“Hey, wanna see something cool?”
Allan Stypeck, barreling down the bookstore aisle.
Big guy, barrel-chested, pushing 70, thinning white hair, heavy with the New York accent (Brooklyn, with a shade of Long Island). Leans in close, a little conspiratorial thing going on: “Wanna come see this?”
Look, hey, it’s an invitation I can’t refuse.
Stypeck is an impossible character, the kind of larger-than-life raconteur people say doesn’t exist inside the button-down Beltway. He’s the impresario of Second Story Books, one of the nation’s foremost appraisers of rare books and manuscripts, and a regular on “Chesapeake Collectibles” on Maryland Public Television.
Over his four-decade career, this “wanna see something cool?” gambit might have referred to an $11 million copy of John J. Audubon’s “Birds of America”; the mummified corpse of Gold Tooth Jimmy, a Detroit gangster; Henry Kissinger’s papers; dinosaur eggs; or a first edition of “The Great Gatsby,” complete with the telltale error “sick in tired,” on Page 205, which would let you know the book you’re holding is likely worth $100,000 or more.
Stypeck will bury you with all this in a blizzard of knowledge, history and detail.
“Who’s Aurel Stein?” he buttonholes me one day in the aisles, describing the material he and the staff were evaluating that afternoon. (A Hungarian-British scholar whose early-19th-century explorations in China found ancient Buddhist texts, but you knew that.) “Who’s Lionel Trilling?” (20th-century American literary critic.) “Manuel da Costa?” (15th-century Jesuit missionary and bibliographer.) “Anybody who works here, they have to know 80 percent of this stuff.”
On rare days, you can catch Stypeck at Second Story’s prime Dupont Circle store. The last weekend of April, he and his wife and business partner, Kim, will have a few wares on display at the Washington Antiquarian Book Fair, at the Sphinx Club in downtown Washington. It’s an annual gathering for those enchanted by books under glass — modern first editions, Civil War letters, things signed by Hamilton-era heroes.
But most days, it’s here, at Second Story’s warehouse in Rockville, Md., that one gets a glimpse into the heart of his iconoclastic empire. You can read the place as the embodiment of his mind: sweeping, curious, eclectic, overwhelming and sometimes downright odd.
Stypeck has me follow him into a tired gray storage room. In front of us is an array of cardboard boxes. They hold worn 78 records, reel-to-reel tapes, scrapbooks, datebooks and papers.
It doesn’t look all that cool.
I drop to a knee to get a closer look, pulling out a thin spiral-bound datebook. It is dated 1942. Flipping through the first few pages, I notice amounts jotted down for railroad expenses (“$67.05 Fare — $17.10 Pullman”). And then I stop, drawing in a breath.
On Sunday the 18th, a handwritten entry reads: “Woody Hold for Russian War Relief. $12.00. Brooklyn. (They’ll mail directions.) 9 p.m. 152 E 94th St.”
“Woody — ”
“Yeah,” Stypeck says, standing over me, “Woody Guthrie.”
It turns out I’m holding the personal datebook of Arthur Stern, a member of the Almanac Singers. Stern sang with Guthrie, Pete Seeger and other icons. The datebook is 75 years old and a source document of one of the most profound social and musical movements of 20th-century America.
It’s a tiny part of the collection at hand. Spreading out on the fluorescent-lit floor in front of us, in all these boxes, are the mortal remains of the magical mystery tour that was “Radio Unnameable,” the Bob Fass show that ran for half a century on New York’s WBAI.
Fass’s show was “counterculture” before the term existed. It was dubbed “the midwife to the movement” of 1960s leftist art and politics. Jerry Jeff Walker wrote “Mr. Bojangles” one night and sang it, live, on air. Arlo Guthrie first performed “Alice’s Restaurant” on the show. Dylan was a frequent guest.
These many years later, Fass’s Smithsonian-level trove of artifacts, memorabilia and original recordings has made its way here, for Stypeck to appraise and, somehow, officially determine its market value.
