The pleasures and perils of chasing book thieves

In the February 26, 2008 edition of The Stranger, Paul Constant writes about his experiences dealing with book shoplifters. (Wonderful illo by James Yamasaki).
200803071259 There's an underground economy of boosted books. These values are commonly understood and roundly agreed upon through word of mouth, and the values always seem to be true. Once, a scruffy, large man approached me, holding a folded-up piece of paper. "Do you have any Buck?" He paused and looked at the piece of paper. "Any books by Buckorsick?" I suspected that he meant Bukowski, but I played dumb, and asked to see the piece of paper he was holding. It was written in crisp handwriting that clearly didn't belong to him, and it read:

1. Charles Bukowski

2. Jim Thompson

3. Philip K. Dick

4. William S. Burroughs

5. Any Graphic Novel

This is pretty much the authoritative top five, the New York Times best-seller list of stolen books. Its origins still mystify me. It might have belonged to an unscrupulous used bookseller who sent the homeless out, Fagin-like, to do his bidding, or it might have been another book thief helping a semi-illiterate friend identify the valuable merchandise. I asked the man whether he preferred Bukowski's Pulp to his Women, as I did, and whether his favorite Thompson book was The Getaway or The Killer Inside Me. First the book chatter made him nervous, but then it made him angry: He bellowed, "You're just a little bitch, ain't'cha?" and stormed out.

I'm not sure where Aleister Crowley goes on this list, but one one bookseller told me that anything by Crowley had to be kept locked up behind glass or it would be stolen immediately. Link (Via Hang Fire Books)


  1. Myopic Books, a fantastic used bookstore in Chicago, has the Bukowski and Dick right up under the register. Along with the Harlan Ellison and Robert Anton Wilson. It’s an odd mix of books, but they’re apparently among the most likely to be boosted.

  2. Magic, Tarot and the graphic novels are the big ones stolen. Working in a used book store it is always amazing to see who brings in what. Scabby hands and an unopened current PDR are usually the first steps to a trespass.

    It amazes me there are booksellers willing to purchase stolen books. We try to keep thieves out of our store if they are selling or “buying.” Sometimes though you just can’t tell and they can be incredibly creative.

    We got a call once from a large corporate book store saying their entire graphic novel section had been stolen. Someone had walked out with the books and the shelf itself.

  3. As for Aleister Crowley, Anton LaVey, and the like, I’m guessing it’s less about the value of the book and more about a potential buyer’s embarrassment from having to bring the book up to the counter and pay for it. I worked at a small town library in high school, and we could not keep a copy of The Satanic Bible on the shelf for more than a month without it mysteriously disappearing.

  4. Myopic Books, a fantastic used bookstore in Chicago, has the Bukowski and Dick right up under the register.

    “Excuse me, sir. I’m looking for some Dick.”
    “I got some Dick right here behind the counter.”

  5. A lot of people will steal “Satanic” books to “protect” other people from reading them.

  6. I steal all my books from the library and bookstore.
    It’s the only way I can generate sales.

  7. It’s funny, being a huge fan of Bukowski, I’ve seen the other end of the spectrum where book dealers have tried to pawn off non-first edition fake signature Bukowski books as signed first editions. Having several signed first edition Bukowski books it’s always amusing when you know some jack-off is trying to rip you off.

    It is an odd assortment of author’s on that list – each one I’m a huge fan of besides Jim Thompson – as for the honest book dealers I feel for them – but as for others I’d down right trip them on purpose if they were chasing a book thief – as long as the book thief was taking it for his own collection of course.

  8. Then again, maybe he was shopping for his nephew’s birthday, y jckss.

    Fckng bkstr mplys. Jss.

    You know, you’d think it would occur to someone at some point n th ch chmbr that shoplifters don’t approach employees to ask for help.

  9. Did a bookstore owner step on your toe when you were just a wee little lad, Moonbat?

  10. I worked at a used book store for most of high school and a little after college and we had to lock up anything dealing with Freemasonry, as well.

  11. They should clearly release all books on the internet with no protection, then we can just download them through Pirate Bay. Stealing actual physical books is such a hassle.

  12. Moonbat: There is a certain sneeriness to bookshop employees. As an over-reader myself I tend to be oblivious to it. I had a guy at bookshop get quite pissy when I asked him for a book by Iain Sinclair and dared to spell the first name for him. “I KNOW the SPELLING SIR. I DO READ.”

