Inside the Beltway

Book Smart

The purveyor of Capitol Hill Books likes what he likes—just don't say that word in his store


Jim Toole at the front desk at Capitol Hill Books
Ariel Zambelich/NPR

Jim Toole harbors a reverence for words.

"The language people use today," he says incredulously. "Awesome; like; perfect. You tell someone to go to the back room and look to your right and you'll find that book. 'Perfect!' You hear that 30, 40 times a day and it drives you crazy."

Toole's discerning vocabulary was shaped not only from a lifetime of reading, buying, collecting, and selling used books, but from years serving aboard destroyers and cruisers in the navy. He's still a sailor at heart, as reflected in both his colorful vernacular and the managerial style in which he runs Capitol Hill Books.

It's a gray, gloomy January day, but even if the sun were shining Arizona-bright you wouldn't be able to tell in here. Bookshelves reach from the worn blue-carpeted floors to the white, water-damaged ceilings, obscuring the windows, creating a sort of literary eclipse. Toole, SIS/MA '66, is sitting in a wooden chair in the middle of the fiction section upstairs where, like everywhere else in his store, he's completely enveloped by books. Not only is all the shelf space occupied, but piles of novels are shoved into the crevices and alcoves of the nineteenth century row house. As a group of young women ascend the creaky stairs, their eyes widen at the sight of the legions of tattered paperbacks and worn hardcovers. They almost look like museumgoers gazing at ancient artifacts. For twentysomethings like them, many of whom prefer to read on a REDACTED*, seeing this many bound books in one place is a rare occurrence.

*The names of the popular digital device used for reading e-books and the company that makes it grace Toole's list of 15 words and phrases forbidden from being spoken in the store.

"I love the smell," one of the customers remarks.

"You like old book dust?" responds Toole, implying that not only does he not, he's perplexed how anyone could.

"Yes, it's oddly comforting," the woman says.

Toole, 80, simply shrugs his shoulders. A Capitol Hill Books baseball cap covers his white hair, and his weathered face wears an expression that teeters between scowl and wry smile. Even now, he still exudes a military bearing. He's been fighting a pesky cold for weeks, which is one reason why he's not in a particularly cheery mood. Then again, Toole's seldom in a particularly cheery mood.

"Curmudgeon is the word that everyone uses and it's totally apt," says Matt Wixon, a former employee and current "friend of the store." "Jim can be grumpy, irascible, difficult, and he certainly takes distinct joy in being contrarian sometimes. He can get genuinely pissed off at people quickly, and can be capricious and draconian . . . but those are only the first two strata. Once you get to know him a little bit, or if you're lucky sometimes almost immediately, you'll realize there's much more to the man."

Lording over what almost certainly is Washington's densest—if not its most highfalutin—bookstore was never Toole's intention. The military was his destiny. He grew up in California the son of a career army officer, then graduated from UCLA with a degree in American history before securing a waiver from the navy that allowed him to be commissioned at age 20. After six years at sea he moved to the nation's capital to work on guided missile systems.

"I figured if I was going to be in the navy I should know something about what we're doing internationally," says Toole, who enrolled at AU and took night classes to earn his master's degree.

His next assignment was aboard patrol boats on the Mekong River in the Vietnam War. He finished his thesis in a Saigon library.

When he retired in 1987 he had reached the rank of rear admiral. He hoped to do some writing on military history, but the same month he left the service he remarried ("like a fool") and began raising stepchildren. In the early 1990s he started frequenting a small, cramped bookstore in an 1870s row house across the street from Eastern Market. Bill Kerr lived upstairs and maintained Capitol Hill Books on the lower level. When Kerr died of a heart attack in 1994 (in his bedroom, which is now the store's mystery section), his sister sold the place to Toole.

"There was no other bookstore on the Hill," he says. "There were new books, but there's a big difference between new bookstores and used bookstores. Everybody doesn't understand that."

For the uninitiated, Toole is more than happy to explain. The shelves of Barnes and Noble and other big box booksellers are stocked by publishers, which return to remove titles from the premises if they don't sell.

"I have to go find my books because people bring crap in here and want me to give them good money," he says. "If I've bought something I'm stuck with it. To have a good bookstore you have to go look around and find good books, mainly from dead people. They don't take their books with them."

Much of Toole's time is spent in pursuit of inventory, primarily attending auctions and perusing the libraries of the recently departed. Yet, there is not a free morsel of space in his 2,300-square-foot store for one more . . . anything. The business section is in a coat closet. Sports and science fiction are among the offerings in the dark, dingy basement, the ceilings of which are barely six feet tall. ("Caution: lights hang low, are head-smackable," reads one handwritten sign.) Foreign language books are housed in the bathroom and (hopefully) inaccessible when someone needs to use the john. Toole selected the location in part for symbolic reasons. "Foreign language in this country's in the toilet," he says. He stocks about 26,000 books and keeps another 15,000 in a storage unit, but don't look for romance novels. They're garbage, he says, and he won't deal with them.

