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Steal This Book
December 23, 2009 8:01 PM   Subscribe

"Steal These Books" is a NYT essay about the most commonly shoplifted books from bookstores. tl;dr? #1=The Virgin Suicides.

The NYT article apparently inspired an enterprising soul to write a more encyclopedic "Book store shoplifting" for Wikipedia, with some more interesting articles on this meme:

*"Flying Off the Shelves: The Pleasures and Perils of Chasing Book Thieves" (2008)
*Shoplift Lit: You Are What You Steal (1999)
*Stealing Books (2005)
*Theft an ongoing issue for bookstore (2009)
posted by stbalbach (53 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
The Bible and VS seem to be on equal par for the #1 spot.
posted by stbalbach at 8:06 PM on December 23, 2009


I bought my copy of Virgin Suicides. I kinda feel like I did it wrong.
posted by Weebot at 8:16 PM on December 23, 2009


When I was 16, and needed to feel like a Bad Man, I stole something. All right, I shop-lifted. A book. An anthology of Batman short-stories in paperback. From a drugstore.

When I was 21 and needed to feel like a Bad Man, I got a job as a bouncer at a biker-bar strip-joint in Daytona Beach, where the girls danced above a live shark in a giant aquarium tank.

In hindsight, I should have just stolen another paperback.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:17 PM on December 23, 2009


Allison Hoover Bartlett's recent book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is a really interesting read. It's about John Gilkey, a real-life book theif who has spent time in jail and recruited family to aid or at least overlook his crimes.

Some of the detail into the world of book collecting and the means of catching and preventing book thefts are fascinating. I picked the book up on a whim, and was really glad I did.
posted by Kimothy at 8:17 PM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Only 40 percent of books that are read are paid for, and only 28 percent are purchased new, said Peter Hildick-Smith of the Codex Group, a consultant to the publishing industry. The rest are shared, borrowed, given away — or stolen.

I'm curious where this stat comes from. If I buy a book, read it, and then loan it to my friend, does that count once in each column? What about library books? Those are certainly paid for, but they're also borrowed. Corporate consultants could easily play fast and loose with definitions here and spin whatever tale of gloom and scary piracy doom they desire.
posted by tractorfeed at 8:20 PM on December 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


When I worked in a bookstore, lo those many years ago, William S. Burroughs was well in the lead for "most shoplifted." We took to keeping all of his titles behind the counter.

That's not counting the porn. Porn mags walked out even faster than Naked Lunch.
posted by gingerbeer at 8:20 PM on December 23, 2009


Tangentially, Bookhunter.
posted by gc at 8:24 PM on December 23, 2009


Naked Lunch.

I can think of at least two things wrong with that title.
posted by grouse at 8:31 PM on December 23, 2009 [3 favorites]


OK, I'll bite.

Your link #1=The Virgin Suicides says The Virgin Suicides is #2. Please explain.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 8:34 PM on December 23, 2009


Only 40 percent of books that are read are paid for, and only 28 percent are purchased new ..... The rest are shared, borrowed, given away...

So they're jumping in the pool with RIAA, who were looking to get money back from the sale of used CDs? Seriously, you get first sale then it's fare game for whatever anyone else does with it. If you stop publishing a book and it suddenly becomes popular, you lost out big time and people can buy a $20 hardback and two years later sell it for $100.

I think online reseller fronts (Amazon, half.eBay, alibris, ABE Books, etc) and online auctions show how much people really want to pay for books. Popular titles with high turn-over will get dropped down to pennies for the pound, while out of print gems go for hundreds to thousands of dollars. I'm surprised more out of print books aren't brought back based solely on the fact that people will pay $100 for a used copy. Chances are that many people would pay $30 for a new hardback, but I'm not in book sales.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:38 PM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


Tangent: Steal This Book, by Abbie Hoffman.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:39 PM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


When I worked at the library, the books that most often got checked out and never returned:

1. The Bible

2. ASVAB Study Guides

3. Books by Donald Goines.

I have no idea what people just stole outright, without even going through the charade of checking it out first.
posted by marxchivist at 8:40 PM on December 23, 2009


The linked blog post says of William Burroughs "he was still getting an allowance from his parents in his 40s". Um, his father was a direct descendent of the founders of the Burroughs Corporation, and he had a trust fund. It's not like his mommy was giving him milk money.
posted by DecemberBoy at 8:42 PM on December 23, 2009


Technically Toffifay isn't a "candy bar", so I stopped reading the article at that point.

