge bronze sculpture of skeletons caught in barbed wire, designed in 1967 by Yugoslav artist Nandor Glid, a Holocaust survivor. Though a solemn quiet reigns over the Dachau Memorial Site, Glid’s sculpture screams of the horror of this place. Visceral, it’s impossible to deny, and it epitomizes the horror of this place.

I gulped back tears and walked from end to end of the massive sculpture. The closer you stand to it, the less you can see of anything but those skeletons looming against the sky. I zoomed in on smaller details of the memorial art through my camera lens: empty eye sockets, finger bones that look like barbed wire.

There’s also an art installation showing the various prisoner badges that imprisoned people were forced to wear. The triangular cloth insignias, worn on the shirt, labeled each man according to his so-called “crime.” (People could be arrested for something as minor as graffiti or saying something against the Nazi regime.)

In the Dachau Monument is a piece of art recalling the triangle badges that marked every prisoner after 1937. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Red was for political prisoners, yellow was for Jews. Blue marked immigrants and purple labeled pacifists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Black was the badge for “asocials” including Roma people (Gypsy), hobos, and prostitutes. Green marked “professional” criminals. Pink was worn by homosexuals. A dot below the triangle meant that the prisoner was to receive extra punishment in the form of hard labor.

Rafaela pointed out that the art installation does not depict the green, black, or pink triangles because the monument was created in 1968 by the International Prisoner Committee that represented former political prisoners. It honored only the categories of prisoners from “recognized” persecuted groups at the time, which were only those who were persecuted for political, racial, or religious reasons.

I also paused to contemplate at the “Never Again” memorial, where those words are carved in five different languages. Ashes taken from the Dachau crematorium on Liberation Day were ensconced in the memorial.

The “Never Again” memorial. Those words are carved in five different languages. Ashes taken from the Dachau crematorium on Liberation Day were ensconced in the memorial. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Liberation of Dachau

The first Nazi concentration camp was also one of the last that was liberated—on April 29, 1945. Nine days later, on May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally and the war in Europe was over.

According to Rafaela, when U.S. troops arrived in the area, the first thing they noticed was a putrid stench coming from a train full of dead bodies. Prisoners from other areas of Germany had been locked in the cars for 21 days without food or water. The Americans were also appalled by stacks of naked corpses, stripped because their clothes were needed for the constant influx of prisoners evacuated from other concentration camps. Enraged American soldiers executed several of the remaining SS guards, some of whom were 14 or 15 years old. By this stage of the war, the only German males left to conscript into the army were boys.

The soldiers brought civilians of the village of Dachau to the garish site. Rafaela told us of accounts that those villagers and families of the SS officers, who must have turned a blind eye. When they saw the emaciated corpses, they knew that their home town would forever be reviled for its link as a place of evil.

Preparing for a Visit to Dachau

I doubt there is a way to prepare yourself for a descent into an emotional pit like that of Dachau, but I promised myself that I could leave at any time if I felt overcome by emotion. I was armed by general knowledge about the place, but even so, there were surprises—facts or emotional reactions I hadn’t anticipated.

A number of times while I was walking through the place, especially in the museum, I felt myself hiding behind the detached mask of intellectualism or behind the façade of “neutral” journalist. Somehow it was easier if I used “researching my novel” to shield me from emotional breakdown.

Dachau Concentration camp opened in 1933 and was liberated by American soldiers in 1945 ©Laurel Kallenbach

I believe it requires a detached mindset to visit Dachau, or any “dark tourism” site such as the 9/11 Memorial Site, Wounded Knee in South Dakota, the Manzanar War Relocation Center (California), or the Memorial for Peace & Justice and the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration (Montgomery, Alabama)

I do believe it’s important to pay attention to your body and emotions—and to know when enough is enough. Dachau will always carry the residue of horror and violence, of torture and sadism. Going there confronts us with emotions we prefer not to acknowledge in ourselves: revulsion, fascination, disbelief, hatred, fear of people who are “different.”

There’s also the danger of succumbing to much grief and sadness. The Visitor Center film pointed out that people survived because of “brotherly love.” Prisoners worked 14-hour days on a scant ration of thin soup. Under those conditions, it was hope that kept people alive.

It was those tales of humanity that were more emotional for me. I anticipated the inhumane treatment and the torture, but I wasn’t prepared for the acts of compassion. Reading about people who sacrificed themselves to save others opened the cracks in my emotional armor. Those stories were the things that made me cry.

