The shoplifted book no longer has the value it once had. The days when the grey economy used the book as a sort of alternative unit of currency appear over. Have you tried to offload any old books lately? Even those charity plastic sacks which collect jumble are now marked ‘no books please’.
It’s hard to credit but at one time pre-owned copies of most things held their value. Even Book Club editions could be resold for something. Journalists with their review copy stacks could lug them to the market and get back at least enough for wine and a steak dinner. In the hippie era Abbie Hoffman published a guide to alternative life called Steal This Book. I had it on the racks in my shop. £4.50 a copy. How many actually left the store under people’s coats? Quite a few.
Copies of Stewart Williams’s much sought after Cardiff In Old Photographs were the book economy’s equivalent of the US dollar. Copies were stolen in quantity. Fly boys entered the L-shaped Cardiff arcade branch of John Menzies through the north door, lifted a handful of volumes and slipped back out silently through the exit to the south. The second hand store at the end of Bridge Street was their destination. Turnover was high and fast until the owner cottoned on to what was happening. Identifying marks were inserted in the backs of the books and the culprits apprehended.
Techniques varied. It was never the person you suspected, either. The man in the smelly greatcoat, the one with the shifty eyes and the long fingernails. Did he steal your art titles? Almost never. Those left, unpaid for, in the hands of neatly suited businessmen or women with prams.
There was a man who always came in chewing. He spent an age with books containing maps or prints. Always left buying nothing. We thought he was doing research, completing his MA here in store. He turned out to be chewing string. When this was suitably wet he’d lay it along the inside spine next to a desirable map. The dampness would seep into the paper and after ten minutes or so he was able to slide out the print without making any sort of tearing sound. Up his sleeve it went. Sold on to the antique market the same day.
Some worked in pairs. One would cause a diversion such as accidentally upending a spinner. In the ensuing chaos his partner would fill a briefcase with desirables. My shop always prosecuted. I always ran after miscreants. Off we’d go, streaming up the street with books flying everywhere. Make a scene and they won’t come back. Seemed to work.
Steal This Book has recently been reprinted. Copies sold vastly outrank those lifted.
An version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday, 15th May, 2010. Not many Western Mails get shoplifted, I'm told.