I am SUCH an asshole.
posted by Ron Thanagar at 8:44 PM on December 23, 2009


To clarify. The link I mention has it ranked #2, but it expands and says "it depends on who you ask."

eg: stbalbach ;)

The first link has it unequivocally as the Bible. I dunno, "the Bible" not edgy enough for your FPP? Wanna get more people clicking? I'd probably agree.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 8:45 PM on December 23, 2009


Also, how is the Anarchist Cookbook not on the list? I never knew anyone that had it that acquired it through any means other than shoplifting, myself included.
posted by DecemberBoy at 8:46 PM on December 23, 2009


The Anarchist Cookbook was high on our theft list at the library also. One guy who checked it out told me the book was actually put out by the government and all the bomb recipes in it were wrong. The people would then blow themselves up trying to manufacture the bombs, thus getting rid of people who would do that sort of thing.
posted by marxchivist at 8:50 PM on December 23, 2009


I wonder why Bibles are so heavily shoplifted? Even as a non-christian, I know you could pretty much just ask nicely at any church and get one for free.
posted by Mitrovarr at 8:55 PM on December 23, 2009


Oh yeah, when I did a very brief stint as plain clothes security in a book / stationery store [as opposed to working in one for 4 years] I saw three thieves.

*2 old age pensioners, husband and wife, stealing a refill for their Parker pen. Dumb farkers loaded it up in the store guiltily looking around the whole time... except in my direction.

**A Russian student, who I vaguely knew from my other job in the area, pinched some stationery. He probably would have been deported.

***A young punk stole an insanely expensive computer coding type manual. SQML, I think. He has me sussed, and literally ran out the store when I was distracted elsewhere. All his dodgy graffiti-crew type mates were hanging out the street to welcome him. Scumbags.

I couldn't be bothered nabbing any of them. I realised there and then that law enforcement ain't my bag, baby.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 8:57 PM on December 23, 2009


The only thing I've ever shoplifted was an eyeliner pen. Maybe if I'd shoplifted a book I could have made something of myself! *cries in shame*
posted by amyms at 9:02 PM on December 23, 2009


the book was actually put out by the government and all the bomb recipes in it were wrong. The people would then blow themselves up trying to manufacture the bombs, thus getting rid of people who would do that sort of thing.

There's actually some circumstantial evidence to that effect. First and foremost being that many of the bomb recipes are, in fact, wrong and would result in serious blow-up-itude. It also has a chapter on "manufacturing drugs" that repeats the "smoking banana peels" legend. Also, "William Powell" is a real person, and was associated with right-wing politics in college, and had no ties to radicalism. "Put out by the government" is a little much, but there's definitely something fishy about it.
posted by DecemberBoy at 9:10 PM on December 23, 2009


Another stolen Steal This Book anecdote.
posted by Tube at 9:14 PM on December 23, 2009


“It’s mostly younger men stealing the books,” he told Rabb, “They think it’s an existential rite of passage to steal their homeboy.”

I have absolutely no idea what this man is talking about.
*shuffles feet, glances guiltily about*
posted by lekvar at 9:39 PM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


I used to steal transistors from Radio Shack.

On preview... oh, dear God.
posted by CynicalKnight at 9:52 PM on December 23, 2009


In hindsight, I should have just stolen another paperback.

That was not what I was expecting.
posted by krinklyfig at 9:53 PM on December 23, 2009 [1 favorite]


In my store it seems to be a lot of Palahniuk and Vonnegut, and graphic novels. Oddly, nobody here punks Eugenides.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 10:02 PM on December 23, 2009


"Put out by the government" is a little much, but there's definitely something fishy about it.

I think it's more of an historic curiosity than a quality book of instructions on how to survive as a radical living in the underground. A lot of that book looks to me like it was pieced together from oral communications, stories people would tell each other, so there's bound to be a large amount of inaccurate information and outright urban legend. There is a good reason to keep publishing it, but a lot of people discover it when they're at the age when it seems like a secret code to some world of outlaws, not as an historic curiosity. Since the Internet has become pervasive, not sure this is true anymore. It looks sort of quaint today. But I still have my copy ...

Loompanics Unlimited did a much better job of printing and disseminating a lot of the truly underground stuff, good and bad, at least before they folded.
posted by krinklyfig at 10:02 PM on December 23, 2009


I used to work at a secondhand bookstore that had such a problem with people stealing from the "erotica" genre (yeah, yeah, I know, LOLSTICKYPAGES) that they put it right in front of the counter, so that whoever was there — usually the owner — could watch.

So it was pretty much every nervous erotica buyer's worst nightmare: the owner was watching you as you looked at the merchandise, and what's more, he was taking very careful note of exactly what you picked up, and also trying to memorize your face.

You had to really want your copy of Parisian Affair or whatever to go through that. Nevertheless, some people did.
posted by No-sword at 10:21 PM on December 23, 2009 [4 favorites]


When I was a teenager (at some point in the 1980s) I worked in a bookstore and ordered The Anarchist Cookbook for myself using Books In Print. After it came in, my boss said I couldn't order any more copies.

