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The E-Sylum (4/2/2017)

Book Content

This weekend the Washington Post profiled Allan Stypeck, owner of Second Story Books, a regular E-Sylum advertiser. Here's a short excerpt; bibliophiles and collectors in general should read the complete version online. Fascinating. -Editor

Allan Stypeck

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.

“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, 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.

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.”

Second Story books

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.

To read the complete article, see:
One of America’s foremost rare-book appraisers hangs on in the digital age (

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