As Kindles and iPads gradually (and tragically) phase out paper, some historic bookstores continue to cling to life by offering a unique experience. Capitol Hill Books, nestled in the historic Eastern Market, remains as one of Washington’s hidden gems as it rebels against the Digital Age. Despite its small size and aging exterior, the bookstore’s amicable charm makes it hard to overlook. Before even stepping inside, patrons will notice a cheap folding table in front cluttered with books. “All books on the table are free,” the sign on it reads.
Upon entering, I was both enthralled and terrified by the seeming lack of organization. Capitol Hill Books boasts roughly 20,000 used books ripe for the taking, but not a single one of them is easy to find. My eyes were met with overwhelming stacks upon stacks of books; various piles rest on the ground and build upwards to form their own shelves. Narrow passageways lined with unstable mountains of novels make navigating the store a bit treacherous. I quickly concluded that Capitol Hill Books isn’t a useful establishment to come to when seeking a particular book. It offers a more free-for-all approach, which may involve some digging to discover unexpected delights. The store contains a particularly impressive selection of uncommon first edition books. While most books are priced between five to twelve dollars, these rare copies value in the hundreds.
The controlled chaos of Capitol Hill Books grants a certain likeable eccentricity, but it also poses minor challenges to the less-than-graceful folk like myself. While reaching over a patch of cluttered floor for a first edition copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, I stumbled and ended up taking an entire shelf with me. The only staff member working came over to help as I awkwardly and profusely apologized, and I reorganized the books into their proper places. The shelves are so crammed with texts that it was nearly impossible to determine where the books belonged - every space looked packed and complete. I assume my clumsy mistake is a fairly frequent occurrence in the establishment.
While diligently perusing through another questionable stack, I encountered the store’s infamous humor and wit. The owner, Jim, likes to openly share his opinions of particular books. In order to liven up his daily routine, he pens “informative” notes and displays them for all to appreciate. I discovered that he holds a fervent stance regarding Jenny McCarthy, a notorious anti-vaxxer. There were hoards of other witty tidbits to be found, as well. James Frey’s controversial A Million Little Pieces, originally published as a memoir and later discovered to be a gross fabrication of facts, contained a card reading, “Lies, lies, and more lies. But read it anyways.”
If Capitol Hill Books requires any other quirky traits to separate it from the competition, one only needs to inquire where the foreign language section resides: in the bathroom next to the toilet. The bathroom’s message: Learn a language while relieving yourself. Please leave the door open when you’re finished though, so customers will know the French books are available for use!
As I was finally checking out with Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, the woman mused, “I’m pretty sure I read this book before you were born.” That is exactly what Capitol Hill Books grants: a preservation of the past and the ability to suspend the modern world. There is virtually no technology present inside the store: no security cameras, no Apple products, not even a modern cash register. I awkwardly handed the women my credit card, not entirely sure if they would even accept it, and she proceeded to run it through an extremely outdated “machine” that essentially just created a copy of the card. The experience was peculiar, quirky, and endearing.
To get to Capitol Hill Books, take the Orange/Blue line to Eastern Market. At the metro station, take a quick right onto 7th Street and a left on C Street.