It is, in fact, pretty cool.
“Did I tell ya?” Stypeck is saying. “Did I tell ya?”
If you love old- and rare-book stores, like the warehouse here, I have bad news. This universe of ancient printed pages isn’t likely to completely disappear. But, unlike the universe we live in, it’s contracting.
In the 1980s, the D.C. area had 50 or 60 used- and rare-book stores. Today, it’s probably less than a dozen, depending on how wide you cast your net and define your terms. In the District, there’s Capitol Hill Books and Riverbyon Capitol Hill, Second Story in Dupont Circle and the Lantern in Georgetown. But even stalwarts like Bartleby’s and the Quill & Brush have closed their storefronts, like dozens of others across the nation, and now operate from homes, by appointment and mail order.
Susan Benne, executive director of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, says the organization has about 450 members but estimates 60 percent of those do not have an open storefront, and the overall number of dealers continues to drop.
Lost, too, is that dusty aura of something vanished, gone like smoke from steam engines in the American landscape. The digital age of Amazon.com, e-readers and online research has its advantages, but for parishioners of the Church of Old Books, it has also relegated a way of reading, and finding the book of your fever dreams, to a dust-mote-enchanted memory.
Before the Internet, old books were buried in basements, backrooms and used-book stores. No one really knew how many signed first editions of, say, Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” were out there, and thus what they were worth. Finding your literary Rosebud, since the time of Gutenberg, had been an adventure.
That magic you felt! Your fingers tickling along the spines of carelessly shelved books in a secondhand shop ... and there. Your index finger flicks across — can it be? — a worn hardcover that you’ve been wanting in a first edition for years. Goose flesh rising on your forearms, you flip open the cover to see that this is indeed a first printing! The penciled-in price on the flyleaf is $15, but it’s worth 10 times that! The thrill!
“Before the Internet, booksellers ruled,” Stypeck says. “You did your research, and if you found that a book had been selling for $115,000, and you had only seen four of them in your career, then that’s what it was worth.”
But starting around 2000, when bookstores and collectors started going online, it turned out there were a lot of first editions of “In Cold Blood,” and an ocean of other “rare” books that had been on shelves or tucked away in basements all along.
Now anyone can type in the name of any book into any search engine and get a list of two dozen copies of your personal Rosebud, filtered by condition, price or binding. (On a recent day on AbeBooks.com, for example, there were 150 bookstores offering 63,000 first editions.)
This sudden availability made most prices drop precipitously, while it boosted the value of a few titles that were truly scarce. It was the B.C./A.D. of used-book selling.
One day Stypeck and I stop at the landing of the steps to his suite of offices, where you can see the entire store. He points out that the view is evidence of another seismic shift in the trade: The digital generation is not as married to printed books as their forebears. As older, print-loving generations die off, they are leaving behind millions of books that their descendants do not want.
“Twenty years ago, I would have stood here and looked at this and thought to myself, ‘I’m a very wealthy man,’ ” he says. “If I had thrown a clearance sale, and let’s say there are 500,000 books down there, and I could sell them on average priced for $5 a book, I’d be looking at $2 [million] or $3 million in 1990s money, right?”
“But in reality, now, to try to liquidate this, it would be almost impossible because there’s not enough popularity in the average title to get the critical mass to come in here and carry out the majority of the books.”
There was barely time to digest this generational glut of books before Stypeck started hustling me backward, into his suite of offices. It is, at first glance, old wood paneling, indoor-outdoor carpet, fluorescent lighting, nothing fancy. We pass a room with a lot of boxes. He says, “That’s Caspar Weinberger’s memorabilia over there.”
In the hallway, tacked to the wall, is a 1960s-era comic, “Ant-Man.” On the cover, the tiny caped hero is riding a dog jumping through a window to go after a skull-headed drug dealer. But there is no time to linger over this awesomeness because we are plunging through a dimly lit corridor packed with shelves, nearly turning sideways, to squeeze into his office.
