The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of'

The Collector wanders through the book fair, a black three-ring binder tucked securely under his arm. With his wispy, light brown hair and wire-rimmed spectacles, he might almost be taken for a middle-aged professor at a small college. He asks quietly about mysteries. Almost every booth at this two-day fair in Savage, Md., carries a few; one or two Sue Graftons, some Donald Westlakes. No, he is looking for much earlier stuff: Golden Age material. Chandler, Hammett, early Rex Stout. As he peers at the makeshift bookcases, set up the night before by 50 or so visiting dealers, the familiar conversation of book people ebbs and flows around him. "Just the other day I was in a country thrift shop . . ." "Do you have any books about the Revolutionary War?" "Sorry, the Mules and Men is long gone." The Collector methodically works his way around the room; occasionally he checks his binder and makes a note. "Is that the green one?" "I really need a jacket for a Catch-22 . . ." "Can a person visit this mysterious basement?" At Booth 9, John Thomson, perched on a folding chair in the late morning sunlight, is slowly turning the pages of a thick 18th-century study of economics. Thomson, co-owner (with his wife, Karen Griffin) of Bartleby's Books in Washington, purses his lips, stares into the distance. Another dealer has offered him A General Treaty on Monies and Exchanges, by a Well-wither to the Trade, and Thomson is trying to figure out what he should pay for a book he's never heard of. "The cover is loose and it'll take $150 to rebind. Have to sell it for at least $350 to get my money out of it." Is the book important enough? Would a university library buy it? Thomson sets the heavy volume aside when a possible customer strides up, a middle-aged woman in an expensive-looking brown suit. "I'm looking," she asks with undisguised desperation, "for Another Annapolis Alphabet." The soft-spoken bookman shakes his head ruefully. She hurries off to the next dealer. Half to himself, Thomson says, "I wonder if a well-wither is something like a bellwether?" John Thomson specializes in Americana, history and economics, works of scholarship, literature in translation. "Book dealing is a form of remedial education," he says, glancing at A General Treaty on Monies and Exchanges. "I learn things every day." To this smallish fair, this quiet, deliberate man has brought perhaps 200 titles: lots of Marylandia, Paul Metcalf's Waters of Potomack, a first American edition of Watership Down, an oversize book about Japanese screens, a couple of children's classics with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. "Greg Williams from Walk a Crooked Mile has got a first of The Maltese Falcon in a jacket," Thomson says, nodding toward Booth 8 next door. "He's trying to decide how to sell it." Thomson looks properly thoughtful, as would any book dealer: Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel about private eye Sam Spade and the search for an elusive jewel-encrusted falcon is a classic of American hard-boiled fiction; it is also one of the most sought-after of all modern first editions. As the sun streams through the tall, narrow windows, more and more customers begin to carry their jackets. The dealers sip coffee, gossip, joke: "None of us is really happy unless we're buying two books for every one we sell." For a dealer or serious collector, hunting for books is part of life, as natural as eating. Or even more so. One bookman wandered into the mall adjoining the fair for a bit of breakfast -- and then instinctively deferred coffee and a bagel to check out a small shop called the Book Guy. Twenty minutes later he exultantly paid $8 for a pretty good first of Nabokov's Dozen, a title that can retail for five to 10 times that much. Another collector fingers a first of Glenway Wescott's The Pilgrim Hawk; he's looking for a perfect copy of this minor masterpiece -- a short novel about a marriage on the rocks -- and this one, sadly, has some crinkling of the jacket. Among serious book collectors, the rule is simple: Condition isn't the most important thing, it's the only thing. Sometime in the early afternoon, a dealer tells the Collector about The Maltese Falcon at Walk a Crooked Mile. "It's a little damp-stained and the jacket's tattered, but it's all there." The Collector's heart beats faster. "How much?" In Collected Books -- a standard guide to modern first editions compiled by Rockville book dealers Pat and Allen Ahearn -- The Maltese Falcon lists for $3,500. That seems exceptionally low. The reference is, after all, more than five years old, and Hammett's titles have continued to rise in value, often dramatically. Greg Williams himself seldom handles this kind of high-end title, and he's actually selling the book on consignment for an elderly woman who inherited it from her father. This afternoon, several people have expressed a disingenuously nonchalant interest in the Falcon: A young dealer from New Hampshire has already telephoned a mysterious client. The imagination easily kicks in: "By gad, sir, I really must have that book. I and my associates have been searching for that little item for a good many years now. Do not, sir, let it escape you." A low-key professional scout -- one of those people who cruise thrift stores, estate sales and shops in search of underpriced books to resell to dealers -- also clearly knows the book's worth. After selling some dust jackets (including one for Cormac McCarthy's novel The Orchard Keeper), he wanders quietly around the fair, waiting for his chance. But Williams can't settle on a price. Someone eventually suggests holding an auction. The cover art for the first printing of The Maltese Falcon depicts a hand reaching out toward the elusive and priceless black bird -- "the stuff," as Sam Spade observes in the movie, "that dreams are made of." Williams's copy shows tears along the upper edge, but no actual pieces of the dust jacket are missing, except for the small triangle from the price-clipped inside flap. The dj itself appears exceptionally bright, and really needs only a little expert conservation. The book, though, is in bad shape; not only water-damaged, it also lacks the front flyleaf. No matter. "You can easily pick up a copy of the book," says one excited dealer. "A good one might cost you $500, maybe a little more." But a dust