`The Book Guys' find gems in old tomes

Book Festival

September 23, 1999|By Sandra Crockett | Sandra Crockett,SUN STAFF

Picture this: You stumble across that old, dusty book buried inside a cast-off dresser in your grandmother's attic. The book belonged to a long-dead ancestor. Your grandmother says to take it, and you consider tossing it in the Goodwill box. Yet something stops you.

Hmmm. Flipping it open reveals it to be a first edition, and in pretty good shape at that. Hey! This could be worth something. Or maybe not. What to do, what to do?

You could try "the Book Guys."

They would be Allan Stypeck and Mike Cuthbert. They have a nationally syndicated call-in radio show (Saturdays at 8 p.m. on WBJC, 91.5 FM, in Baltimore). The guys field calls about new, used and rare books. They give an estimated value of a book's worth and answer questions about proper ways of storing books, newspapers or documents.

Sometimes they do it in person. The Book Guys will be at the Baltimore Book Festival on Saturday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., as part of a free Antiquarian Festival held Saturday and Sunday at the Peabody Library. People can bring their old and, with luck, valuable books to the guys and discover what they may be worth.

Right now, the guys and their producer, Tim Haskell, are sitting in an office at Second Story Books& Antiques store at 12160 Parklawn Road in Rockville. Stypeck is the president and founder of the Rockville-based store, which also has locations in Washington and Bethesda.

One guy barely finishes articulating a thought before the other one plunges in with a comment.

The topic is how to break bad news kindly. "One of our biggest problems is how to say `no value,' " says Cuthbert. "About a year ago, Mike came up with `It's a good read,' " Stypeck says. And he's been saying it a lot. So if you hear that phrase, well, save the champagne for another occasion. "He says it gently, though," says Stypeck. "Sometimes not so gently," Cuthbert adds. "But only if they have a sense of humor."

If you've ever listened to "Car Talk" on National Public Radio, you have an idea of what "The Book Guys" radio show is about. Like "Car Talk," the show is sprinkled with a good bit of lighthearted humor, as well as serious advice.

Yet "The Book Guys" wish to distinguish themselves from the "Car Talk" show. "We don't want to be considered a clone," says Stypeck. "The car guys script their show. The spontaneity in our show is the strongest point." "They have to script their show," Cuthbert says, because the car guys need to answer technical questions about car repair. "Sometimes we don't have the answer," Stypeck admits.

They don't research the questions before they -- and the rest of the radio audience -- hear them. "I never tell these guys who the callers are," Haskell says. "That keeps the show fresh."

Haskell is the one who makes initial contact with the callers.

Here is how it works: Anyone who has a question for the Book Guys can call 800-828-BOOK, any time. Haskell returns calls and determines if they go on the air. The show is taped once a week and airs on different days and times across the country. "Someone will call and say: `I'm looking for a book my mother used to read to me. It had a little pink and blue bunny on the cover,' " says Haskell.

Even if the caller doesn't know the title, "I tell them they can go on the show anyway and tell the story about how their mother used to read it to them and about the pink and blue bunny on the cover. Sure enough, someone will call and say they know what it is. We get four or five calls a week like that," Haskell says.

The show receives from 100 to 1,000 calls a week. The calls bump up after Stypeck makes occasional appearances on the PBS series "Antiques Road Show."

Stypeck is the one with a deep background in rare and used books. In addition to being the president and founder of the bookstore, he is a member of various antiquarian-book associations. He also is an appraiser who teaches a college-level course on the subject.

Cuthbert has had a career in radio for more than 20 years. He was host of a talk show in Washington two decades ago and invited Stypeck as a guest to speak about used and rare books. "Someone called about a used book, and Alan took off," he says. "He was a periodic guest, and we would get hundreds of calls."

However, it wasn't until January 1996 that "The Book Guys" started.

Now, they have collected enough stories that they could, yes, write a book.

There's the story about a woman who called saying she had a first-edition copy of "Gone With the Wind" and wanted to know if perhaps it might be worth a little something.

The woman mentioned that there was a letter inside of the book. Turns out the letter was written by none other than "Gone With the Wind" author Margaret Mitchell. "This is a woman whose husband had recently deserted her with six or seven kids and who needed the money," Cuthbert says.

Stypeck went to the woman's home and looked at the book and the letter. Under further scrutiny by Stypeck and others, the letter was deemed to be authentic. The woman sold the book and letter for about $25,000.

Sometimes people simply want to know the best way to preserve an old book or document. Please, the guys say, microwaving books to get rid of mildew is not the thing to do.

The guys and their producer say that old books and radio are a good match. "Radio is storytelling," Haskell says.

Besides their appearance at the festival, the Book Guys will be at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library on Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. Admission is free.

THE FACTS

What: Baltimore Book Festival

When: Tomorrow, 5 p.m.-9 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Where: Mount Vernon Place, bordered by Cathedral, Centre, St. Paul and Madison streets

Admission: Free

Call: 410-837-4636 or 888-225-8466

Web: www.bop.org

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