Steal these books!

Gabe Habash at PW blogged about the sort of subject that gives me flashbacks to being screamed at by shoppers: the most frequently stolen books.  As I’ve mentioned, I toiled away in college at a bookstore in the West Village.  That particular store had a few factors influencing the selection of stolen lit, including the general romance of the Beat Generation’s heyday in the neighborhood, proximity to NYU’s “campus,” and a table out front selling books of, shall we say, questionable provenance.

So as not to unduly disparage the table seller of books, I’m sure many of them come by their wares honestly.  I once tutored a very nice man in basic computer skills through a volunteer program, and he turned out to be a guy who sells books on the street and had emails from publishers he bought books from.  I don’t even know if the particular gentleman whose selection mirrored what our store suspiciously lacked still sells books anymore at all, much less at that spot.  What I do know is that one day my colleague went out on his lunch break, walked immediately back inside, walked over to an end cap and glanced down at the empty floor, went back outside, and returned a minute later with the 25 copies of Randy Tamborelli’s Madonna bio that used to sit in front of that end cap before mysteriously disappearing a couple hours earlier, still with the company’s 50% off stickers affixed to the front.  The guy at the table apparently had no objection to their returning to their rightful home.  (He also once accosted Whoopi Goldberg as I was ringing up her purchase to tell her she is his favorite actress.  This is unrelated, but awesome.)

Anyway, our most stolen list was similar in many ways to those linked above, though I can’t recall anyone stealing Martin Amis.  We did lose all the rest of those, in abundance.  We also, repeatedly, lost an entire shelf of Paulo Coelho books.  So we lost the beat generation, we lost the sort of books you could sell to NYU kids, and we lost the kinds of books that sell well on the street.  We then started shelving all those authors on the shelves you could only reach by rolling ladder, so that when customers asked for them, we wouldn’t have to say, “Yes, we have 5 copies right…here.  Sorry.  Can I order that for you?”

This led to its own special problem, which is the aforementioned screaming customers.  Some people found this whole thing interesting from a sociological perspective, but there were people who did not take kindly to the implication that people who read the sort of books they like are also thieves.  I can see why people would be offended, but we would try to calmly explain that we totally understood their frustration, but knew from repeated experience that if the books were placed on shelves, we wouldn’t have any to sell, and no, we didn’t like that either, but knew that we had customers like them who would be happy to buy from us and wanted to make sure we could meet their needs.  I’d say about ½ the angry people calmed down upon explanation that we were not merely book bigots, but it wasn’t unusual for others to call me choice names and storm out.

In my last year or so of employment, the store cracked down on security and theft definitely declined.  (Prior to that, either the Village Voice or the New York Press named the company as the best to steal from in their annual best of NYC roundup, erroneously claiming that the company didn’t prosecute offenders.)  The thieves we had left were regulars.  They were scary.  Several of them had elaborate return scams.  One of those, who almost made me cry the time I caught him, seemed like he might have a side job in organized crime.  Many others coupled their theft with seemingly rather intense drug addictions.  Another guy was super friendly to cover up the fact that he was in fact robbing us blind, but he was really good at it, so it took ages to catch him out on it, and when he tried to return to me an art book that no one had ever purchased from the store with a fake receipt, it was one of the most tense moments of my life.

I bet those of you who haven’t worked retail didn’t realize it was so fraught with peril, eh?  Thanks for letting me unburden my brushes with the criminal element.  I’ll be sending your therapy invoice to PW for bringing up this whole mess.

2 Responses to Steal these books!

  1. Giora says:

    Thanks for the blog, Lauren. Interesting topic. I’m familiar with shoplifting, but was unaware that booklifting is also common. And yes, living at NYU campus for four years, with the many diverse groups of people around Washington Square Park, I can picture scary people coming to the bookstore that you described. Hopefully, you don’t have these tense moments anymore in your life now .. and have a wonderful weekend.

  2. Stephanie says:

    I found the original post on PW, and yours, fascinating. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised; I worked retail and know how much effort and planning thieves put into not having to pay for stuff. At the bookstore I worked for (a Christian retailer) there were one or two commonly stolen CDs we couldn’t keep on the shelf. Since they sold so many Bibles, I don’t know if they were often stolen or not. We did see a lot of return scams though, like a totally beat-up bible attempting to replace for a brand new one, no receipt etc. I think people thought because it was a bible we should have just “been nice” and given them a new copy out of religious obligation; as if the publishing costs mean nothing.

    There are a LOT of weird people out there. Bless any of you in retail for dealing with them. When I worked for a big-box retailer, all the full-timers were on a waiting list to work the night shift doing inventory and unpacking crates. Why? No customers.

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