When Ally Kirkpatrick was an academic advisor at New York University, she found that most of the advice she was giving students was what books they should be reading. “I’ve always been a reader and a writer, and it’s just the lens that I see the world through, literature and creative writing,” Kirkpatrick says. This, along with her outgoing personality and being a self-described people person, was part of the spark that led Kirkpatrick to open an independent bookstore.
The West Potomac High School grad moved with her family back down to Northern Virginia from Brooklyn in the fall. With the help of Alexandria’s Small Business Development Center—who she started working with in September of 2018 on general plans for a store—and Pop-Up Alexandria, by Nov. 1, she had signed a lease in a circa-1795 building in Old Town, and just a little over three weeks later officially opened the doors to Old Town Books.
Bookstores, both independent and big chain stores, have struggled in recent years with online retailers like Amazon making shopping something you can do from your couch and curating selections based on previous orders. But Kirkpatrick doesn’t need algorithms to suggest what kind of books you might like.
“I feel pretty comfortable when people come in and they tell me they want a book on a certain topic because I’ve probably read about Buddhism, and I know what book I’d suggest to you for economics, or the new history book,” Kirkpatrick explains. “I know something about every book in the store, so I have really great conversations with people.”
Something else that online retailers can’t offer are the events that Kirkpatrick has made a fixture at her store. This includes monthly author readings, storytime sessions for kids and even “Shop Tunes” concerts, featuring artists that she is listening to in the store. One of the first to stop by the bookstore was Nicole Chung, whose debut novel All You Can Ever Know made multiple Best of 2018 lists. Chung’s book was doing quite well when she visited Old Town Books in December, but having the opportunity to help new authors is a point of emphasis for Kirkpatrick, especially as an emerging author herself.
“The problem is with new authors, if their book comes out and it doesn’t do well, that might be their last book, even if they’re a really talented writer because it’s so hard to break in to the publishing world,” says Kirkpatrick. “I’d like to be able to do that for new authors that otherwise might get lost in the shuffle at a big box store or at another venue.”
This month, the in-store literary lineup includes a Feb. 9 reading with author Carmen Maria Machado, whose upcoming memoir In the Dream House will be available for pre-order; as well as a Valentine’s Day-themed event, Books and Blooms, with former White House Floral Director Laura Dowling, where attendees will craft their own bouquet and have the opportunity to buy her book.
Kirkpatrick describes a good indie bookstore as a destination where you can learn something new and be surrounded by new ideas; a place to become connected to the literary world. With Old Town Books, she is doing that for her fellow Northern Virginia residents and her fellow writers. // Old Town Books: 104 S. Union St., Alexandria