jacket . . . In the world of modern firsts a crisp, intact jacket is an expensive necessity; The Great Gatsby, to name a somewhat comparable title, sells for $500 without a dj, and for as much as $20,000 with a good one. (A Gatsby in jacket, inscribed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was recently offered for $35,000.) A fragile piece of garish-colored paper, and torn at that, will be the real focus of the auction. At 4 p.m. or so, a troop of seven or eight bookmen -- no bookwomen -- amble into a deserted stairwell. The Collector is among them. Everyone tries to look slightly bored and unconcerned, like Cary Grant or Robert Donat in an art-scam thriller. "I want to do an opening minimum of a thousand," says Greg Williams, "with advances of $50. You've all seen the book?" People nod. The Collector stands in the corner, not far from a mop and some cleaning supplies, very still. "Who'll start things off with a thousand?" Somebody raises a finger. A voice chimes, "Ten fifty." The Collector says, "Eleven hundred." It quickly becomes apparent that Williams has started the auction too low. "Fifteen hundred. Fifteen fifty. Sixteen." The bidding goes steadily up, with the young New Hampshire dealer and the Collector setting the pace. After $2,150, the Collector jumps to $2,500, but nobody is scared away, and for a while the bidding actually escalates, leapfrogging by hundreds of dollars. One onlooker half- jokingly offers his oldest son in exchange for the book. "What's the kid worth?" asks the auctioneer. "He's priceless. At least to his mother." Nervous laughter ripples through the group. Thomson and the scout nod occasionally, almost desultorily, but finally drop out after the Falcon soars past $8,000. On it goes, though the pace eventually slows, as the young dealer and the determined Collector continue to match each other's bids. Finally, the Collector says $9,800. Everyone can tell he'll go to $10,000, that he'll pay whatever it takes. The New Hampshire dealer's client will be gravely disappointed. Sold for $9,800. "You've bought yourself one helluva book." The tension over, the dealers agree that the Collector was obviously destined to acquire the book: After all, he didn't have to think about reselling it. Back at Booth 8, Williams and his new customer huddle in a corner over some paperwork. The Collector finally writes a check and then walks away with his new treasure. Just like that. "I've never had a bad check," says Williams. "It doesn't happen much in this business." When approached, the Collector insists on remaining anonymous. "I'm just a middle-class person, but I have no wife or children, so I can spend my money this way." He owns all of Hammett's novels in first editions, except for The Dain Curse, a book actually more common than The Maltese Falcon. Is this the most he has ever paid for a single title? "By a large degree." His second most expensive acquisition, he says, was Rex Stout's first Nero Wolfe mystery, Fer-de-Lance. Still, The Maltese Falcon -- once called "the greatest detective story ever written by an American" -- remains the capstone for a collection like his, and he was never sure he could find an affordable copy. Such a book is, more and more, the stuff that dreams are made of. Greg Williams is a happy man, too. He has gotten a substantially greater amount for himself and his client than he ever expected. "I just love the treasure-hunt aspect of book dealing. Buying and finding books is just a gas." Selling them for thousands of dollars isn't bad either. All true readers know that the ultimate test of a region's culture is found in the quality and variety of its secondhand bookshops. And in this respect at least, Washington is a good place to live. Around the area, in rundown strip malls and fashionable neighborhoods, on blocks awaiting urban development and just off Rockville Pike, lurk all kinds of used bookstores: Bonifant Books, Imagination Books, Alphaville Bookshop, Colusa Books, the Book Alcove, the Book House, Leaf Through, Atticus Books, All Books Considered, the Book Cellar, the Book Nook, Idle Time Books, Booked Up. Dozens more. To the casual passerby they may seem either dusty and intimidating or cozy and inviting. During the week, many are relatively quiet; on a Saturday morning or Sunday afternoon, they may, with luck, grow busy with customers hunting for one special title -- say a Song of Solomon in dust jacket -- or just looking for something to while away a rainy evening. But obvious similarities aside, secondhand book businesses are all different, as different as the people who devote their lives to what bibliophile Nicholas Basbanes has called this "gentle madness." "We're the best place in Washington to pick up a cheap copy of a classic," says James Ludlum, the busy manager of the -- take a breath -- Montgomery County Library Board Book Sale Room, in the Wheaton Regional Library. "We've got 50- to 60,000 books in this room, and right now it's about two-thirds ex-library and one-third donation. All the libraries in Montgomery County send us their unwanted material. Most of the paperbacks we sell for a quarter. Hardbacks are generally 50 cents or a dollar. We'll take almost anything in donation, in any condition. You know, there's a man from Ghana who comes in here and buys hundreds, maybe thousands, of books and then ships them home in huge containers. In fact, he just sent off a shipment. He's not the only one. There's a guy from Caracas, another from Honduras. It's cheaper for them to buy books here and pay the freight." There was a time when the Wheaton Library sale room opened only for one or two weekends a month. Regulars -- something it is easy to become -- remember standing in long lines, waiting restlessly for the doors to open at 9, and then scrambling in to pick through shelves and boxes for biblio-treasure. In the children's section, matters sometimes used to get ugly: Mothers and day-care providers would go mano a mano for choice copies of Maurice Sendak or for runs of the Berenstain Bears and the Baby-Sitters Club. But since 1992 a large outdoor sandwich board, visible to commuters crawling up and down Georgia Avenue, makes obvious that the sale room welcomes customers every day. Ludlum, a former teacher at the Bullis School in Potomac, is the only paid, full-time employee; the rest of the staff consists of approximately 15 volunteers, who each work