Jack and Mary Rybski's treasure trove for the intrepid book hunter.
By Paul Turner
A couple years ago I was hunting for a copy of the legendary WPA Illinois guide, part of the American Guide Series compiled and written by the Federal Writers' Project, a New Deal program. I'd heard that uncredited contributors to the guide included Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, and Saul Bellow. I was striking out as I called dealers and booksellers on the north side and in Printer's Row. Everyone knew what I wanted, nobody had seen one in a while. I started making my way through the Yellow Pages and eventually got Jack Rybski on the line. He said he thought he had two or three. He asked why I wanted it and I told him I was working on a story about my hometown of Cairo. We got into a long conversation about the guide and my research.
After this gentle interrogation I was given an address. I found my guide, along with eight other books for my story on Cairo. I've been back often since, each time leaving with additions to my bookshelf I didn't know I needed. My last trip netted me a biography of the beer-making Busch family, one about Warren Buffett for my father-in-law's birthday, and a three-volume Civil War set by Shelby Foote.
Jack and Mary Rybski run American History Unlimited out of their house in Back of the Yards, on a cul-de-sac with gravel shoulders for parking, near 50th and Western. You can hear the semis belching, barking, and grunting nearby but you can't see them or the depots and warehouses. The Rybskis own the three lots to the west of the house as well, and they've filled them with a dizzying collection of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and prairie grass. A tall ivy-covered fence keeps the world at bay.
Visitors enter, after a second interrogation by an insistent yellow Lab, through a basement door off the garden, which leads into a small office area. Books are everywhere. Piled in stacks six feet high on the right, four on the left. To the right is a staircase with two or three books on each step. The books in the office, creeping around the computer desk like kudzu, are in transit, many in boxes half opened and half packed for shipping. Baseball guides. Emily Dickinson collections. African-American church registries. First editions and scruffy paperbacks. Above the desk is a framed letter on Yale stationery that calls American History Unlimited "the leading source of scholarly texts in the country."
A narrow hallway leads to a maze of rooms full of more books in every imaginable method of housing, from plywood bookcases and utilitarian metal shelving to handsome old hutches. Out here they're organized by subject and alphabetized by title. Every war has its place, as does almost every mode of transport.
The Rybskis are choosy about who they let look around. They move most of their stock by phone and over the Internet. They estimate (conservatively, I bet) that they have 75,000 books on the premises. American history is their focus, but they stock anything they think is interesting and will sell. The couple may be the best source of pre-owned business literature in the world, stocking titles many dealers wouldn't bother with. If you need a copy of Waste Not: The Safety Kleen Story or The Kansas Beef Industry, they have both in very good condition. "Other people are interested only in real hot items, rather than little obscure things, which I like," says Jack. "Like a history of the zipper industry or something, who the hell wants to really read it? I take pride or something in getting it. It's sorta neat, I think." He mentions a book Mary found at a yard sale on the history of shoe eyelets. "We sold it," she beams.
Mary says there's a healthy market in business histories, and Jack adds, "There are about three guys who collect just banks." But the inventory runs from an impressive array of art history to piles of old area high school and college yearbooks. They carry local histories from towns and cities across the country, with a wealth of examples from Illinois. There's even some fiction: horror/fantasy nuts can find first-edition H.P. Lovecraft novels and other Arkham House goodies worth hundreds of dollars. The most expensive book the Rybskis ever sold was a 1939 first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous by Bill W., referred to by AA members as the "big book," for $3,500.
With the bulk of their business not related to customer visits, the Rybskis can close up shop and run down to Starved Rock for a night or two whenever they want. They answer only to each other, and the office dress code is casual Monday through Friday. But neither expected to end up here. Jack, born in Chicago in 1937 to a Polish father and an Irish mother, grew up in Lawndale and went to Saint Philip's, on Jackson near Kedzie, but quit before he graduated. He did odd jobs until he turned 21 and enlisted in the army. He got his GED and got married, to a woman he met while stationed in Korea. After his discharge, in 1962, he brought his Korean bride back to the south side and knocked around some more, teaching at a driving school, selling menswear at one of the old Robert Hall chain outlets, and working in a hot-water-tank factory. He earned his college degree and a teaching certificate while working as a janitor for the Chicago Public Schools. After graduating from Chicago State in 1968 he began substitute teaching and the couple moved into the house in Back of the Yards.
Jack had always loved reading, hanging around different used book stores to buy and swap. His passion for history, and a nose for spotting treasures at garage sales and the like, developed into a pretty good collection of books. He found he could offset the cost of his hobby, even make a few bucks, by selling stuff off to dealers he'd befriended.
Both Jack and Mary Rybski fondly recall bookseller Reid Michener as "one of the legendary characters of Hyde Park," operating out of a basement at 53rd and Woodlawn. "Reid was there since the 40s," says Jack. "He was a salesman for some wholesale food outfit, and he'd be buying books when he'd be traveling around the city and all that. Going in junk stores and all that." It was the respected book dealer Joseph O'Gara, however, who told Jack he should strike out on his own. "He was puttin' out catalogs, European history, English history. He sorta encouraged me to start in American history," says Jack. So instead of looking for a permanent teaching position, Jack continued substituting and started selling books out of his home as American History Unlimited. He put out his first catalog in 1968, listing about 300 books. "I sold enough to get money to buy more books and the next year I put out a bigger catalog." Over the next ten years he gradually quit substitute teaching altogether. Choosing book dealing was easy: "I didn't like teaching--things were kinda rough. I'd be at Englewood and kids would start a fire in the hallway. Teachers were getting beat up."