    But having a million people wander in and ask to use the bathroom, where the Harry Potter books are and (topically) steal can make you a tad touchy.

  13. “Then again, maybe he was shopping for his nephew’s birthday, you jackass.”

    If that’s what you really think, can you explain why you think he had such a difficult time making a purchase?

  14. Moonbat, I had a similar thought, but was trying to think of an equitable way to put it. In not bothering with that essential part of communication, you undermined the entire position.

    So, I’ll just echo everyone else. I hate shoplifters!

  15. Pretty sure the Bible is the most stolen book, followed by Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book.

    I suppose there isn’t a big *resale* market for those, though.

  16. I’m a former book thief, and this list surprises me. Unless they’re hardbacks, signed, 1st editions or maybe plume editions of these books, they’re fairly poor choices to steal for profit. The best money is in art and architecture coffee table books. Since the price tags on these books were between $50 and %150 dollars, you only had to get a few for it to add up, which meant less risk due to the fact that you didn’t have expose yourself as a thief as many times when you were sticking them in your bag. Get ~$300 worth of books, and sell them to a used book store for 1/6 of the cover price, and you had netted enough for the daily fix and food.

    In my town a used bookstore would laugh at you if you tried to sell any fiction for cash. Generally they only do trades for other used books for anything fiction and paperback. I remember selling a hardback copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlast Shugged (With a cover price of like $39.99) for $4. I would suspect that most of these books are stolen to be read, as the bookstore doesn’t pay cash for them (again, in my town). Or if they do for very pay cash certain authors, the thief probably wouldn’t be very comfortable with returning to a used bookstore day after day, week after week with the same 4 titles to sell. A book thief doesn’t come up with this scheme and do it just once.

    On a side note, when I was doing this (1996ish) I knew at least 30 other people that were doing the same thing. Sometimes I would walk into a bookstore only to find the choice sections already wiped clean. It’s a wonder that bookstores would even willingly buy and stock these books.

    Before I get lambasted by indignant boingboing readers about stealing books, I would like to say that I regret my former profession (among many other things at that time in my life ) very, very much. I am an avid reader, and spend around $200-$300 a month on books nowadays.

    And a special apology to the Tattered Cover, who needs to put in a working security system and not just a pretend one that doesn’t actually go off when you walk out with a book. Not only is this store a great purveyor of books, it’s owners are at the forefront of the advocacy of free speech and privacy in my state. My apologies.

  17. Sorry for the double post, but I guess the graphic novels do make sense. Art and architecture still netted much more per book though.

    And yeah, a book thief would never ask a clerk about a book that they were going to steal, not a smart one anyway.

  18. I used to own a bookstore on the Venice, CA oceanfront promenade. There was nothing they wouldn’t steal, except maybe Jane Austen. I’ll bet they would even steal “Colture and wresteler biographies,” whatever the hell they are.

  19. hey there Moonie! Good to see you in fine fettle.

    Dear Jeff:

    If I ever write one, your edition is reserved.

  20. I believe our most stolen book in Victoria, Australia’ is the ‘UNDERBELLY’ series (up to book 11 I think) from John Sylvester which concerns criminal behaviour.

  21. “Essential part of communication”–oh, criminy!

    “Undermined the entire position”?

    You need to stop blaming me, start blaming human nature, and start doing something about it.

    That list, BTW, is actually the most popular books among wannabe/poser book nerds–the kinds of books that kids just starting out as hipster jackasses tend to read. Recast this guy as a mid-90s independent record store clerk and he’d be bitching about how kids come in and steal Pearl Jam albums. Recast him as a Rodeo Drive shop clerk and he’d be humiliating Julia Roberts. It’s all the same bullshit–all the same root cause–and you’re all part of the same circle jerk. Unless you do something about it.

    I’m telling you to start trolling.

    Stop the bullshit and start trolling.

  22. You know what would be funny? If Chopper Read caught you stealing one of his books. You’d get a chapter in the next book. Also prosthetics.

  23. Moonbat, did you know you’re rude? It’s okay to be rude, but I just want to make sure you know that and accept it.

  24. i never set out to be a book thief. but In the past, when a bookstore employee picked me out of the crowd to leave my bag at the counter while other people were allowed to carry theirs, i’d sometimes steal a book on general principle.

  25. Why don’t you try directing some of that insight towards people whose underlying assumptions define the behavior of the group?

