Lifestyle & Culture

Even Book Boxes Are Quirky on Capitol Hill

September 23, 2016


ON CAPITOL HILL they’re pushing up like weeds, the free book boxes. Some are organized under the umbrella of, a group with online maps showing people desperate for something to read where to find boxes in places like Turin and Detroit.

Other boxes are renegades from this official-sounding group, springing up delightfully unregulated.

All have but one rule in common. Take a book, and leave one, hopefully in the same box. I’m not too good at this—at least the part about leaving books in the same box I took from.  I tend to wander with something half read, that I’m not about to dump (unless it’s dreadful) for something new. But I know I’ll require something else in an hour or a day and so rummage in the boxes and grab a book for the thirsty time to come.

Last week I filled three shopping bags with my offerings and drove around the neighborhood making deposits.

The first book box I saw was a few years ago, in front of a jack-o-lantern-colored house on A Street SE, sitting there like a Lilliputian renegade branch of Riverby Books on East Capitol Street, though one is reluctant to categorize Riverby as a used bookstore, since it is so tidily kept and carefully edited, and includes rarities.

Riverby is nothing like Capitol Hill Books, near Eastern Market, a three-story warren of rooms and books stacked dustily in windows or heaving the shelves. The owner (miraculously) knows where everything is, but for the browser it’s a challenge.

Capitol Hill Books could be considered the granddaddy of the neighborhood’s book free-for-all. Outside the shop is a folding table that is frequently heaped with books free for the taking. There’s a sign, lest you chalk this up to my usual larceny. Sometimes they’re the store owner’s rejects, a remaindered book’s last chapter, as it were. Other times, people dump books when they’re moving or are simply done reading and don’t like the clutter, bless them. The owner, if he’s swift, creams the lot, but often they’re wonderful finds. (If you haven’t discovered the mysteries of Frances Fyfield—bet you can’t read just one.)

Those were three paragraphs of “beside the point,” the point being the book boxes, which can now be found scattered about the neighborhood.

Some are sadly utilitarian, like the one around the corner from Safeway. It’s quite large, with a hinged lid, and often filled with the good and the curious and only a rare bodice-ripper.

It’s in front of a (I think) commercial building that always looks to be becoming something—it has looked that way for 30-some years. Except for the book box, it is the kind of shady place one would suspect is a front for some nefarious dealings. This is my favorite box for rummaging, even though one has to prop the hinged lid on one’s head when poking about. But then, a bookie constructed it, I suppose. So what do you expect.

More satisfying for the “shopper” is a book box with a normal door that swings open and stays that way as you make your selection. While I’m not fond of the design of one mid-century modern ranch house number (it looks like it belongs to a house with an Edsel in the drive), it does its job well.

More charming in this neighborhood of late-19th- and early-20th-century row houses are the boxes that play with their host’s design, like the simple one on Lincoln Park, with a gray-and-white color scheme borrowed from the home.

Right around the corner on Kentucky Avenue is another charmer, with leaded-glass panes and a tin roof.

And then there’s this wonderful, multi-story construction on 13th Street, nestled in day lilies and zinnias and considerably grander than the home it belongs to—no offense,  homeowner. Which recently underwent an unfortunate paint job, but that’s another story.

I should like one colored like our house: celadon, aubergine and ballet-slipper pink, to be pretentious about it. I’ve long overflowed the living-room bookcases, the hall bookcases, my office bookcases, the upstairs hall bookcases, and books are forever piled unsteadily on the floor and shoved under the bed and tossed around the bathroom floor.

Occasionally in a fit of neatness, I pick a sunny day and pile a few armloads out by the curb, where the neighboring book vultures pick through them fast—but I’d like to be able to leave them out in a downpour, instead of scurrying to bring them in or stashing them in the trunk of the car.

Or loading them in bags for exhausting distribution.

Maybe for my birthday. Right. The only way that will happen is if My Prince sees that project as a fresh excuse for not cleaning out the garage. Please! Let’s not get started again on the garage.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

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