Jim Toole: Cantankerous Owner of Capitol Hill Books

From a Washington Post obit by Harrison Smith headlined “Jim Toole, cantankerous former owner of Capital Hill Books, dies at 86”:

Jim Toole, a Navy rear admiral who commanded cruisers, destroyers and Mekong River patrol boats before taking charge of Capitol Hill Books, the Washington bookstore that became as well known for his endearingly grumpy presence at the front desk as for its stock of used and rare books, died Nov. 11 — Veterans Day.

Adm. Toole owned the shop for more than two decades before selling it to a group of longtime employees in 2018. He was still working there until his death and had attended its monthly Second Saturday wine and cheese party before having a fatal heart attack later that evening, according to his daughter, Laura Torres.

Located across from Eastern Market, in a three-floor rowhouse nearly overflowing with books, the store has been a destination for D.C. bibliophiles since 1991, when it was founded by Bill Kerr, a former Jesuit priest who sold classified advertisements for The Washington Post.

Under Adm. Toole, the store grew until books filled nearly every conceivable nook and cranny: Fiction upstairs, nonfiction on the ground level, sports and science-fiction in the basement, where a cautionary warning was posted for customers: “Lights hang low, are head-smackable.” Cookbooks occupied the former kitchen sink. Foreign-language volumes filled the bathroom because, Adm. Toole, explained, “foreign language in this country is in the toilet.”

Coffee-table books were shelved more conventionally, although Adm. Toole downplayed their literary value. A label noted that the books were “Great For: Emergency Kindling; Step-stools; Intellectual Peacocking.” Another label, affixed to a shelf of J.D. Salinger books, cheekily promised that the reclusive author would be making his “1st appearance in 60 years tonite!” Below that was a second note, in red ink: “Canceled.”

“He was the saltiest of dogs,” bookstore co-owner Kyle Burk said of Adm. Toole.

He described the admiral as both a quintessential Navy man — his favorite book was Alfred Thayer Mahan’s “The Influence of Sea Power upon History” — and a cultural omnivore, fond of bluegrass, the Eurythmics and the Broadway musical “Man of La Mancha,” as well as the poetry of John Masefield and Sara Teasdale, which he could recite from memory.

“When you walked into the bookstore, to him you were walking onto his ship,” Burk said. “The front desk was the conn” — or conning tower, where an officer controls the ship’s movements — “and he was piloting the store from the conn. When he would leave his ship, he’d say, ‘Okay, lad, you take the conn.’ If you asked him, ‘Hey, Jim, I’ve got a question,’ he’d reply, ‘You may fire when ready, Gridley,’ which was [George] Dewey’s famous command from the Battle of Manila Bay.”

Adm. Toole’s system of “controlled disorganization,” as he called it, seemed unlikely to pass Navy muster. “The store is anything but shipshape,” Naval History Magazine once observed in an otherwise admiring article. Some books were arranged in precarious Jenga-like stacks, including a “Tolkien Tower” and a “Wacko Stacko,” home to books by Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck, both fiery right-wing personalities. It was not unusual for stacks of paperbacks to collapse in a heap.

Still, there were certain points of order and decorum on which Adm. Toole would not budge. Backpacks and cellphone conversations were absolutely forbidden. “This is a bookstore, not a phone booth,” a sign on the door declared.

The store was also, for Adm. Toole, something like a cathedral to the English language. At the front of the store, he hung a sign listing trite and overused words that were banned from conversation. That meant no use of “perfect,” “awesome,” “like” and “totally.” For good measure, he also banned the words “Amazon” and “Kindle,” along with other references to the store’s digital rivals.

Adm. Toole variously described himself as an “old fart” and a “crotchety old geezer.” But his impish sense of humor and old-fashioned approach to sales — including the use of a stubby pencil to record each transaction — brought him a devoted following, especially among young people.

Those who stuck around, joining the staff or informally helping him take the stickers off used books, became members of an extended family in which he served as patriarch and poet laureate.

“Anytime there was a dinner, anytime someone had a birthday, a special life event, Jim would write a poem in their honor and read it aloud,” Burk recalled. “I have a lot of memories of him standing up in the middle of restaurants and loudly reciting poems, to the shock of the other diners around him.”

“He was just an incredibly generous person,” Burk added. “He was always the first person to buy people a round of drinks at the bar, to buy people dinner. You almost had to beg him to stop buying things.”

The younger of two sons, Morton Egner Toole was born in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., on Feb. 14, 1937. His father, a career Army officer who retired as a colonel, earned the Legion of Merit during World War II and moved the family to Menlo Park, Calif.

Adm. Toole “used to say that his father had done everything in the Army, so he wanted to go into the Navy and make his career there,” his daughter recalled.

While studying American history at the University of California at Los Angeles, he served in the Navy ROTC, receiving his bachelor’s degree and commission in 1957. He spent six years at sea before moving to Washington to work on guided-missile systems and took night classes at American University to receive a master’s degree in international relations.

By the time he graduated in 1966, he had been assigned to Vietnam, where he commanded more than 50 American patrol boats on the Mekong River near My Tho and earned the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star.

His work there brought him in contact with a Special Operations unit led by Richard Marcinko, who became the first commander of Navy SEAL Team 6.

“Toole was an uncommon Navy boss,” Marcinko wrote in a memoir, “Rogue Warrior,” “a lean, mean, caustic, wry curmudgeon whose aggressiveness was a big bolster for [the unit’s] morale at My Tho. He wore olive-drab jungle fatigues instead of an officer’s tan blouse and slacks. He trusted his chiefs. He’d prowl the [patrol boats] and tinker with the .50-caliber guns. He’d actually go out to see what action was like.”

Adm. Toole later commanded a radar-picket destroyer, guided-missile frigate and guided-missile cruiser. He retired from the Navy in 1987, the same year he married Beverly “June” Spencer Shiel. An earlier marriage, to Judith Robbins, ended in divorce.

By the early 1990s, Adm. Toole was frequenting Capitol Hill Books, where its founder, Kerr, lived on the top floor and ran the shop on the lower level. After Kerr died in 1994, Adm. Toole bought the store the next year from Kerr’s sister. At 81, he sold the store to four employees, all millennials: Burk, Aaron Beckwith, Shantanu Malkar and Matt Wixon.

“It was time to get the old fart out,” he explained, referring to himself in the third person. He added that the store needed “fresh young blood,” and the new ownership shared his vision for maintaining an independent bookstore on Capitol Hill, in lieu of turning the space over to a chain retailer.

“I wouldn’t be in it if I didn’t like it,” he told American University Magazine in 2017. “I spend 90 hours a week here either chasing after books or sitting in front of that desk. Pricing books, cleaning people’s boogers off of books, shelving books. It’s a major effort, but I’ve always felt in an area like the Hill, to not have a used bookstore is wrong.”

Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago.

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