from five to 25 hours a week. Most are retired. A former college professor of business organizes the crime fiction; a linguist, once associated with an unnamed intelligence agency, oversees the foreign language section. About 80 percent of the profits go directly to library programs, some, alas, to purchase not books but computer equipment. "For a lot of people," says the easygoing Ludlum, "this place is their main social outlet. One retired lawyer stops by every day and buys five to 10 books. There are a couple of ladies who come in every few months and spend $75 to $100 on romance novels. Another guy drops his kid at his oboe lesson and then comes here for half an hour. Some customers like to pick up paperbacks for trips, figuring they can leave them on the plane or in their hotel without a qualm. When schoolkids have art or history projects, the librarians like to send them down here: A 10-year-old can buy a National Geographic for a quarter and cut it up for the pictures. Sometimes the libraries call to check if we have a nice new copy of a Stephen King or a current bestseller, especially when their circulating copy is totally beat." Shelves of every size, shape and condition dominate the sale room, along with bins for records, empty cartons and huge canvas hampers, on casters, that overflow with the latest arrivals. Books are precariously stacked on counters and in corners -- a heartwarming sign for the treasure hunter. Yet there's more here, considerably more, than meets the untrained eye. "Watch this," says Ludlum, as he pushes at a massive bookcase, which swings out on oiled hinges to reveal a processing room where three surprisingly cheerful volunteers are sorting through a hillock of fiction and nonfiction. "Ooh, did you see this one? I think it could be valuable." In fact, several other solid-looking bookshelves can be opened, like fruit cellar doors, to disclose secret cubbies crammed with paperbacks. In the sorting room, Ludlum reserves shelf space for incomplete sets -- of Freud's papers, of various encyclopedias and yearbooks -- in the hope that the missing odd volumes just might turn up. More often than not, they do. "I'm frequently surprised at what sells. Once we were given a run of the St. Albans school newspaper from the 1950s -- it was gone in two hours." As he talks, a couple of college kids pile armfuls of books on the counter; one can't control his enthusiasm: "This is the greatest place I've ever seen." Ludlum makes no attempt to charge market prices, even on more obviously desirable titles. A few things -- big art books, for instance -- may be specially priced for $10 or $15, but in general the sale room aims for fast turnover. After all, the donations never stop, and even pick up on holidays when people do a little spring cleaning. Fortunately, the books also go out by the vanful. "A stage designer will call up and say, I need 50 dark brown books for a stage set.' New lawyers want to decorate their offices with old law books. Another book dealer in town sometimes phones and asks for, say, 400 Reader's Digest condensed books: He sells them to decorators. We both make a little money. Once a television director bought $80 worth of books for a TV show's backdrop. Furniture stores will pick up a hundred titles as accent pieces." Does he get tired of all this clutter and confusion? "No, it's always fun to see what will come in with the next donation. Of course, there are some books all of us here hate by now: Lee Iacocca's autobiography, Sylvia Porter's Money Book. We can't give them away fast enough. And," says Ludlum with resignation, "I've come to look on most books as simply objects to sell." He pauses. "Except, of course, for anything about Sherlock Holmes or by and about Winston Churchill." Allan Stypeck, owner of Second Story Books, drives a late model Mercedes-Benz (dark blue) with a cellular phone that rings frequently. The manager of the Second Story shop in Bethesda calls; he's got a customer who wants to sell some miniature books. "Get Joel at the warehouse to talk to him." Stypeck's Brooklyn-accented voice is clipped, direct; he makes decisions instantly and never seems to hesitate. "Hi, Larry. I'm on my way to Warrenton to look at a library." Washington's most flamboyant bookman is constantly on the move: He's always got a deal working, a buy in the making, a crisis to fend off. It's no surprise that he once owned seven racehorses. Spend any time at all among people who make a living in the world of used books and the name Allan Stypeck will come up. Usually within five minutes. Now in his late forties, Stypeck has been a Washington wheeler-dealer for more than 20 years, building a personal empire of Second Story bookshops, one whose borders are constantly fluid. At the moment, the business has settled down to three outlets -- one at Dupont Circle, another in Bethesda, and a vast warehouse in Rockville. But in the past Stypeck has opened and closed Second Story shops in Baltimore, Georgetown, Alexandria and, long ago, on upper Connecticut Avenue. Nobody in the metro area funnels as many general-interest books in and out of D.C. Where a John Thomson carefully selects the titles he wants for his shop, Stypeck will bid thousands for entire estates, whole libraries. One secret of Second Story's success lies in its huge stock. After a substantial purchase, the better books will be individually priced, the common titles relegated to the $2 shelves at the warehouse, and the apparent dreck donated to places like the Wheaton Library sale room. Because so many books flow through the warehouse, scouts and collectors frequently spend long afternoons there, sniffing out bargains and underpriced rarities. A leading bibliographer of science fiction and fantasy visits the warehouse every year or two from his London home, invariably loading up on obscure Lancer paperbacks, half-forgotten supernatural fiction and even shlocky sword-and-sorcery titles; he now totes a laptop computer, listing the bibliographical details on every book he owns or wants. One collector remembers, with a happy sigh, paying $2 for a first edition of J. Meade Falkner's late-Victorian adventure story Moonfleet (normally a good $200 book). In fact, the warehouse is far more than a book emporium; at times it takes on the character of an Arabian Nights bazaar or an eerie antique shop, one of those goose-bumpy places where just about