December 3, 2018
An interview with the owner of a newly opened hometown bookstore
by Michael Barron
Ok, I’m lying to you guys. Because my father was in the military, I do not have a hometown to claim. Alexandria, Virginia, where my family was once stationed while I was in middle school, and where my parents now permanently reside, is as close as it gets.
And while I enjoy my visits to nearby Washington D.C., I’ve not really had much of a relationship with Old Town, the city’s buttered up historic district, a ten minute drive from my parent’s front door. At least not since its once great indie book and record store Olsson’s closed a decade ago. It was the first bookstore I patronized, the first place I actually bought a book with my own money, and the first place where I develop a literary crush (on a clerk that went unrequited).
In its wake of Olsson’s closure a few bookstore did pop up, including Hooray for Books, which places emphasis (though not exclusivity) on children’s books, and Book Bank, a used bookshop. But I couldn’t help be particularly excited for the opening of Old Town Books, a shop that caters to a literary and adult-minded clientele. It’s owner Ally Kirkpatrick, cut her teeth in the New York literary scene as a writer and editor before returning to her hometown to open the store. A one-time high school classmate with my younger sister, she was kind enough to answer a few questions about what it took for her to make this vision happen.
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I’m curious to know how the idea of opening a bookstore went from kernel to realization. What were you doing at the time? And when did the idea become more than idea for you?
Ally Kirkpatrick: I started thinking seriously about opening the bookstore in January of this year. At the time, I was obtaining a graduate degree at New York University, while working at the school as an administrator advising undergrads. After I finished my degree, I wasn’t sure what my next professional move would be. I was burnt out on being an administrator and wanted to focus on the book I was and still am writing, but I have a two-year old, so I couldn’t just quit my job and stop being a mother to do that. I thought about working at a bookstore, something I’d wanted to do since high school. I grew up going to Olsson’s and would have probably applied for a job there had I not been dissuaded by a classmate who told me I wasn’t cool enough to work at Olsson’s.
The idea of actually opening a bookstore in the area, though, didn’t happen until my partner and I, who had been living in New York for ten years or so, began talking about moving closer to the DC area. I’m from around here, and my father owns property in the area. So I thought that I could just rent a storefront from him, and combined with the lovingly free childcare from grandma, made the move appealing. I told my partner, sort of confessed it, that this is what I wanted to do. After we made sure it was viable for our family, I quit my NYU job and became a stay-at-home mother, learning the nuts and bolts of business as I took care of my daughter, taking took calls on stroller walks through Prospect Park, filling out forms and writing emails during her nap times, right up until moving day.
Tell me about what considerations you had to make when curating your bookshop.
A.K.: At first there was no balance. I started with the bookshop of my dreams: books I’ve read and loved, books I keep hearing good things about, some classics, a good biography/history/politics section since we’re in the DC metro area. My interests skew toward newer titles and emerging writers, literary fiction, science writing, and stocking these made it easier to hand-sell the whole store because it was all filled with titles I was genuinely excited about. I’m an avid birder so I have tons of nature writing, field guides, that sort of thing. And that has sold well, I think people are turning to the natural world as a respite from the news cycle and the stress of the holidays. Birds do that for me. They’re my Xanax.
I’m open to to genre, too, especially the Outlander books. I became hooked on them when my daughter was still an infant; I would listen to their audio book editions while nursing her through the night. I even stock Outlander-themed candles and calendars. I read and like to talk about a lot of literary fiction and serious nonfiction, so stocking a solid genre sections is nice to off set that and have a little fun. There is no book shame here.
Now that I’m filling out the shop more and reordering I’m seeing some area trends – folks like book club picks, the notable titles on the media lists, that sort of thing. But I try to keep it varied with university and independent presses, which I love to read and feature. My book club pick this month is a memoir debut published by Catapult called All You Can Ever Know. It’s by Nicole Chung who is coming to the shop on December 15th to do a craft talk about memoir writing. My aim is to program events that offer a different slant on a straightforward author interview and signing. Making this a craft talk means that customers can learn how Nicole wrote her book, what her process is like, and work with her through a writing exercise— that sort of thing. Which is all to say I tend towards picking titles where I can engage with the current literary scene and help connect readers to authors they might not have read before.
What have been some of the initial challenges to getting this project off the ground and where have you found support?
A.K.: My dad is a gimlet-eyed business man, and I had trouble convincing him that an indie bookstore could pay its bills and stay open. So rather than rent a space from him, as I assumed I could, I had to do find a space myself. There’s an old warehouse that dates back to 1795 that sits on the Old Town waterfront. Several businesses are located there, including pop-up spaces. So while I don’t have a permanent home in Old Town, I have set up shop for six months with the option to renew for three more. I paid my rent in net sales the first day I was open. I’d like to think I can prove my father wrong and convince another landlord that a bookstore could be an excellent tenant.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. I obtained my lease through Pop-Up ALX, a local economic development program that allows businesses to undergo a sort of trial period without making any big expenditures. Most landlords, however, want to see more of a financial commitment before they offer a longer lease. Yet if I hadn’t gone that pop-up route, and instead worked with my local small business development center to open the shop in 2019, backed by a big SBA loan, I wouldn’t be now be open for business or have the opportunity to see what works. This way I have a sort of petri dish type of shop. I get to experiment.
If there’s an everyday challenge, it’s food. The store has only been open for a week, and I’ve been so preoccupied with the shop I find myself making the most bizarre lunch choices. Today was veggie straws and molasses cookies with seltzer water. That’s what I ate from 8 am-7 pm. Over the weekend it was so busy that while checking people out I ate a PBJ and sipped on a pumpkin spice latté that a friend had brought me. I feel like a hummingbird running on adrenaline and sugar.
What’s recent book really struck you as the one you would want to put in people’s hands? And what Melville House book would you recommend?
A.K.: I’ve been hand-selling a book called The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. It’s a beautiful meditation on illness and recovery and the restorative pleasures of observing nature. At Melville House I’d recommend Joshua Stephens book The Dog Walker. I knew him in his dog walking days in DC when he was a regular at the cafe I worked at, and I enjoyed how his sharp thinking and weird sense of humor popped off the page.
Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.