Stealing from Bookstores


There’s an underground economy of boosted books. These values are commonly understood and roundly agreed upon through word of mouth, and the values always seem to be true. 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, or it might have been another book thief helping a semi-illiterate friend identify the valuable merchandise.

Posted on March 13, 2008 at 1:06 PM31 Comments


mfheadcase March 13, 2008 2:18 PM

@yeah: it is actually… The top five stolen titles are pretty close to niche market titles when looking at actual purchases, and four of the top five tend toward either a hard boiled or mindfuck sensibility. I mean i could understand if the most stolen list coincided with best seller lists… but instead they go after niche titles.

librarian March 13, 2008 2:50 PM

I’m only shocked there was no mention of religious books. the booksellers and other librarians I’ve talked to find that any kind of religious book has higher shrinkage even than graphic novels.

MikeA March 13, 2008 3:16 PM

“Steal This Book”?
I found my copy abandoned on a bench in a bus terminal. I suppose I did steal it, technically.

But anyway, this smells like an Urban Legend, or one ethically-challenged person’s personal list.

As for “best sellers”, those are typically so wildly over-printed that “shrinkage” from inside jobs, however small, is enough to satisfy the market.

Verbal March 13, 2008 3:23 PM

I know one store that keeps Kerouac and Burroughs behind the counter because they’re the most commonly shoplifted authors.

Puckgang Wolf March 13, 2008 3:26 PM

Please explain why this is fascinating. The whole subculture? Why they don’t use RFIDs?

Isn’t it just as fascinating the people who eat a huge meal at Cracker Barrel or 20.21 and then walk out without paying?

Poormojo March 13, 2008 3:31 PM

I used to manage a bookstore in San Francisco. We caught shoplifters several times a day. Once we caught a man with a backpack full of computer books and when the police came to pick him up they searched him and found heroin and also a tattered print out of hundreds of book names and ISBNs and the cost that some person or organization was willing to pay shoplifters for the books.

It was rather eye opening.

Show some respect March 13, 2008 3:49 PM

Gah, have some manners! It’s Bruce’s blog. If he thinks it’s interesting, then it is to him. If you don’t, just smile and nod. I don’t know why you’d snark your host when you are a guest.

scott March 13, 2008 6:00 PM

It’s fascinating because it illustrates that someone will go through a whole lot of trouble to steal something that you don’t particularly care about.

The public perception is very much one of, “Steal a paper book? Why would you do that?”

There are two people who think differently – the one who finds out that there’s good money in it, and the retailer (the victim).

I would draw a parallel with internet privacy – it’s not something that people care very much about. The general public hasn’t done very much thinking about it, and doesn’t greatly care… “Internet privacy? Why would anyone care about my trivial information?”

Again the only two people who care are the clever exploiter, who finds a way to make criminal profit, and the victim. The victim, who didn’t care previously, learns to care, but only after its too late.

Adam W March 13, 2008 7:52 PM

So THAT’S why I can never find any books by these authoris on the shelves…

They’re mostly out-of-print by the way

Charles Bukowski March 13, 2008 7:59 PM

Fascinating? Really? You’re going to stick with fascinating?

Other than squid blogging, this is the least fascinating thing topic I’ve seen on this normally interesting and informative site.

David March 13, 2008 10:18 PM

Heh. What’s interesting is that Philip K. Dick, one of my favorite SF writers, is in the top 5 of stolen books on the NYT’s best seller list. Now that is an unsolicited endorsement.

Anonymous March 14, 2008 6:23 AM

It’s interesting to me as my copy of Bruce’s Secrets and Lies seems to have been stolen en route to me from Amazon.

Uncle Leo Says March 14, 2008 8:44 AM

I’m old! I don’t know any better. Have you seen my mommy?

Art imitating life (al la Seinfeld), or something more sinister?

raimundo March 14, 2008 10:45 AM

I was looking on wikipedia, under the name terry prachett, and found a reference that said that his books are the most shoplifted books in the UK, the word shoplifting was highlighted, so I clicked on it and came to a wiki article that seemed to detail numerous shoplifting schemes for individuals and teams working in britain.
this was interesting to notice, and I mentioned it on barry wels blackbag blog, comments, later the article dissappeared.

marbledclay March 14, 2008 10:56 AM

A means of acquiring desired books that I have observed might not be feasible everywhere; I hope that it is not.

