If the New York Times were to compile a “Most Stolen Books” list, near the top would be the Beat Generation classics “Howl,” by Alan Ginsberg, and “On the Road,” by Jack Kerouac. Also up there, not surprisingly, would be “Steal This Book,” the popular ’70s hippie guide on how to live for free, by Abbie Hoffman.
And topping the list, in some cities at least, would be none other than the Holy Bible itself.
“It’s true, it’s absolutely true,” said Kevin Finn, the manager at Book People, an independent bookstore in Austin, Texas. “The most shoplifted book is the Bible.”
Why? “Perhaps people feel the Bible should be free,” he said. “The average King James Bible with a zipper is about 35 bucks.”
Nationwide, bookstores net about $16 billion in sales every year, according to the American Booksellers Association; and the several prominent stores polled around the country for this article estimated that they lose anywhere from 1 percent to 5 percent to theft, some hundreds of millions a year, and much of it during the frenzied activity generated by the Christmas season.
As more independent bookstores close because of rising costs and stiff competition, limiting “shrinkage,” or unaccounted-for losses, may mean the difference in ending up in the red or the black.
Some book thieves are clearly literary Jean Valjeans — desperately poor, yet so ravenous with desire to consume a good book, even the Good Book, that they steal it. However, bookstore owners say that most thieves fall short of such romantic notions.
“The people you catch stealing are not the ones you expect,” said David Didriksen, owner of Willow Books in Acton, Mass. “Many times they drive off in a BMW. It’s recreational.”
He said a doctor who was recently caught stealing from his store would buy a few books but would also fill up his bag with unpurchased titles, until the surveillance cameras finally caught him at it. A regular customer, the man was friendly with the staff, to the point that he even brought in fruitcake as a holiday gift last year.
At the Book People in Austin, a well-dressed older woman would come in and frequently chat up the clerks. But something about her seemed strange, said Finn, the manager, so they kept an eye on her.
“One day she very surreptitiously, but in plain view, dropped something into her purse,” he said. “The employee said, ‘Excuse me, ma’am, but did you pay for that book in your purse?’ and immediately she said, ‘I’m on medication, and I’m not supposed to do this! I really want to come back in the store.’ Did she do it to get caught? You have to wonder.”
“You never know where it’s going to come from,” said Finn, who looks for certain behavioral clues to tip him off. If the person seems nervous or is glancing around a lot to see who is watching, he will home in. “I look for ‘tells’ more than types.”
To combat theft, stores are increasingly using technology like video cameras and electromagnetic strips. The strips stick to the book cover or are hidden between the pages. If a strip isn’t deactivated at the checkout counter it will trip sensors at the door and sound the alarm. However, the cost of tracking every book can be prohibitive.
Additionally, some thieves have figured out that using aluminum-lined bags and coats can thwart the sensors. Some independent stores on a tight budget have installed faux sensor gates at the door, in hopes of deterring potential shoplifters.
In addition to technology, many stores end up relying on old-fashioned customer service to keep potential lifters in line. “If we think something is going on, we swarm them. All of a sudden they’re killed with kindness,” said Dana DeVito, the manager of the Moravian Bookstore in Bethlehem, Pa.
Most owners and managers agree that meeting someone’s eye is the best deterrent. “If there’s anybody that you suspect, you can just say, ‘Hi, can I help you?’ and keep their eye contact a little bit longer and smile in a creepy way,” said Kevin Ryan, manager at Green Apple Books in San Francisco.
Once a shoplifter is caught, there’s often little an owner can do but ban the person from the store. At Green Apple Books a customer had such a nervous demeanor that the clerks called the local police officer and waited for the man outside. When they stopped him, his overcoat was stuffed with stolen books, but the officer wasn’t going to arrest him. “It’s considered a nuisance crime,” said Ryan, adding that the district attorney rarely prosecutes for shoplifting. “But it’s not just a nuisance to us,” he said.
In addition to the stolen books, the officer also discovered that the man was carrying three different driver’s licenses, which is a felony, so he was arrested for that instead.
“It’s very frustrating and expensive to prosecute,” said Didriksen from Willow Books. “You have to take a lot of time off work” to spend in court. Then the judges usually let the person go, or they receive a suspended sentence, he said. “People go into jewelry stores and steal thousands of dollars worth of stuff. With a couple of books, it’s hard to get judges to take that seriously.”
In addition to impulsive shoplifters, bookstores are increasingly dealing with retail crime networks that use the Internet to resell the goods.
“It used to be that hot books weren’t really that hot,” said Didriksen. In years past, professional thieves went after expensive art and architecture books with high resale values.
Last summer several bookstores in the Northeast, including his own, fell victim to a crime ring that targeted best sellers. “The South Beach Diet Book” was getting stolen en masse. Someone would walk in, grab six or seven volumes and run out.