A recent Sunday morning found me in the Athenaeum in Old Town Alexandria, pen poised and ready. Bright sunshine streamed through the windows as the other audience members and I waited for the speakers to take the stage. We were gathered for a panel on writing grant and fellowship applications, part of the inaugural Emerging Writers Festival hosted by Old Town Books.
The panel was fantastic. I could hardly write fast enough to keep up with all the wisdom that panelists Jennifer Baker, Hannah Bae, and Caits Meissner shared. I left thinking, “Wow, I hope this becomes an annual event!” Luckily for all of us, it will.
Afterward, I caught up with the festival director and owner of Old Town Books, Ally Kirkpatrick.
Q: I wanted to start by asking about your relationship with writing—what role has writing played in your life?
AK: Writing has always been something I enjoyed as a creative outlet. My earliest writerly memories involve writing some seriously weird one–act plays with a friend in elementary school. I specifically remember the satisfaction of a sentence describing one character as having high heels that “stabbed the ground” when she walked. That was like high art to us in sixth grade, and getting that description down felt like an achievement. So I guess pleasure has been a big part of writing for me—making a sentence sound a certain way, finding the fitting description (stabbing heels and all), it feels good.
At the same time, I’ve struggled with writing, with that very same effort of making work I think works. Of getting it “right.” My master’s thesis took me a whole extra year to complete than planned because I got caught in that vortex of doom that is self-editing while writing.
So it’s both: writing has been a source of intense pleasure, and also a sense of discomfort. As I get older, I realize it’s ok for it to be both. Writing and making art isn’t always one thing, I always have to remind myself that a sense of flux is part of the process, part of the nature of writing and being a writer.
How did you come to open Old Town Books? What are your goals for the space?
I decided to open the store when I was imagining leaving New York. I didn’t want to, but I also couldn’t puzzle out how to be a young mom and write and commute into the city each day to work a 9-5 in higher ed. I was working at New York University (NYU) at the time, advising undergraduate students and teaching a new student seminar. By the time I’d get home from work and the baby was ready for bed, I was spent; I had no energy left for my family or my creative work.
The bookstore seemed like a very far–flung but interesting getaway car from that schedule and lifestyle, while also being a way to stay connected to the literary community. I decided to cash out my NYU retirement fund—it wasn’t much, like under $10K—and then took out a small business loan—very small in terms of start–up funding, $40K. I quit my cushy NYU job and said farewell to my brilliant and lovely colleagues there at the Media, Culture, and Communication department.
With that time and money I developed the brand, did the research and attended booksellers conferences, and hired a babysitter part-time. It was terrifying and exhilarating. I moved from New York to Virginia in October and opened the store at the end of November. It was a breakneck pace and I didn’t hire a bookseller until December. But once I got help from great staff, things leveled out.
My goal for the store was always to make it a space for readers and writers to connect, a community anchor for the literary arts.
What was the genesis for the Emerging Writers Festival?
It was the festival I wanted to attend—I hoped for lower pressure and cost of entry than a standard “pay to play” type of conference where you sign up to network and maybe meet agents and such. The festival to me was always about producing an event where you could go to find your people, your fellow writers and readers.
I started working with Brigid Nelson, our designer, in January on the website. Allison Punch, our events manager, and I programmed the readers and teachers all spring. The goal of the programming was to make it instructive and inspiring, and I think our teaching artists really nailed that—we had generative classes, business classes. All of it was programming I wish I could have sat in on!
How did you choose the authors featured in the festival?
We programmed the festival with an eye towards books that are about a broad range of topics and voices. But also, for this first festival, we relied on friends of the store to connect us to speakers: Randon Noble was my college professor. Hannah Bae and I met online; I love her work so much. She introduced me to the work of Jennifer Baker. It was a sort of chain that way of interests and connections leading us to interesting work. It was a real joy to do.
Why focus on emerging writers?
I think again this is about what I was looking for in my career as a writer—a festival that is a combination of skills–based workshops and inspiring readings. I don’t often feel inspired when I leave large–scale conferences or festivals; I feel overwhelmed. By focusing on that early career writer, we could program specifically for folks who know the lay of the land publishing-wise, who maybe have a first book in the works. At the same time, supporting and encouraging “emerging writers” is part of Old Town Books’ mission. We pay attention to debuts, we make it a point to support early career writers, we’re a writers’ book shop.
What were your goals for the festival? How do you think it went?
Our goal was to produce a festival with a few events and sell 100 books over the weekend to make it worth it. We sold more than 100 books, which doesn’t make us a profit by any stretch, but it made it come close to breaking even. But the point of the festival was not financially oriented—no one is going to get rich producing local literary festivals. But if the shop can do this and not lose too much money, and we can bring all these great artists to Alexandria, and we can introduce our customers to the greater lit scene in the area—then that to me is a huge success. We also sold out most of the classes, had great press coverage, had an amazing team of volunteers.
Overall I was super proud of our team and consider it a net positive for the store, and a huge personal success for me because I’ve been wanting to see this sort of literary programming come to Old Town for a long time.
Will this be an annual event?
Yes! We’re already planning for next year.
How can readers learn more about the bookstore and the Emerging Writers Festival?
Also, as an aside—we are creating a literary zine about the festival. Contributors are speakers and attendees, and it will be published in time for our one–year anniversary.
Many thanks to Ally for answering my questions!