Hidden in Plain Sight: Capitol Hill Books
BYT Staff | Aug 11, 2014 | 9:00AM |
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By Jonny Grave

There is nothing in D.C. like a Sunday in Eastern Market. The farmers slice peaches and apples for their sample plates. Tables of roasted nuts and cheeses send their aromas into the heavy summer air. Old men poke through tightly organized crates of vintage movie posters. The block is alive with the noises of District residents, tourists, dogs, vendors, and commerce.

Tucked away in the rows of houses and shops, just out of earshot of the relentless hubbub of the market is a weathered storefront and a battered awning. Where any other shop would use the prime real estate of a giant window at 7th and C st. for showcasing their wares, this shop does not. Instead, every inch of the window is crammed with books.

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My first venture into Capitol Hill Books was when I was sixteen the weekend before Christmas. The market was in a fervor, the fruit stands gave way to rows of Christmas trees, the farmers were barking about their apple cider, the buskers were all playing carols, and I walked through the crowd with my heavy coat and empty bag, looking for gifts. The little bookstore caught my eye, and I decided to stop in. When the door closed behind me, the sounds from outside were shut off. It was like stepping into a world completely apart from the bustle. I set my bag down, took my coat off, and walked through the stacks of books.

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I want the reader to understand here that when I say the stacks of books reach from the floor to the ceiling, I am not exaggerating in any way. Every corner, every nook, every last wall, crevice, and shelf is full of books in this shop. Walking around is a precarious affair. The books will sometimes topple over for no reason, sending a pile of chess books flying for your head. The low ceiling in the basement isn’t any easier to navigate if you’re taller than 5’5”. But, in spite of its ramshackle layout, its bowing shelves, and jerry-rigged bookcases, Capitol Hill Books is unlike any bookstore in the world.

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The selection ranges from dimestore novels and badly-bound romances to a signed copy of Edmund Hillary’s “Everest.” Owner Jim Toole isn’t a rare books collector by any stretch of the imagination. He just happens to be extraordinarily dedicated to his trade, stubborn to a fault, fearless in the face of a changing market, and funny as hell. The shelves are peppered with index cards, usually denoting the subcategories of the sections. “Keats, Joyce, this way” reads one card from the poetry section. However, every now and again, the owner’s commentary comes out in spades. The card above the row of large-print art books reads “Good for: Coffee tables, intellectual peacocking.”

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My last trip was on a Sunday in August, almost ten years after my first visit. Not much has changed, aside from “Everest” finally being sold. I come here once every couple of months, usually to pick up a good mystery, or Beat novel, or something I can read on the endless Megabus rides to New York. The store seemed busier than I’ve seen it, and the crowd seemed to be a little younger, both of which were good omens.

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Times have changed, and usually not in a way that favors the little shops like Capitol Hill Books. There’s a very good reason Jim Toole doesn’t allow the words “Kindle” and “Amazon” to be spoken in his shop. However, the shop still stands. It is likely that a store like this survives because it provides an experience that buying books online can’t offer. Furthermore, I believe this particular shop is still alive and well because it provides an experience unique among single-location bookshops. It’s a curious combination of reckless endangerment and dedication to the craft of turning books over from one hand to the next.

The first time I walked in their door, I asked why the foreign language section was in the bathroom. Jim answered me without looking up from his crossword, saying “Because, my boy, foreign language education in this country is in the toilet.” I hazard a guess that as long as Jim keeps being Jim, and as long as Capitol Hill Books keeps being Capitol Hill Books, the shop will be just fine.

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John Waters warns us to not sleep with anyone if they don’t have any books at their place. If for no other reason, dear readers, you should go buy some books immediately. And please buy them at Capitol Hill Books.

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