anything might turn up for sale: scarce jazz LPs, dinosaur fossils, a dozen old radios from the 1940s, Oriental artwork, audio cassettes, first editions of Dick Francis, a suit of armor, the latest bestseller at half price, a bit of wild ass's skin, old postcards of Washington, bound issues of Life magazine, art catalogues, movie posters, forgotten literary criticism, aging prints, antique maps, Victorian photographs. Stypeck's business reflects his own passions and enthusiasms. His farmhouse in Poolesville sits on substantial acreage, with three outbuildings (in need of repair), and a fenced-off area for the llamas and the goats. Sometimes his two young daughters, Sophia and Lena, ride the llamas. On the porch, near the front door, the skeleton of a Nile crocodile stands guard. Inside, the walls are covered with Egyptian artifacts, Asian art, scrolls; "I sold the samurai sword to pay for a new paint job on the house." There's a signed Charles Addams cartoon and a poster of "Gunga Din" autographed by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. ("a friend," says Stypeck). Along one upstairs hallway are hundreds of videotapes. "I've got all the classic television shows -- you want Bilko,' Dobie Gillis,' Thriller'? Got every episode." He also collects movies, especially film noir curiosities. "A guy I know gets them for me. Known as X. I give him books and in exchange he finds or copies the movies." Simple. Stypeck knows all sorts of unusual people. Stories and what sound like tall tales spill out with an almost boyish exuberance. "Did I ever tell you about the time I got a nail in my head while out on a buy? . . . I used to own the shirt George Wallace was wearing when Arthur Bremer shot him. You could see the bloodstains. Sold it for $4,000 to an Alabama historical society . . . I know a couple who both collect old photographs of dead children. They met at a supermarket . . ." Stypeck's conversation never flags. "Do you know the thrill, the incredible thrill, of reading an actual letter by M.C. Escher to his son? . . . My greatest mistake? Long ago I sold a book for $50 that was later bought by the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris for $54,000. It turned out to be a unique copy of the Marquis de Sade's Justine . . . Once a little old lady asked for a discount on a Call of the Wild: Can I have this for $2?' And as soon as she had it in her grubby paw, she said, By the way, this is a signed first edition.' " A dealer recently offered a first, in a fine dust jacket, for $10,000. Second Story Books is Allan Stypeck. "I'm a one-man operation with 45 people. Sometimes, for a joke, I'll walk into the shop and say to everyone, You're gone. I traded you all for a bag of beans.' " But he quickly insists, almost defensively, "My present staff are a blessing." Many of the book dealers in the region got their start at Second Story -- and some feel ambivalent at best toward their old boss. People talk, off the record, of acrimonious disputes with employees and suppliers, of financial wrangles with landlords. Yet would you expect anything different from a man who lives by his wits and gambling instincts? "I think," says Stypeck of his former employees, that "I'm a kind of parental figure to some of them, and when they have to make the break, they turn on me. I become the Great Satan." The rain is sheeting down as Stypeck drives on toward Warrenton. "What really got me started in this business was buying some early law books up near Saratoga. They were from around 1790-1810 and had attractive bindings. Paid $150 for a couple of sets, and sold them overnight for $400." Stypeck chuckles. "I thought it would always be that easy." Increasingly, Second Story's main man spends more and more time on appraisals, on advising Sloane's auction house about books, and in promoting "The Book Guys," his call-in radio show with Mike Cuthbert. (Loosely modeled after the popular "Car Talk" radio program, it airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on Baltimore's WBJC, 91.5 FM.) One evening a caller phoned in and read aloud, in laboriously mispronounced Latin, the title page for an early edition of Thomas More's Utopia. The Book Guys ultimately determined that the More was worth thousands of dollars. Once Stypeck reaches Warrenton, the small talk disappears, replaced by a crisp, professional efficiency. The client leads him to a small reading room, where Stypeck immediately starts pulling volumes from the shelves. "The bookcases may be the nicest thing here," he mumbles. But in short order he finds a Wodehouse first, Meet Mr. Mulliner, a two-volume occult book called The Mystic Rose, a 1901 Lafcadio Hearn title in an astonishingly good dust jacket. "I'm fast," he says. "I'm the world's fastest appraiser." He lingers over a jacketless copy of Gone With the Wind, its ugly cover stamp indicating that the book once belonged to the library of Company A, Signal Corps. He turns to the copyright page. "Notice the date. It's a May printing." Even in this dilapidated state, and ex-library at that, this first might sell for $300, maybe more. (In a good dj the May printing has listed for $6,500.) "I want to sell the sofa in here, too," says the owner. Stypeck suggests that some of this stuff could do better in an auction. The woman isn't interested. "My mom has emphysema and she's coming back from the hospital in a couple days. I don't want these dusty books to be here." Stypeck offers her $1,500 for everything, including the furniture. "When can you give me a check?" she asks. Stypeck answers, "Count to 10," as he pulls out his checkbook and looks for a pen. On the way out, he arranges a time for a truck to come by. He doesn't take any books away himself. "Too much trouble and clutter." Once in the car, though, Stypeck grows reflective. "You know, you deal with a lot of death in this business, a lot of illness, a lot of need." Later, he adds, "But if you pay too much for common books, you'll go bankrupt." He's obviously a businessman to his very toes, and down deep there's no nonsense about him at all. "You know, there are four kinds of people who open bookstores: Those who have money, those who have spouses with money, those who run a shop as a retirement hobby, and those who really operate the place like a business. At a certain level, all I want to know is what sells, and can we make money on it." "Oh, I always wanted to