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Jeremy Lassen
Posted on Friday, August 22, 2003 - 12:15 pm:   

I have to thank you again for your Geeks with books column... Shoplifting is a HUGE problem for bookstores, and the shop I work at is being targeted by someone who is incredibly audacious.... in the last six months, dozens of trade paper and hardcover copies of "The Sandman" graphic novels have been stolen...

Not because the theif is a Gaiman fan, but becaus he knows that used bookstore will almost universally buy Sand Man Graphic novels. The problem is so bad, we've moved the graphic novel section towards the front of the store, by the register, and have removed all overstock copies out of the section so it is easier to spot when they go missing. And we have a possible description. But sadly, the theft continues...

It is frustrating to have to give every customer who comes in the hairy eyeball, and watch them like they are a thief, but that is what we have been reduced to doing. :-(

I pity this fool when we finally catch him in the act (which we will, eventually...)
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Rick Klaw
Posted on Sunday, August 24, 2003 - 12:23 pm:   

Thanks for the kind words, Jeremy. When I first ran this column (over a year ago), I got a letter (reprinted below) presenting the other side of the story. At the time, I sent it out to several bookseller friends, who mostly sent back responses about baseball bats and knees. I've decided to run it here for all the world to see. All the mispellings, etc. are the author's own.

Dear Mr. Klaw,

Yes I am one of THOSE. I must say that I haven't stolen books for close to five years now, mostly, I will admit, because I haven't been tempted by anything. Seeing your column leads me to present "my side of the story." You are welcome to "publish" any or all of this, just as long as you don't identify me. If you decide to "out" me
I will of course deny everything, or attribute my knowledge of book-stealing to a close friend's deathbed confession. I'm not proud of it, but then again neither am I deeply moved to return the books I stole or saddened by the demise of one bookstore or another. It was something I did
mainly when I was younger and did other things like hitch-hiking and unsafe sex and forgetting to brush my teeth ;-)

First, while I am not religious, I don't pretend to believe that theft is moral or defendable on the basis of screwing over big business or any other such justification. In my case, though at first there was the thrill of the theft, I was very soon over that, realizing that one of the best things I could do for myself in this endeavour was to make it routine and non-stressful (within limits). Apparently new security systems may be able to detect infra-red emissions from people to detect heightened stress
levels. After the initial period I began doing it strictly to obtain books which I wanted to read but could not afford -- never to resell them. Yes, I did make up justifications for stealing certain books, some great classics of fantasy and science-fiction I felt were much better in my hands than moldering in some back-water bookstore, others I stole when the bookdealer was hard-nosed about the price or outright insulting about my limited funds, and some I simply stole because I wanted them and to hell with principles. Oddly enough, there have been a handful of bookdealers from whom I never stole anything. This wasn't because they had high-tech security, reasonably priced books or anything else, these were simply people I had a reader-seller relationship with, a relationship that extended well beyond simple monetary transactions. In this regard I must agree with you that forming a good relationship with the customer is probably the best anti-theft device out there.

Most of my book stealing, probably some three dozen or so instances, were done in second-hand bookstores rather than big chain stores. I never got caught, though I knew, on a few occasions, that it was best to return certain items to the bookshelves before leaving the shop. Well, I don't want to make this into a tips for book-thieves, but I would like to maybe expose some of my methods (and presumably those of others who do the same). These apply to three basic types of sites at which to steal books: libraries, used book stores, and commercial (new) bookstores.

Librairies: well some, I must say, just scream "steal my books!" The better university libraries I have been to have a human being checking through any bags or possible sites of concealment at the exit, this was a sign for me of "don't even bother". Now of course not all libraries have the budget to have full-time bag-searchers, but many do have magnetic detectors. At first this might seem a daunting barrier, but it really isn't. Besides libraries which leave open windows or unattended open back doors, which are an open invitation to theft, some of the new automated bar code-based checkout systems lend themselves to nearly risk-free theft. Until recently one such system in a local university didn't even have video monitoring. With these systems, as long as you are a student or patron of
the library, a machine scans a bar code on your card, then the bar code on the book, demagnetizes the book, and out you go. How, do you steal a book, say a first edition of Charles Dickens' "The Old Curiosity Shop?" Take another book, say "Chemistry of the Halides" by Dr. Fred Jones, photocopy its bar-code, cut out the bar code and place it over the bar code of the
book you wish to steal. Now, instead of checking out Dickens, the computer has you as having checked out a chemistry text, but the Dickens is
demagnetized and the chemistry text is not. You now put the chemistry text back in the "Return" slot and within a few hours it will have been checked in as returned. Meanwhile, you walk out with Dickens under your arm. Ok, maybe if you're really paranoid you can wear gloves, sunglasses and a hooded sweat shirt, but this is more likely to draw attention, something you want to avoid as much as possible.


