Sunday, March 02, 2008


Best Anti-Sellers

Paul Constant in the week's issue of The Stranger on chasing bookstore thieves:
I chased them down crowded pedestrian plazas in the afternoon, I chased them through alleys at night, I even chased one into a train tunnel. I chased a book thief to the waterfront, where he shouted, "Here are your fucking books!" and threw a half-dozen paperbacks, including Bomb the Suburbs and A People's History of the United States, into Puget Sound, preferring to watch them slowly sink into the muck rather than hand them back to the bookseller they were stolen from....

Once, a scruffy, large man approached me, holding a folded-up piece of paper. "Do you have any Buck?" He paused and looked at the piece of paper. "Any books by Buckorsick?" I suspected that he meant Bukowski, but I played dumb, and asked to see the piece of paper he was holding. It was written in crisp handwriting that clearly didn't belong to him, and it read:

1. Charles Bukowski

2. Jim Thompson

3. Philip K. Dick

4. William S. Burroughs

5. Any Graphic Novel

This is pretty much the authoritative top five, the New York Times best-seller list of stolen books. Its origins still mystify me. It might have belonged to an unscrupulous used bookseller who sent the homeless out, Fagin-like, to do his bidding...
Not an entirely crazy notion, since a bookseller in Ann Arbor was busted last week for doing exactly that. When I was living in the Haight in the mid-90s, there was a huge bust of a multimillion dollar Bay Area book theft ring run by John Capman, the owner of the Writer's Bookstore over on Webster Street. (Capman's house, rather inconveniently for him, had 89 cartons of stolen books in it when he was arrested.)

The MO never changes much: jackets with special pockets for art books are de rigeur. Over twenty years ago, one bookseller complained in a letter to the Times:

For many years, I purchased books for and managed large bookshops in the Rockefeller Center area and in the World Trade Center. When I was first alerted to the rings of professional book thieves I was stunned, appalled, enraged and frustrated.

Some thieves have special pockets made in coats or jackets to hold what we term in the trade a ''pocket of books,'' that is, five or six copies of a title. These men are slick. They wait for an opportune moment and are in and out, often with as much as $500 to $1,000 of books at a clip...

Some have more than 100 arrests. They get off, so police action is mostly a lost cause. Before Brentano's closed, the head of security gave me his rogues gallery of photos of the top 10 pros in the area. I posted the photos near the door. One of my regulars stopped by to tell me the picture of him was not flattering. Once I shouted, ''Stop you rotten thief!'' The retort was: ''I am not rotten. I am the best!''
The choicest titles for thieves -- what Constant brilliantly labels Best Anti-sellers -- also haven't changed much. In a 1999 article for SF Weekly, Jack Boulware nails the eternal best anti-seller:
"A lot of film books, a lot of Bukowski," says a clerk at City Lights in North Beach, when asked about local shoplifting tastes.

"I have, in the past, locked up Kerouac and Bukowski," says Jude Sales, manager of A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books.

"Always Bukowski," says Gary Frank, of the Booksmith in the Upper Haight.

"Bukowski!" exclaims a clerk at Modern Times in the Mission. "I just had to stop someone last week, who was taking the entire section!"

"I would have to say Bukowski," says a clerk at Green Apple Books in the Richmond.

Also vying for top honors, according to Book People in Austin: the King James Bible.

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