The Independent Bookstore as a Community: A Conversation with Old Town Books’ Jen Cheng 

image via @oldtownbooks on Instagram

Even before the global pandemic—a phrase that still sounds almost unreal to utter—supporting independent bookstores was paramount to the literary and small-business community. 

It’s not just that, if we have the means, we ought to help these stores compete with rapidly growing tech & retail giant Amazon (you may have heard about the Boxed Out campaign, a call to buy from a handful of local booksellers on Prime Day). It’s also that independent bookstores are carefully curated to reflect and support their unique communities; they create spaces for readers and writers to foster their interests and their craft; and they provide a place (well, virtually, in the COVID era) for not just book browsing, but events, author interviews, workshops, book clubs, and more—creating a community in themselves. 

Now, amidst the many changes that COVID has brought to the retail sector, it’s even more pressing that we support our local businesses and creators if/when we have the means. (We recognize that, in an economically fraught time, not all of us do—and we at So to Speak aren’t here to shame anyone for their choices and needs.) To talk about the role of the independent bookstore as of lateI was able to score a phone interview with Jen Cheng, book buyer for Old Town Books, a gorgeous and fantastically curated store in Alexandria, VA, that has been a growing hot spot for NoVA/DC’s literary scene since 2018. The store, founded and owned by Ally Kirkpatrick, has hosted a variety of events and activities since its inceptionfrom an exclusive interview with Carmen Maria Machado and Nicole Chung in February 2019 ahead of Machado’s highly anticipated In the Dream House, to a variety of workshops and book clubs. Now, as they continue to adapt to life in the time of COVID, I’m excited to share Jen’s insights about what goes on behind the scenes of an independent bookstore, as well as how and why these spaces are so important, especially now 

The curation of the store itself, in fact, is a fascinating process that many customers might not recognize is so complex and is key to maintaining the store’s identity. “It’s almost like fashion buying,” Jen explains“There are at least two main seasons—spring and fall, sometimes more for large publishers—and each buyer is looking ahead. For example, I’m nolooking at books for January to May [2021].”  

As Old Town Books’ primary buyer, Jen reviews the catalogues of (thousands and thousands of) upcoming books sent out by publishers, and, with the input of the Old Town Books team, makes selections based on a variety of wants and needs. “You want to focus on things interesting to your customer—the area, the demographicthe interests of the consumer—but also the bookseller’s perspective, Jen says. So, in addition to choosing books that are highly anticipated and books that reflect the store’s community, Old Town Books aims to sustain its own vision and personality in its curation: “It’s very much a bookstore for readers, but also for writers. Anyone interested in enjoying, but also creating, art. We also take supporting new writers really seriously because of this mission—we love uplifting debut authors, emerging authors.  

The shop also has a large selection of nature and wildlife books, Jen notes, which is another personality pick, as founder Ally is an enthusiast of all things embodying the beauty of the natural world. Additionally, on the staff picks webpage, shoppers can find titles recommended by the store’s employees themselves—including a selection of books about dogs “curated” by Ally’s dog, Scoutcheekily (and adorably) described as “the resident bookstore bait.”  

Overall, variety is important to the Old Town Books crew—from naturalist books and cookbooks to novels and memoirs to short story and essay collections, the idea of “something for everyone” is truly reflected in their curation. According to Jen, the staff also ensures that “genre” fiction is just as represented as “literary” fiction, something they’ve paid especially close attention to since the COVID measures began and reading became a sort of escapism“Especially right now,” Jen says, “people are looking for something comforting, something fun—more mystery, more romance. I don’t know that all other bookstores have as much of a curated section just for this.” (In fact, their staff even put together a list of quarantine picks for customers.) There is no literary snobbery to be found at Old Town Books—their genre selections have been a huge hit with the community, and one of the store’s most popular and beloved book clubs is the Bad Romance Book Club, where readers gather (virtually, now) to discuss a “cheesy” romance book each month! 