If such a check out system isn't in place, and of course this would assume you would have borrowing priviledges, there are still other ways. New
books are more of a problem as frequently the anti-theft devices are built into the book spine itself; without tearing apart the book there's not much you can do. I suppose that if you're a professional book thief you might have a portable book demagnetizer, but this also makes it quite clear what you were up to if you get caught; otherwise, you can always claim the book inadvertantly found it's way among your books. However, for the majority of older books stealing them is a matter of spending the time to "disarm"
them. Various magnetizable metal strips are either glued between two pages near the spine, or inside the spine, all you need to do is peel it off and walk out with the book, you just need to be careful to check for multiple strips and make sure none of the metallic material has remained behind. Obviously you want to avoid doing this in the main study room in front of dozens of witnesses, but usually most large libraries have obscure little corners, where you can appear to be reading the latest issue of "Dairy Herdman" while you "fix" the book.

For second hand book stores a lot depends on the layout of the store, who is working the cash, and how hard-nosed they are about enforcing no bag/packsack policies. Generally, you're better off when the hired-help is running the shop as they don't have the same incentive to catch shoplifters as would the owner. One ploy which I have used almost under the nose of the bookstore attendant is to open my backpack (drop in the desired book) and emerge with my wallet to pay for a second, possibly throw-away book. Another, particularly for paperbacks, is to bring in a bookmark or bus transfer and insert it in the book before simply putting it in your back
pocket - sometimes having it out in the open allays suspicion - and if you get called on it, the bookmark strongly suggests you had the book with you when you entered the store. Another trick, particularly with new books in large chain stores, is tag-swapping. This can include having a pencil with an eraser and simply erasing the "2" in $25 (most secondhand stores mark prices in pencil), or swapping price labels. When it comes to price labels this can be tricky, some labels are designed to fragment into many pieces
if you try to unstick them - in this case you need to hunt around a little and find a lower priced book where the label was either put over the edge of the cover or was not well stuck, then it's usually possible to make the transfer cleanly, in such a way that it isn't clear that the label has been tampered with. Sometimes, particularly in the case of new book stores the
discount labels seem to be printed on paper resembling thermo-fax paper,with a surface that crumbles when bent, again it's important to look for labels which will require a minimum of prying to get them off intact.

Now, I guess every shoplifter has his "greatest job" story, so here's mine. I went to a small bookstore in the rural Northeast U.S. where I'd been before. The prices on a number of early adventure novels were exorbitant, or at least, way, way past my budget. It was a nice spring day so the store had both the front store door open and the garage door which led to the book section open. The attendant (not the owner) was busy with a client, I walked into the garage, neatly filled my backpack with close to
20 books, brought it out and left it on a bench outside. I then went in to the section of the store where the attendant was, he even asked me if I had a bag to leave at the cash, I assured him I had left my bag outside on the bench, he smiled and thanked me. I found a book of mild interest, returned to the cash and bought it, engaging the attendant in a short conversation
about the subject matter of the book. It has been my experience that it is much safer stealing books when you actually boldly go up to the cash and buy something. In the end I simply walked on down the road with an awfully heavy backpack.

When it comes to the big chain bookstores simply walking out with books in a bag or pocket simply isn't worth the risk, it's just plain dumb.
However, tag swapping is a technique that can get you a substantial "discount" and in worse case you just pay the full price, Also, it's harder
to prove tag swapping than it is if you're found with a book concealed in your coat. Certainly in a big store it's a good idea to identify, if
possible, the location of the video cameras and shop personnel and - yes - other customers, so you don't advertise the swap to the world.

Overall, perhaps the best advice to anyone wishing to take up this particular form of shoplifting is (i) get over the moral issues, the thrill and jitteryness; calmness and quick thinking can still extricate you from dicey situations, (ii) buy something in the store and make eye contact and light but not contrived conversation with the person at the cash, and most
of all (ii) if the situation doesn't feel right, just put the books back, there's always another day or another bookstore. This being said, I don't encourage anyone to steal books, or anything else for that matter. I now have a family and children so the risks now far outweigh those I faced as a single man, still there are times when I'm in a bookstore and the place
just screams "My owner is so naive/stupid that he invites you to a free sampling of your choice." Well now, I walk away, but I sure know I'd be
watching customers like a hawk if I was running a bookstore.

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