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Capitol Hill Books Has DC’s Most Curmudgeonly Store Owner

And he just wants you to follow the rules.
All photographs by Caroline Cunningham.

Capitol Hill Books’ Jim Toole (“If you have to put an age down, say 110”) had already lived a fairly full life before he took on running the secondhand book shop after its original owner passed away in 1994—he earned a degree in history from UCLA, a masters from American University, and served in the Navy for 30 years. Now he says he spends 85 to 90 hours a week tending to and stocking the stuffed-to-the-brim store across the street from Eastern Market, which he expanded to fill the basement and top floor of the rowhouse.

Last weekend, I stepped into the store to hunt for a particular title, and realized that Capitol Hill Books is not like most cozy, quiet bookstores where one can browse unbothered, and that’s because Toole is not like most bookstore owners. His idiosyncrasies are present throughout the entire store, from the haphazard organization system—there’s a “Tower of Tolkien” that’s an actual teetering stack of books by the author, and an entire section of books is lodged in the store’s bathroom—to the excessive handwritten signage to the front door, which is covered in rules for would-be customers.

Not sure whether to laugh or hide when he lectured a woman at the counter for uttering something on his “Not Spoken Here” list that hangs over his shoulder—the offending word was awesome—I decided to get in touch with Toole a few days later to find out why he runs Capitol Hill Books the way he does.

How long have you been the owner of Capitol Hill Books?

Twenty years, five months, three days, two hours, 15 minutes.

Are you serious? You actually know the hour and the minutes?

Yeah, absolutely. Why not? Doesn’t that sound better than “20 years”?

"Skullduggery" is a classification of books in Toole's shop.
“Skullduggery” is a classification of books in Toole’s shop.

What does it take in this day and age to keep a print bookstore running?

I spend somewhere around 85 and 90 hours a week either here in the store or running around trying to find books at estate sales or book auctions, because I find the most important books from dead people. I have to run around, find good books, take the bet on whether they’re good or not when I price them personally, then I clean the boogers off, then I shelve them, and then I try to sell them. If they don’t sell, there’s no publisher coming in to remove them—I have to take a loss and put them on my free shelf or donate them to the library.

What is your organization system like?

Controlled disorganization. I have fiction upstairs, non-fiction [on the ground] level. But there are many exceptions to that statement.

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Toole made the bathroom his “foreign language room” to mourn the state of foreign languages in America.

I noticed that the foreign language books are in the bathroom.

That’s because foreign language in this country is in the toilet. I had to put something in the toilet room in order to use that space productively, rather than just waste, so I put shelves in there and foreign language books in there because it’s my foreign language room.

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Toole is prone to commenting when those within hearing distance use the words listed above.

You also have a list of words that no one is allowed to speak in your store.

I hear “Perfect,” I hear “Like, like, like, like,” and I hear “Awesome” every 32 seconds and it was causing me to have brain damage. So I try to ask people when they’re here to use one of the 30,000 words in the thesaurus other than, “Perfect! Awesome! Oh my God!” When you’re sitting here for 20 years and hear that limited amount of vocabulary that people seem to enjoy using, it really [causes] destruction of gray matter.

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Capitol Hill Books’ front door.

You have a lot of rules on the front door.

The rules on the front door are very simple. This is a bookstore, not a phone booth, so do not bring your stupid cell phone in—I don’t want to hear one side of a conversation. And the other rules up there are repurchase rules—one page—it’s what not to bring in for me to repurchase. Otherwise, “Shut the door,” is the other argument on the front door. They love to leave the doors open so I can try to air condition the outside.

The list of books that you won’t resell—why those?

I won’t let romance novels pass the door sill.

Why is that?

Because they suck as literature. You like those bodice-rippers? The other thing that’s pretty lousy is business. I take business books, business leadership and management crapola—I take them, but I stuff them in the business closet, out of the way. Only because people ask for them, and usually they’re all obsolete the night that they’re printed. I don’t let computer books in here because they are obsolete the day they’re printed.

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Capitol Hill Books’ section labels don’t just tell you what’s on the shelves–they tell you what to do with it.

I think your coffee table book section says that they’re good for kindling and intellectual peacocking.

Yeah. What’s wrong with that? That’s true.

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Part of Toole’s “wacko-stacko.”

When people come in and they see all these signs, how do they respond?

Sometimes I put the wacko-stacko—the crazy people who are running for office around this country—in a separate section so we can all stare at them at once.

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Sign hanging in the art section.


Do you ever read the Yelp reviews on your store?

No, I don’t—I haven’t got time. You see, we do things by stubby pencil here. I’m sure there are complaints by some people who storm in here and think that they own the place, but no, I own the place, so you’ve got to comply with my rules. For example, the backpack people. Some people feel some kind of constitutional, inalienable right to have all their household belongings in backpacks, and so they run around the store smacking people and books, and they get upset when I say, “You can’t do that.”

Do people generally follow your rules?
Either that or they go home. People either have to follow the orderly processes here, or they’re asked to leave. What am I supposed to do, sit here as the owner of the bookstore and put up with some miscreant? The customer isn’t always right. I am. People don’t like that. They think I should be groveling—I don’t grovel.

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