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Capitol Hill Books Has DC’s Most Curmudgeonly Store Owner

1 June 2016

From The Washingtonian:

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.”

Link to the rest at The Washingtonian and thanks to Dave for the tip.


15 Comments to “Capitol Hill Books Has DC’s Most Curmudgeonly Store Owner”

  1. I am… not his clientele.

  2. My wonderful late husband Marvin, was a book collector first and a librarian second. Since we live in the DC suburbs, I am sure he must have been to Capitol Hill Books on his quest for the next book to add to his collection. He would go to such stores and occasionally come out grinning because he had found a rare book and it was just a few cents or a couple of dollars. The first stop we made on our honeymoon was a used book store. One of our sons is an independent self-published novelist. This article brought memories flooding back of our days haunting book stores of all sorts (before the Kindle). I am sure Marvin would have loved this store as described. Thanks for highlighting.

  3. After all the articles showing it’s not really a good idea to keep your toothbrush in the bathroom, I would really hate to buy a book kept in there. Aerosols, you know.

    Concern for clients?

  4. I’m surprised PG didn’t excerpt what this owner says about Romance books.

    • Um, DaveMich, you do know what Mrs. PG writes, don’t you?

    • While my blog posts don’t indicate my agreement with their contents, I wanted to steer clear of any possible question, Dave.

      • I was curious about the romance books question, so I read the original article. I was not surprised to hear that “Kindle” and “Amazon” are on his list of words not to be used in the store. Interesting also to see that you can’t use the terms “Terrorist, Terrorism, or Terror,” except, apparently, in reference to Dick Cheney. And… Sarah Palin? Couldn’t quite read that one. He’s not shy about his opinions!

        He is the very definition of a curmudgeon. But the store looks like fun.

  5. No backpacks? Hurray for him. I have nearly had my head knocked off in stores, on buses, and at library sales by tall guys wearing backpacks.

    • The best used bookstore in my town has the same rule. You can bring your back pack in, but it gets left behind the counter while you browse. Since the store is literally wall to ceiling books, two deep on the shelves, with barely enough room in the aisles to pass someone if you both turn side ways, it’s a sensible rule. I’m picturing his store as being similarly crowded.

  6. This cat makes me look like a people person.

  7. I’d like to go there just to have a conversation with him. He has so much character, and the setting looks great. A story in the making.

  8. As a writer and reader of romance, I am, OF COURSE, horribly offended. But not at all surprised or particularly bothered. But please tell: what does Mrs. PG write? I might read her already, but I always want to learn of authors I don’t already know!

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