Shoplifting Books–Stop! Thief! Oh, Never Mind “ by Robert Gray. From Shelf Awareness 14 March, 2014.

Time: 1985 or thereabouts. Place: Shakespeare & Company Booksellers (as I remember it) in Manhattan.” A New York Times “Metropolitan Diary” entry last week opened with that CSI: Bookstore intro, then shared a brief but amusing tale involving a few classic ingredients of the crime thriller: suspect, witness and potential theft, with a devilishly clever comeuppance at the end. 

The witness recalls seeing “an unmistakable tall, reedlike figure with a jutting jaw and blondish hair, wearing a floppy knit hat that could not disguise him.” She recognizes the celebrity and begins stalking him through the aisles until, quite suddenly, she’s astonished to catch him in a criminal act: “He doesn’t seem to notice me as he stops and pulls a book off the shelf. He examines it. Then, he quickly snaps it shut, slips it under his oversize coat and strolls away.”otoole031314

Still in shock, the witness continues to trail her suspect until his “pace, slow at first, begins to quicken as he approaches the cashier through the front exit. Wait! What do I do? Do I rat him out? I am stunned into silence.”

In a dramatic plot twist, the suspect “magically flips the book out from its hiding place onto the counter along with a $20 bill. He then flashes a conspiratorial wink at me and my gaping jaw. Peter O’Toole then exits the stage, leaving this sole audience member both amused and amazed.”

I love that story. It brought to mind any number of incidents from my bookselling days, including the time a new manager at the store where I worked thought he had the goods on an elderly customer who seemed to frequently walk out with unpaid books. The case was quickly solved, however, once clues were assembled and he was informed, Inspector Lestrade-like, that the suspect was actually the co-owner’s mother.

As sometimes happens, the Peter O’Toole story tempted me not only to stroll along my own guilt-lined memory lane, but down the Internet rabbit hole as well, where I found a gem from the June 6, 1968, NYT:

pleasedonot031314“A film about shoplifting that included an episode about a woman slipping a vacuum cleaner under her skirt and walking out of a store evoked horrified laughter yesterday at the American Booksellers Association convention. The audience was told afterward that unexplained shortages in bookstores probably run from 2.4% to 4% of total business handled….

“After the shoplifting film, Hubert Belmont, a Washington book consultant who was a shop manager for 15 years, told the booksellers: ‘Now that we have all decided to close our stores we will still go on with the program. However, we will no longer wonder why some of our friends walk away peculiarly when they are leaving the store with encyclopedias between their legs.’ ”

I should mention (call it a confession, just to keep with the theme) that bookstore shoplifting is a subject that has long intrigued and even haunted me, for a few reasons:

  • I often feel irrationally guilty when I’m browsing in a bookstore I haven’t visited before.
  • I wouldn’t snitch on another customer I saw shoplifting and I feel a little guilty about that, too.
  • When I was a bookseller, I never once caught anyone stealing, even when I was sure they had; even when they set off the security alarm while leaving. I was a master of the slightly delayed leap into action, hoping one of my colleagues would beat me to the door and the confrontation.
  • I knew I would be lousy at the chase-and-apprehend nature of catching shoplifters, so I didn’t try.
  • The standard rule that you could never let suspected shoplifters out of your sight for an instant (lest they dump the goods and increase the dangers of litigation) reinforced my natural inclination to inaction.

Maybe I should have been more vigilant. Certainly I was no Paul Constant, who wrote in The Stranger: “In my eight years working at an independent bookstore, I lost count of how many shoplifters I chased through the streets of Seattle while shouting ‘Drop the book!’ I chased them down crowded pedestrian plazas in the afternoon, I chased them through alleys at night, I even chased one into a train tunnel.”

Jerry Seinfeld was willing to rat out his own Uncle Leo for shoplifting books at Brentano’s: 

Jerry: Leo, I saw you steal.
Leo: Oh, they don’t care. We all do it.
Jerry: Who, criminals?
Leo: Senior citizens. No big deal.

When I was a bookseller, I just couldn’t take the pressure of being an anti-shoplifting enforcer, and now I’m an oblivious bookstore customer, avoiding any temptation to snitch. Oblivious… and maybe just a little guilty. –Robert Gray, contributing editor