have a bookstore. Years ago I'd wander into a shop, new or old, and think about owning the place. It's one of those dreams a lot of readers have." Cynthia Parker is a slender woman of, as they say, a certain age. Her hair has gone silvery and her children are grown, but she still talks with infectious enthusiasm about the books she loves most: romances. During the week she may be a pupil personnel worker in Montgomery County public schools, but on Saturdays she takes the helm at Silver Spring Books, a cooperative secondhand shop representing several dealers. (One of them focuses on African American writing and science fiction; another specializes in general literature.) Parker double-shelves her allotted bookcases with Harlequins, Gothics, and the novels of Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz, Georgette Heyer, Janet Dailey and many, many others. "I have an active career in behavioral sciences, and romances are, after all, very much about relationships, about overcoming obstacles and solving personal problems. We see so much of man's inhumanity on television and in the news; we're just overloaded with the world's negative aspects. I think romances are addictive because they take people away to a better world: You know that all the difficulties will be resolved, and that leaves you with a good feeling, maybe even a hope that society could be this way." Parker thinks for a moment. "I suppose that romances are ultimately expansions of myths and folk tales. They're also very much women's fiction, largely by women and for women. In our world, much of what women do tends to be diminished, if not dismissed. Which is why too many people look down on romances. But, as with all genres, there are good and poor writers." A middle-aged man dressed in a neat sweater and tie -- he could be a cousin to the Maltese Falcon buyer -- saunters up to the front counter, asking for a novel by Kathleen Eagle, who sets her romances among American Indians. A guy is reading this stuff? "I happened to pick up one of her novels in the library and liked the style. So I went searching for her other work." Nothing could be more natural, and Parker looks quietly triumphant. "See what I mean? Eagle is a good writer, and anybody can enjoy her books." After the customer leaves, Parker strolls down the serried rows of her books, enthusing about one title after another; the spines of novels by local authors boast a yellow sticker. She knows her stock intimately and organizes her crowded shelves by subgenre: Regency, suspense, multicultural, New Reality. New Reality? "Those are time-travel romances, or love affairs with ghosts," she says with just a trace of a smile. Back at the front counter, piled high with paperbacks waiting to be priced and categorized, Parker pulls out a big tote bag and spreads out half a dozen want lists -- titles that individual customers are eager, often desperate, to acquire. "I like to help people find books. So they give me their lists." One even comes from a woman in Norway. Parker drops it next to a paperback with a cover showing a long-haired blond -- the hero, presumably -- embracing a swooning, raven-tressed beauty. The heartthrob seems to have misplaced his shirt, while our heroine appears to be having a little trouble keeping her dress on. "Ah, yes, the clinch," says Parker, with a giggle. Because some readers find such illustrations a tad embarrassing, at least for subway reading, publishers recently designed step-back paperbacks that provide two covers: a sedate version for the world to see neatly camouflaging an amorous scene more suitable for private reverie. As a girl in White Plains, N.Y., Parker learned to read before kindergarten and was soon making her way through the exploits of Nancy Drew and the works of Elsie Dinsmore. Her father, president of the local NAACP, also made sure she was surrounded by books and articles with African American heroes or heroines. And he'd check her books and note the way black characters were presented. "Since the early '90s we've been seeing an upsurge of romances by African American authors," says Parker happily. In fact, a now-defunct small press in Silver Spring, Odyssey Books, helped establish several prominent writers, among them Barbara Stephens; other popular African American romance authors include Sandra Kitt and Francis Ray. Nowadays, you can find romances with Hispanic protagonists, novels set in every state of the union (a notable series by Janet Dailey), and storytelling for any level of sophistication, from the Sweet Valley High titles for young girls to elaborate historical sagas (with fantasy elements) like Diana Gabaldon's widely admired Outlander and its sequels. Recently, says Parker, some romances have even started to become downright expensive. Collecting Romance Novels values early titles by Diana Palmer at $50 -- a pretty penny for a late-'70s paperback. Jayne Ann Krentz's scarcer books can even reach $150. Parker doesn't think that much about rarities; she just wants to stock as many titles as she can. "Readers are always looking for an author and are frustrated when they can't find other works by her because of the genre's short shelf life. So they come to me, the -- uh -- Queen of Romance." She says it with a laugh, though it's probably true. "You know, there are romances for every taste. Sweet, sensual or spicy -- as they say in the reviews. This," she says while surveying her treasures, "is what I call happy work. Very happy work." "I still have a complete set of every science fiction magazine ever published, including Weird Tales," says Robert Madle, who deals in sf, mainly small press books and pulp magazines. As a teenager, Madle belonged to a semi-legendary group, those 300 or so writers and readers now known as First Fandom: a cadre of sf aficionados from the 1930s, many of whom, like him, made their way to the first world science fiction convention in 1939. Madle actually met Hugo Gernsback, the editor whose first name is memorialized in science fiction's most coveted literary award, the Hugo. Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, Henry Kuttner, L. Sprague de Camp -- these were some of the giants with whom Madle hobnobbed in his fannish youth. "As a kid, I started a magazine called Fantascience, which, because I didn't have much money, was originally produced as a hectograph." A hectograph -- what's that? "Well, you'd pay a dollar for a pound of gelatin and 25 cents for a cake pan. Then you'd melt the gel into the pan. After that you'd compose your copy using a special typewriter ribbon. When you were done typing, you'd lay that page face down in the gel, which would absorb the ink -- it was usually purple. Finally, you'd take a clean sheet and press it into the gel, wait a while, then carefully peel the page away. You'd end up with a reproduction of your original. You could make, oh, maybe 50 or 60 nice copies. I sold the magazine for 10 cents." Down in his Rockville basement Madle pulls out a run of half a dozen issues of Fantascience. "This one is particularly sought after." It's the July-August issue for 1939, with "Why Ghouls Leave Home," by a teenage Ray Bradbury. Along with "more issues of Weird Tales than anyone in the world," the talkative sf fan also owns long runs of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Astounding Science-Fiction, Amazing Stories and dozens of other pulps now largely forgotten. "Did you know that in 1928, that's 1928, Hugo Gernsback published a couple issues of a magazine called All About Television; in 1931 he brought out Television News." According to Madle, the scarcest fantasy pulp is probably Harold Hersey's The Thrill Book. Its 18 issues, from around 1919, go for $700 or $800 a copy. (For some reason, pulps have never been as astronomically expensive as early comics.) "Every so often I get a call from somebody looking for Astounding from 1934 to 1937, and I immediately know this is a guy in his seventies hoping to relive his youth, who wants to reread the stories of his childhood." Madle, himself well into his seventies, looks wistful for a moment. "The most popular issue is probably the August 1927 Amazing Stories. A lot of people call up and just say, Do you have the War of the Worlds issue?'" Madle roots through a stack of pulps and draws forth a gorgeously bright, tatter-free magazine. The tripod-like Martian machines are shooting death rays at pitiful, panic-stricken humans. It's $35, and would gladden the heart of anybody who ever daydreamed about Buck Rogers or read "Flash Gordon" in the Sunday funny papers. "Once a producer from Sightings' was doing a show devoted to aliens, and a whole camera crew came out here to Rockville. I laid out all these magazines with aliens on the covers. The guy was so excited; he just panned the whole room. Later they returned for a similar program on images of the Martian. Everyone just loved my stuff." But who wouldn't? They don't make Martians like they used to. "There's more to a book than just the words," insists Joshua Heller, who, with his wife, Phyllis, specializes in 20th-century illustrated books, mostly from small private presses. The couple live in a Washington town house furnished with beautiful, well-crafted things: Mies van der Rohe furniture, oil paintings by prominent South African artists, sculpture in the living room. The Hellers are among the world's leading dealers in Eric Gill, the most revered 20th-century English type designer and book illustrator. When Joshua Heller sets down a huge tome, it's that artist's Four Gospels -- one of the most breathtaking books ever printed. To see such a treasure, even if only a superb facsimile, as this one turns out to be, is to feel like an allegorical figure in some Victorian painting: "The Philistine Looks on Beauty and His Soul Is Refreshed." Nearby, on a table covered with a soft flannel cloth, are small stacks of slender volumes, mostly of poetry, many in boxes. "People think that private press books are so grand and expensive. They often are. But one can collect wonderful things at any price." Heller picks up a book. "Here's a collection of poetry from Grey Spider Press; the owner, he's a young man, won't produce a book that costs more than $100. And they're all quite lovely. Traditionally, private presses give access to young poets and writers who can't get published by trade houses. Phyllis and I like to support people working today." The Hellers' passion, like that of so many collectors and dealers, is almost palpable. They love fine printing as Cynthia Parker loves romances, as Robert Madle loves pulps, as Allan Stypeck loves all the helter-skelter of book dealing. Before long, they untie the ribbons on a portfolio of poetry broadsides, each printed in a different style. Joshua Heller talks about their friend Claire Van Vliet, a book artist who "was living on the smell of an oil rag" until she was awarded a MacArthur grant a few years back. "We put together 14 boxes of sketches, drafts and other preliminary material to create a dossier for her great King Lear book." More recently, the Hellers acquired all the artwork, correspondence and typescripts for The Prince and the Peacocks, a children's title inspired by the Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery. "We had two boxes specially made to house this material; we hope that it can all remain here in Washington, where it belongs." The Hellers emigrated from South Africa 11 years ago. From the start they were convinced that they didn't want to open a shop, "so we became mail order, even though we didn't know who we were going to sell to." As is so often the case, their first catalogue was based largely on their own collection. "We bought a mailing list from the American Book Collector magazine and sent everyone an invitation, with a reproduction of an Eric Gill wood engraving on the front. The invitation asked, Would you like to receive a catalogue?' The response was very gratifying." Nowadays, the Hellers particularly enjoy special projects. "What we like best is to find a beautiful book and commission a binding for it." In years past they asked modern book artist Philip Smith to create a design binding for a 1935 Bruce Rogers Bible, a book often judged a high-water mark of modern printing; the Hellers' copy was eventually purchased by Britain's Victoria and Albert Museum. Though most book catalogues are alphabetized by author, the Hellers organize theirs according to press: Bird & Bull, Doves, Janus, Kelmscott, Nonesuch, Perishable. With their many illustrations, such catalogues provide an overview of what can be accomplished with imagination, craftsmanship and a sturdy hand press. A book, as Heller insists, can be far more than just something to read: It can be a work of art. It's the sort of place book-lovers drool