July 18, 2002
The Best Stealer List
Certainly not the most compelling reading in Princeton's Micawber Books, but perhaps the most startling are the signs scattered about the store that read: "To our loyal customers Please help us solve our increasing theft problem by reporting any suspicious behavior to a staff member. ó thank you."
While there's no certainty that book sales are on the rise this summer, unfortunately there's inferential evidence that there's no shrinkage of "inventory shrinkage" in bookstores, and it may be rising.
As with most things bookish, even its shoplifting culture is singular. The books published can be examined as a sort of insight into a society's psyche. So, too, can the choice of books stolen. Which means that different categories of books are ripped off in different parts of the country, and often neighborhoods within the same city can be identified by the genre of books lifted.
In downtown Manhattan, for instance, it's the Beat poets and writers: Kerouac (the John Grisham of the Beats, when it comes to theft popularity), Bukowski, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Hunke. Kafka and Abbie Hoffman are also hot steals, and Tom Wolfe's "Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" is tucked away, available only on demand. On the Upper East Side, it's expensive photography books, large art books, current fiction.
Nationally, the above list holds for the East and West Coasts, while the Beats aren't that popular for pilferers in the states in between. Redemption seems to be an American trait: Bibles are a big steal everywhere.
You might ask, what's the surprise? Theft is part of the retailer's overhead. Yes, but even as loot, books are different. The shoplifted blouse or shoes are quickly on a torso or feet, the thief's or a loved one's. But the stolen book may end up for sale in another bookstore, or on the street, and may be stolen again for a roundelay.
Logan Fox, co-owner of the Micawber bookstore, said an unhappy result of substantially increasing his store's size was increasing the number of books stolen ó hence the signs, put up a year ago. "There was a feeling by the staff that there was more aggression on the part of the public, and there was the assumption that the larger you got, the more successful you were," he said, adding, "that meant that stealing a book here or there made no difference." He said that on two occasions, "we lost four or five $200 art books."
Who is doing all the stealing? There are the thieves who simply want to read a book or give it as a gift, particularly an expensive photo or art book. There are those, called boosters, who steal for resale. To many booksellers, the Beat generation means drugs, so stealing a Kerouac means reselling it for drug money. In recent years, there have even been several book-stealing gangs, led by bookstore owners.
Eggheads can be bad guys, too. Fred Bass, owner of the Strand bookstore in Manhattan, said the most popular targets in his store were books on higher mathematics and philosophy, and scholarly religious works. "There's a certain group of intellectuals who feel entitled to their knowledge, and steal for themselves," he said. Those books and the Beats are hidden. "The professionals try for art books, because they are readily salable," he said. Most bookstores don't bother, but the Strand tries to prosecute thieves.
Donald Davis, who owns East Village Books in Manhattan, hides the Beat authors "behind the checkout desk," he said. And Bob Constant, co-owner of St. Marks Book Shop, also in the East Village, is outraged by the street vendors selling books. "The vendors are overprotected by everyone," he said, meaning the government and the law. "There's no conceivable way that the new books they sell could be sold at half price if they got them legitimately."
"The public thinks they are legal because they are out on the street," he said, perhaps underestimating the public's sophistication and overestimating its conscience.
What a difference geography makes. At the Corner Bookstore on the Upper East Side, for instance, Christopher Lenahan, the adult-book buyer, said "any fiction title that is the hit of the moment" is a prize for thieves, as well as the expensive photography and art books. The people who steal from the store are mostly well dressed and look as if they could easily pay for what they want, he added. Recently, for instance, a man in his 60's came in several times, ostensibly browsing. Then a woman in her 60's, carrying a bundle of papers, came in a few days later, wandered about and then left. An alarm in the head went off, he said.
"We gave chase," he recalled. "Two blocks away, the man was taking books from her bundle of papers and stuffing them in a satchel, photography books to sell to other stores."
Get out of the New York area, and the theft situation is no better, although it may be more difficult to label the genre of books stolen or the popular authors who can be resold.
Derek Holland, manager of the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver, said, "In our experience, it's equal-opportunity stealing" of all types of books and authors.
He said: "It's a wide variety. Kerouac and some art books, yes. There's quite a bit of theft. The most popular for the moment seems to be the Japanese graphic novels. They have really good stories, and are attractive, and a lot of young folks don't have the money to purchase what they want to read."
Still, the latest wrinkle is that "we've noticed a lot of professional people stealing books," he said, adding, "If there's been a recent change, that's it." From
It appears that the only constant is a desire to steal from bookstores. (One chain,
"I Hope You Dance" is popular for those 14 to 22, Ms. Kleiser said. "Whenever we put one in a place not beside or behind the counter," she said, "it's gone."
What is it about books that makes them such thief magnets? Could it be that people feel books belong to everyone, and therefore no one, and thus are fair game? Or that there's an irresistible urge in all too many of us simply to snatch one?