Toole's fond of describing his organizational system as "controlled chaos." Upstairs, fiction and mystery are filed alphabetically by author, "or fairly close." Nonfiction is arranged chronologically. "If I'm doing European history, it starts at 0000 and goes forward," he says. When a customer buys a book, no computer or cash register records the transaction. "We do things by stubby pencil," he says. Which begs the question: why? "Why not?" he replies. "Is there some reason I have to buy a machine? I look at the receipts at the end of the day, and I delete what we sold from my memory."

It can all be a bit overwhelming, and people have been known to walk in the front door, assess the madness, then turn around and walk right back out.

"I always think of it as a suspended tsunami of books at any given moment about to engulf you," Wixon says.

Sometimes, that's quite literally (another bastardized word possibly destined for Toole's list) the case. During a recent visit, a stack of mostly hardbacks parked peacefully atop a bookcase spontaneously plummeted to the ground. Luckily, no one was browsing below.

What caused the avalanche of automobile books (oddly, How We Live Our Yoga and David Halberstam's The Reckoning were mixed in)? Perhaps a customer had violated one of Toole's rules, and the universe was seeking reckoning.

In addition to his personal list of dirty words, Toole detests backpacks and loud cell phone talkers. "This is a bookstore, not a phone booth," reads a sign on the front door for anyone who might not discern the difference.

"The rules are real," says Aaron Beckwith, who's worked at the store since 2004. "If you say some of the words on the 'not spoken here' list he won't kick you out, but he will yell that he's suffering brain damage."

Toole's curmudgeonliness isn't a façade or an act; it's just one of his many layers. If an employee gets married or moves away, he often will pen them a poem. Wixon's currently undergoing chemotherapy; Toole, he says, always manages to find the right words at the right time. Employees are quick to praise his loyalty, intellect, and wit, even as they chuckle about his gruffness. On the same day the collection of car books came crashing down, a cute little boy tagging along with his mom wondered aloud, "Where's Mr. Jim?"

"I'll be at the front desk on a day that he's usually there, and [customers are] so disappointed when they see me," Beckwith says. "If someone brings in a book of Yeats poems he might recite one of them on the spot."

Toole remains a voracious reader, although he's ditched fiction because there's too much nonfiction he wants to devour "before I kick the bucket." His favorite book is The Influence of Sea Power Upon History by Alfred Thayer Mahan; most of the titles in his personal 2,000-volume collection are about naval history and international relations. He's currently reading Playing to the Edge: American Intelligence in the Age of Terror. Presumably, he feels author Michael Hayden is a better writer than he is in other mediums. "He's on TV a lot, running off at the mouth," Toole says of the former CIA director.

Simmering below the surface is Toole's cunning sense of humor, evident in the signs he writes and posts throughout the store and in individual books.

"Recommended from rehab by Lindsay Lohan," reads one taped to Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Apparently she has good taste.

"Because they are stupid!" states another sticking out of Why Men Love Bitches. (It's unclear to which sex the sign is referring.)

And then there's the Wacko Stacko, an entire section featuring books by and about people Toole does not hold in particularly high esteem. Sarah Palin, Ben Carson, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, and the 45th president of the United States are among the authors afforded real estate in this section. (Trump's books, incidentally, have been selling very well, Toole says.)

For his choices, he is unapologetic.

"I don't care if I irritate people," the registered Republican says. "It's my store, isn't it? Am I supposed to be bending over all the time for everybody who comes in and gets a hemorrhoid over what I write?"

If joy is not the right word to describe what he takes from running the place, perhaps satisfaction is. The operation is profitable, he says, and he's providing six people with jobs.

"I wouldn't be in it if I didn't like it," he says. "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."

Even when Toole sails off into the sunset, his bookstore will soldier on. When he's ready to sell, Wixon and Beckwith are prepared to buy, using money they've made from their full-time gigs at Bookstore Movers. Wixon started the company, where Beckwith is director of human resources, specifically with an eye toward purchasing Capitol Hill Books.

"I'm getting old. You'll find out about that later," Toole tells me—a 41-year-old balding man. "Matthew Arnold [wrote], 'What is it to grow old? Is it to lose the glory of the form, The luster of the eye?'"

Wixon and Beckwith don't plan to change much, which is comforting, because the place, with apologies to Jim Toole for the use of the word, is perfect.