The book(store) thief: when people stole from my bookstore

The book(store) thief: when people stole from my bookstore

During my morning Flipboard read, in part looking for articles to flip into the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard, I was intrigued by this

ELECTRIC LIT post by Jo Lou

The premise is that the author interviewed indie bookstores (well, presumably, people in them) 😉 about which books were most stolen. The author then says, “…with authority that there are three types of book burglars”.

I’m a former bookstore manager, and for me, the basic premise of the article doesn’t match my experience.

They start out by saying that it wasn’t like stealing gummy bears, and that which books people stole would tell you something about the “literary tastes” of the thief.

This makes a very big presumption that the person stealing is doing it for personal consumption.

While I’ll write about some instances which do suggest that was the case, I’m confident that the vast majority of the book theft in my store (I actually had more than one store…I didn’t own them, I managed them) was for simple resale for cash.

One disclosure first: my managing days were a long time ago. It’s possible that human nature and American economics have completely changed in the intervening years. 😉

So, how can I deduce that people were stealing for resale rather than to read them themselves?

Let me give you two examples of why I think so…you can draw your own conclusions.

Poacher Piles

We would find stacks of expensive (photo books, art books) laying on a shelf…maybe ten of them. I referred to those as “poacher piles” to my team. What would happen is that someone would surreptitiously pile the books up like that…then they would wait until the coast was clear between that shelf and the front door, and then take them and leave.

The books were not really thematically grouped…it was more about being expensive hardbacks.

What could they do with them?

Back then, you could get maybe 25% of the list price for a new, likely to sell hardback, from an unscrupulous used bookstore (which could sell them for 50%). For a $50 book, you could get $12.50. For ten of them, you could get $125…not a bad sort of theft.

We know that some used bookstores bought without checking that the sale had a proper provenance. While I was managing, we were having a major book convention coming to San Francisco (I was just south of there). The local police ran a sting on a used bookstore ahead of time, partially, I would say, to show they were making an effort.

They would sell the bookstore boxes of books…with the shipping labels on them for a different bookstore. Clearly stolen (although this was a sting, again).

As I recall, the owner actually just yelled out in the store: “I need ten copies of the new Stephen King book…somebody want to steal them for me?” Something like that.

Used bookstores were supposed to ID sellers…that one didn’t. Let me be clear, many used bookstores were undoubtedly ethical, but the ones which would buy stolen books weren’t hard to find.

One interesting stratagem which resulted in poacher piles. A person would come in, looking destitute. They would ask something like, “Where are your expensive books?” If a clerk went to help them and show them where they were (we wanted to help everybody), there would be another person in the store…in a three-piece suit. The second person was the actual thief.

The Purloining Professor

We had a regular customer, who we would see every few weeks. This customer was a professor at a local university. It would always be a sale of a variety of books…something which would make sense for a professor to buy (at least, in the popular imagination).

The professor would pay for them: no problem there.

We then saw a news story. The police had caught this same professor at the San Jose Flea Market (a big venue…lots of sellers) selling multiple copies of the same books. Again,  clearly stolen…and clearly being stolen to sell for cash.

How did the professor do it?

We had several stores in the area (I worked for a chain…note that the article interviewed indies, which can be chains, but I again disclose that my store may have been seen as different from a “mom and pop” or fan-owned store). The professor would visit one of them in the morning and buy books. The professor would take the books out of the bag. Then the professor would visit another one of our stores, with the empty bag and the receipt (probably hidden on entry).

The professor would then steal the same books from each of the other stores in the area. If stopped or questioned, the professor had a receipt for those books…hard to argue with that.

Also, it’s important to note: this professor was also a con artist. The “con” in “con artist” is short for “confidence”. We were confident that this was a “good person”…chatted with us, reliably paid us for books. We didn’t have a particular reason to suspect them of crime.

I think it’s hard to argue that those cases tell us very much about the literary tastes of the person stealing. It’s also sort of a business, meaning that they were a disproportionate percentage of the books stolen from us (our goal was 8% “shrinkage”…shoplifting, employee theft, and damage combined…I had heard that at the time, bookstores were the most shoplifted type of store, because of the easy sale).

One case of an attempted theft of something which appeared to me to be for personal use may be instructive here.

I noticed a young person with a magazine under their shirt.

I stopped them, and had them produce it.

It was a magazine with gay sexually explicit images. Very unlikely that was for resale: magazines weren’t worth much in a used bookstore, especially not current issues. The person stealing was terrified, my inference was that if people found out, it could be dangerous. I just had them give it back…I didn’t call the police.

Calling the police, by the way, would have been futile in that case anyway.

A shoplifter had not committed a crime until they left the store with their (actually our) items. That made it quite difficult. We could catch somebody with books under their clothes like this, and all we could do was ask them to put it back. We could tell them they were never welcome in the store again (if they came back, it was trespassing, and we could call the police), but it would have been a real logistical challenge to keep a list like that.

