The Capitol Hill space of Riverby Books was perilously close to being leased to an insurance office. Then owner Paul Cymrot got a call from a former employee, and everything changed. “Not reopening was a very real option,” Cymrot said. He and his family were still grieving the death of his father, Steve. The co-owner of Riverby died on Nov. 29, 2014, after being struck by a truck near the bookstore while walking. The family, also owners of a sister bookstore in Fredericksburg, Va., closed their D.C. location at 417 E. Capitol St. SE to sort things out.
“This was a labor of love for me and my dad — emphasis on ‘labor,'” Paul said. As winter became spring, they started looking at other options, including leasing the space.
Then Lori Grisham called over the summer.
“That was what lit the fire. We knew that if we were going to reopen, it was going to have to be with somebody who knew who we were,” Cymrot said.
Grisham, a recovering journalist previously at USA Today and NPR, has deep roots with the Cymrots and Riverby.
As a student at the University of Mary Washington, she worked at the Fredericksburg store in 2004 and a little after graduating in 2006. Then she worked short-term at the D.C. location between her time at NPR and USA Today in the winter of 2013.
“I would walk or jog by the store and wonder what his plans were for it. I was sad to see it closed,” she said in an email, echoing the sentiment of many Capitol Hill residents who lamented the loss of the literary redoubt.
The Cymrots responded in the affirmative to her proposal to manage the store and went about the process of reopening it, complete with a little remodeling with personality.
Cymrot, for instance, took salvaged Patent Office filing cabinets and refashioned them into the new checkout counter. He even kept the the old patent applications that came with the cabinets, such as one he showed off for an old trolley line.
Against the facing wall, they have installed the “Off With Her Head” book display. “We think this is the largest collection of cover art of women chopped off somewhere between the top of the head and the middle of the nose,” Cymrot said wryly.
He also showed off an 1836 copy of “The Castle Dangerous,” a water-damaged and worn volume that found a place among Riverby’s ranks. Why? It is inscribed with the writing of a Civil War soldier named William Henry Shoup, who left behind hand-written biographical details in the volume (“Company E 12th Regiment Illinois Cavelry” for those keeping score at home.)
“There’s another category of rare book, and that’s one with a story,” Cymrot explained. adding, “So we’ve made some space for those things.”
That approach to seeing value and narrative in neglected objects helps set the establishment apart, and may be why Grisham felt compelled to make her fateful call.
“The other day I read an old New Yorker article from 2012 that said independent bookstores are reflections of the people who own and work in them. I think that’s very true of Riverby. Both locations are a reflection of the Cymrot family and the kind of people they are. Steve Cymrot was such a central part of the Capitol Hill community. He cared about his neighbors and about saving and preserving landmarks so they would be here for future generations. In turn, he created a store that really feels like a community space,” Grisham added.
Cymrot said all previous store credit — recorded for posterity on index cards in a small container — would be honored. They’re scheduled to reopen Saturday, although they’re quick to point out walk-ins are welcome before then.
They are definitely a go for the trick-or-treaters that make East Capitol Street a Halloween destination.
And, of course, there will be tea, a mainstay that gave the bookstore a lived-in feel for the neighborhood and its patrons.
“We will serve tea in the afternoon,” Cymrot said. “We wish there was a way to show the tea was on.”
Based on the number of visitors who showed up to wish them well on a recent afternoon before they were even open, they shouldn’t have trouble spreading the word around the Hill.