East City Bookshop owner Laurie Gillman
East City Bookshop owner Laurie Gillman Credit: Photos by Selma Khenissi

While independent retail is struggling in D.C., it’s worth celebrating the thriving literary scene on Capitol Hill, where bookstore owners not only compete but also champion one other.

“A bookstore is not like a pizza parlor, in that it’s not unusual for customers to go straight from one to the next on an afternoon stroll,” says Paul Cymrot, owner of used-bookstore gem Riverby Books, which has locations both in D.C. and Fredericksburg, where associates often refer customers to their bookstore neighbors. “You don’t ever fill up.”

Riverby Books owner Paul Cymrot

East City Bookshop owner Laurie Gillman, whose store is just a half-mile away from Cymrot’s, says that because her shop only carries new titles, she often recommends both Riverby and used bookstore Capitol Hill Books to customers looking for older titles.

Morton “Jim” Toole, owner of Capitol Hill Books, does the same, and he believes the respect and camaraderie between the three ultimately serve them all individually. “They recommend me, I recommend them,” he says.

Capitol Hill Books owner Jim Toole

And, of course, sometimes these book nerds are the ones doing the shopping. Gillman and her staff spend time browsing inside their friendly competitors. “We can’t help ourselves when it comes to books,” she says. 

These Capitol Hill businesses also find strength in numbers when events or awards ceremonies are involved, collaborating with one another on social media and elsewhere to share news of happenings and readings. In July, all three participate with other businesses in a month-long Where’s Waldo? scavenger hunt. And of course, all are involved in the Literary Hill BookFest, whose annual event was last Sunday. 

Gillman, whose store is just a year old, says there will no doubt be other opportunities for cooperation as her business grows. “I imagine in future years we’ll come up with more ways to collaborate to bring more books, stories, and authors to Capitol Hill,” she says.

And sometimes being supportive means staying out of the way. When it comes to purchasing collections, Cymrot says he and his colleagues live by a kind of code. “We all try not to nickel and dime each other by getting into bidding wars and poaching customers,” he says.

Toole says the more, the merrier, and would like to see the neighborhood become even more of a literary destination.

“I’d like to see more bookstores,” he says.