  26. The least you could do is not support your local trolls when they go after the away team.

    Home team trolls don’t even have talent or anything worthwhile to say–they’re just disruptive punks who seek to ruin the forum for other people. (The stress being on “other” people: people who are not part of the group with which the anti-troll troll irrationally identifies).

  27. A women walked into small world books in venice beach with a baby stroller and baby. She filled the stroller’s entire undercarriage with Hank. Since then he’s has his own spot in front. Aside from that, Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse takes the crown here.

  28. I stole books from the library when I was a kid. I’d always return them; just couldn’t afford the late fees or get to the library very often. I don’t see how one could make any money at it. The resale value of books sucks.

  29. It’s odd (to me anyway) that the automatic assumption is that they are being resold (although this particular account certainly implies resale); when I lived in Seattle my roommate on 2 or 3 occasions stole books from a bookstore so he could read them (he was dead broke all the time, so I didn’t care as long as he wasn’t stiffing me on bills, even if he did rely on me for food sometimes . . . plus I got to read them when he was done, so I guess that makes me at least somewhat complicit).

    The books he stole? Charles Bukowski and P.K. Dick.

  30. Some psychological warfare might help here. If you make a point of greeting all the potential problem customers in a friendly and obvious manner, it could lead a few to have second thoughts… and more to the point, it’s a good way to subtly call their attention to the unloaded, non-functional gun that ought to be on the cashier’s side of the counter.

  31. Moonbat (26), is that your new position — “Say it now / say it loud / I’m a troll / and I’m proud”? Anent (34), you do know that you’re the home-team troll, right?

    Tolchocker (3), I could get a major case of the giggles at the thought of book thieves stealing The Satanic Bible and the works of Aleister Crowley in order to get hold of all the dark secrets and real magic they contain.

  32. I’m not a big advocate of stealing in general, unless it’s college text books. I stole close to 70% of my college text books while in college and I saved myself at least 2 grand. Don’t regret it all. Suck on that, Temple University Bookstore!

  33. very well Moonbat, I will see you apologize to Teresa, or I will no longer acknowledge you.

  34. Well then, didn’t someone just prove my point for me.

    If you have a valid argument, make it sensibly and politely and people will consider it. The messed up thing is, Moonbat, I agreed with you, until I read your post. That’s my point now. Now I think you’re a complete jerk and that caused me to re-think my position.

    If someone punches you in the stomach then says “brush your goddamn teeth,” is the next thing you do going to involve dental hygiene? I’m gonna go out a limb here and say no.

    But I’ve just spent a whopping 30 seconds looking at some of your post history, and I realize.. you don’t care that you’re an asshole. You seem to revel in it. So again, I say: I hope you are OK with being a rude person. Because you are.

  35. dclbrsn: Ppl wh hv t b pltly ld t th pnt rn’t gng t gt t nywys. Ths lkng fr wsdm cn fnd t n th dsmvwlld nslts f trll.

    f t’s nsltng t hv smn pnt t, lk Mnbt dd, tht yr (gnrc) ctns wr stpd, ths f bgt nd smll-mndd fl, thn mr ppl nd t b nsltd.

    n yr hypthtcl stmch pnch, th thr gy s rd blly, bt y’r rrtnl. Brshng yr tth s jst gd d – vn f jrks d t t.

  36. I work at an independent bookstore. That list of the most-stolen stuff sounds fairly accurate to me, (we have a special Hank section up front, too) as does the clueless behavior of the would-be thief. We had a guy come in, ask where he could find Philip K. Dick books, and then cheerily saunter out five minutes later, setting off the alarm. He sheepishly removed three Dicks from the front of his pants, gave them back, and ran away.

    We are an old, eccentric beloved indie bookshop in our city. And I would bet that we get hit by shoplifters far more often than the big corporate chains. Everybody who grew up in the neighborhood has a story about stealing from us when they were kids. Every now and then we get an anonymous letter in the mail that has a few bucks tucked in it, apologizing for a theft 10 or 20 years ago.

    Borders-type stores are designed as panopticons, with clear sight lines down all the aisles, cameras everywhere, and sensors in all the books. (If you go in a bookstore and they *don’t* do a bag check: smile, you’re on camera.) They have full time employees who do nothing but loss prevention. Plus if they catch you they will certainly prosecute.

