Flying Off the Shelves
The Pleasures and Perils of Chasing Book Thieves
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. I chased a book thief to the waterfront, where he shouted, "Here are your fucking books!" and threw a half-dozen paperbacks, including Bomb the Suburbs and A People's History of the United States, into Puget Sound, preferring to watch them slowly sink into the muck rather than hand them back to the bookseller they were stolen from. He had that ferocious, orgasmic gleam in his eye of somebody who was living in the climax of his own movie: I suppose he felt like he was liberating them somehow.
To work in an independent bookstore is to always be aware of shoplifters. It can devour you; you can spend all your time watching people, wondering if they're watching you. Every shoplifter caught is a major victory against the forces of darkness; every one who escapes is another 10 minutes kept awake at night with gnashing teeth.
I know a few booksellers who have literally been driven a little bit crazy at the thought of their inventory evaporating out the door, and with good reason: An overabundance of shoplifters can put bookstores out of business. One local bookstore owner can famously talk about shoplifters with total strangers for hours, with the detail and passion that some people reserve for sexual conquests.
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.
Most used bookstores try to avoid buying unread-looking books from the list above, but they do always sell, and so any crook who figures out how to roll a spine can turn a profit pretty easily. The list of popular books is surprisingly static, although newer artists have earned their place in the pantheon with Hunter S. Thompson and the Beats: Palahniuk, Murakami, and Danielewski have become hugely popular antisellers in the last five years. I've had hundreds of dollars of graphic novels—Sandman, Preacher, The Dark Knight Returns—lifted from right under my nose all at once. Science fiction and fantasy are high in demand, too: The coin of the realm is now, and has always been, the fiction that young white men read, and self-satisfied young white men, the kind who love to stick it to the man, are the majority of book shoplifters.
When I worked at a big-box chain bookstore, shoplifters never crossed my mind; the corporation paid security guards for that. Employees were told not to get involved. The legal issues were too Byzantine for us peons to understand. The guards, instead, created problems: We had to fire one for masturbating in the children's section.
But independent booksellers, understanding that the line between profit and failure is so fine, take it personally, and sprint after thieves all the time. On the rare occasion when a shoplifter would run faster than I could, I would shout at his back as he escaped into the city: "Why don't you steal from a fucking corporate bookstore, you asshole?" None of them ever responded. They just kept running.