Here, posters of the films “The Corsican Brothers” and “Gunga Din” decorate the wall. They’re both signed by Douglas Fairbanks Jr., a friend of his, to the point that the movie star would call him late at night.
On Stypeck’s desk is a massive 1614 edition of Sir Walter Raleigh’s “History of the World.” It’s probably worth $8,000 to $10,000. Before I can start marveling at this, he hands me a NASA manual for Apollo 11 — the technical guide for landing on the moon, signed by all three astronauts. That’s somewhere between $35,000 and $75,000.
“Remind me to tell you about the Night of the Two-Handed Bourbons,” he says of his time with astronauts. “Man, those guys drink.”
When he first started the bookstore, he says, he had a pet Burmese python, six or eight feet long, name of Ramone. “I used to sleep with him, and he’d cuddle next to my wrist or my jugular, because it was the warmest spot. Which is crazy, when you think about that.”
When Stypeck was a teenager, his dad, a New York stockbroker, co-owned several racehorses. Here’s a picture of him at the Aqueduct racetrack, July 15, 1968. He’s 18, in a suit and tie, posing with jockey Ron Turcotte, who rode Secretariat to immortality a few years later.
This gives way to a long shaggy-dog story about an immaculate Argentine (“Ricardo Montalban’s twin brother, I’m tellin’ ya”) who came into his office with this imperial bearing, the ascot, the jacket, the hair, the accent, the whole nine — and tried to pawn off a late copy of “Don Quixote” as an original.
This, in turn, gives way to a story about the shah of Iran and fake rubies, which morphs into a tale about discovering Thomas Jefferson signatures on documents buried in the Maryland State Law Library (“That was $2.3 million”).
This keeps going until the afternoon vanishes. A little red light on my recorder is flashing. It has run out of space.
Born in Brooklyn in 1950, Stypeck was collecting everything — postage stamps, baseball cards, bottle caps — by the time he was 6. His father was Czech, and he grew up as a Catholic in a heavily Jewish neighborhood. “I learned about the Holocaust from listening to survivors,” he says, giving him a fascination with history and international affairs.
He went to college at American University, studying for the Foreign Service. Shortly after graduation, though, he and his first wife went on an antique-hunting trip for a friend in the business through New England. When he bought a batch of old books and noticed his friend’s D.C. customers snapped them up at higher prices, he knew he was onto something.
Three years later, in 1974, he bought Second Story Books in the Chevy Chase neighborhood, so named because it was on the second story of an office building in the 5000 block of Connecticut Avenue NW. (It’s across the street from what is now the city’s most famous bookstore, Politics and Prose.)
The 1970s and 1980s were a flourishing time for the trade, and Stypeck soon had six stores, from the District to Baltimore. Ambitious, he began his appraising career, which grew to include clients such as the White House, the Supreme Court, both houses of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, the Holocaust Museum, seven Nobel laureates, diplomats, museums and auction houses. He appraised everything in the International Spy Museum. He handled Kissinger’s papers, as well as Madeleine Albright’s.
He remarried, and he and Kim bought an old farmhouse on a couple of acres in Poolesville, Md., filled with their two daughters and all sorts of curiosities from his work. There’s an original Charles Addams cartoon, a hippo skull by the pool, and that’s almost certainly Cary Grant’s old luggage that doubles as a nightstand.
Stypeck added a syndicated radio show, “The Book Guys,” with radio personality Mike Cuthbert, in the 1990s.
These days, the radio show is a memory, and his six stores have long since contracted down to the core: the Dupont Circle store and the warehouse. It’s probably just good business sense, but it feels like a last stand.
The last Saturday of every month, Stypeck offers free verbal appraisals at the warehouse. A few dozen people show up, eager to see if their volume might be worth thousands. It’s usually not. The differences between a first edition, first printing (the most valuable) and other editions have never been standardized. They vary from publisher to publisher and sometimes from book to book. It’s hard to be sure.
