Jacques Morgan, opinionated bookstore owner, dies at 62

As the owner of a used-book shop in Adams Morgan, Jacques Morgan understood that he had chosen a livelihood that would not make him wealthy. But did that mean he would forever have to pay rent for the right to peddle everything from Dostoevski to anthologies of Mad magazine?

Mr. Morgan, a devout contrarian, thought otherwise.

A bit more than a decade ago, he and his wife filled a U-Haul with Mr. Morgan’s comic book collection — 55 cartons of DC’s and Marvel’s finest — and drove to New York, where Sotheby’s auctioned them for nearly $100,000.

The Morgans used the cash to move their Idle Time Books from a rental on one side of 18th Street to a three-story brick building they bought on the other, a milestone that confirmed the store’s status as a neighborhood institution more than two decades after its opening.

With his long ponytail and thick mustache, Mr. Morgan, who died Nov. 26 at age 62, personified Adams Morgan’s reputation as a cradle for misfits who defined themselves as joyously out of step with official Washington.


Jacques Morgan, owner of Idle Time Books, goes through books at his bookstore in Washington in 1995. Mr. Morgan, who died Nov. 26 at age 62, personified Adams Morgan’s reputation as a cradle for misfits. (Nancy Andrews/The Washignton Post)

Blunt-spoken, profane and rarely without a no-filter Camel cigarette between his lips, Mr. Morgan’s litany of dislikes was long and well-known to friends. The list included anything related to sports in general and the Washington Redskins in particular; the young, suit-wearing professionals who moved into Adams Morgan; anti-smoking laws that he deemed puritanical; misbehaving children; political correctness; television sitcoms; automated car windows; the Kindle.

“He was fiercely independent and did things his way,” said Al Jirikowik, owner of Chief Ike’s Mambo Room, an Adams Morgan club. In Mr. Morgan’s view, Jirikowik said, “life was a struggle. There’s beauty, and there are people who are a waste of time.”

Mr. Morgan reserved a special dose of disdain for his customers — not the bibliophiles who might share his appreciation for a first-edition cover illustrated by the macabre-minded Edward Gorey, but those who pestered him with what he considered inane requests for bestsellers such as “Eat, Pray, Love.”

“He hated anything fashionable,” said Val Morgan, his wife of 29 years.

In fact, Mr. Morgan’s antipathy for many of his patrons was so pronounced that he and his wife long ago agreed that their business’s survival depended on him never working the cash register. Instead, he largely remained behind the scenes, focusing on a never-ending circuit of yard sales, estate sales and thrift shops, arriving early in a beat-up Volvo station wagon that he invariably filled with titles he deemed worthy of Idle Time.

On one trip to a thrift store on H Street NE, his wife recalled, Mr. Morgan found a first-edition copy of Jack Kerouac’s “The Town and the City” (1950), one of the writer’s earliest novels. Mr. Morgan paid $1. He later sold the book for $450, his wife said.

Mr. Morgan kept many of his favorite finds for himself, including a signed 1962 edition of Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and a 1936 first-edition copy of “Negro Folk Songs as Sung by Lead Belly.” Inside the book’s cover is the famous bluesman’s scrawl.

“It’s a treasure hunt,” Val Morgan said, explaining what drove her husband. “He wasn’t into it for the money. He was never interested in money. He was in it for the books. Finding the books.”

She attributed his disposition toward his customers to his upbringing; he began visiting used bookstores in the District and met the proprietors — “grumpy old men with a cigarette. You dared not approach them. They looked at you over the tops of their glasses, as if they were saying, ‘Don’t bother me.’ ”

Jacques Rene Weatherly was born Sept. 1, 1950, in Norfolk. He was 7 when his mother remarried, and he was subsequently adopted by John D. Morgan, an Air Force colonel. Mr. Morgan’s mother, Suzon, who was born in France, took Jacques to live in Paris for part of his childhood. They later moved to McLean.

Besides his wife, Mr. Morgan’s survivors include his mother and stepfather and three siblings.

Mr. Morgan was a 1973 graduate of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where he studied sociology and honed his interest in collecting books and comics.

During the 1960s, he once told The Washington Post, his stepfather gave him $500 to buy a car. Instead, he said, “I just bought more comic books,” expanding a collection that came to encompass nearly every comic book published by DC and Marvel between 1958 and 1972. His library included the first published issues of Spider-man, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers.

After college, he moved to Washington and worked at Second Story Books, a used and rare book shop. He also supported himself by painting houses. He met Val Johnson, who grew up in New Zealand, when she happened to stop in Washington during a 10-year trip around the world.

In 1981, they opened Idle Time Book Shop on Columbia Road in Adams Morgan. Six years later, they moved the shop to 18th Street. After Mr. Morgan’s comic book auction, the couple relocated their inventory of 30,000 titles to the shop’s current location in 2002, building an apartment for themselves over the store. Chairs for reading are scattered about the shop. A sign on a wall declares Idle Time “a cellphone free zone.”

As new and used bookstores across the country struggled and died, Mr. Morgan’s enthusiasm for his business and books — the kind he could hold in his hands — never waned.

“He did everything he wanted in life,” Val Morgan said. “He never went for a job interview. He never had to get dressed up for work. That’s a lucky man.”

In 2008, he learned he had colon cancer, a disease he would fight intermittently for the next four years.

In the last weeks of his life, visitors included employees of Idle Time lugging cartons of books up to the apartment for him to price. There were also friends, some of whom, while he closed his eyes to rest, Mr. Morgan encouraged to smoke his cigarettes and enjoy a shot of the vodka he kept in the freezer.

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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