Photograph by Darrow Montgomery
If the reality TV show Hoarders
did an episode about bibliophiles, it could be filmed at Capitol Hill Books. Volumes spill from every nook in the shabby rowhouse across the street from Eastern Market. Foreign language guides line the first-floor bathroom, business tomes are piled in the adjacent closet, and science-fiction paperbacks are down in the basement. Backpacks are prohibited in the bookshelf labyrinth to prevent customers from unintentionally knocking over stacks. Its mixture of pulp and highbrow—J.K. Rowling mingles with Noam Chomsky, David Foster Wallace, and a robust, ’80s-skewed politics section—elevates Capitol Hill Books above other used booksellers. Military books are front and center, no doubt at the whim of Jim Toole, a 30-year Navy veteran who took over the store in 1995. It’s easy to characterize him as a grump, but look closer and you’ll find an old salt who works 90 hours a week to keep the place running while raising his grandkids. Rising property taxes from an ascendant surrounding neighborhood and the cruel disintermediation of online bookselling are squeezing the store’s meager profit margins, so enjoy Capitol Hill Books while you can.