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‘Chaotic glory’: Why four millennials bought a used bookstore on Capitol Hill

July 30, 2018 at 7:06 PM

Jim Toole, longtime owner of Capitol Hill Books. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Jim Toole says young people are killing the English language.

He has a list of banned phrases on the wall of the used bookstore where he presides on Capitol Hill: “Awesome.” “Like.” “Perfect.” “Totally.”

If a customer utters one of them, Toole is quick to scold. “You’re causing me to have brain damage,” he told one young woman, blowing a raspberry at her after she said “like” one too many times. “Go find a thesaurus.”

But the former two-star Navy admiral also has a deep and abiding soft spot for the millennials who frequent Capitol Hill Books, even those he would describe as language-challenged. He’s been known to give them jobs, loan them laptops and write them original epic poems on birthdays.

“Fiction upstairs, nonfiction this level, with many exceptions,” the 81-year-old barks at everyone who walks through the door, as if he is still navigating destroyer vessels up the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. “And you’ve got to take your backpack off. It knocks books off the shelves, and the old man here has a fit.”

The rules are posted on the front door at Capitol Hill Books, which longtime owner Jim Toole sold to a group of former employees. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Toole has developed a cult following of sorts among some of the 20- and 30-somethings who come into the store to drink wine and eat cheese and de-sticker used books with him. When one of them, Matt Wixon, was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer, Toole was the first person he asked to speak at his funeral.

Earlier this month, Toole sold the store to Wixon and three of its other most committed fans, ending his 24-year stint as owner and manager.

“It was time to get the old fart out,” Toole said, again referring to himself in the third person. “This place needed fresh young blood that has the energy to run up and down the stairs.”

That blood mostly takes the form of Aaron Beckwith, 37, one of the new owners and an employee since 2004. Since taking over, Beckwith has expanded store hours and brought in an iPad to replace the antiquated credit card machine that produced paper receipts Toole would etch out in stubby pencil.

He placed a cart of $2 and $3 “cheapo” books outside, to draw in passersby. He, Wixon and the other co-owners say they are thinking of decluttering the store and hosting more author events and book clubs. But not much else, they said, will change.

“It’s really important for us not to fiddle with the store’s chaotic glory,” Wixon said. “We want to preserve this for the community and preserve Jim’s legacy.”

Related: [Bookstores by and for people of color are finding their industry niche]

Every regular at Capitol Hill Books has some kind of a story about how they became attached to Toole and to the store stuffed in a rowhouse across from Eastern Market. Wixon, 40, is no different.

At age 25, he was unemployed and had just moved back to Washington after a breakup. An English major in college, he had little sense of direction, having most recently worked collecting signatures on the street for environmental petitions.

A friend told him to check out the bookstore. When Wixon first walked in, Toole and a longtime customer were shouting at each other about poetry.

“It was terrific,” said Wixon, who grew up in Arlington, thinking he might want to become a teacher or professor. “They were just batting lines back and forth, and within a few minutes, I thought, ‘This is a place unlike any other than I’ve been in D.C., and I want to work here.’ ”

Customers browse in front of Capitol Hill Books. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

And he did, taking charge of the store’s online rare book sales in 2005. Beckwith — who met Wixon when he was also gathering petition signatures — had already been hired to buy and stock books.

They were soon joined by Kyle Burk, who stocked books and took care of social media, and Shantanu Malkar, who helped out on the weekends.

Evenings drinking beer with Toole — and hung-over mornings shelving books with him — offered perspective, and a way to finish growing up, the foursome said.

In the bookstore, they found a home, among 58,000 volumes squeezed into every nook and cranny — even the bathroom, which doubles as a foreign language section.

So much so that, as they watched a Sephora and a Starbucks come into the increasingly trendy area — and a nearby junior high school turn into a mixed-use housing and retail development they decided they wanted to buy the business, to preserve it for generations to come.

“We’d grown so much affection for the place and for Jim, and the idea of us letting the store turn into another coffee shop or something was just intolerable,” Wixon said. “We just couldn’t let it happen.”

More rules, regulating language and discussion protocols, at Capitol Hill Books. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

At first, they tried to raise the money by selling witty T-shirts. That had little success. Then Wixon answered a Craigslist ad to help move furniture in Silver Spring, and something clicked.

It was a good way to start saving up money for the purchase, he thought. And much like his work at the bookstore, it involved helping people, doing some physical labor and working in a team.

A decade later, Wixon’s aptly named business venture, Bookstore Movers, has completed about 30,000 moves in the D.C. area, generating more than enough profit for his share of the store.

Burk and Malkar now work desk jobs and had saved up enough money, too. And Toole was ready to call it quits.

Wixon, who is still being treated for the cancer he was diagnosed with in December 2016, said he wanted something he could pass on to his 16-month-old son, William.

(When asked the sale price of the business, Toole sneered and told a reporter, “You don’t need to know that.” He still owns the rowhouse, in the 600 block of C Street SE, which is assessed at $568,980.)

Related: [The college bookstore that doesn’t stock any textbooks]

In the Internet age, preserving a used bookstore is not the most lucrative business opportunity.

There’s the scramble to track down estate sales. The logistical nightmare of transporting books to Capitol Hill. Cleaning them. Pricing them. Selling enough to fund purchases at more estate sales.

Do it in a gentrifying neighborhood like Capitol Hill, and the costs go up: In the past two years, property taxes on the shop’s rowhouse have spiked 10 percent.

For the regulars, though, there’s a lot worth sticking around for.

“You come in, and it’s Narnia,” said Soumya Gowda, who started working at the store in March after hanging out there for several months. “We are all characters, but I guess that’s because we’re all allowed to be exactly who we are.”

The second-floor fiction section at Capitol Hill Books. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

On a recent rainy Saturday, she was one of about a dozen regulars crammed into the store’s second-level “mystery room,” drinking beer, trading jabs and reciting poems by Sara Teasdale.

Like the store’s new owners, many of them also had stumbled in for the first time after landing in the District, without much money to spend but with time to kill.

They, too, found themselves jousting with the crotchety old owner, who wore a “Capitol Hill Books” hat and never failed to bemoan a customer’s too-large pack or too-limited vocabulary.

On this day, though, the old man wore a different cap, which reads, “River Division 53,” a throwback to his days in Vietnam. As an owner, he always stayed downstairs on Saturdays to man the register. But this time, he left someone else in charge and joined the others.


Teo Armus is a reporter covering local politics and other news in the D.C. metro area. He joined The Washington Post as an intern in 2018.

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