At neighborhood used bookstore Capitol Hill Books (657 C St SE), stacks of hard covers and paperbacks are wedged in bathroom sinks and windows and basements. Despite all these volumes, not all words are permitted to be used on premises.
When I speak with owner Jim Toole, who sits at a desk fenced in by books, he quickly points to a hand-written sign behind him — the words “not spoken here.”
My first thought is it is pretty ironic to censor language in a book store. My second thought is this interview is about to be much more difficult considering my language often veers into stereotypically millennial jargon: like, “like” is banned, which is fairly problematic (another banned word) for me, and oh my god, not ‘Kindle’!”
He’s noticed. Needless to say, I do not pass this unmistakably serious directive.
There are other signs in the store as well: before walking in, a table hosts a couple of stray books with a sign that says “free means take and do not pay.” When I walk in to the store, there’s an edition of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with a small note jutting out that reads “Ron Dies.” (Toole doesn’t care for Harry Potter, but he clearly doesn’t fall on the Twilight side of the debate either as the Vampire section reads “Vampires suck”). In the basement, a series of books — Newt Gingrich’s Understanding Trump, Sarah Palin’s autobiography, some others from similar personalities — are labeled as a part of the “Wacko Stacko,” which another sign indicates now has “extra wacko.”
Before joining the used book store business, Toole enlisted in the Navy, who paid for him to study American History at UCLA. He tells me that he only reads nonfiction and his favorite books are, fittingly, those in the military, war and international relations genres. After completing his undergrad, he decided if he were to be a part of the Navy he wouldn’t just need to know about America’s history, but also about the world. So he came to Washington DC to get his masters in International Relations from American University. He has been at Capitol Hill Books since 1994, when he bought the store from founder Bill Kerr.
Toole believes used bookstores serve an important purpose—he’d like to see them in every neighborhood. “I believe in recycling good quality used books,” he says. Here, books have a home until they are carted off by a new owner — foreign language books in the bathroom; poetry in the music room in the basement, where grainy classical music plays; writers’ biographies lining the top of the upstairs window.
With rising property taxes and the looming threat of a big business moving in, Toole says a “small business man gets no breaks.” Nonetheless, for Toole, the mission is central to the store: he “seeks to keep books worthy of being recycled instead of [the books] going to a landfill.”
Capitol Hill Books is located across C Street SE from Eastern Market and is open every day, from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. The only exceptions are July 4th, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day, when the store is closed.
Visit on Second Saturdays, the second Saturday of the month, when the bookstore offers adult beverages and book sales. Reach Capitol Hill Books by telephone at (202) 544-1621 or follow them on Twitter.