A Local Life: Dorothy Bick Bialek

The 'Quiet Strength' of Powerful Duo In D.C.'s World of Books and Music

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2007

There was a time, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the cultural center of Washington might well have been Dorothy and Robert Bialek's living room. Or, if not there, it might have been their store at Dupont Circle, Discount Book and Record Shop, where the world's leading musicians, entertainers and writers signed their work and stayed on to have dinner with the Bialeks.

Classical music giants Beverly Sills, Eugene Ormandy, Msitslav Rostropovich and Jean-Pierre Rampal were frequent guests at their table. Peter Cook, of the British comedy troupe Beyond the Fringe, was a good friend.

Longtime Washington jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd once recorded an album in the Bialeks' living room. Dorothy Bialek had to unplug the refrigerator to keep its hum from being heard.

For 30 years, as Washington began to emerge as a cultural capital, the Bialeks operated the city's first discount record and book store. On the side, they doubled as concert impresarios and salon hosts.

From 1962 to 1981, they arranged for Ormandy's Philadelphia Orchestra to make an annual visit to Washington, selling tickets from their mazelike shop at 1340 Connecticut Ave. NW. (They later had stores in Friendship Heights and at White Flint Mall in Rockville.)

The Bialeks started record labels for classical music, jazz and spoken-word albums -- one of which, a 1960 release of speeches by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, won a Grammy Award. They presented top-flight classical concerts, plus appearances by comedian Mort Sahl, satirist Tom Lehrer, singer Harry Belafonte and jazz pianists Erroll Garner and Dave Brubeck. They commissioned works for the National Symphony Orchestra by composers Alan Hovhaness, Alberto Ginastera and David Amram.

"Our father was the frontman, and our mother was the quiet strength behind all this," Debi Bialek Klein recalled. "She was certainly the grounding force of the family and the business. We all feel very privileged to be her children."

Dorothy Bick Bialek, who was 85 when she died Nov. 5 at Johns Hopkins Hospital of a neurological disorder, was born in Philadelphia and came to Washington as an infant. She grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household in Anacostia, working in her family's grocery store, and graduated from Eastern High School in 1940. She and her husband, Bob Bialek, were married in 1941, when they were both 19.

Bob Bialek was "a larger-than-life person," in the words of their son, Michael. He was a talented classical pianist who worked at the Library of Congress and operated a five-and-dime store before launching Discount Records in 1952.

His wife was an equal partner from the start.

"They were quite a team," Michael Bialek said. "He was the driver, but he couldn't have done it without her support. Together, they were formidable."

At first, the Bialeks were record-industry pariahs for selling below the standard retail price. When local distributors refused to work with them, they drove their station wagon to New York and bought directly from record-store mogul Sam Goody.

They traveled to Europe to obtain a large selection of international music and imported records. They added books to their line of merchandise in 1961 and were among the first retailers to have in-store signing sessions, often attracting crowds that snaked onto the street.

Ralph Nader was a frequent customer, Carl Bernstein rode up on his bicycle to look through rock-and-roll albums and Robert McNamara brought fruitcakes to the store for the holidays.

Yet behind the star-studded parties and concerts, things weren't always in harmony, and it fell to Dorothy Bialek to hold both family and business together.

Their youngest child, Wendy, had a congenital bone disorder that required seven surgeries in 14 years.

"My mom was my nurse and companion, and it made us incredibly close," Wendy Bialek-Kling said. "She was such a model of graciousness in everything she did."

Bob Bialek, meanwhile, had two operations in his early 40s for benign brain tumors. The experimental surgeries affected his speech, left him unable to play the piano and exacerbated his manic-depressive tendencies. His behavior became increasingly erratic, and he harassed his wife and children with lawsuits and tried to get his employees to take lie-detector tests.

"He was the idea guy and dreamer," daughter Debi said. "Unfortunately, that dad was felled by some cruel brain disease."

In 1981, the Bialeks sold Discount Records and separated. They were divorced five years later. Bob Bialek died in May 2006 at age 84.

After so many years as part of a glittering couple among Washington's cultural elite, Dorothy Bialek had to forge a new life alone. She taught English as a second language, tutored young people in reading, attended the theater and volunteered at the Kennedy Center.

Through it all, she encouraged her children to remain close to their often-difficult father, and she maintained her smile and her easy manner to the end.

"To all of us," her daughter Debi said, "she was our hero."

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