Washington City’s Old Curiosity Shop

By: John Muller

The following is our first article written by a guest author. John Muller is a former reporter for the Washington Times and current contributor to Capital Community News, Greater Greater Washington and other D.C. area media. He is the author of Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia (History Press, 2012), a finalist for the DC Public Library’s 2013 DC Reads, and leads tours of Old Anacostia. This article is excerpted from his forthcoming Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: Adventures of a Capital Correspondent, set for publication later this fall.

If you’ve ever spent time at Capitol Hill Books, on C Street SE across from Eastern Market, and spoken with owner Jim Toole you have experienced the tradition of an eclectic Washington bookstore and its cantankerous proprietor that dates back to the 19th and early 20th century.

Inside the Old Curiosity Shop. Source: Around The Capital with Uncle Hank 1902.
“London may have its Old Curiosity Shop, a building no longer used for the purpose its name indicates, but famous as the locality that forms the title, motive, and basis for one of Dickens’ masterpieces,” wrote a city reporter in 1902. “Washington also has an Old Curiosity Shop worthy of the name, a place that is curious from top to bottom, and from end to end, full of curious things, owned by a curious man, conducted on a curious plan.”

The stairwell in Jim Toole's Capitol Hill Books. Photo by the author.
In Arlington National Cemetery rests the headstone for that “curious man.” A plain engraving reads, “JAMES GUILD 3rd Lt. 7 Battn. D.C. Mil. Inf. Died Jan. 19, 1916. AGED 95 Years.”

During his lifetime Guild, who arrived in Washington City in the 1850s from Philadelphia, wore many hats; president of the first Stonecutter’s Union after working on the first section of the Washington Monument and new wings of the Capitol, army officer in the first company to be raised in the District in 1862, and proprietor for nearly four decades of a transcendent used bookstore that became the haunt of generals, diplomats, senators, congressmen, journalists, everyday bibliophiles and famous authors including Mark Twain.

Advertisement for Guild's furniture store from Boyd's Directory, 1867.
After mustering out of the military, Guild “started in the mercantile business” and opened a furniture store at Twelfth and B Streets, near the Washington Canal. A prominent advertisement in the 1867 city directory declares, “New and second-hand Furniture, and house keeping articles of every description, sold or exchanged. Repairing, upholstering and varnishing strictly attended to.”

Notice of Guild's move to Pennsylvania Avenue in 1867 (National Republican).
Later that fall he relocated his shop to 106 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. According to recurring announcements in the city’s daily papers, Guild removed to the “southeast corner of Second Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, where he will be happy to see all his old customers and make as many new ones as possible.”

Around the same time, in late November 1867, Mark Twain came to Washington City to serve as secretary for Nevada Senator William Stewart (Nevada was admitted to the Union in 1864) and to try his hand as a capital correspondent for a handful of newspapers.

In the shadow of the United States Capitol, Guild rose every morning, seven days a week, to stack a “melee of books, magazines and pictures” from “the dark mysterious interior” of his shop on the curbside. “This is the daily exhibition which never fails to attract the public,” the Washington Post reported in 1898.

On his way to and from the press gallery in the winter of 1867 - 1868, it is within reason to speculate that Mark Twain, then in his early 30s and “green,” would have first made contact with Guild, who was as easily greeted by the Speaker of the House as by one of his brother-in-arms.

Government being the business of Washington, Guild, once he looked up from whatever tome he was reading at the time and began talking, pulled no punches in extolling the benefits of his independence. “You see, they all know I’ve got no ax to grind, ain’t hunting office and wouldn’t take a government job if they presented it. They know they can come here and I don’t take advantage of knowing them. Just like my friend who kept stoves in Lincoln’s days. The President would drop in there and sit for hours at a time to keep away from the crowd.”

However inconspicuous Guild perceived himself or his shop to be, he was widely known throughout the region and the country as a top-rate auctioneer and for his unique book shop.

In Thomas Fleming's 1902 book, Around the Capital with Uncle Hank, the store is immortalized in both picture and prose.

“Leaving the Capitol grounds, the first thing to catch the eye is a quaint old second-hand book store on the right hand side of the street, the proprietor of which stands in his cave of volumes like a hibernating bear,” Fleming described. “Here you will often see statesmen stop on their way to the Capitol to examine some rare book which has accidently caught the eye, and then to bargain with the dealer for its possession. But if the volume in question should be found to posses any merit, rest assured it will not be secured without a payment fully equal to its value, for, however unassuming the old bookdealer may seem, he is quite an adept in price-listing his wares.”

That same year a Post reporter described the store’s physical characteristics, “This, the real curiosity shop of Washington, is located in an old-fashioned three-story brick building on lower Pennsylvania avenue, a structure built many years before the war, with gable roof, attic, and curious little windows that peer out through the roof like so many molehills. Entering this quaint old house, one finds, it literally packed and jammed with books, magazines, state and government papers, oil paintings, watercolors, steel engravings, objects of art, and pieces of old fashioned china and silverware.” (Guild was often called on to auction off items as various as Revolutionary-era munitions as well as Turkish, Persian and “elegant and varied collection[s] of Oriental wares.”)