over. Pat and Allen Ahearn -- among the premier first-edition dealers in the country -- added onto their Rockville home when they decided to close their shop in Bethesda and turn Quill & Brush into a largely mail-order operation. Picture a cathedral-ceilinged room roughly the size of an elementary school gymnasium. Okay, maybe it's a little smaller. In one corner are the Ahearns' twin desks, computers, phones, with a wall of reference books adjoining; other nooks reveal a welcoming liquor cabinet, a stereo set (usually playing jazz) and a winding staircase. The white walls are barely visible behind all the paintings, calligraphic prints and posters, including a huge one derived from the famous cover for Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: "Bats Over Barstow" depicts two tripped-out dudes in a convertible, careering through the desert, while ugly winged creatures swoop toward them. Another poster -- a blowup derived from the cartoon strip "Bloom County" -- shows Opus the penguin saying, "A book! We got lotsa books!" Indeed, the Ahearns do -- at least several thousand in this room alone. Some are in neat piles near the leather sofa and armchairs, but most reside comfortably on the shelves that look down on this ground-floor office from a wraparound second-story balcony. Just climb to the top of the circular iron steps: Here 19th- and 20th-century first editions, most of them in fine condition, their dust jackets wrapped in protective Mylar, await purchase: Robert Graves, Mark Twain, Iris Murdoch, Vladimir Nabokov, Langston Hughes, John Steinbeck. Many start at around $50; some sell for much more. (The really pricey titles -- the early Hemingways, the high-spot classics -- stay in the glass case below). There are no thrift shop bargains here. "Actually, a serious collector can often buy cheaper books from us than from other dealers," insists Pat Ahearn. "If a book has any problem or defect -- a torn dj, a little foxing -- we price it less. Some other dealers will simply look in the price guide and pencil in the numbers." She complains about the misuse of the standard reference that they produce, Collected Books, a single-volume price guide to thousands of the most desirable 19th- and 20th-century titles. "People don't pay enough attention to condition. The prices we indicate are for fine copies in fine jackets. We once visited a bookshop in Tennessee where its owner charged our regular price for an Allen Tate book, but one without any jacket at all. And some poor collector bought it." As a rough rule of thumb, if a relatively common book sells for $10 without a dj, it'll sell for five times that amount with one. For years the Ahearns were among the most fanatical purists of first-edition collecting, emphasizing condition above all and urging that customers invest in the best copies they could afford. But, somewhat surprisingly, their views have been loosening up lately. "For a long time," says Allen Ahearn, "there was only one modern book that collectors would take as a non-first: That was Tarzan of the Apes. The Grosset & Dunlap {reprint} edition sported the same dust jacket, and because the first was so extremely scarce and expensive, people were happy to acquire a later copy. At least the book looked right on the shelf. Now even a third printing has been priced for $750. "Consider Fitzgerald. Nobody can find The Great Gatsby in a jacket, and if you do it'll cost thousands. So why not take a second printing: At least you'll have a jacket, and I'm sure that your book's value will continue to go up, just like the true first." (In a recent catalogue the Ahearns list a fourth printing of Agatha Christie's second book, The Secret Adversary, in a near-fine dj for $250; they call it "an affordable alternative" to the actual first, which sells for $7,500.) Lately, the Ahearns have even become interested in magazine appearances. Says Allen: "If you can't afford to buy the book itself, you might be able to spring for the magazine it first appeared in. Breakfast at Tiffany's, which almost always has a faded spine, will cost you $500 now for a pretty copy. Recently we acquired the issue of Esquire in which Capote's novella first appeared. We've catalogued it for $75, and we'll see what happens." Like most book dealers, the Ahearns began as collectors, picking up books at thrift stores and trading unwanted titles for more desirable ones. At first, Allen specialized in acquiring the first books of major modern writers. He had a good eye, though he made mistakes; in the late '70s he unloaded a copy of The Bluest Eye for a couple of bucks. Toni Morrison went on to acquire a certain fame (and the Nobel Prize); her first novel is now worth somewhere around $2,500. Live and learn. Unlike their hustling friend Allan Stypeck (they are the godparents to one of his daughters), the Ahearns are noted for being easygoing, relaxed, amiable. After Allen quit his job at the Pentagon 15 or so years ago, the couple managed to turn a weekend business into a full-time cottage industry, one that now employs the Ahearns' three grown and married daughters. Sue (Kalk) runs the search service, Beth (Jones) catalogues genre titles, and Dyanne (Ryan) covers kids' books and keeps the accounts. (A son, Allen Jr., has somehow escaped bookish entanglements.) The family even peddles a couple of computer programs designed to help people organize their collections, and recently started its own Internet home page to list new arrivals. Allen and Pat themselves focus their energies on acquiring books, while overseeing their various book-related publications. These include the Quill & Brush press, which has reprinted the talks from several PEN-Faulkner gatherings; one volume honors Scott Fitzgerald on the centenary of his birth. Ardent collectors rely on the Author Price Guides, three-ring-binder-sized pages that provide individual bibliographies, with current values, for the first editions of 200 or so modern writers. This spring, the Ahearns finished up the laborious process of revising their mammoth Collected Books. The long-awaited new edition will be out next month. Since this standard reference first appeared in 1991, Cormac McCarthy has emerged out of semi-obscurity as one of America's greatest writers -- his early books now go for close to $1,000 each. Ephemera is hot. Civil War coverage has increased dramatically. Over the past year thousands of titles