The book thieves of 1990s London

In the 1990s, London was home to notorious book-thieves who stole to order for the shops of Charing Cross road, who paid a fraction of cover-price for them — meaning that each thief would have to steal £50,000/year worth of books (and often stole more).

The Dabbler gathers the stories of the book-store clerks who waged war on the thieves. I was a bookstore clerk in those days, and can remember a used book store owner in Toronto telling me that he thought that the junkies he bought from were ripping us off (but he didn't stop buying our books from them).

One of the most notorious book thieves in London was a man called Roy Faith. When he died, a store detective company sent a representative to his funeral as he'd done so much for their business. A short, plump man with sunken eyes and a bald head that had a few strands of dyed jet black hair across it, Roy's speciality was art books. He always made two visits to a shop. During the first he would choose the books he was going to steal – nothing under £30 – and pile them up somewhere where they wouldn't be spotted. After leaving the shop empty-handed, Roy would wait for half an hour and return when the staff were too busy to spot him. It only took Roy a minute to discretely nudge the pile of books into his huge holdall and he was often out of the door before anyone had noticed.

Perhaps Roy was nice to his dog, if he had one, but he didn't come across as a particularly pleasant individual. When a female member of staff asked him to leave, he called her a c*** and pretended that he was going to headbut her. I mistakenly assumed that he was the sort of person who only threatened women and the next time I saw him, I tried to play the hard man: 'Come on then, call me a c***.' Roy looked at me with barely disguised contempt and replied 'Alright then, you're a c***' then took a half-hearted swing at me. I ducked and he missed.

From then on, our encounters became increasingly childish with both of us trying to do everything we could to frustrate the other. The last time I saw him, he was on the train to Brighton, probably combining a bit of thieving with a nice day at the seaside.

Another thief, known as Barry, specialised in stealing the Times Atlas. At £75 each, these atlases were very attractive to thieves and the only thing that usually stopped anyone taking them was their enormous size, which made them almost impossible to conceal. They didn't fit into carrier bags or holdalls without a considerable effort, but Barry had devised a solution that was almost worthy of genius. He had customised a raincoat with Times Atlas-sized pockets on the inside and was able to steal two at a time. The more astute members of staff usually challenged the strange man with two large book-sized lumps in his coat, but he must have succeeded enough times to make it worth his while.

Unlike Roy Faith, Barry did have some personal charm and when caught, he would smile sheepishly like a little boy caught scrumping.

The Book Thieves of London

(Thanks, Salim!)