List of Washington booksellers from Boyd's Directory, 1905.
No space went unused as, “Even the stairs are crowded by piles of literature on either side, affording only a narrow pathway to the top floor up or down, which only one person can pass at a time. Moreover,” the story continued, “these books, pictures, objects of arts are piled, stacked, scattered, strewn, and tumbled about in the most complete and thorough disorder.” To administer some semblance of order to the Curiosity Shop’s contents, “would take two men six or perhaps eight months of steady work, day in and day out.” On second thought, “it is more likely that a year would be sufficient.”

Although Guild, now nearing his eightieth year and going blind, had worked auctions with his sons, and a grandchild was known to pass time at the store, he was “the sole inmate of this wilderness of literature and art.”

Despite owning a property in the 900 block of Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Guild slept most nights in a room in the rear of the book shop where he could cook and eat his meals. In the twilight of life, Guild showed no signs of slowing down, respected as the patriarch of the city’s book merchants who, by 1905, were more than twenty strong.

It was the Curiosity Shop where “the literati of Washington resorted in search of rare volumes, and the great men of the nation stopped on their way to and from the Capitol.”

Mark Twain, the most famous American man of letters and former “Row Boy,” (a moniker for journalists who had spent time on Newspaper Row) during his decades of visits to the city to lobby for a new copyright law frequently stopped by the shop, where Guild did not particularly take a liking to him, refusing to treat him like a literary celebrity.

“Was Mark Twain ever here?” a reporter once inquired.

“You mean that Clements [sic] man? I don’t think much of either him or his books. First time he came here he walked in, ‘I’m Mr. Clements [sic],’ says he. ‘Well, an’ the devil,’ says I. ‘You must have heard of my books,’ says he. ‘I write under the name of Mark Twain.’ ‘No,’ says I, and went on with my reading. He tries to be funny, that man does. I tell you the fun in his books is forced out.”

As ambassadors, school children, writers and politicians continued to patronize the shop, Guild rarely budged from the groove in his worn chair, often paying his customers no mind until they were ready to pay. “I seldom bother to ask their names; in fact, I never bother,” Guild admitted, although he was always cooperative with police who had collared a book thief leaving his store.

Photo of James Guild from The Washington Times,  June 7, 1910.
By the summer of 1910 Guild was now blind and fighting old age in his son’s souvenir shop just three stores down from the Curiosity Shop. “I feel better today. I must open the shop,” reported the Washington Times.

“They’re his books,” Alexander Guild said. “He’s been with ‘em going on forty year[s] now, and it’s not for me to open the shop to customers just to sell books. I’d not let one be touched with him lying there sick. No, the shop won’t open any more, unless he can open it.”

To their consternation, after fielding constant inquiries and well wishes, Alexander, a member of the Association of Oldest Inhabitants, told the senators and congressmen his father’s shop was unlikely to reopen. By the end of 1910, the senior Guild decided to close for good and liquidate what remained of his collection.

Proceeds from the once-in-a-lifetime sale injected new capital into Alexander’s souvenir and novelty shop at 111 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, where his father spent the last years of his life. With James Guild’s death on January 19, 1916, and quiet interment in Arlington National Cemetery, the history of a transformative era in Washington City that was indexed with the names of Garfield, Blaine and Reed -- all Guild confidants -- was bookended.


“REMOVAL. - JAMES GUILD.” National Republican. Oct. 25, 1867, p. 1
*NOTE:This same note appeared dozens of times over the course of the fall of 1867 in the Evening Star and National Republican.*

Boyd’s 1867 Directory of Washington, p. 294 _ advertisement for Guild’s furniture store

“AUCTION SALES” Washington Post. Feb. 19, 1878, p. 3
*NOTE: Throughout the 1870s and 1880s auction notices regularly appeared in Washington and Baltimore papers with James Guild and his sons serving as the auctioneers. These were for individual estates as well as private businesses.* 

“REAL CURIOSITY SHOP: Monument Book Store Quaintest Spot in the City.” Washington Post. Dec. 4, 1898, p. 13

“NOT AFRAID OF DUST: Owner of Old Curiosity Shop Not Easily Terrified.” Washington Post. Sep. 7, 1902, p. 11

Fleming, Thomas, Around The Capital with Uncle Hank Nutshell Publishing Co., New York, 1902 http://bit.ly/1051IBk


“VOLUMES GROW DUSTY AS SELLER NEARS END.” The Washington Times. June 7, 1910. p. 16 http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1910-06-07/ed-1/seq-16/

“JAMES GUILD DIES AT 95; Worked as Mason on Capitol and Washington Monument. Soldier in Civil War and for Many Years in Book Business in This City.” Washington Post; Jan. 30, 1916; p. 20

“ALEXANDER J. GUILD.” The Washington Times. March 31, 1919, p. 4


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