have been rechecked against auction records, booksellers' catalogues and market instinct to come up with a fair current valuation. This is fine-detailed work, like lace making. "For 19th-century books you have to list all the points. For travel books you need to indicate how many plates, maps or charts." In one famous older handbook, the Ahearns discovered that "every point on Dickens was wrong." (A point is a bibliographic detail -- for instance, a typographical error on a certain page -- that allows one to identify a book's true first printing.) At best the Ahearns managed to revise two or three pages an hour. Their work was then double-checked by various book dealer friends, collectors and author specialists. "We know several scouts who simply memorize the whole book," says Pat. "To be a great book scout you need a terrific memory," adds Allen. As he says this, he reaches out and adjusts the books on a shelf until all of them are perfectly lined up. When precisely does a book cease being new and start its gradual transformation into the out of print, the secondhand, perhaps even the rare and collectible? For many titles, remaindering represents the larval stage of that metamorphosis. When a trade publisher decides that it can no longer afford to warehouse a slow-selling book, it invites companies to bid on the leftover copies. A remainder house, such as Daedalus Books in Hyattsville, may offer $2.17 for each of several thousand copies of, say, a novel by John Updike that originally sold for $19.95. Daedalus will then sell the book, through its catalogue, for $5.98 to the public or at a discount to bookstores. Anyone who visits new bookshops will recognize remainders as the titles on the special sales table. Big stickers usually say something like "Now $5.98." Where an Allan Stypeck may acquire a library of several thousand volumes, Robin Moody of Daedalus will buy thousands of copies of the very same title. Or even more: Right now, Moody owns 74,000 copies of Umberto Eco's The Island of the Day Before; 53,000 copies of Patrick O'Brian's The Commodore; 25,000 of Stephen Ambrose's D-Day: June 6, 1944; 4,500 of Blanche Among the Talented Tenth, by Barbara Neely. Each year Daedalus purchases hundreds of titles, and its huge warehouses are crowded with novels, cookbooks and gardening manuals; workers drive forklifts with skids piled high with cartons of books. For a boss with more than 70 employees, Moody -- in corduroys, sport shirt and rimless glasses -- is surprisingly low-key, with the bright, eager face of a '60s flower child. "What I love are books. But I'm good at business without being interested in it. I've never read Business Week in my life." The company he runs specializes in literature, with a sideline in new classical and jazz CDs. Moody and his partner, Helaine Harris, actually read many of the books they sell, and write much of the catalogue copy for the various titles on offer. Moody, for example, begins one entry: "Anna Kavan is one of the most depressing and compelling writers of fiction in this century. She had an extraordinary ability to represent fantasies that are wild, but so believable in their provenance that, reading her, you are gripped as if watching an accident that is about to happen . . ." This mini-essay continues for a dozen more sentences, and by its end you are ready to buy all the Kavan novels you can find. As many readers will testify, the Daedalus catalogue provides some first-rate literary entertainment. Devoted fans know, for instance, that Flann O'Brien's comic masterpiece, The Third Policeman, is Moody's favorite modern novel and that he is a passionate fan of this year's fiction Pulitzer winner, Steven Millhauser. Harris has her own literary enthusiasms, but devotes most of her energy these days to overseeing the expansion into music. Moody got started by managing the Watergate branch of the famous, long-defunct Savile bookshop. Nowadays, he employs two full-time people just to keep his company's computers operational. He travels to scholarly book fairs; he bids on hundreds of titles; he worries about running out of warehouse space. Yet he still takes time to read. And talk with enthusiasm about his current favorites. "Try Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music. Very noir. And Frank Conroy's Midair; the first story is a masterpiece. I love Charles McNair's Land O'Goshen." If you need a copy of any of these, Daedalus can sell you one. Or a hundred. One Saturday at Georgetown Book Shop in Bethesda a middle-aged customer was searching for aviation history and books about trains. Another was checking the philosophy and politics shelves for titles from the library of Herbert Aptheker, a leading theoretician of the American Communist Party and a pioneering scholar of black history. Some kids were flipping through the science fiction paperbacks. Because he loves baseball as much as books, owner Andy Moursund also stocks hundreds of biographies, reference works, magazines and other items relating to America's greatest game. "We probably sell more baseball books than anyone in the country," he says. The holdings in history, art and serious literature are equally impressive. Looking about his shop, one understands Moursund's book-selling and personal philosophy: "I try to stock the books that help people to understand the 20th century." The owners of many other shops might show a similar and equally justifiable pride. Operating a secondhand or antiquarian book business is obviously no holiday treat: The hours are long, the pay often lousy, the job security nonexistent. And yet. To live by one's wits and savvy, to spend hours each day with the best that has been said and thought, to handle objects of beauty, rarity and romance, perhaps even to help people understand the 20th century. What an enviable life!. Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World. CAPTION: Robert Madle, dealer in science fiction books and pulp magazines. CAPTION: James Ludlum, in plaid shirt, manages the Montgomery County Library Board Book Sale Room in Wheaton. CAPTION: Second Story Books owner Allan Stypeck routinely bids thousands of dollars for entire estates or whole libraries. CAPTION: Cynthia Parker, of Silver Spring Books, with the works she loves most: romances. CAPTION: First-edition experts Allen and Pat Ahearn enlarged their Rockville home to accommodate a mail-order operation.