A Perfect Union

Downtown Knoxville gets the bookstore it ‘needs’


Union Ave Books buzzes with activity on a Tuesday afternoon as families from San Francisco and Paris browse the shelves in the children’s section.

“Every customer that walks in the door, I feel thankful for, in this day and time,” says Union Ave co-owner Flossie McNabb (left).

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

A local customer, owner Flossie McNabb explains, has brought the travelers to her store during their East Tennessee visit.

Knoxville’s only independent bookstore selling new books is thriving three years after opening, as evidenced by this steady mid-week crowd. McNabb’s business evolved from a prior store, and now she partners with her daughter, Bunnie Presswood.

The out-of-towners are soon on their way, and quiet returns to the store. But the calm is short-lived as a new wave of regulars comes in to shop, including Knoxville novelist Catherine Landis, author of “Harvest” and “Some Days There’s Pie.”

McNabb greets them with a friendly welcome. She’s in the business of selling books, but she also wants to create an atmosphere.

“Every customer that walks in the door, I feel thankful for, in this day and time,” McNabb says. “You want to do your best to make them feel welcome.”

The bookstore, located on Union Avenue in downtown Knoxville near the intersection with Walnut Street, has an airy and spacious ambience with its green walls, blond bookshelves and honey-colored hardwood floors. It’s smaller than its predecessor, Carpe Librum Booksellers.

“The size is much more manageable,” McNabb explains. “It has that good feel. I love the old building, the real high ceiling, the woodwork, the creaky floors. I just love it.”

Local, independently owned bookstores began to disappear in the 1990s, pushed out by large chain stores like Barnes and Noble and Borders – stores that could undercut the indies on price. Other large retailers, even grocery stores began selling bestsellers at a discount.

But in the long run, even the chains couldn’t compete with online giant Amazon and the emergence of E-book technology.

Union Ave Books co-owner Bunnie Presswood looks on as Knoxville novelist Catherine Landis holds Presswood’s son, Stewart. Bryan Charles, beside the counter, works at the store.

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

Those who loved wandering through bookstores, attending readings or signings, seemed to be out of luck as the small, community stores and the big chains closed up shop.

Enter book lovers such as McNabb and Nashville author Ann Patchett, a highly regarded and best-selling novelist who opened Parnassus Books in Nashville in 2011. She told the New York Times, “I have no interest in retail; I have no interest in opening a bookstore. But I also have no interest in living in a city without a bookstore.”

Union Ave Books, located in the Daylight Building on the National Register of Historic Buildings, fills the needs of bookish customers in Knoxville, as Parnassus does in Music City, not only selling books but also hosting in-house events with writers, sponsoring book clubs and catering to readers with special interests.

The Knoxville indie’s selections run the gamut of genres, including some bestsellers, but the shelves lean toward more literary and less commercial offerings. Regional selections and the classics are an important part of the store’s landscape.

“You’re not seeing what you see in Kroger’s,” McNabb points out. “You’re seeing a more interesting selection.”

She wants the customer to feel that books are chosen with purpose rather than having a litany of random titles.

“We kind of want to look that way – that they’re hand-selected – because really we do,” she says. “You get a good selection of books that you won’t see other places.”

McNabb eagerly brings over a copy of a classic with a faux leather cover, noting how it adds a tactile dimension to the reading experience. One customer likes to smell the books. McNabb agrees that books carry their own scents.

“It’s a very sensual thing,” she says. “I guess it’s the different inks and papers they use. Some of them smell very good.”

Presswood, who does the store’s bookkeeping, also handles the store’s sideline of non-book accessories and chooses the children’s selections.

Union Ave is smaller than its predecessor, Carpe Librum Booksellers, a size McNabb finds “much more manageable.”

(The Ledger/Chase Malone)

“She’s a natural, and she has two small children,” McNabb says. “It’s amazing the amount of books we sell, and it’s a small section. Children love books.”

Presswood and McNabb worked together at the popular Carpe Librum, which closed after six years at end of 2010. McNabb was one of four owners. Two of the partners wanted to retire, and the lease was coming up for renewal in January 2011. The timing seemed appropriate to close the store.

But the itch to sell books stayed with McNabb, who’d been in the business for 12 years, including six years at Davis-Kidd Booksellers, the Nashville institution that closed in 2000.

Loyal customers in Knoxville encouraged and cajoled McNabb to consider opening another bookstore. Metro Pulse Associate Editor, columnist and writer Jack Neely told McNabb that downtown Knoxville needed a bookstore.

“Once you get that bookstore bug, it’s hard to get rid of,” adds McNabb. “I just wasn’t ready to stop.”

McNabb found space on Union Avenue, and the possibilities invaded her mind. The fact that she already had the bookshelves, furniture and other fixtures as well as publishing and publicists contacts fermented the idea.

“I kept thinking about it,” she says. “I thought ‘Oh my gosh, this would be so neat.’ I love this business.”

She and her daughter walked around downtown, talking to business owners. The support from the downtown community was outstanding, and that added to the draw, McNabb says.

Downtown Knoxville continues to see a resurgence as more urban dwellers move into condos in refurbished buildings, and Market Square, an open-air mall a block away with its eateries, shops, music venues and Farmer’s Market, continues to be a popular destination.

McNabb notes that with the other bookstore, customers had to purposely go there, but Union Ave Books’ location invites not only destination traffic but also area shoppers and those visiting downtown attractions. The store’s smaller space also makes keeping up with the inventory easier.

“Financially, it makes more sense,” she adds. “It’s more doable.”

McNabb is not concerned with being an indie in the age of large book chains, box stores and online purchasing. Her store provides an experience and personal service that can’t be copied elsewhere.

“It’s about being passionate about what you’re doing, and readers are passionate so you’re sharing a passion,” she says.

Some customers may want to shop where parking seems more accessible, she says, but once they find out how easy it is here, the parking is no longer an issue. The Market Square Parking Garage is round the corner, and on the weekends and evenings, it’s free.

Some customers will call ahead with a credit card, and McNabb or a staff member will run the book out to the street when the customer drives up.

The store has also started a tongue-in-cheek service called “Crone Delivery” after seeing a Stephen Colbert spoof of Amazon’s plans to utilize drone delivery.

“It was one of the funniest things,” she recalls. “We’re making a parody of a parody. But I do deliver. If you’re out my way, I will bring it to you.”

Indie bookstores are making a comeback, she says.

“More are opening then are closing, and it’s changing because it was the other way around. I think it is positive for now,” she says. “I just don’t think we’re going anywhere.”