Allan StypeckAllan Stypeck is a bookman - a true bookman. He has seen rare books we can only dream about. The owner of the Second Story chain of three used bookstores in and around Washington, DC, Allan is know to millions of bibliophiles as one of "The Book Guys," broadcasting on NPR radio, but his journey through the world of books is probably worthy of a book itself.

The Skilled Art of Appraising
Aside from selling used and rare books, and talking about them on the radio, there is a third string to Allan's bow and it is appraising – the skilled art of being invited into someone's home or an organization's headquarters and being asked to put a value on their books, papers and artifacts.

Appraising has taken Allan all over the world and into the company of presidents, Nobel Prize winners, and people with power and influence. He has conducted over 4,000 appraisals since 1974.

Nobel, NATO & Neil Armstrong
"I've appraised for five Nobel Prize winners and two supreme commanders of NATO," said Allan. "I've appraised for almost every department at the Smithsonian, as well as the White House, the US State Department, the Supreme Court, many universities, and even the US Postal Service. I valued one collection at $40 million and I've also appraised a single book at seven figures. I've appraised classified material. I've worked at Ford's Theatre and appraised the gun that shot Lincoln."

Second Story Books

And there was John Adams' family bible inscribed to his granddaughter Abigail Smith Adams, Ronald Reagan's personal college yearbook, General George Patton's World War I diaries and even Neil Armstrong's space suit. The list goes on.

Other stops on his remarkable journey of appraising have included the FBI, the US National Archives, the House of Representatives, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Library of Congress.

The Makings of an Appraisal
When asked to conduct an appraisal, Allan has to inspect the items and deliver a fair market or replacement value. Appraisals are conducted for various reasons, including insurance, tax purposes for probate and judging the value of a deceased person's estate, resale and occasionally for a divorce settlement. Many appraisals are conducted so a personal collection can be donated to a museum or university. Sometimes, a collector just wants to know how much his books are worth.

"I do preliminary research on what I will be looking at," he said. "Sometimes you are presented with truly unique items and then you have to use your common sense. I've also developed the sensibility to gently break bad news to people when the value isn't what they expected."

Allan was speaking after a typical day of appraising at the University of Pittsburgh's military history archives.

"I was looking at the logs from the US battleships at the Pearl Harbor attack," he said. "They were fascinating; a truly unique perspective on a remarkable piece of history. After a while, I found myself actually reading them rather than appraising them. They were incredible – I had to stop and walk out because I was so engaged. I had to get some fresh air before going back in. I asked if I could come back some day and just sit and read them – they said: 'Sure, anytime.'"

From Picker to Professional
So how did it all start?

"After leaving college, I wanted to originally go into the Foreign Service," said Allan, who admits he particularly loves books on exploration, Egyptology, travel and philosophy. "However, I started as a picker for someone who ran an antiques shop in Washington, DC. My job was to find and buy antiques for her to sell in the shop.

"I drove up and down the Eastern coast from Florida to Montreal, looking for antiques. While I was doing this, I also started picking up books for my own personal collection. I found some decent books and put them in a glass display cabinet back at the antique shop for purely display purposes. However, people kept asking to buy them and I kept saying no."

"Eventually, I thought books were the way forward and I became a mail order bookseller and also developed a regular group of clients. In many ways, driving up and down the east coast looking for books and antiques was the best time of my life – I loved beaches and would split my time between being a beach-rat and touring the bookstores and the auction houses. This was the 1970s and it was wonderful – a real free and breezy lifestyle. I had a stable income, no overheads and a network of sellers, stores and scouts."

"I had a friend who owned a bookstore and wanted to get out, so I bought it and opened my first used bookstore. Then I opened a second one and third. At one point, I had six bookstores in two cities (Baltimore and Washington) but that was an incredible amount of work. Now, I'm back down to three and employ a staff of 40."

Allan has a personal library of between 3,000 and 4,000 books that reflects his passion for travel and history, but reads for fun when off duty.

"Appraising is rather like living your life vicariously through someone else's," he added. "People ask you to come in and look at things they don't show to anyone else – books, diaries, personal papers. It's a unique job and you come across people who have changed the world and it is humbling."

Allan Stypeck Fact-File

Allan can be heard on the Book Guys NPR radio show every week. Each show, a caller describes a rare book in their collection on the 'AbeBooks' Treasures in your Attic' segment and he puts a value on it. Go to www.booksguys.com to see what stations carry the show or just listen to the shows via the website.

Second Story Books His three Second Story bookshops are located at:
  • 12160 Parklawn Drive, Rockville, MD 20852
  • 4914 Fairmont Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20814
  • 2000 P St. NW, Washington, DC 20036

Allan is a senior member of the American Society of Appraisers (ASA); member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA), the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB), the American Booksellers Association (ABA), the Universal Autograph Collector's Club (UACC), the International Autograph Collector's Club (IACC) and The Manuscript Society.

He has been an instructor at seminars on book collecting for the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Florida; and taught an accredited course on appraising at the George Washington University, Washington, DC.

Allan is also CEO of the Institute for the Preservation of Burned and Banned Books 1933-1945 - a non-profit organization dedicated to the creation of a library of all books banned or burned by the Nazi regime in both Germany and occupied territories.