As a bookseller, Jen also recognizes that the store plays a role not just in the community, but in the larger outlook of the literary world, when it comes to diversity, inclusion, and representation. “Old Town Books has always strived to be a safe space for marginalized voices, and to resist homogeneity in our stock,” Jen explains. “It’s always been Ally’s desire for us to not just be inclusive, but to keep intersectional feminism on our minds, to be genuine and reflect our community, and to pay attention to new voices. And we aim to do this not just in our curation, but also our events—for our book clubs, for example, we make sure to feature work from authors of different marginalized backgrounds, and BIPOC writers.” The bookstore is, after all, a platform; this year, the store curated an antiracist reading list for adults as well as one for kids and young adults, recognizing that part of the role of a bookseller is being a resource for fostering those important conversations“We also donated a portion of proceeds to Reclaim the Block and Black Visions Collective,” Jen says. “We felt it was our role as a bookstore to raise awareness and promote antiracism and intersectional feminism. Our customers were really responsive and supportive.” They also have a list of recommended titles by Indigenous authors, which can be found here. 

And of course, Jen recognizes, the fight against systemic racism and discrimination is one that is ongoing; we discuss the fact that it’s a “movement, not a moment”—a phrase that has become increasingly prominent since it was first coined in 2015 by activist Jasmine RichardsJen notes that while bookstores can, and should, do their part in making sure the diversity of their authors is authentic, rather than tokenistic, publishing as a whole can do more work to move in a more equitable direction“Publishers can ask, how are you making sure that people can enter this field? What are the barriers for different people? How can you allow all backgrounds to enter this space?”  

Ultimately, whatever they might be looking for, readers can rest assured that any book featured at Old Town Books has been chosen thoughtfully. “Someone on staff has to read the entire book before we decide we’re going to pick it,” Jen says. That’s a lot of reading, considering the variety to be found on the store’s shelves! Each book earns its place on the shelf, and we try to take that idea seriously. We want to serve the community, offer quality picks, and also, direct the conversation. 

While COVID-19 has affected the store’s operations, which have continued to evolve and adapt, Jen wants customers to know that the store is grateful for those who have chosen to buy from Old Town Books, especially in the months of March to August, when the store was only offering contactless pickup and shipping. Since COVID is here for the long haul (whatever that may look like), Old Town Books has worked to prioritize the health of their customers and their team: at the moment, the store allows just four customers inside at a time, masked, for browsing, and continues to offer a variety of contactless options. “Because one of our biggest advantages over Amazon was customer interactions and the ability to interact with the books in person, that advantage definitely is lessened,” Jen remarks. “So overall, we’re just so grateful when people want to support their local business. And now that we know COVID is more airborne than surface-spread, we can rest more easily knowing there can be safe ways to browse!”  

The store has also moved all of their events and book clubs online, to a virtual format. Jen explains: “The store is a place to celebrate reading, writing, and the love of books and art; it’s a place for people to meet and interact. Some of that has had to shift—we’ve put all in-person events on hold, because while our browsing is okay, a jam-packed room of people isn’t—but our book club members still show up, people are excited to chat over Zoom. So in many ways, the community elements of the store have just adapted, rather than gone away.” In times like these, the community created by Old Town Books—a community of enthusiastic individuals, some new to the literary world and some longtime fans of everything bookish—is a source of solace and joy.  

Finally, Jen also provides me with a tidbit of COVID-era insider insight: “This year, customers looking to buy books for the winter holidays will want to think about that holiday shopping early,” she says. “It’s hard to think ahead, but I’m hoping customers will think about it early—I don’t think it’s widespread knowledge, but U.S. printers are having huge jams because of both financial constraints and huge demand. This year, we’ll probably see delays on major books, or books selling out very quickly and then having to be on backorder for a while. When a book is hot, every seller wants to have more copies, and I worry about this come December—so I urge customers to consider doing that shopping early if they can, to make sure they get copies of what they want, especially with major releases.”  

I know I’ve already pre-ordered a few exciting upcoming titles from Old Town Books myself, such as Danielle Evans’ November release, The Office of Historical Correctionson the store’s online platform (and I also may have spent a few hours going down the rabbit hole of the store’s blog, which I must say is quite a good time for anyone excited to hear about the happenings of the book world). Ultimately, and especially after talking with Jen, I cannot recommend Old Town Books enough—they’re not just a store, but a community, and we could all use a little community right now. 

Old Town Books interior 

image via @oldtownbooks on Instagram

 

 

 

 

 

Kyra Kondis is a third-year MFA candidate in fiction at George Mason University, where she is the editor-in-chief of So to Speak Journal. More of her work can be found at kyrakondis.com.

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