One such day last year, Stypeck is holding court, bringing his glasses down to perch on his nose for a closer look at an offering, like an outfielder flipping down the shades for a flyball in the sun. “One of your problems: Your dust jacket has been clipped,” he tells the owner, noting that the price has been cut out. He looks at the lettering on the copyright page, consults a guidebook: “You don’t have a first edition. It’s a later edition. A fine reading copy, but that’s all.”
Up next is Wendy Susswein, clutching an early-20th-century American textbook ... written in German. She was raised in Upstate New York. Both parents were German Jews, Holocaust survivors.
Stypeck perks up immediately.
“This is one of the things the Bund was doing,” he says of the German American Federation of the 1930s, taking the book in hand. “Textbooks for German immigrants who were very receptive to Nazi propaganda.”
He drops into a discussion about the group and its frightening rally of 20,000 at Madison Square Garden in 1939. Susswein says her parents and grandparents came over that year or 1940, referring to it as “so early.” Stypeck says, “It’s actually late,” and he’s off into the rise of Nazis, Kristallnacht and the history of Nazi Germany. They talk for 20 minutes.
The book, he says, is a valuable thing. Susswein leaves, looking at this eight- decade book anew, as a continuing piece of national and familial history.
That’s what old books are — magic in unlikely packages.
The Second Story warehouse rises like a rough knuckle from a parking lot in an industrial park a few blocks east of Rockville Pike, slung in between Maurice Electrical Supply and Yi’s fabric store. The concrete-block building has a loading bay next to the front door. The street is all one-story brick buildings and telephone poles and overhead wires. The only literary ghosts nearby are the gin-soaked shades of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, interred three miles up the road.
Winding through the fluorescent-lit expanse, you realize that the baroque impossibility of the store is that it exists at all. There are a few similar places left — Daedalus in Columbia, Md.; the Strand in New York — but one wonders if the old magic is fading even faster as the Internet continues to grow.
“The warehouse, it’s old books, things published before ISBN numbers and bar codes, and you never know what might turn up,” says Michael Dirda, The Washington Post’s former book critic, who rhapsodized about the last-century charm of the Second Story warehouse in “Browse: The World in Bookshops,” a book published in Britain last year.
Somewhere from 500 to 20,000 books come in every week, says Conor McHale, a veteran employee, mostly gathered from old estates. The sense of discovery — and horror — from sorting through incoming stock is palpable.
“It’s terrifyingly easy to miss something valuable,” McHale says.
A couple of years ago, he says, they put a magnificent Japanese art book on the floor for $10,000. Another dealer snapped it up — and wrote Stypeck a check for an additional $2,000, it was so underpriced.
“Painful,” McHale says.
Then a complete leather-bound set of first editions of Jane Austen’s novels came in.
“That stopped the room,” he says. “What would a first edition of just ‘Pride and Prejudice’ be worth? ‘Sense and Sensibility’? We eventually sold them for a total of something like $65,000. The money was cool. But just to have a complete set of her novels in one place — that was kind of a breathtaking thing. You could sit and say, ‘English literature changed with that shelf right there.’ ”
Stypeck’s health has been racked by mercury poisoning in the past year, to the extent he can’t walk much more than a hundred feet at a time. He loses his balance and has noticed he sometimes forgets words. Still, he has just signed a long-term lease for the Dupont Circle location. He thinks the illness will pass.
“I’m not as pessimistic as I was a few years ago,” he says. “There’s not any endgame for this.”
He thinks the stores will endure. He thinks that the population of people who love books, not just reading, isn’t done quite yet. And, to paraphrase a Faulkner line he no doubt knows, he thinks the stores might even prevail.
Neely Tucker is a former Washington Post staff writer. His most recent book
is “Only the Hunted Run.” To comment on this story, email wpmagazine@
washpost.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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