But it’s also possible that stories of heroism and kindness can be overshadowed by the enormity of the cruelty and depravity in Dachau. The history of Nazi concentration camps is proof that humans have an unlimited capacity to inflict suffering. So, it’s important to be conscious of when you’ve had enough of visiting Dachau. Enough is truly enough. I see no virtue in enduring beyond what your own nervous system can cope with.

However, those who can bear to confront difficult emotions while standing in the exact location of hell on earth become witnesses for truth. We cannot hide from history—or from the fact that our species is capable of unspeakable evil—but we can walk into a place like Dachau knowing that there is some cupful of good, even in the midst of an ocean of evil.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Barbed wire at the Dachau Memorial ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ascending to Parnassus Books, the Literary Heart of Nashville

APRIL 2020 UPDATE: In the times of COVID-19, we are  unable to travel to places of literary note, but we can support independent bookstores. Instead of ordering from Amazon, call your local bookstore and buy it from them! This can even work for self-published books! I recently asked the Boulder Bookstore to order a copy of my friend Amy Drayer’s exciting mystery novel, Revelation, the first in the Makah Island Mystery series. They did, and five days later delivered it to my porch step. I’m supporting authors and locally owned, independent bookstores.

(Originally published in November 2013)

Making a literary pilgrimage while traveling is always a grand thing. If you love to read, I highly recommend touring an author’s house—like I did at Voltaire’s manor house in Ferney-Voltaire, France.

Parnassus Books in Nashville is a must-visit for anyone who loves to read. Author Ann Patchett highlights her favorite titles on this shelf. ©Laurel Kallenbach

It’s also fun and meaningful to take a trip to a place you read about in a book. For instance, Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun inspired me to visit Tuscany and to spend four days in her village of Cortona.

While I was in Nashville, I had to make a literary pilgrimage … to a very special independent bookstore. Parnassus Books is named for a mountain in central Greece where the Muses lived—and it’s known as the mythological home of music and poetry, so you know it’s got to be good.

Parnassus isn’t just any bookstore, it’s one that’s owned by one of my favorite authors, Ann Patchett, who opened it in 2011 right when independent bookstores—and even bookstore chains—were dropping like flies.

Ann Patchett’s books at Parnassus. I wanted to buy one of her titles, but I own them all. In retrospect, I should have bought an autographed copy of “Bel Canto” and given away my old copy, but I was overcome by the riches in the store and couldn’t think straight. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ann is probably best known for her incredibly gripping Bel Canto and her most recent bestseller, The Dutch House. (Yes, I think of her as “Ann,” a friend and kindred, bookloving spirit—even though I’ve never met her).

By becoming a bookseller, Ann wanted to prove that people still love to read—and love to buy books in a place where they can interact with other book lovers and authors. She was concerned by how many good books were going out of print and wanted to start a store featuring the books she cherishes. It didn’t hurt that she’s incredibly well-connected with boatloads of fantastic authors.

Between the Covers

Located in one of Nashville’s more classy strip malls along Hillsboro Pike, Parnassus isn’t large, but it’s thrilling! I was so excited walking up to its display windows filled with new titles that I could barely contain myself. (I suspect more than a few visitors display this giddiness as they walk through the door. Are you one of them?)

The Greek temple is a fun entry into the whimsical children’s section at Parnassus. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Inside, the walls are lined almost to the high ceiling with wooden bookshelves. I felt wonderment, felt like a kid in a candy shop. I felt at home.

I browsed for a while, drawn especially to titles that Ann recommends on her blog. There’s also a special “Ann Recommends” shelf that displays her current favorites.

A cheerful bookseller asked me if I had questions, and before I could say “Kurt Vonnegut,” she was bubbling over about the books she loves most, and offered a few of her own suggestions and other titles popular with Parnassus regulars.

How would I describe Parnassus Books? A clean, well-lighted place (to coin a phrase from a Hemingway book). ©Laurel Kallenbach

With five books in my arms, I sat down in a leather chair and read a few pages of each, just to get a sense of them.

I wanted to buy them all—but alas, I would have exceeded the 50-pound checked-suitcase weight limit had I done so. So I pledged to go home to the Boulder Bookstore (another fabulous independent shop) and buy them there instead.

I did purchase one light volume: the hilarious Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. I definitely wanted to do my bit to support Parnassus—and to take home a piece of its literary magic. Long live Parnassus Books!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

P.S. If you’re visiting Nashville, you should know that Parnassus Books is just up the street from Bluebird Café, another not-to-be-missed site for music lovers and songwriters. Read about my unique experience at the Bluebird: “Guitars in the Parking Lot.” 

Read an inspiring piece about coronavirus and Parnassus Books, written by Ann Patchett for The Guardian newspaper.