In their own version of musical chairs, those gathered on the ground floor of Second Story Books in Rockville on the last Saturday of each month continually move to the next chair. They reach their goal when it’s finally their turn to meet with the used bookstore’s president, Allan Stypeck.
Stypeck, who has spent 40 years appraising books and other documents, carefully handles all books, checks their conditions, scans the pages and pulls from his memory a wealth of history and recollections. Often that is enough to say what the book is worth. If not, he knows the right internet sites to determine the book’s value.
On a recent appraisal day, Stypeck examined a first edition of “Cujo” by Stephen King and immediately knew when it was published. He also reviewed a book that had an authentic signature of a few of this country’s founding fathers and another one written in German that was mandatory reading for those joining the Nazi ranks.
There can be as many as 200 people who show up to the monthly event, which has occurred at the Rockville bookstore for the past three years. Stypeck also has a used bookstore in Dupont Circle.
Many of the people who come don’t even want to part with their books. They just want someone in the know to tell them they have something valuable, he says. Others need to know prices for insurance or inheritance purposes.
He loves watching the attendees root for one another and are ecstatic when someone learns they own an important book, he said. “It’s become kind of like a community gathering.”
One constant at each event is Stypeck’s dog, Mollie, who spends the three-hour event being petted.
The Poolesville resident recalls people who have apologized for not showing him anything important only to find out that the opposite was true, and he remembers one man who, after learning his book was only worth $1, beamed and said he had paid only 10 cents for it.
Regardless of the value, “books are good reads,” he says.
Although he never considered converting his love of reading and collecting books into a full-time career after he graduated from American University, “By the time the smoke cleared, I was the owner of six bookstores,” he said.
While he estimated that there are three-quarters of a million books in his store on Parklawn Drive, he leaves most of the buying and selling of those used books to his staff. It is the appraising that keeps him going.
He has appraised sets of Audubon Elephant Folios that he valued at more than $10 million, and he has “handled a lot of old books [valued] in the high six figures,” he says.
But to Stypeck, the monetary figure isn’t nearly as important as getting his hands on a historic book. He appraised a book from the Augsburg Confessions, which was written in 1530, from the Lutheran Reformation, and he has handled a watercolor depicting the Battle of Stony Point from the American Revolutionary War.
Age-wise, Stypeck said, the oldest piece of writing he has handled was a Samarian cuneiform clay tablet, “which was probably 5,000 years old.”
To him, “the rarest book we handle is the one we didn’t realize what it is.”
Stypeck claims to have no average day, but he described a day last week in which he examined a 5,000-book library and many 8 mm and 16 mm films that are to be donated to an institution. When he finished there, his next assignment was to authenticate a document from the Rhodesian Army intelligence, which will be donated to a military institution.
That evening, he attended a function at the National Building Museum in D.C., which was exhibiting work from a collection he had appraised.
“That’s just one day,” said Stypeck, who was once former National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s archivist from 2006 to 2014. Most of the papers he has reviewed for Kissinger now reside in either the Library of Congress or Yale University.
Stypeck has been a regular on PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow,” where he appraises books and manuscripts, and he is frequently at the Library of Congress or some university reviewing manuscripts.
“I’ve been very lucky. I’ve seen almost every book.”