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Features

A bookseller’s guide to book thieves

In some places, it’s the Ottolenghis that have to be kept behind the counter. In others, it’s the true crime

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

Notoriously, during the riots in London five years ago, Waterstones was the only high-street shop that wasn’t looted. But that depressing lack of book-pinching belied a thriving -tendency. Think of a bookshop and you think of a musty, hushed spot where people browse and whisper. In fact, it is thick with thieves.

As a bookseller, I’ve encountered many a thief over the years. Most dramatic was the Mr Men thief, who used to steal a whole shelf of these tiny children’s books every couple of months. One afternoon I emerged from the stockroom to find the shelf newly emptied. ‘The Mr Men thief!’ I called out to my colleague. ‘It must be her!’ he said, pointing to a woman in an unseasonably bulky coat, carrying a sizeable shopping bag, exiting the shop. ‘Stop!’ we shouted, running after her into the street. ‘Stop, thief!’ To our astonishment, she leapt into a waiting getaway car and was off. No doubt Mr Speedy was in the driver’s seat.

I used to wonder what became of these hundreds of Mr Men books: was there a child somewhere demanding a new one each day? Then I happened upon a bookstall at a local street market where a great many were for sale at knockdown prices.

Stealing to sell is one of the most common causes of book theft. A bookseller who worked in Notting Hill told me that the same novels by Gabriel García Márquez, Graham Greene, Haruki Murakami and Ernest Hemingway were always going astray, and the very same titles were being sold — remarkably cheaply — at a stall nearby on Portobello Road. Frustratingly, nothing could be proved… or could it? He decided to make subtle markings on certain pages of the books. Then, so the plan went, he could examine the copies on the stall for the same markings.

A few weeks and several missing copies later, he ventured to the suspect stall, only to find it presided over by such a ‘big, scary-looking chap’ that, alas, he lost his nerve.

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Sometimes it isn’t just one person doing the liberating. At one point, Lonely Planet and Dorling Kindersley guidebooks were stolen in vast quantities, ending up for sale at a stall under Waterloo Bridge. Or so we conjectured. One bookseller told me it had been a highly organised operation: a veritable army of ne’er-do-wells were commissioned by a modern, bookish Fagin character to source books from pretty much every travel section in London.

If this is the most extensive instance of stealing for sale, then the most outlandish was a story told to me by a bookseller who used to work in Birmingham. Again, it features a ‘scary-looking’ man who frequented the shop. My friend suspected this fellow of stealing lots of their books on the occult, but was faced with the same difficulty of proving it. That is until a local group of Satanists saved the day by reporting to the police someone who had tried to sell them cheap books on black magic.

Not all thieves have profiteering in mind. Many want to keep the swag for themselves. I know of one Hampstead bookshop where Ottolenghi cookbooks are kept behind the till. It seems certain food-obsessed customers have already forked out so much for pomegranates and za’atar that coughing up an additional £25 for the recipes seemed too great an expense to ensure their dinner parties remained de rigueur.

In the bookshop where I work, the T.S. Eliot was forever going walkabout. My sadness at the theft was somewhat assuaged by my pleasure in the fact that people were so desperate to read his poems. Classic set texts like The Great Gatsby and A View from the Bridge often disappear from the shelves into the pockets of impoverished students.

One bookseller tells me she was working in Nottingham when a book about the city’s gangs was published. For a few weeks the shop was filled with terrifying men wanting to see their names in print. So many copies of the book were stolen that before too long — like the Ottolenghis in Hampstead — it had to be kept behind the till.

Theft can also be politically motivated. When Roger Scruton’s book On Hunting kept going astray, booksellers suspected that anti-hunt activists were removing it because they were keen to prevent anyone reading it and to deny Scruton sales.

But perhaps the main reason books get stolen is that thieves know they can get away with it. After all, security in bookshops tends to be relatively lax and old-fashioned. Many stores don’t have CCTV and few have security guards. Often, the only deterrent to crime is a bespectacled waif at the till.

Stealing books is not, I think, wholly bad. The most recent thief to target my bookshop ignored all the stock in favour of nicking an iPhone and laptop from the staff room. I found this depressing. At least if books still get stolen, alongside smartphones and sportswear, then we can find some comfort in the knowledge that they remain objects of value.

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