Wednesday, August 10th, 2011
“Who comes through my door to buy books is Joe Everyman, that’s why I don’t specialize in anything particular. When Joe Shmedly and Haroldine Boxbender come through the store after seeing the flea market and the $22 million repairs to the Eastern Market, I want to have things that appeal to all of them.
“In my years here, I have sold lots and lots of books. Overall, I mainly sell fiction, and mostly to women. Though, I have never sold as many books to males as I do now that Obama is in office. I’m not sure if he caters to more intellectuals, or what. Prior to him, I sold mostly to women. The men used to come in here and stand around, trying to look cool. I used to say to them, what the fuck? Why don’t you read? Or, I would give the girl a book, and tell her to read it to the poor bastard.
“You would figure with the Marine barracks and Navy Yard close by, more men might read, but those guys don’t pick up books. I am not sure why, I really got into reading during my 30 years, 26 days, and two hours in the Navy. And no, I don’t know the exact minute. The Navy controlled 75% of the earth’s surface, and I wanted to learn about international relations, so I started reading and eventually got a Master degree.
“When I got out of the Navy, I decided to move to D.C. I am from California, and was fed up with that place and liked the culture here better. Most people are the other way around, but that’s only because they haven’t spent much time in California. I saw everything I wanted to see there and decided that I would finish my life here.
“I came to the Capitol Hill area and got to know this store. It was owned by Bill Kerr, who worked at the Washington Post at night, and ran this store by day. He got his collection working at Wayward Books, where Montmartre restaurant is now, and would get paid in books. When he died, I convinced his sister to let me take over the place.
“I was tired of working for other people, and decided that I wanted to fool around with books. I made an offer to her to rent the store, and then I started building the place up. After two years, I had enough books to fill this floor. A few years later, I was able to open the mystery room upstairs. A couple of years after that, I opened the music room and then the basement. When the owner died, they were going to kick me and my 20,000 books out. I went to see people I vowed I would never talk to again in life, including the bank, to beg for money in 2005. So, me and my 20,132 books own this building.
“Now, I spend 90 hours a week looking for books and running this store. People still bring me books, but I realize a long time ago that the best place to get books is from dead people because they don’t take their books when they leave. So, I get most of my collection from estate sales, yard sales, and auctions.
“I love this work, but can find it exasperating at times. In the store, people leave books wherever they feel like, so I will find Ulysees God knows where. And then, there are the people who argue about prices and don’t understand inflation. I charge less than half price for a book, but if it cost $10 in 1980, it costs more now. I can’t take you in a time machine back to when it was $10. Sometimes I feel like I have to teach these people basic economics.
“And then, there are the rules of the store. First, you can only get in when it is open. Second, no cell phones. This is a book store and not a phone booth. Third, there are words and phrases that you can’t use in my store: like, oh my God, neat, sweet, have a good one, that’s a good question, totally, whatever, perfect, Kindle or Amazon. These words give me brain damage. I’m serious. When people use them in here, I tell them to get a thesaurus and stop being so mentally lame.
“I hope that the store will stay around, but I am in the buggy whip era. Know what that means? For a while, they made buggy whips because not everyone had a car. With buggies, you needed a whip to get the horse to trot. With the car, the buggy whip people went out of business slowly. So, that is me, slowly going out of business. 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.
“I know it is just a matter of time before they push me out and make this another Starbucks, so that we can have more crap on every corner of this city.”
Jim Toole is the owner of Capitol Hill Books at 57 C Street Southeast.