Second Story Books

The exterior of a bookstore, which occupy the corner lot on a urban building
Photo courtesy of Second Story Books, Washington, DC / 

In a world where literature and politics collide, Second Story Books fits perfectly in the middle of it all. With locations in Washington, DC, and Rockville, Maryland, the store prides itself on its collection of secondhand and rare antiquarian books.

Visiting the DC location, at 20th and P Streets NW, customers are greeted with row after row of every book they could think of and then some. Nestled in the first floor a historical colonial-style building, the stacks of books make it seem like the small store could go on forever.

On my visit in mid-January, the day was chilly with a brisk wind, but once I got lost in the labyrinth of genres and subgenres the store had to offer, none of that seemed to matter. From general fiction to government policy, journalistic writing, and a substantial art and history collection, the selection can make someone forget the governmental powerhouse that motors on outside.

“We run all these parallel collection universes, from antiquarian rare books to our print books, to general secondhand books, to basically accommodate our clientele base, which is very eclectic and very large,” explained owner Allan Stypeck over a Zoom call. 

As a student at American University in the early 1970s, he began collecting and reselling books by mail order with the plan to work in an intelligence agency of the US government. This in turn led him to eventually buy the current DC location from a friend in 1974. Stypeck said that running the bookstore is also one of the “parallel universes” in his own professional life. “I stay very engaged in the government as an appraiser, doing outside analytical work on occasion. Simultaneously, my priority in life is operating, being the owner of a huge bookstore chain,” he said.

A photograph looking in the window of a bookstore at dusk
Photo courtesy of Second Story Books, Washington, DC / 

As an appraiser, he is currently in the process of appraising the estate of the late American diplomat Henry Kissinger, and he has worked on others such as those of Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security advisor to Jimmy Carter.

While the work he has done for prominent figures has been rewarding, Stypeck said his passion has always been about books, which has helped him maintain the two bookstores open today. “The stimulation of the books was too much. I think the early success was one of the reasons why it was enjoyable. It hit the ground running because I didn’t take it seriously—I was only doing it as a hobby. And it worked so well that everything I touched seemed to work because I was stuck in the right place at the right time,” Stypeck said.

The community that has been built around the bookstore in the past fifty years has also made the experience worth it for Stypeck. “We’ve gone from A to B, we’ve come from being owners to being obligated to the community,” he said. “I can’t think of anything I would prefer to do. You know, I don’t want to sit and look at the sun for the rest of my life. Even though I’m a beach freak, I’ll sit on the beach, but I don’t want to just sit on a beach. So, I use it for recreation and for relaxation, but nothing stimulates me more than what I do,” he added. 

Olivia McCourry is a journalist from Norman, Oklahoma. She has interned for both World Literature Today and Oklahoma Today and recently graduated with a master of science degree from Columbia University.