It seems fitting that the story of two used bookstores just blocks from one another on Capitol Hill reads, like a good book, as a series of unexpected events.
“We started out not intending to be a business — we just wanted to get rid of these things,” said Nicky Cymrot, gesturing to some 25,000 books on the shelves of the store she started with her husband, Steve, near Eastern Market in 2001.
Steve’s collection of award-winning books on natural history had started overcrowding the pair’s real estate office, and the couple was forced to trim down by hosting makeshift yard sales. Soon, the two were selling 700 to 800 books per sale. So they decided to open Riverby Books in a building that had been a physician’s office.
Jim Toole, the owner of nearby Capitol Hill Books, also found himself in the book business unexpectedly.
Toole, a Capitol Hill resident and retired Navy sailor, bought the contents of the store after its former owner, the Washington Post’s Bill Kerr, died unexpectedly in 1994.
“Jim said, ‘Oh, we have to keep a second-hand bookstore in Capitol Hill,’” said Jenefer Ellingston, who volunteered to help out at the store after a quick stop in 1995 and has been working there since.
As independent and used booksellers struggle to stay afloat, these two shops brim with books and bindings of every size, shape and genre.
In addition to the ceiling-high shelves of classics, cookbooks, mysteries and, of course, books on politics — which, at Capitol Hill Books, are housed in the “Politicians and their ‘Sciences’” section — the shops add quirky character and charm to the neighborhood in the form of local artwork, political memorabilia and trinkets galore.
[IMGCAP(1)]Just as Toole’s initial interest in the bookstore stemmed from a commitment to the Capitol Hill community, the Cymrots have placed Capitol Hill at the center of their business philosophy and practices.
Leah Daniels, a former employee and self-described “Hill kid” who has known the Cymrots all her life, described the owners as “neighborhood-minded people.”
“The bookstore is meant to be a resource for the community in terms of finding books, assorted things and having an intellectual conversation,” said Daniels, who recently left Riverby to open her own kitchen-goods store on the Hill. “I get a lot of people coming in with their grandparents and parents to show them this as a treasure in the neighborhood.”
Though both bookstores play a part in conserving the character of the area, the community isn’t their main source of revenue; both rely heavily on pedestrian and tourist traffic.
“A bookstore has to have pedestrian traffic. People don’t get up in the morning and say ‘Oh, I have to go to the bookstore.’ It’s not like buying food, which you have to do,” Ellingston said.
Toole estimates that about 90 percent of Capitol Hill Books’ business comes from weekend visitors to Eastern Market.
“If I had to rely solely on the community [for business], I would die,” he said, later adding that he counts heavily on increased weekend sales to counter slow business during the week.
There are, of course, the regulars who wander in to browse for the latest release or dig for rare titles buried deep in the stacks. These include Members of Congress such as Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and former Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.).
Joe Bartl, who works at the Library of Congress, has been a longtime customer of both Capitol Hill Books and Riverby.
“I find gems every now and again, and the prices are much better than when I go online most of the time,” he said last week while searching for poetry at Capitol Hill Books. “This is a very eclectic store and that makes it more browsable, and browsing itself is a good reason to go to a bookstore.”
The key to pleasing both passersby and regular customers is to keep the stacks stocked with a large and diverse collection.
At Riverby, the staff relies on local bibliophiles to boost its inventory.
“Almost all the books in the store come from neighbors, so it’s a fun representation of what people read,” Daniels said.
Sifting through personal collections is half the fun of working at a used bookstore, she said.
“You never know what you’re going to find,” she said. “They’re far and few between, those rare gems. Now, most of the books in the store are just books to read, but when you do come across [a rare book], it’s really amazing.”
Toole hand-screens each item that goes into his 20,000-book inventory and also seeks out popular titles at auctions and estate sales.
“It’s remarkable how well he knows the stock and trade,” Ellingston said. “Every book that’s here, he brought here.”
Maintaining a constantly growing and expanding collection can prove problematic in organizing an inventory without the advanced technology used by most chain stores. The Cymrots include about 15 percent of the stock in their store’s computer inventory, and Toole only uploads select titles to an online database.
At Riverby, staffers try to follow a pattern, organizing different categories alphabetically, by author or topic.
Toole uses a combination of resourcefulness and wit to organize his three-story store, stacking books in every corner, nook and cranny of the former private residence. Sometimes the placement seems completely random — books on chess, for instance, sit perched atop the travel guide section — while other decisions are clearly a result of Toole’s sense of humor.
“Foreign language is in the toilet in this country,” he said of the rationale behind keeping language books in the downstairs bathroom. “Americans just speak American.”
Whether you are looking for a first edition of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” or a stack of paperback trade novels to get you through that next family vacation, both stores hope to continue to provide a wide-ranging collection of books for years to come.
“If we don’t have a product to sell, what are we going to be selling? My charm?” Toole said.
Capitol Hill Books, open from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, is located at 657 C St. SE, directly behind Eastern Market. Riverby Books, open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m daily., is located at 417 East Capitol St. SE.