Now, it is different if they brought in tools…that makes it burglary. When the author of the ELECTRIC LIT piece used the term “burglar”, I think that was a loose use of the term. In the case of the Purloining Professor, that was burglary, because the bag is a tool.

Another one that made me think it was probably for personal use?

Someone would come up to the counter to return a book. The new bestseller they bought was actually a different book inside the dust cover. Perhaps it was a $2.99 “remainder” inside a $25 top selling novel dust cover.

What would have likely happened there is that someone swapped the dust covers to buy the bestseller…they perhaps couldn’t afford the new book. We would unknowingly ring up the book as the remainder.

It was also likely that some people stole books for the game of it, not because they couldn’t afford it. My speculation is that they assumed we had insurance that would replace it, so being “clever” wasn’t “hurting anyone”.

All of this is about p-books (paperbooks). In the early days of popular e-books (after the release of the Kindle ten years ago), there was a lot of pirating going on. There still is some, of course, but I don’t think it’s as big as it was (just my intuition). Generally, when those books were made available on the internet, the releaser didn’t charge for them. That might tell us more about what they think is important to make freely available. In some cases, those free books were to entice people to a site where they either saw advertising or paid for other things, but they were often just out there.

In summation, I don’t think which books are being stolen tell us which books the person stealing is reading or likes to read.

One more note: I didn’t use the term “thief” throughout this piece, except in the title (where it is a play on The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak | at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*. I try to be careful not to define people as “things”. A person isn’t a thief…a person is a person who steals. We have that policy at work: we don’t refer to people as “the disabled”, we refer to them as “people with disabilities” (and there may be other terms as well, but they aren’t nouns). Referring to someone as a noun suggests that they just are that thing, and can’t be changed. That’s going to seem ridiculous to some people, but when you define something, you imbue it with a lot of power. It not only has its own characteristics, it gains the characteristics of an entire class.

Bonus deal: what a great Kindle Daily Deal (at AmazonSmile…benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)! If you are a piece buyer (buying books one at a time, as opposed to having a subscription service, basically), there are really good prices, and great for gifts today. They are “Top fiction reads for $3.99 or less”.  I’ll particularly point out that you can get each of the three books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy for $2.99…under $10 for all three. Yes, you could pay that for a month Kindle Unlimited (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*) and read them and lots and lots of other books…but we all know people who wouldn’t complete the trilogy in a month.


You can be part of my next book, Because of the Kindle!


Join thousands of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

All aboard The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

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2 Responses to “The book(store) thief: when people stole from my bookstore”

  1. Phink Says:

    Sadly in the 70’s and 80’s I had a family member that stole and even took orders for items which he discounted by 50%. He’d get caught from time to time and spend a week or so in jail and that was just the cost of doing business to him. I was a pre-teen or early teenager during this time and he’d brag about it even to me. He’d say “I don’t steal from anyone who can’t afford it.” That was hogwash of course and I think even he knew it. He claimed Walmart could afford to lose a few items.

    I bring that up because I work at a big box retailer (not Walmart) and every crew person, even part timers who work 10-20 hours a week are eligible for a quarterly bonus. Part of our bonus is based on shrink (lost merchandise). People who steal can cause a single parent who can barely feed their kids and who might work 2 jobs from losing a $250 quarterly bonus. That’s the maximum bonus for part timers in my company.

    We also have a problem with people stealing and then returning the product without a receipt and getting a store gift card for the amount of the returned item that they can then sell or use for cheaper everyday items. Imagine how far a $200 store gift card will go when used for paper towels, dish detergent etc.

    Corporate has threatened to not allow returns without a receipt but I’m guessing you know how that’d turn out. In the world of capitalism every thing is voluntary. We have to beg people for their money and competition is thick so if we tell legitimate customers who might spend $30K a year with us “sorry we can’t take that back” well, it’s not going to end well with our profit margins. It’s sad and regular hard working people are effected by people who steal.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Phink!

      I totally get it. 🙂 I knew people who were bike rustlers…they stole bikes and resold them (actually, they usually sold the parts). I suppose a reasonable question is why I didn’t report them. I was a teenager, I think…and I didn’t know for sure they were doing it. That’s what I was told, and a bike was stolen and I told them and it did show up, but…well, I should have, I suppose in retrospect.

      One of the things they told me they would do is get a bunch of people, drive a truck up to a high school, and just take the whole metal bike rack with the bikes attached. I remember saying, “Doesn’t anybody see you?” The response I got was, “All the time.” If you just did it looking like you were supposed to be doing, probably smiled and waved and somebody who looked at you, you’d probably get away with it.

      Your point about the bonus is a good one. Theft is never a “victimless crime”…in the case of retail, as you know, it’s “a game of inches”. Generally, you try to keep the margin tight…staying competitive means trying not to have extra inventory in the store, for one thing.

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