Every Nook and Cranny: Capitol Hill Books
WASHINGTON, D.C. – A faded, handwritten sign states that J.D. Salinger’s book signing is canceled for “tonight,” over a year after his death. The fridge upstairs holds a sign, which reads “Poetry,” and is stacked with books in front of it. An old kitchen sink is filled with cook-books of all sizes. A small bathroom is home to the foreign language section. A one way staircase encompasses books against the wall.
You can discover these hidden treasures in Eastern Market at Capitol Hill Books. This used bookstore leaves barely any room for customers to bring a backpack, or to make any sudden movements while they browse the medley of books. The small pathways are dimly lit with a few small chairs in between them. Books are piled up in messy stacks from the carpeted, creaky floor, stacking up to a few inches from the fragile ceiling. Unlike most bookstores, small ladders and foot stools are a necessity for customers to use when they are finding books. Some shelves are left untouched and are crammed with books from all angles, so that removing one book could have a Jenga effect. People seem powerless in comparison to this tiny yet extremely extensive bookstore.
Jim Toole, who claims to be “100 years old,” has run the place since 1995. The store was founded by Bill Kerr in 1991, when Kerr worked at another bookstore, Wayward Books, down the street. Kerr lived and died upstairs in the bookstore, and his sister sold the store to Toole soon after he passed. Toole was tired of working for other people, writing proposals for the department of energy. He says that he is now working harder than he’s ever worked in his life, running around like a “striped-ass-ape looking for books.”
His mission was to expand every nook and cranny of the entire building. He has a complete spectrum of books for the variety of people who come into the store from the flea market outside. He turned Kerr’s bedroom into the “mystery room,” where stacks of soft-cover mysteries fill every space available. He has a business closet for the lawyers, and a separate section for art, travel, history, gardening…you name it; and he will have a hand-written sign taped to the closest adhesive-friendly object.
Unlike other independent bookstores, Toole does all of the buying and selling himself—he does not have publishers or printers bring books to him, since he only sells used books. He goes to estate sales and yard sales on weekday mornings to search and purchase one-of-a-kind books. “The best place to get books from is from dead people—they don’t take them with them,” he says. “ I clean the people’s bugars off the books, I price the books, I shelve the books, and I sell the books,” he adds.
A stickler for good conversation and customers, Toole has hand-written notes all around the store, humorously reminding customers of his rules. The door has a sign which reads, “A bookstore—not a phone booth.” Behind his tiny desk, a sign lists words “not spoken here,” including the words: Oh my god (or gosh, or OMG), neat, sweet, totally, whatever, like, perfect, and that’s a good question.
“Life is not a simile,” Toole says in a metaphor. “I have thesauruses here, I’m ready to give them out to people so they can use other adjectives,” he says.
Talking about E-books, Toole says that he is from a different generation. “I like the ability to open and close a book, and sit down by a fireplace,” he says. “You can’t come and fondle books anymore because you can have a little machine in your hand, and read every book that ever was published. That means I’m out of business,” he adds.
Even with the rise in E-books, Capitol Hill Books is crammed with people on any given weekend. Customers pick a nook to explore, and make piles of books that interest them, getting in the way for others to walk by. They interact and bargain with Jim at the register, where he hands them a handwritten receipt of their purchase. The books will continue to keep piling closer and closer to the ceiling with Jim’s hard work.