Helping front office teams grow better

RIP Jim Toole - Issue #361

Between 2010 and 2015, on the second Saturday of the month in the late afternoon, you'd find me at Capital Hill Books. Second Saturday's free solo cup of wine and its nibbles of cheese would often motivate me to leave with at least a few books. But on more than one occasion our time in the bookstore was mostly sitting on the floor and talking with neighborhood friends and thus getting yelled at by Jim Toole.

Capitol Hill Books was exactly the store our neighborhood needed. Capitol Hill, once you get past the marble and boulevards and tourists, is a place packed tight with 150 year-old brick row-houses. They're all 10 or 14 or 18 feet wide, depending on the poshness of the street. Some of then are stately, more more are like ours on Warren Street NE: when our kitchen light was off, we could, through the exposed, shared brick wall, pinholes of light from our neighbor's kitchen. In most places, even the commercial buildings fit into these brick shoeboxes. The neighborhood bar just barely fit the bar on one wall and two-person booths along the other; the expensive restaurant might have two of the row-houses connected; the breakfast diner occupied a corner row-house, allowing the narrow wooden booths views of the Capitol dome. Capitol Hill Books enjoyed one of the medium-width ones: enough space for catacomb-sized walkways between the teetering towers of books. With floor-to-ceiling stacks on two above-ground stories and more in the basement, you could not enter without being impressed by the quantity of books. And you couldn't leave without finding something that struck your fancy, unless the options and organization overwhelmed you. You also couldn't enter without being noticed and perhaps harangued by the proprietor.

The wide sidewalk in front of the store had a collapsable table. On it were discards: the books not even good enough to sell for a dollar or two. There you could find some real good trash: phone books, comics, magazines, coffee-stained coverless novels, and the like. Once that table held a brand-new, signed copy of my think tank president's latest book, given with regards to a member of congress: Jim Toole didn't think it merited a price or a spot inside the store.

Why did the shop exist? The cantankerous fount of wisdom Jim Toole. He wasn't its founder, but for decades he kept the shop there because, in his words, Capitol Hill needed a bookshop. He was right, it did, and thanks to him it had one.

People like Arthur Brooks write about second acts: the career or life you make after you've done your hardest work. In his rarified air, it's moving to a post as a professor at Harvard after having run a think tank. More commonly, the second act might be working for yourself after burning your 30s and 40s attempting corporate ladder climbs. Or maybe it's moving into the management of people, coaching, or part-time teaching. The point is that after you push hard for a career where you're the star, you pivot to something where other people and their growth are the focus. Sometimes, and I think this may be better, your career's focus becomes a mission. This is where Arthur Brooks might be wrong: you may not need to be an actual teacher, manager, professor, or professional; your institution may not need to be large, like a church or college; your impact may not need to be measured in the charitable goodness of your cause. The mission could be simpler. Take Jim Toole: maybe the noblest choice is to decide that a neighborhood's used bookstore needs to continue.

That's what Jim Toole did, bringing the personality of a retired rear admiral to the sales of castoff books to people like me. He did this for decades, finally managing to assemble a crew of people who could continue the institution. The youngs banded together, started a moving company, and used it to buy from him the bookstore. We made the journey back to the old neighborhood this summer and my daughter bought a few volumes and had her own Jim Toole experience.

Capital Hill Books continues.


Jim Toole, cantankerous former owner of Capitol Hill Books, dies at 86

The retired rear admiral treated the bookstore like one of his ships. He also sought to safeguard the English language, instituting a ban on overused words such as "like" and "perfect."