    Our store has weird nooks and crannies, comfortable spots to sit and read for hours, and no cameras. We generally treat customers like people instead of potential criminals. Unfortunately, our reward is that we get fucking reamed by shoplifters. Doubly reamed, since we also have to pay more per copy for books than chain stores do, because we buy in much smaller quantities. Most of the thieves just steal for personal use, and justify it by saying we asked for it by not installing cameras. Following that logic, we are all free to commit any crime we want anytime we are not being surveilled, I guess.

    If you need to steal a book, steal it from a chain store. I’m also in favor of stealing textbooks from campus stores. Textbook pricing is absolutely unconscionable. Borders and your college are not going to be driven out of business by the theft–it’s a victimless crime. But stealing from a beloved neighborhood indie bookstore just makes you a douchebag, and makes the world a little bit colder.

  37. looking at the list above, did Jim Thompson have a hard life? I see a pattern with most stolen authors.

  38. Bookyloo,

    “He sheepishly removed three Dicks from the front of his pants”


    He *sheepishly* pulled three dicks out of his pants?!


  39. @48 bookyloo

    while this may not be true in your town, everyone I know that steals books ONLY steals from the big boxes, and never from the local yokels.

    it is a shame that people do sometimes target the little folks (lack of security, etc…) but it isn’t actually a safer bet. it’s common knowledge in our city that barnes & noble doesn’t chase, although borders does.

    #49 takuan

    i could never justify the stealing of tools from an individual, but i feel BAD giving money to the home despot or any other company that likes to annihilate rainforests. so i can see why some might steal from them instead. also, stealing fancy books for cash would be a good way to eat if you don’t have other options… just saying.

  40. Book store assistants, along with record store assistants have this holier than thou attitude.

    Kinda like the doctor receptionist.

    You are not an author, you are not a musician and you are not a doctor.

    You have one of the lowest paid jobs going.

    Now drop the attitude, input the data into the till like a good little monkey and give me my goods :)

  41. Disemvoweling is ridiculous — a good way to squelch arguments.

    Disemvowel or delete this comment. I don’t care about that. What I want is a burrito.

  42. A few years ago I was doing research on witchcraft at the QEII Library at Memorial University of Newfoundland. The librarian told me that I was unlikely to find much, as anything on the topic they put out on the shelves was stolen almost immediately. True enough; almost everything from Malleus Maleficarum down to modern glossy books on the topic had disappeared.

  43. I’m not particularly proud of this, but I ran a small book racket in my student days. There was a massive Waterstones next door to my Uni with the most horrendous security ever. One could, not that i did this or anything, walk out with books piled up to one’s chin and nobody would look twice. Anyway, long story short, I have a beautiful first edition hardcover of Lacan’s ecrits. It was the philosophy and psychology sections more then the fiction that bore the brunt of my young person’s rebeliousness. As I say, I’m not proud, but I’m much more clever, and did much better at Uni because of my sticky fingers.

    Also, there was an article in the Times about three years ago that said those book stalls under Waterloo bridge were stocked by homeless people emptying whole shelves into rucksacks. Of course, it also said the most in demand books were travel guides. Go figure.

    #21: I can vouch for your valuations there. Worst ₤10 I ever made was for about five superhero TPBs. Should have just kept them, really. Textbooks are the real monies.

  44. and sensors in all the books.

    At least when it was my job to chiclet the books, I didn’t slap them in haphazardly on the middle, say, of graphic novel pages. *sigh*

    It drives me nuts to see the way GN’s and comics are chicleted in the bookstores.

    Also, Loci, I suggest finding another bookstore. The people I worked with were very nice, and often musicians and authors. Funny thing about that – unless your parents are the same, you generally need to get a job to pay for your art.

  45. I must admit that the list is odd, though not inscrutable: Bukowski and Burroughs write ‘homeless fiction’, if such a genre exists.

    And, as for the magical books and tomes, imho, there is something mysterious and secretive about finding a grimoire in a library as opposed to a bookstore.


  46. why are people down on bookstore clerks? Its just a job. I seldom speak to them beyond thanks/bye. Now, the owner/operators of used bookstores – there’s a mixed bag of erudite angels and rabid squirrels.

  47. It depends a lot on the location of the store. When I worked in bookstores in the East Village, yeah, that list is 100% DEAD ON. That is exactly all the stuff that would get boosted without fail, and we kept it in a special section where we could keep our eyes on it.

