Old Town Books answers: What are Alexandrians reading?

Fully stocked bookshelf (image via Old Town Books/Facebook)

As Alexandria moves into fall, it’s likely locals will want to nurse a cup of hot coffee at their local shop or curl up at home on the couch with a good book. If you’re not sure what that book should be: Ally Kirkpatrick has a few ideas.

Kirkpatrick, owner of Old Town Books (130 S Royal Street), said in some ways Alexandria follows national trends on what’s popular, but there are other titles that catch on specifically with the local clientele.

“Something that’s a best-seller everywhere doesn’t always translate to local stores,” Kirkpatrick said.

While the assumption might be that political books are the hot commodities in a D.C.-area bookstore, Kirkpatrick said there’s a bit more nuance to what will take off. Readers got burned out on books about the Trump administration, for instance, but New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman’s book Confidence Man was released around the time of the Jan. 6 trials and proved to be a best seller.

Other popular books have more of a local connection.

“We sold so many copies of [Matthew Cappucci’s] book,” Kirkpatrick said. “I think that’s specific to our area. We did an event with him and he was so charming and wonderful and we sold out. We probably sold more copies than a Barnes and Noble a few states away would. When we get a connection like that, it’s more location specific.”

Another recent example was Uncultured by Daniella Mestyanek Young.

“Normally with a memoir, we’d buy a couple of copies, but she’s local so we bought two cartons,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick said Old Town Book stocks books across the political spectrum, though there’s some curation involved.

“The younger generation skews more liberal stuff, but I also know older dudes who like more middle-of-the-road conservative stuff,” Kirkpatrick said. “[There’s a] difference between censorship and curation. We sell anything, but we try to make it more [in line with] what our values are. We also listen to what anyone across the spectrum is listening to and buying. We had the new Henry Kissinger book out on the table for a week, but after that week it was like ‘alright, that’s all Henry gets.'”

Kirkpatrick said while visitors from outside of the region will stop by and buy a water bottle or t-shirt, most of the book sales are either to neighbors or to local tourism — visitors from D.C., Maryland or other parts of Northern Virginia.

“The local tourists, they’re cool,” Kirkpatrick said. “They buy six books at a time.”

One of the recent best-sellers was Jennette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died.

“It’s a really powerful book,” Kirkpatrick said. “It really hit that zeitgeist moment, especially when there’s social media sharing about the book. You could tell when it blew up on TikTok because we’d get calls asking if we had it in stock.”

Predicting what will be popular with readers can be a gamble, had Kirkpatrick said there have been a few times where something she thought would be big didn’t take off.

“There was a novel called A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara,” Kirkpatrick said. “It was a huge literary sensation. It sold well because it got picked up on social media. It’s a brutal book, hard to put down. Her new book came out and we bought a lot, but people weren’t into it. It was too far apart from her first book and people forgot about it. It had a big section about a pandemic and I think people were over pandemic stuff. It’s too soon, it didn’t sell as much.”

That’s not to say pandemic topics are completely toxic to readers, Kirkpatrick said there are a few that have managed to stand out.

“I actually really loved the latest Michael Lewis, The Premonition, and we sold three cartons of that because I was like ‘no, it’s a good pandemic book, it’s about bureaucracy and the flaws in the public health system,'” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s fun because it’s sort of a chicken and the egg question: did we sell a lot because it’s popular or because we liked it?”

Kirkpatrick said she enjoys seeing parallels between what people are discussing online and what they’re buying in the store. With the release earlier this year of Dune, Kirkpatrick said the book has been flying off the shelves.

“We sell so much of Dune,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s amazing, we sell so many copies. We keep a stack of Dune upstairs because we know we’re going to sell it. There are like four different editions and we stock all of them because we love them and people by them. The movie came out too and that gave it a boost.”

Kirkpatrick said genre classics, like Dune or The Hobbit, always sell well and are frequently purchased as gifts.

With the holiday season coming up, many readers are likely looking for recommendations for themselves as for gifts, but Kirkpatrick said there’s no real catch-all “buy this” recommendation.

“My personal reading skews non-fiction or literary fiction, but it’s hard to say there’s ‘one book’ because there are so many different types of readers,” Kirkpatrick said. “For someone who loves history, I’d say: the new Sam Adams biography by Stacy Schiff. With reading, it’s so crazy, it has to be specific. People are like ‘I’d never read a 500-page history book’ but for other people that would nail it.”

For literary fiction, Kirkpatrick said a great one coming out is called Trespasses.

“It’s a debut novel by an Irish writer,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s a beautiful political novel. It’s not about U.S. politics, but it takes place in The Troubles and a woman surviving this turbulent time. It’s the kind of book you can read right now and it won’t stress you out because it’s different from what we’re going through.”

Kirkpatrick said Trespasses, by Louise Kennedy, is coming out in November.

For current affairs, Kirkpatrick said the paperback version of Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe is coming out soon and would make a good holiday gift.

“I think that would be a great holiday gift because it’s this unputdownable reportage; a narrative about our country and how wealth works and how private corporations work,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s about the Sackler family. We read that for our book club last year and now the paperback is coming.”

One of the advantages of being a local store, Kirkpatrick said, is that she’s gotten to know some of her regulars really well.

“I could name five favorite regulars who live two blocks away,” Kirkpatrick said, “and I can be like ‘oh, Robert would like that, I’ll get that.'”

It’s a neighborhood atmosphere that has helped Old Town Books endure a decline in local bookstores — though there are some signs of a promising comeback in the industry.

“I get chills because I know people know they can get it on Amazon, but they buy from us,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s a younger generation of people voting to save their local bookstores.”

Amazon has, for a long time, been the elephant in the room when it comes to discussions about the viability of local bookstores. For Old Town Books, that came in the form of accusations of “overcharging” on books, when the truth is that Amazon can buy books cheaper in bulk than local stores can.

“When I first opened, I think there was a lot of confusion about it,” Kirkpatrick said. “A couple people would say ‘they’re overcharging for books here’ but now people understand I get a different margin for books than Amazon does. People are more open to it because they know no one is getting rich off this bookstore.”

Her goal for the store, Kirkpatrick said, was to be a part of Alexandria’s literary scene and a go-to spot for local books.

“We’re here because we want a literary scene and we want this place to exist,” Kirkpatrick said. “In the last four years, people totally understand the business model of Amazon and what they’re buying into. Get your toilet paper and diapers from Amazon, but get your books from a corner store. You can’t poke around on Amazon on a Sunday with your kids, you want to go into a cool space and browse. Nothing makes me happier than ten people silently hanging out and reading for an hour.”

Photo via Old Town Books/Facebook