Over the years he and his wife had three children, but the marriage didn't hold up. After she moved out, in 1978, he kept the house and the business.
Not long after that, Jack met Mary, who was in the midst of her own divorce. Mary grew up in Grayslake, back when it was almost all farmland. "My dad had 15 acres. He worked in the city for the telephone company, and we were out there in the middle of nowhere." Mary went to Marillac College, just outside Saint Louis, then almost became a nun.
"I was there six years. Before the final orders they gave you a year and I decided that was not what I wanted." Mary went back to Grayslake, where she did some substitute teaching and also got married. Her husband was a psychologist, and his work took them and their two children to Kankakee and eventually, in the mid-70s, brought them to Hyde Park.
In 1980 Jack Rybski's book catalog was growing with the help of two aunts, who organized and typed his inventory. He met Mary at a picnic for divorced Catholics, discovering a kindred spirit who loved to rummage as well as he did. When Mary fell for Jack, she also fell for his vocation. "I thought it was so cool." They were married two years later.
The Rybskis hit library sales, community book sales, yard sales, estate sales, and any other sale they trip over on ramblings throughout the midwest. Their trophies include architectural artifacts for the garden, quirky artwork, and bookends for a growing collection in the third-floor den (in an addition paid for by a big sale a while back). But their main target is always books. Nothing beats the thrill of buying a book at a flea market for a dollar and selling it for 400. They've found themselves hanging onto some valuable finds as if they were savings bonds. "Some, hah--lots!" says Mary. "Some for investment, some out of personal love for our own collection. It seems like we collect everything. We say, 'Oh, gee, let's keep this' or 'Gee, let's keep that.' Flowers, gardening, cookbooks."
"Bibliographies, books on books," continues Jack.
Jack says Mary's the one responsible for the growth of the business, not only because of her efforts at computerization and modernization, but also because of her solid business sense.
As Mary puts it, "We got into other topic areas. Instead of just history and American history, we expanded into art and all kind of other ways. It was just having another person's mind, instead of just one person you had another person's ideas."
Though few customers ever cross their threshold, they estimate they sell around 300 books a month. Academics and libraries are among their best customers. A couple years back, a buyer for a local university library purchased $40,000 worth of books in a single day. A librarian from Georgia flew here for a day this year just to browse their books and took home several hundred dollars' worth. They're perplexed by one particular buyer from an address in Houston: "They've been buying a lot of very scholarly stuff under various names. They give me a credit card, they want it priority mail, they want it the next day. One place, and we're just real curious what this could be."
Jack and Mary also sell on-line to and through Barnes & Noble and Amazon. "It's a great thing for us," says Mary. They're also connected to Bibliofind, 21 North, and Advanced Book Exchange (whose Web site, abebooks.com crows that it's the "world's largest source of out of print books" and "world's largest network of independent booksellers"). The Rybskis' business with Amazon is particularly brisk. Customers can buy directly through Amazon, which buys from the Rybskis, and pay a surcharge, or through Amazon subsidiary Z Shop, where they deal directly with the Rybskis. Barnes & Noble has a similar setup. Internet companies charge booksellers a monthly fee for the matchmaking, ranging from $35 to $50 a month. The business has been good for the Rybskis, though some services don't update the lists as quickly as they'd like, which sometimes results in customers trying to buy a book that's already been sold. Frustrated customers can give the Rybskis a negative rating, which brings down their overall score at that site. Sometimes they'll list a new acquisition and sell it that day, though it can take a week or more for the various computer services to register the sale. This and other factors have the Rybskis, Mary especially, thinking about setting up their own Web site. But "not now--we're so busy as it is."
The Rybskis' catalog is a casualty of their on-line success: they haven't issued one in three years. Despite the cost and the labor, "The catalog was like our personal signature, it was something we created and it was a paper thing you could see, and some of our customers really would like us to have that," says Mary. The couple worry about losing customers who are browsers. Most Internet services are set up to search for a particular title or author. And though their job is getting easier, the outgoing Rybskis don't actually talk to as many clients as they used to. "We had a lot of personal contact with acquisition librarians," says Mary. She and Jack think that maybe now they are starting to sell more books to individuals and less to institutions. They hope to bring back the personal touch with a new system of E-mailing regular customers about books they might be interested in.
The few people who do visit get to wander around the Rybskis' massive yard. After they bought the three lots next to their house 15 years ago for $5,000 apiece, they put in an extra garage next to the one they had, and both are now crammed full of inventory. Besides the garages and an aboveground pool, the rest of the property is devoted to nature and discoveries. Odd pieces of local buildings mingle with the store-bought statues, including book-reading cherubs and children. Jack will proudly point out that that piece of facade on your left is from a torn-down high-rise in Hyde Park, the bench on the back fence is a block of limestone from an old Highland Dairy ice cream factory, and the nicely laid old cobblestones winding through the garden were once pieces of "Kedzie Avenue from 47th north to 35th." There are remnants of the storefront of an old bar that once stood down the street, and bricks, Jack gleefully notes, from the remains of an old factory on the banks of the Kankakee River.
As Jack identifies the chunks of buildings, Mary identifies the myriad plant life, from a magnificent Prairie Fire Tree to clematis vine and pink wand flowers. A swing up on the second-story deck overlooks the works, including a brand-new fountain. I don't care how good the coffee is at Barnes & Noble. What this country needs is more businesses with swings. And Borders doesn't have a copy of A History of the Most Illustrious Prince Charles V, at least not the first edition published in 1691. But Jack and Mary do.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.