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In the realm of Craigslist ads for moving companies, the word “erudite” sticks out like a leather-bound volume of Camus on a Walmart shelf. As does “bibliophilic.”
Many movers’ online advertisements boast of their brawn and speed (frequently employing poor grammar and an excess of exclamation points!!!!), but Bookstore Movers, based on Capitol Hill, sells a more literary brand.
Its owner, Matt Wixon, is a part-time employee of Capitol Hill Books, the creaky row-house shop near Eastern Market known for its floor-to-ceiling towers of secondhand tomes. Wixon hopes to someday buy the store from its current owner when he retires, and he started the moving company, with help from fellow bookstore employees Aaron Beckwith and Kyle Burk, as a way to raise the funds he’ll need.
Wixon is a former philosophy and English major whose shaved head and goatee give him the look of a nightclub bouncer. Still, on a recent morning, he has a bit of down time in between moving jobs, and he seems perfectly at home among the bookstore’s sagging shelves. As he scales the store’s narrow stairs — lined, of course, with teetering stacks — he has to shift his broad shoulders sideways to avoid knocking down a paperback or two.
The moving company is a means to an end, and the goal is to preserve Capitol Hill Books, a quirky outpost in a world dominated by iPads and Amazon.com.
“You’re really engaged in a labor of love,” Wixon says. “You feel like you’re battling forces of inevitability.”
Jim Toole, the bookstore’s current owner, approached his young employees several years ago with the idea that they might take over the store someday.
“I’m not going to live forever, and I thought maybe they will bring some verve and new ideas,” says Toole. He declines to give his age but admits, “I’m just a stale old fart.”
Toole, a former Navy officer, is one of Capitol Hill’s characters, known for a gruff demeanor and ultra-dry humor that serves as a kind of litmus test: Either you get it and you become a loyal customer, or you don’t. Toole, who bought the bookstore in 1994, has taught his potential successors the essentials of running the bookstore, which he says mostly comes down to finding more books. Most other kinds of stores sell products that can be ordered wholesale. A used-bookstore owner, though, must constantly shuck and jive to stock his shelves, scouring estate sales, auctions and charity book sales.
Wixon doesn’t know just how much money he’ll need to raise. He might just buy the store’s stock and the name, or he might try a trickier feat in Washington’s hot real-estate market and purchase the building from Toole. He’s also unsure when he’ll need the money. Toole isn’t ready to give up the used-book game just yet, Wixon says.
But Toole himself has a contradictory story. He says he’s ready to retire once Wixon can slap a big enough check on the table. But then his eyes twinkle. Was that one of his inscrutable jokes?
Wixon is pondering changes he might make to the store, possibly keeping later hours and opening a cafe in the back. Its eccentricity, though, will remain.
“I don’t want to change it too much,” he says. “I like the way it is — a suspended tidal wave of books that, at any moment, might engulf you.”
After graduating in 2000 from the College of William and Mary and kicking around for a few years doing social work, Wixon, an Arlington, Va., native, came back to Washington and found a job at Capitol Hill Books. He started picking up manual labor jobs on then-nascent Craigslist, and he eventually placed his own ads.
Now, he owns two trucks and plans to buy a third next month.
The story of a scrappy gang of overeducated guys with the dream of owning an indie used bookstore is a marketing gold mine. Imagine the characters in “High Fidelity” on an underdog mission a la the “Bad News Bears.”
Bookstore Movers’ Craigslist ads play up the pathos: “Employees of a local independent used bookstore on Capitol Hill do moves to save up to purchase it upon the owner’s retirement,” they read.
The pitch often attracts clients with big book collections; they are Hill staffers and labor activists, Republican National Committee employees and teachers.
“They’re just people who love books and like the idea of being moved by people who love books,” Wixon says.
The company’s six employees are all connected to the bookstore in some way. Either like Wixon, Beckwith and Burk, they have worked at the shop, or they know employees.
“One guy is the younger brother of a girl who works at the front desk, and another is the ex-boyfriend of another girl who works there,” he says.
Only one employee came from outside the Capitol Hill Books orbit: When the Washington City Paper named the company D.C.’s “Best Mover,” the mention prompted a call from a kindred spirit seeking work — a philosophy graduate student from Georgetown University.
Still, Wixon allows that a college degree — and the “erudition” they boast of in their ads — has limited practical benefits during a move.
“It might help us to have more interesting conversations with each other in the truck,” he says.