Several years ago I wrote a column titled “Confessions of a Bookaholic” (Naval History, October 1997). The thrust of it was that I have a serious addiction, and I included several symptoms of my condition, such as, “You know you’re a bookaholic when you bring home a volume from the used-book store and discover you had already bought a copy of the same book somewhere else some years earlier.” Or you hear yourself saying, “No, I haven’t read that one yet, but I’m going to get around to it one of these days [weeks, months, years].” Or, “Yes, I know I’ve got that book, but I can’t exactly lay my hands on it at the moment.”
One Naval History reader was kind enough to send in an additional symptom: You visit someone’s house and mentally calculate where you would put in more bookshelves if you lived there.
My brother Mark suggested a palliative: “There’s a halfway-house program that could help you with your problem.”
Unwittingly, I played straight man by asking, “What is that?”
“It’s called a library,” he said.
One place that has captured my attention in recent years is a used-book outlet called Capitol Hill Books, near the Eastern Market on Seventh Street in Washington, D.C. In his store, proprietor Jim Toole habitually wears casual clothes and a baseball cap emblazoned with the name of his business. He also wears an impish sense of humor that’s manifested in the many handwritten notes posted throughout the place. Of the notoriously reclusive author J. D. Salinger, Toole’s note reads: “1st appearance in 60 years Tonite. Canceled.” Somehow, Salinger never seemed to get to the store, even when he was alive. Another book, The Hookup, carried the note, “Paris Hilton’s next video.”
The owner’s apparel and occupation are considerably different from those years when he wore dress whites and blues as Rear Admiral Morton E. Toole, U.S. Navy. He was a surface-warfare officer and invested in that specialty to the point of chauvinism. After being commissioned through the NROTC program at UCLA in 1957, he served at sea and qualified for command of destroyers when he was still a lieutenant.
In the mid-1960s, he was in on the beginning of the riverine war in South Vietnam, Operation Game Warden. He was the first commander of River Division 53 and Task Unit 116.1.2 as speedy, well-armed PBRs (river patrol boats) attacked Viet Cong forces, including tax collectors. The boats’ targets were attempting to capture the resources of South Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, an area where inland waterways are the primary pathways of commerce. In that job he wore not the formal blues or whites of shipboard duty but the greens of in-country naval forces.
As Toole’s career progressed, he commanded the radar-picket destroyer Hissem (DER-400), guided-missile frigate Preble (DLG-15), and guided-missile cruiser William H. Standley (CG-32). He was chief of staff to commander Carrier Group Four during an Indian Ocean cruise in 1980 that followed the Iran hostage seizure. The flagship Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) was at sea for eight months and two days of the deployment that lasted eight months and seven days. As a flag officer, his last seagoing job was commander Service Group Two. He retired from active duty in 1987.
Toole’s involvement with the bookstore in Washington began in 1994 and expanded after he bought the entire building in 2004. Entering the place, one thinks of the contrast to Navy ships with their emphasis on cleanliness and order. The store is anything but shipshape. It’s a rabbit warren of bookshelves that reach from floor to ceiling. Still more books sit in haphazard piles. The aisles between shelves are narrower than passageways in a submarine and give vivid meaning to the word “claustrophobia.” Customers are enjoined not to carry backpacks or other bags into the shelving areas because they are so crowded that there is room only for humans, and not much room at that.
As for inventory control of the thousands upon thousands of books, that’s almost completely in Toole’s head. His knowledge of the store’s contents is remarkable. A customer asks, “Who wrote Catch-22?” Toole quickly answers, “Joseph Heller” and directs the customer to the book’s location. The sources of his books are often estate sales, so he says that a downside of his work is knowing that much of his stock comes from the libraries of dead people. There’s one more drawback for an individual who commanded others in battle—he misses the teamwork that he experienced with his seagoing and river-going crews.
Who’s the favorite author of this man who knows the works of thousands of authors? Not surprisingly it’s Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, a surface-warfare officer who wrote the groundbreaking book The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, first published in 1890.
And oh, by the way, if you visit Capitol Hill Books, turn off your cell phone outside the store. One of Toole’s many homemade signs says: “Cell phone addicts: Read before entering. [This is] a bookstore—not a phone booth.”