The shock of the death of Morton “Jim” Toole – legendary former owner of Capitol Hill Books – on Saturday, November 11 spread through the Capitol Hill community during the following days. Toole collapsed and died of a heart attack on his way home after having dinner with friends at Tunnicliff’s Tavern. He was 86. Earlier in the evening, he had attended the monthly free Second Saturday Wine and Cheese event at the bookstore.
Toole was a retired Navy rear admiral and three weeks earlier had attended a reunion of some 30 former Navy shipmates at Tunnicliff’s. His friends and employees called him The Admiral.
Toole was commissioned as a second lieutenant out of the Naval ROTC at UCLA in 1957. In 1966, he served in Vietnam, commanding river patrol boats in the Mekong Delta. He later commanded a destroyer and a guided missile cruiser. He retired from active duty in 1987. One of Toole’s longtime friends noted that his death on Veteran’s Day was a fitting and poetic way to go.
In retirement, Toole lived on Capitol Hill and in the early 1990’s was a regular customer at Capitol Hill Books. The used book store was opened in 1991 by Bill Kerr, a graduate of Wayward Books – another beloved used bookstore located at 725 7th Street, SE, which relocated to Maine in 1990.
Kerr lived on the second floor of the building, and died there in 1994 of a heart attack in his bedroom which is now the store’s Mystery Room. Toole reportedly had no intention of running a bookstore in retirement, but bought the store in 1995 – according to a long time friend– “to save it for the neighborhood” since there were no other used book stores on the Hill and he believed there should be one.
Capitol Hill resident and author Tim Krepp says one of the things that he respected about Toole was that he recognized when it was time to provide for a transition to a new generation of booksellers. In July of 2018, Toole sold the business to long-time employees and friends of the store. According to their website, the new owners vowed to preserve the fiercely independent spirit of the bookstore and ensure it maintains its place as a literary hub of the community. Toole was still working there when he died.
Much has been written about Toole’s wit (acerbic) and curmudgeoness (carefully cultivated), his posted admonishments (dictatorial), his posted advice (irreverent), and his management style (quixotic), all of which enlivened the structured disorganization that characterized the nationally known eclectic bookshop. In retirement, he found a new ship to command, though one which appeared to be the antithesis of the taut ships he ran in the Navy. Still, there was no question of who was in command. One of his rules was, “Rule number 1: The customer is not always right. I am.”
Capitol Hill author and longtime member of Friends of Southeast Library Jack Wennersten remembers Toole as a library book sale patron who would “come with his employees and buy up a bunch of books and take them back to his shelves. He had a mystique about him as a grumpy old soldier but he wasn’t – he had a heart. Once he sold the shop, he seemed bereft – it was his baby – he was no longer captain of the ship.”
Evidence of the size of his heart was expressed in his generosity toward friends and especially toward children. Krepp recalled taking his children into the store and his daughter finding a book which she took to Toole at the front desk. “Where’d you get this money?” he asked. “I earned it,” was the reply. “You earned it, huh? Half price!“
Another longtime friend, Robert Bateman, author, sailor and retired US Army Colonel recalled similar experiences when he took his own daughter to the store. He said, she’ll cry when she hears about this. Bateman saluted Toole for his knowledge of military history and his sense of where to find a specific volume among the tens of thousands in the store.
Much of the character of Capitol Hill Books as it was when Toole owned the store is missing now. Gone for the most part is the quirky signage that reflected Toole’s personality. The store is tidier and has a table of new releases – including the formerly forbidden romance novels – and background music is piped through wall-mounted speakers.
One part of the store which has not changed is the stairwell to the second floor. Among the random collection of posters, clippings, advertisements for music classes, etc., is a framed photo of store founder Bill Kerr and a commitment from Toole. Entitled, “In Memoriam,” it reads in part:
“The torch has again been passed. Our ‘village’ on the Hill once again has at least one Good Used Book Store, open and available. In the memory of Bill Kerr we are dedicated to continue not only the name of his store with which we can all identify but also his inspiration: buy GOOD Used Books in order to sell GOOD Used Books so we can enjoy GOOD Used Books.”
In the second floor Mystery Room – formerly Bill Kerr’s bedroom – a large white stretched canvas rests atop a bookcase. Printed in black letters, a quotation from The Clocks by Agatha Christie reads: “It was clear that the books owned the shop rather than the other way about. Everywhere they had run wild and taken possession of their habitat, breeding and multiplying and clearly lacking any strong hand to keep them down.” Asked how the canvas came to be there, a staffer said, “We think it was sent to us by mistake…about six months ago.” Asked who had sent it, the staff said, “We don’t know. It’s a mystery.” A mystery, yes. But not likely sent by mistake.
In addition to his wife, June, of Washington, survivors include a daughter, three stepchildren, a brother and six grandchildren.