Capitol Hill Books: A must-read neighborhood gem, filled with character

Geet Jeswani, special to

WASHINGTON – When shoppers enter a historic, converted house at 657 C St. SE in Eastern Market, they are greeted by a sage voice, emanating from a man who claims to be 103 years old.

“Fiction is upstairs, non-fiction this level,” says Jim Toole, who recites the information on autopilot once the creaky door is opened.

Toole is the owner of Capitol Hill Books, a used bookstore in Southeast that is home to more than 20,000 books. No, that is not a typo.

“There are many, many exceptions to that statement … You’re free to roam. This is a recording,” Toole says, ending his welcome.

While Toole’s off-beat reception is a welcome sound for the store’s frequent and loyal customers, it does catch new customers by surprise.

And his vocal map of the crowded bookstore is not the only unusual characteristic of Capitol Hill Books.

For starters, the bookstore is run by a tongue-in-cheek list of “Not Spoken Here” rules. This marker-written list includes forbidden words, such as “Kindle,” “Amazon,” “like” and “sweet.”

The location of the foreign language books also raises some eyebrows. Toole explains those books reside in the toilet room “because foreign language is in the toilet in this country.”

The cookbooks, naturally, line the shelves in the bookstore’s old kitchen and mystery books clutter the “Mystery Room.”

When Toole took over the bookstore in 1995, he had 1,000 books.

“I was tired of working for other people and at the time I was writing proposals for a small company … So I bought the right to have the store in here from (the previous owner’s) sister, in order to keep a used bookstore going on the Hill” Toole says.

Today, the store overflows with 20,132 books.

“I used to have a lot of books on the stairwell. I had about … What do you think?” he asks his longtime shelver, Aaron Beckwith.

“There were 1,432,” Beckwith says with a serious face. “Oh, he’s lying,” Toole laughs.

Toole, who offers some books for free on his “free table,” had to move these books when the fire department came through and told him they wouldn’t be able to get their equipment past the piles.

Toole’s strategy to acquiring so many books may sound a bit unsettling, but it makes sense: He relies on dead people.

“I find that they don’t take the books with them. So we’re recycling dead peoples’ books mainly,” says Toole, who attends estate sales, book auctions and yard sales.

In the 18 years since Toole took over, his most interesting request was the Gutenberg Bible. While he does have a section for Bibles, he says he doesn’t hold books that are more than 1,000 years old.

However, Toole does have law documents from Supreme Court decisions, dating back to the founding of the nation — a fitting addition to a bookstore in the nation’s capital.

While several bookstores have suffered over the past years, Toole says business at Capitol Hill Books is still thriving. He attributes his success to the neighborhood.

“I’ve seen all the new bookstores going agonizingly out of business because people are getting on their machines … Have my sales gone down? No, because the reading public here on Capitol Hill has increased … and the sheer number of young people who are educated and move on to the Hill,” Toole says.

Toole isn’t the only one having fun at Capitol Hill Books. Beckwith loves the job, and he says working for someone like Toole is a great pleasure for him.

“Jim’s just a great boss, a lively fellow,” Beckwith says. “Being surrounded by books is great. It’s great working for someone who lets you do what you want as long as you get work done.”

Capitol Hill Books is open from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.

This content was republished with permission from CNN.

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