I did however order a bunch of Kafka hardcovers from Schloken, including his letters to Felice, which is a funny and kind of sad read I would recommend very highly.
posted by stinkycheese at 10:25 PM on December 23, 2009



When I was a teenager (at some point in the 1980s) I worked in a bookstore and ordered The Anarchist Cookbook for myself using Books In Print. After it came in, my boss said I couldn't order any more copies.


When we sold it at the bookstore I worked at, we had to take the customer's information and keep it on file in case the FBI ever wanted it.
posted by liketitanic at 10:41 PM on December 23, 2009


There is a good reason to keep publishing it, but a lot of people discover it when they're at the age when it seems like a secret code to some world of outlaws, not as an historic curiosity. Since the Internet has become pervasive, not sure this is true anymore.

My understanding was it was mostly forgotten, then experienced a resurgence during the juvenile interest in "anarchy, dude!!!" in the 1980s. I'd say the Internet has pretty much made underground books obsolete, given that you can just go and download a transcription of, say, Uncle Fester's Guide to Methamphetamine Manufacture instead of having to buy a 6th generation photocopy off some tweaker.
posted by DecemberBoy at 10:51 PM on December 23, 2009


Oddly, I got the anarchist's cookbook as an ascii file, probably off of a bbs. I didn't even know it was an actual BOOK.

This must've been some time in mid-nineties...
posted by flaterik at 10:57 PM on December 23, 2009


I've heard the same thing, only more in the line of "FBI agents looked at it, realized that anyone without a thorough grounding in chemistry safety rules (in which case they probably wouldn't need the book) would probably blow themselves up, had a laugh, and decided to let it go ahead with publication." Which is much more likely than the urban myth that the gummint tracked every single person who bought the book, a ludicrous fiction even before the advent of Xerox machines.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:07 PM on December 23, 2009


...and just noticed liketitanic's comment above. Sure, mister. Name's Benjamin Dover, although my friends call me Ben.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:09 PM on December 23, 2009


Here is my brief story about the only book I ever stole. It was Steal This Book. I was a sixteen-year old boy when it came out. What else could I do? I'm sorry, guys. You really should have put it behind the counter, as do the owners of Denver's Colfax Books in the classically seedy few blocks of the old Highway 40, hard by Colorado's largest cathedral, visited by the Pope "twenty-one years ago today." (I'm not even sure the book is still in print...the advice it gives is pretty outdated.)

What books are put in this special place? Books about sex, drugs, rock and roll, and bombs. Books by beatniks and punks and anarchists.

And what exactly is going through the mind of someone stealing The Bible? I'm guessing 1) it's the classic self-help (well, God-help) book ever, with great appeal to those who have hit bottom, in AA terms, so stealing the Book could be easily justified by an overly-addled mind.
2) Statistically, the best-selling book ever would likely be the most-stolen book ever, despite the risible paradox of stealing a book that tells you to not steal stuff...unless you're advised by God to kill every member of some tribe or another, in which case stealing one of their books, if they had any, would probably not be such a big deal.
posted by kozad at 11:37 PM on December 23, 2009


Oddly, I got the anarchist's cookbook as an ascii file, probably off of a bbs. I didn't even know it was an actual BOOK.

There were a ton of unrelated textfiles that stole the title. I'd bet that it was one of those. I don't think I ever saw a textfile transcription of the actual William Powell book (although there were about a million transcriptions of various parts of Kurt Saxon's The Poor Man's James Bond).
posted by DecemberBoy at 11:45 PM on December 23, 2009


Have you people priced Bibles lately? Not the free Gideon bibles, the OTHER ones. The Women's Everyday Study Bible With Words of Hope and Femininity in Pink Type, New American Western Standard version? They're not cheap. My slightly educated guess, based on bookstore inventories and Nigerian relay calls that just happened to want fifty Holy Bibles shipped post haste, is that Bibles are stolen because they're expensive books that people continue to buy, and thus they keep their resale value enough to provide wallet fodder for even the most unread book thief.

Why try to sort through textbooks and other higher ticket items that might depreciate, when you can stow away a nest egg with King James' finest?.
posted by redsparkler at 11:51 PM on December 23, 2009


The only book I ever stole was a paperback copy of "The Sensuous Woman" when I was twelve. My grandmother found it, declared it "filth" and ripped it up right in front of me. I had to go steal it again.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 12:43 AM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


People who steal Bibles have never stayed in a motel room? The Bibles there sometimes even contain notices encouraging one to take the tome with. Land o' goshen, there are a number of ways to get a free Bible, like maybe walk into a church and ask for one? This is really disappointing news that the Bible is one of the most frequently shoplifted books.
posted by telstar at 2:50 AM on December 24, 2009


My sixth-grade teacher had a "library" in her classroom that she let students check books out of. For some reason, I was obsessed with a book called Tales from Silver Lands even though I'd never read it. (I think it had a really nice cover.) I stole it one afternoon in the last week or two of the year.

