A rare find
Beck and Nalley Used Bookstore and Things is the kind of place where you would open an ornate-looking leather-bound book and find yourself suddenly in your own surreal version of The Neverending Story. Mikel Nalley, who co-owns the cornerstore at 5526 H St. with his uncle, Ed Beck, has perfected the feel of charming antiquity. Among the rows and rows of tattered corners and gold-leafed pages are the kinds of rare finds that literature lovers would give their firstborn for. Along with well-preserved classics like a first edition Anna Karenina, Mikel collects and sells unusual items like Gouda pottery and a $900 wedding ring belonging to Chuckles the Clown, who just happens to be Mikel’s other uncle. Instead of a 401K, Mikel has his used treasure store. You’ll probably see him in a Winnebago someday, happily peddling his wares to roadside antique shows.
What is the lure of a bookstore that sells used and out-of-print books?
I think older books have spirits. I say, “You don’t find a book here, it finds you.” They are creative, they are someone’s imagination, someone’s art. They contain lots of tears, lots of sweat, lots of imagination and lots of coffee.
How do you find out how much a used book is worth?
Thank God for the Internet. It’s a great resource for finding out the value of a book, and finding out what other people are selling it for. We have other book dealers that we call and pick their brains, but mostly it’s the Internet that gives us an idea.
What is the biggest profit you’ve made on a book?
I bought a box of books for $50 from this old woman, and it averaged out to about 50 cents a book. From the box, I sold a Kate Chopin novel for $650 to a dealer on the Internet, who in turn sold it for $1500. People always come in and say, “How are you going to feel if I tell you I’m buying this to sell on e-Bay for twice the amount?” And I feel great. It’s recycling to the next generation … I feel like I’m just the keeper of the books to the next level, basically.
Right now, what is the most valuable book in your store?
Poems by Maria Lowell. It was from the same woman that sold me the Chopin book. It’s inscribed by Maria Lowell’s husband, who produced the book. I’m selling it for $900.
You co-own this store with your uncle. Do you and your uncle ever disagree on business matters?
We surprise ourselves sometimes on how alike we are. I mean, he really wants this to be a family store, and he insisted on taking all the erotica out, and you know, I didn’t mind erotica, but other than that, we’re on the same wavelength in terms of ideas.
What is your favorite book?
Romeo and Juliet. Anything by William Shakespeare I love. I think that he is probably one of the greatest writers ever.
Has anyone ever come in asking for a book you’ve never heard of?
This store isn’t about that. I can help you find a section or recognize a title, but this is a treasure hunt store. There are treasures that are here, and you just have to go hunt them down. A lot of times someone comes up with something and I’m like, “Where’d you find that? That’s beautiful.” Once someone found the very first Sherlock Holmes story in my store. I didn’t even know I had it, and I’m a huge Sherlock Holmes fan!
Is it sometimes hard to part with certain books?
Yes. The stacks of books that go home with me … sometimes I worry that my uncle will wonder where they’re all going. But I have a rule that for every book I take home, I bring five back.
You work here all day, every day. What is your personal connection with this store?
It saved me, it did. It brought me up from a very low place. I was down in the dumps. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and I just wasn’t happy. Now, my family notices, my whole demeanor has changed. It’s just really rewarding to find something in life that you enjoy doing. People are realizing more and more what treasures older things are, and it’s a good feeling to provide them with a place that carries them.