The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A new chapter for a neighborhood bookstore that faced extinction

Val Morgan has kept Idle Time Books in Adams Morgan open since the 2012 death of her husband, Jacques Morgan. But the 37-year-old bookstore will soon get a new owner. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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When he opened his used-book shop 37 years ago in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, Jacques Morgan vowed to remain in business forever, a promise he kept until dying of cancer in 2012.

His widow, Val Morgan, has kept Idle Time Books open since then, even as she has freely acknowledged a more tenuous commitment to an eternal life of selling well-thumbed copies of “The Great Gatsby,” not to mention the blizzard of ephemera her husband collected, a mess of old Mad Magazines, Esquires and Black Panther fliers circa 1967.

Yet, even as she has longed for retirement, Morgan, who is turning 68 this month, has insisted that she would only sell her four-story building — the purchase of which her husband helped finance by auctioning his collection of rare comic books — to someone promising to keep selling books.

“I wasn’t going to be the one to close it down for my own selfish reasons,” Morgan said in her native New Zealand accent last week. “I didn’t want to rip the heart out of the neighborhood.”

In November, after years of rejecting potential buyers who preferred her real estate to her first-edition copies of Jack Kerouac novels, Morgan found what she considered an appropriate suitor — “the bookstore savior,” as she refers to him, bursting into a raspy laugh.

His name is Scott Spector, a real estate executive who, by his button-down appearance, does not possess the playfully contrarian ethos embraced by the shop’s founders, who delighted in banning the use of cellphones in their store and thumbing their noses at sacrosanct local institutions such as the Washington Redskins.

Yet what Spector possesses are the capital to purchase Morgan’s 40,000-title collection and a commitment to maintain a bookstore in a neighborhood rife with bars, pizza joints and a burgeoning number of high-priced restaurants.

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Spector, in a telephone interview, said he’s contemplating myriad changes, including selling new books along with the used, opening a cafe in the shop, and creating space for readings, lectures and community meetings.

“Philosophically, I love independent bookstores,” said Spector, recounting visits to legendary shops such as City Lights in San Francisco and Shakespeare and Company in Paris. “If we can preserve a bookstore in Adams Morgan, it would be good for the neighborhood.”

Neither Spector nor Morgan would say how much the buyer is paying for the property or the business. They are to settle their deal in early January, a few weeks after which Morgan says she will pack up belongings that include a robust cookbook collection and retire to New Zealand.

Adams Morgan was a hub of scruffy counterculture life when the Morgans opened their shop in 1981, first on Columbia Road and then in a storefront they rented on 18th Street NW. Hoping to elude rising rents by buying a property, they purchased 2467 18th Street NW in 2001 for $450,000, devoting two floors to their shop, using the basement for storage and claiming the top floor as their apartment. The building, a shell when they bought it, is now assessed at $1.2 million.

To raise the $100,000 he needed for the down payment, Jacques Morgan auctioned 55 cartons of comic books, a collection that included the first published issues of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the Avengers.

The Morgans split the duties. While Val ran the store’s day-to-day operations, Jacques chain-smoked his way throughout the region, visiting yard sales and estate sales and filling his banged-up Volvo with books and other collectibles that he used to restock their shop.

“Those were his treasures,” Val Morgan said.

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Customer relations were never their strong suit, she acknowledged. Especially irritating were patrons who requested beach reads and asked, “Could you find me a book to read?”

“No,” Val Morgan would say, wanting no responsibility for divining the reading tastes of a stranger. “I don’t know who they are or what they like.”

After her husband’s cancer diagnosis, the Morgans took out a classified ad in the New York Review of Books to sell the shop but got no serious offers (“Own your dream,” the ad read). When Jacques died, Val Morgan used eBay to sell off inventory that packed their basement, an experience she said made her feel a combination of guilt and satisfaction. Even as she enjoyed tending to her husband’s passion, she also contemplated what would be next for her.

Money wasn’t the shop’s problem, she said. Despite competition from and the Internet, she said Idle Time has always turned a profit. She knows her husband would never have sold the store, “but what can you do?”

“What about having a life?” she asked. “I was always of the opinion that people should retire. I always wanted another chapter.”

Her friends have expressed skepticism that the new owner will maintain the bookstore. An unrepentant cynic herself, Val Morgan has decided to try her hand at optimism on this subject as she contemplates life beyond Adams Morgan.

“Why the hell would he buy all these books unless he was going to keep the store?” she asked.

When she leaves, she will walk out with a couple of suitcases as well as an agreement that the new owner will eventually change the shop’s name.

Morgan wanted it that way because “Idle Time won’t be Idle Time if Jacques and I aren’t running it.”

“I can’t wait to find out what it’s going to be,” she said.