YARMOUTHPORT – Books on shelves outside. Books on shelves inside. Books as far as the eye can see. Hard-to-find books. Out-of-print books. Even new books. If you like books, this is the place for you.
Parnassus Book Service, located on Rt. 6A in picturesque Yarmouthport, is one of the Cape’s premier antiquarian bookstores. But the history is not just on the shelves. It is also in the folksy style of service and the vintage three-story building itself.
On the right side of the store’s exterior is an overhang that protects shelves of mostly paperback books. Yes, that’s right. These books sit outside the shop, all day and all night long.
The idea to store and sell books outside began as a way to deal with overflow inventory, the books that did not fit on the shelves inside. Customers who found the need to purchase a book after store hours would pull up to the store after dark and leave their headlights on so that they could see which titles were available. The customer would pay for the purchase by simply sliding the money underneath the front door. That system exists to this day.
It is very much the ‘honor system,’ says owner Sarah Romano whose father Ben Muse began Parnassus with his wife Ruth in 1960.
Now in its second generation of family-run ownership, the unique book shop that is now an institution on Route 6A in Yarmouthport almost didn’t happen. Ben and Ruth Muse were actually ready to move to Virginia from New York when they made a stop to say goodbye to Ben’s parents who lived on the Cape in South Yarmouth.
The couple ended up falling in love with Cape Cod, bought a house within a week and never looked back. In 1956 they opened a book business in the west end of Hyannis before moving into the current location in Yarmouthport four years later.
The Parnassus building was originally home to the Knowles General Store. The structure was built in the early 19th century but the store remained popular with customers well into the 20th century. In fact, after Parnassus first opened, folks who had frequented Knowles would come in and regale the new business owners with stories of the old store, including details of where different grocery items were located when it was a general store.
The building also housed a “noon whistle” on the roof which used to sound daily so those working nearby would know it was time for lunch. This was discontinued likely 30 years ago, as I can actually remember the noon whistle blowing as a child in the early 1980s.
Sarah Romano has been working at Parnassus since 1979 and is doing a great job in her quest to keep the store flowing and alive while also keeping it true to her father Ben’s vision. Ben Muse, a Cape character well-known in the village, passed away in 2012.
Just like they did during the decades when her father ran the store, people still come to the store from all over the region looking for used and rare books, and these gems line the shelves from floor to ceiling.
Among the store’s specialities is a large genealogy section featuring Cape Cod and New England families. While browsing the shelves years ago, I once saw a book featuring my family, the Doanes, and am hoping someday it resurfaces so that I can buy it.
There are also some unique pieces of ephemera such as a scrapbook filled with news clippings from the 1920s that I found on a shelf wrapped tightly with a rubber band.
It is pieces such as this which make Parnassus more than a typical book store. Any place can have all of the new titles. It takes a special spot to house so many out-of-print and rare items.
It all goes back to Ben Muse’s vision of having a “well rounded collection of books to sell,” says Sarah. He began as a “picker” of books in the 1950s, specializing in Russian books as that was his major at Columbia University in New York.
Having something for everyone and wanting them to enjoy books as much as he did began all those years ago and continues with Sarah to this day.
And this antiquarian bookstore is keeping up with the times. Parnassus Book Service is active online with its own website and Facebook page.
But personalized service has always been a hallmark at Parnassus and that continues to this day, as Sarah keeps her father’s vision alive. “We are here every day,” she says.
It’s the love of the printed word, the love of the customers, and the love of her family’s legacy that makes Parnassus different than most book stores. Stop in and check out all they have to offer, and if you see the Doane Family genealogy book, let me know!
If You Go: Parnassus Book Service: 220 Rt. 6A, Yarmouthport
Chris Setterlund, who lives in Yarmouth, is a lifelong Cape Codder and the author of In My Footsteps, a guide to historical sites on Cape Cod.