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People At Work: Down a Rabbit Hole in a New Bookstore in Alexandria
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People At Work: Down a Rabbit Hole in a New Bookstore in Alexandria

Ally Kirkpatrick looks through her selection of children’s books at Old Town Books. She likes to give children something they haven’t see before — in addition to the classics.

Ally Kirkpatrick looks through her selection of children’s books at Old Town Books. She likes to give children something they haven’t see before — in addition to the classics. Photo by Shirley Ruhe.

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Scout is curled up in the corner taking a nap between chapters at Old Town Books.

Ally Kirkpatrick arranges the books so the edges are all exactly right. "I'm particular about how my books are shelved, how they look." She says, "There is online product acquisition and then there is shopping. I can compete for shopping with interesting displays and beautiful spaces."

Kirkpatrick opened Old Town Books, her own independent bookstore at 104 S. Union Street on Small Business Saturday in November 2018. After spending 10 years in New York City, she returned home to “do the only thing I could do.” The bookstore currently has 2,808 books, all personally selected. She walks toward her front door. "This is my little bird shrine.” Peterson's Guide to Birds is prominently displayed along with the “Wall of Birds,” a beautifully illustrated book by visual artist Jane Kim, which "would make a great gift."

Kirkpatrick says, "I try to keep a mix of gift items in with the 90 percent of books." She says she keeps locally made gifts or those made by small vendors. "I love these cards from 'Party of One,' a small woman-owned business in Michigan.” Nearby is a shelf of author-signed books. She picks up a copy of "Her Body and Other Parties," a sci-fi short story collection. "This was my first off-site event. Since it was nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction, we wanted to be able to accommodate a larger crowd."

The store hosts a number of events with an upcoming April 2 evening featuring two books published by the University of Nebraska Press. One of the books, "Be With Me Always," is a collection of hauntedness essays written by one of Kirkpatrick’s former professors at New York University. "These events are a big part of the store, the cultural progression that you can't get online. The whole point is to be in person." To reiterate the point, her dog Scout barks in person from his bed in the corner as the mail carrier rolls in a trolley of new books.

Back in the Cookbook Section, Kirkpatrick points to "Vietnamese Food Any Day." She says she figured Alexandria is a foodie city so she is going to have a book club that focuses on this cookbook. Everyone will cook a recipe from the book. She says you don't have to go to a specialty store to get the ingredients for these Vietnamese dishes. It's easy to do.

Kirkpatrick walks around to the display of new books. She has already read four of them. She says her 2-year-old daughter goes to bed at 6:30 p.m. and then Kirkpatrick reads until whenever. Her husband is a big reader, too, "So we just cuddle up and read."

Her husband tends more to contemporary politics and science of the mind while she goes more for plants and nature. It works out "because I can cherry pick recommendations from what he reads." Although Kirkpatrick hasn't read every book in the store, she knows about all of them as well as the authors, reads trade websites, and follows the new publications for months in advance.

In the back corner are the children's books. "Same thing with children's books. I like to give them something they haven't seen before. Here is 'Milky Way.' It just came out." She says she has noticed more parents bringing in kids to avoid screen time."

Kirkpatrick says the bookstore is like any retail establishment with the holiday boom where they sold three times as many books, then slow in January. It’s alive on weekends when folks come in to get a book to read next week or for their book club.

She found her current space through the Alexandria Economic Development pop-up program to promote new businesses. She says she appreciated their assistance and she likes her current space. But she says she is out looking for new retail space every week since under this program she could have to move in 90 days "and I'm really excited to invest in new space and make it really special.

“You can lose yourself for hours down a rabbit hole. Books are so good for you in so many ways.”