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Tales of Jim Toole’s Tiny Bookstore

Bookshelves at Capitol Hill Books, by Collin David Anderson (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

There’s a little bookstore on C Street in Washington, D.C., with a slightly tattered window awning and dimly lit windows. On first glance, it looks quite gloomy. But then you step inside.

Immediately, you are engulfed in a cavern of books. They pile from floor to ceiling, glower down from towering bookshelves, and overwhelm every crevice of the store. When Capitol Hill Books’ website says “Every bit of space in the store has a book,” they aren’t joking.

The store’s sections are handwritten notes taped to the shelves, often with special “directions.” So often, these little notes anticipate my own thoughts. As I searched the fiction’s “D” section for Dostoevsky, I met this paper note Scotch-taped to the shelf: “If you’re looking for Dostoevsky” – with a friendly arrow pointing to a special section just a few shelves away. The whole store is like this: with unanticipated rabbit trails and person recommendations, all footnoted with a personal touch. If you want to discover a new unknown author, this bookstore is a perfect place to browse.

Charles Simic shared his love of independent bookstores in a Tuesday New York Review of Booksblog post. He writes, “They were more discriminate and chaotic than public libraries and thus made browsing more of an adventure.” Through perusing shelves, he found books possessing humorous and often soulful material for the reader:

“Among the crowded shelves, one’s interest was aroused by the title or the appearance of a book. Then came the suspense of opening it, checking out the table of contents, and if it proved interesting, thumbing the pages, reading a bit here and there and looking for underlined passages and notes in the margins.”

Simic reminds readers that in used books, we meet more than the author – we also meet past readers, mysterious and diverse. My sister has an old Victorian era diary, filled with old newspaper clippings and ads. According to a frontispiece by the owner, this diary was one of the few possessions she salvaged from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Jim Toole, Capitol Hill Books’ owner, told People’s District in August 2011 that he has gathered 20,000+ volumes from estate sales, yard sales, and auctions. But he isn’t sure how much longer the bookstore will thrive: “Big book shops are closing down, and those two-faced bureaucratic Johnny Onenotes in the D.C. government scream out the window that they want to help small businesses, and then close the window. So, I have property taxes, Kindle, and Amazon working against me.”

One of my favorite notes in his bookstore offers the “Rules,” i.e. words prohibited on the premises: “Oh my God (or gosh),” “neat,” “sweet,” “like” (underlined several times in emphatic permanent marker), “you know,” “totally,” “whatever,” “perfect,” “that’s a good question,” “Kindle,” “Amazon,” and “have a good one.” Toole says when people use these words, he tells them to “get a thesaurus and stop being so mentally lame.”

This is the other innate appeal of the independent bookstore: its personal eclecticism and charm. Mr. Toole’s knowledge and sarcasm are evident in every handwritten note scattered throughout his store. The store’s deep caverns, hidden treasure troves, and “mystery section” make it unique from any other book seller – and honestly, even if it’s a little harder to find Dostoevsky, I prefer it this way.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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