Bookstore’s staff on fire for joy of reading

People still turn out to buy ink on paper

A typical Saturday at Old Firehouse Books has a variety of stories to tell.

It starts at 9 a.m. with “people starting the day early and quietly,” said store manager Revati Kilaparti. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, she said, “we’re open extra early for a low-sensory hour for people who don’t want a lot of music, don’t want a lot of light, so it’s a little quieter.”

Then there’s an influx of “people killing time,” she said, waiting to be texted that their restaurant seats are available at crowded nearby breakfast spots such as Silver Grill, Snooze or Ginger and Baker.

“During the day, it’s more students and families.”

The store’s primary demographic is “probably more older and middle-aged, a lot of 30s and 40s and families coming in,” she said, “but we’re also getting more students” from Colorado State University. “We have a 15% discount for CSU students.”

Then there’s “a good amount of teens who are looking to hang out or for something to do,” Kilaparti said. “A lot of tourists too.”

Some younger readers have turned to their Kindles and audiobooks, but she said many still love actual books.

“They’re very excited and enthusiastic about it,” she said. “If they’re coming in here, they read, so I guess we have a special demographic. We get the young people who like to read. It’s not a hard sell for them. I haven’t noticed a decrease, and we try to make the place welcoming for them to come in, by themselves or whatever.”

Kilaparti said she has worked at Old Firehouse Books “off and on” for 15 years, including the moment in 2009 when the store, known as the Book Rack when Bill Hawk opened it in 1980, moved into the spot at 232 Walnut St. and changed its name to reflect its new home, a historic firehouse with its distinctive architecture.

Hawk started the Book Rack by selling and trading used paperbacks. His wife, Maggie, and daughter, Marta, pitched in and grew the business for more than two decades. The store was sold in 2001 to current owners Dick Sommerfield and Susie Wilmer, who also owned Book Rack stores in Greeley and Cheyenne. They increased the stock of used books, began ordering new titles, and moved the business to 1801 S. College Ave. in 2002, then to its Old Town location seven years later. Kilaparti said Sommerfield built the bookshelves.

“Now we are mostly new books,” she said, “and we’re a much larger space, a lot more books that are looking to the future, a lot more queer books, and a lot more of the pulse that is going on around us.”

That’s reflected in the store-sponsored book clubs that anyone can join, including the Informed Citizens Book Club, Traps and Trenchcoats Mystery Book Club, F*@#’d Up Book Club and Queer & Loathing Book Club.

“I love indie bookstores in general,” she said. “It really reflects the people who shop here, the people who live here. What people are reading changes, and we’ve changed a whole lot since we first opened. I like that we change with the conditions.”

There’s also space for book signings by local authors, but for more national touring writers, “we can’t fit a few hundred people in the store,” she said, “so sometimes we have to go to the library, we partner with them, or we get an event space, or go to one of the hotels.”

An example is popular romance author Ana Huang, who Old Firehouse Books hosted on Oct. 25 at the Fort Collins Marriott.

One thing that has changed is a book’s price.

“We don’t set the prices of the books,” Kilaparti said. “That has been a difficulty with the prices of everything like paper and stuff going up. So we urge people, ‘If you buy a book, just buy one a month from us and we’d really appreciate it versus you going on Amazon.’”

Between inflation and changing reader habits, many independent and chain bookstores have closed. Denver’s iconic Tattered Cover bookstores just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and the Book Lovers Emporium, a fixture in south Fort Collins for decades, announced it would close on Nov. 19.

But Kilaparty remains optimistic about Old Firehouse Books.

“Business is pretty good, and I think we’re increasing every year,” she said.

“I really like working here,” Kilaparti said. “I really like that we have a personality as opposed to a lot of bigger businesses. We try to be here and listen to what people need and want.

“We have a good time.”

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