    But the East Village (young, hip, affluent, white) is a different demographic from, say, Flatbush, Brooklyn (broader age range, lower- or middle-class, black, with a side order of CUNY student), where I work now. The Top 5 hit parade of theftable items would look more like this:

    1. Zane
    2. Robert Greene
    3. T.D. Jakes
    4. Joel Osteen
    5. any Oprah book

  48. Also, I don’t know what it’s like in other cities more car-oriented, but when people steal piles of books, it’s not to sell to other stores. I’ve been a book retailer for thirteen years and I’ve never once heard of anyone trying to get cash for, say, ten copies of Valis. (Stolen TEXTBOOKS is another racket entirely; we have to deal with that pretty frequently.)

    Those thieves are, or work for, a street-retailer subculture. Pretty much any time you buy a book off a table in NYC, and it isn’t obviously a used book (i.e. new-looking books sold at half the cover price), you’re buying stolen books.

    Also I should add to that hip-neighborhood shortlist of superthefted books: Jack Kerouac.

  49. Dick is one of my favorites, and I absolutely know one reason why he’s among the most stolen. It’s because most of the editions from 30 or 40 years ago are nearly impossible to find with the Lethem-driven renaissance (and the fact that most of ’em got burned in the time between), and the new editions are pricey and rarely resold. A number of the other authors up there seem to be in the same position – most of their cheap original editions can’t be found because they went through a long period of unpopularity, and are now resurgent.

    So who’s got a first printing of Dr. Bloodmoney I can buy for .50? C’mon…

  50. Roach, Jonathan Lethem is a good guy and has certainly helped, but a lot of the heavy lifting was done by Paul Williams (the one who founded Crawdaddy and wrote Das Energi), and by David Hartwell. Ursula Le Guin’s also been promoting PKD for years now.

  51. Shhh, Moony. I’m pretty sure that the trolls you’re complaining about are someone else’s sockpuppets and I think I know whose, and lets just say that it explains why their trolling is never suppressed.

    As for the book theft list, they’re probably stealing them for an internet reseller, which would explain why only the most popular books are wanted. The reseller is looking to move volume. I’m sure more than a few eBay sellers get their books (or other wares) from less than honest sources.

  52. I’m pretty sure that the trolls you’re complaining about are someone else’s sockpuppets and I think I know whose, and lets just say that it explains why their trolling is never suppressed.

    Pray elucidate.

  53. mmmm.. I must say! your hand up me bum feels simply DIVINE! Come now Kloky, we can tell the world about us!

  54. Teresa –

    I didn’t mean to give short shrift to the others, just meant that the current hipster crowd is into him because of the Lethem relationship. Heck, I even did my undergrad thesis based on the similarities between Borges and Dick found in that LeGuin snippet that gets replicated on all the Vintage Dick (yes, yes, haha) editions. But even a decade ago or less I could always rely on finding a few of his novels in used book stores, and not until recently have they vanished, which seems to me to match up well with Lethem’s prizes and of course Hollywood’s rediscovery of him. The others you mentioned deserve all the credit in the world for bringing him back and getting him republished – but I think Lethem is the reason he’s getting stolen.

  55. Nah, I don’t buy it.
    PKD has spoken, for 30-odd years, to stoners, acid casualties, schizophrenics, and disaffected teenagers. Which sounds like a perfect storm of prospective book thieves to me.

    On top of that, for the past two decades there’s been a major hollwood film based on a PKD book every couple years, which does a hell of a lot more to spark interest in a book than anything Jonathan Lethem says. To say there’s been a rediscovery would mean he was “lost” at some point, and really he never was.

  56. hey t.(#66), hate to poop yer party, but that isn’t a first print, it’s like the 3rd caroll and graf printing. first printing was on ace paperbacks! and i’m sure it’ll be more than $5 when the auction is thru!

  57. Takuan said, “Dear Jeff: If I ever write one, your edition is reserved.”

    I Win! Will it be free and? I also want it signed. So, get you ass moving and write the damn thing. You’ve obviously got the itch.

  58. How funny, I found it odd that my friend stole a Bukowski book a few months ago. Even more odd that I find he’s in the top 5 for most lifted authors.

  59. My brother used to always have a story about the teenage dudes who got caught shoplifting gay porn in Tower Books.

    They were supposed to call their parents, which they did, but they would sometimes allow the kid to pick a different magazine to get caught with.

Comments are closed.