I felt so guilty about it I never even read it, and threw it out two or three years later.

I still feel bad about that.
posted by Target Practice at 3:15 AM on December 24, 2009


When I worked at a bookstore the books that were stolen all the time were Harlequin romances and ACT and SAT study guides. We ended up having to put them behind the counter.
posted by govtdrone at 4:30 AM on December 24, 2009


I had Chuck Palahniuk sign two books before I stole them. It still feels good.
posted by clarknova at 5:26 AM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


i still steal books--but not from stores. i steal them from friends. it sounds bad, but i tell my friends that i do. no one beleives me, and then one day ... one of their books will be missing. the last book i stole was "Logotherapy" by v. frankl.

on the other hand, i don't care if people steal my books. and i never lend books--i give them away.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 7:01 AM on December 24, 2009


"Amis went out and came right back"

Nice.
posted by HumanComplex at 7:12 AM on December 24, 2009


When I had a bookstore, we didn't carry the Anarchist's Cookbook. It just seemed like it enhanced the opportunities for people to be stupid. I ordered for somebody, but it wasn't picked up.
posted by theora55 at 7:29 AM on December 24, 2009


When we sold it at the bookstore I worked at, we had to take the customer's information and keep it on file in case the FBI ever wanted it.

Were you compelled by law, or was this a voluntary effort on the part of the bookstore?
posted by krinklyfig at 7:43 AM on December 24, 2009


Another library book stealin' story: most of the copies of Madonna's Sex book never made it out of the cataloging department.
posted by marxchivist at 7:45 AM on December 24, 2009


People who steal Bibles have never stayed in a motel room? The Bibles there sometimes even contain notices encouraging one to take the tome with.

Yeah, but that's the Gideon Bible, which is a Protestant evangelical effort. It's usually the King James version (sometimes the New King James), but, you know, not good Catholics.
posted by krinklyfig at 7:46 AM on December 24, 2009


Your link #1=The Virgin Suicides says The Virgin Suicides is #2. Please explain.

Obviously, Doctor, you've never been a 13 year old girl.
posted by Babblesort at 8:13 AM on December 24, 2009


Okay, here's my bookstealing story. I challenge anyone to outgeek me in literary larceny. I was 13 and this was during the height of my obsession with roleplaying games (even though at the time I never played them because I was bullied at school and only had one friend). One system that particularly intrigued me was TSR's massive flop of a universal role playing system Amazing Engine. They really let their designers go to town on their various worlds. At the time I had two world books, Bughunters (as Wikipedia puts it: "A near future worldbook where the players are clones forced to fight the aliens") and Magitech (Wikipedia: "D&D meets Earth. Fantasy mixed with the contemporary world. Basically, how the world would be different if magic were real and elves, dwarves, etc. were around"). My local bookstore which carried every single book TSR put out (and nothing else, though there were 2 specialty stores that carried various other things) got all the Amazing Engine books. And, yes, you guessed, my one attempt at booktheft was one of the worldbooks, specifically Once and Future King (Wikipedia: "King Arthur lives in 4485 AD. Space flight, combat armor"). I was caught, the cops were called, and my parents called. My parents freaked out and so did my grandparents, who were living with us at the time because their house was being worked on. The way I coped, as a 13-year-old geek, was by ignoring the world (once my parents and grandparents had ceased to lecture me) and reading Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead, non-stop.

Anyway, to sum up, I tried to steal a book, a roleplaying book, about King Arthur in the 45th Century, riding with Lancelot, Galahad and the rest of the crew, on robot horses, robot hoverhorses. I, sirs and dames, reached a pinnacle of failed outlaw geekiness at 13 years old that has few comparisons.
posted by Kattullus at 4:14 PM on December 24, 2009


Kattullus, I was also busted for stealing D&D stuff at around that age. We had a team with lookouts and loaded up with a dozen books or more. The bulging bag as big as we were gave it away. We all ran, but one friend was caught by the arm, I'll never forget the image. Cops showed up at the house later that night. End of shoplifting career. Start of something worse: quiet violence (computers).
posted by stbalbach at 4:49 PM on December 24, 2009


Okay, points for having an organized D&D thieving ring. Advantage: stbalbach. But did the books you stole prominently feature robot hoverhorses on the cover? I think not. Match point: Kattullus!

The title of Geekiest Bookthief retained!
posted by Kattullus at 4:57 PM on December 24, 2009


I worked at a coffee shop adjacent to a B&N when I was a teenager (this was before having a cafe inside the store got big, in the early 1990s).

I won't admit what I did back then, but I am glad to know that I was not alone.

I justified my habit with the idea that "knowledge should be free."

(And all those awesome books are in boxes at my parents' house...)
posted by k8t at 6:24 PM on December 24, 2009


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