In the public library system here, certain librarians—including library branch managers—have been allowed a large degree of discretion as to which books and other materials are to be weeded. I know of one librarian who considered books that were not recently published, and books on subjects that she considered to be above the level of that branch’s users, to be prime candidates for weeding. Weeded books and other weeded materials are usually sold cheap at annual library book sales staffed by volunteers from the friends-of-the-library-organization. Unless there’s been a change, members of that organization—and library staff, I presume—can select and box in advance weeded books and materials that they wish to personally purchase. Some of the books would have resale value whole, and some have artistic plates or maps that could be removed and sold.

Snarki, child of Loki March 14, 2008 11:45 AM

off topic, but what the hell:

…drivers are more likely to hit cyclists wearing helmets, because they are psychologically inclined to give bare-headed riders more space.

Which is why you should always wear a wig glued on the outside of your bike helmet. Makes the drivers notice you more, too.

moo March 14, 2008 1:50 PM

That actually is pretty interesting, and I have no idea why a couple of posters above feel the need to complain about you posting it. Any type of retail store has problems with shoplifters (except maybe a gun shop), but when I think of shoplifters I think of them stealing CDs from a music store, or Lego sets from Toys-R-Us or nearly-worthless crap from Walmart.

Computer books in particular can cost $100 or more if you buy them new, so its not surprising that shoplifters can make money off those. They’re as expensive as university textbooks, but the audience that might buy them is considerably wider than the audience for most university textbooks.

It is surprising to me that anyone bothers to steal novels which could be purchased brand new for $10. I mean (1) why would shoplifters bother stealing something thats only worth a couple of bucks–max–when they fence it, and (2) are there really people who are too cheap to buy novels for $10 new instead of buying them for $4 used? I probably own about a thousand books, and the only ones I bought used were old sci-fi or spy novels that I got for 25 cents at a flea market or something. And I would buy them new if I ever saw them on the shelf, just to have a copy that is not old and worn! I hadn’t considered that there are people who care more about saving $5 on the purchase of a book than about getting a nice new, untattered copy.

Skorj March 14, 2008 3:03 PM

It’s “fascinating” to me because there’s a large and growing culture of circulating electronic copies of popular books – sort of like MP3s for the literate.

It would seem to be a lot more difficult to physically steal a book than to just find a torrent, much as it’s a lot more difficult to shoplift a CD than to find the MP3.

Chris March 15, 2008 11:13 AM

Something I find far more interesting than stealing books, are people doing reverse shoplifting. Smuggling their creations INTO a store and placing it on a shelf for someone else to find and purchase.

My friend and I at work joke all the time that we should make some geek humour cards, print them with the same bar codes as other cards, and sneek them into card shops and see how long it takes for a purchaser to contact/find us.

Kadin2048 March 15, 2008 6:01 PM

I hadn’t considered that there are people who care more about saving $5 on the purchase of a book than about getting a nice new, untattered copy.

That’s kind of silly, or at least not particularly perceptive. If everyone cared so much about getting a brand-new copy, used book stores wouldn’t exist.

Lots of people just want the content in a legible form, without caring too much about the packaging.

Doug Coulter March 16, 2008 12:18 AM

As an author, my ears really perked up when Tim O’Reilly mentioned that shoplifting hurts authors much more than unauthorized copying does. With today’s Just In Time computer inventory systems, this means the store doesn’t know to re-order your book, and since it’s gone, it can’t be seen or sold until a manual inventory discovers the discrepancy, usually too late for it to do much good if your content has any time sensitivity, as most computer books do.

Not that I ever sold enough (according to the publisher) of my rather obscure book on digital audio processing to even pay off the advance…and I doubt many were shoplifted, either. However, I did get more emails from people finding the address in the included code than the publisher claimed were ever sold…

I have a friend/employee who did a lot of work in retail. He said there was a big problem with people printing their own bar codes and sticking them on merchandise to get a better price. (the store was in a college town full of geeks) Messed up their inventory system no end, as they could not depend on the low paid help to notice.

davetweed March 17, 2008 2:26 PM

One thing that’s fascinating is that to defend against theft it’s worth understanding why people are stealing so you can understand what they’re likely to steal. If you think people are stealing books they want to read (and that’d be the immediate thought), then you’d expect much more wide range of individual choices and fewer books stolen in one theft. If you think people are stealing to sell to other bookstores then they’re more likely to steal 12 copies of one popular title, maximising the price/volume ratio, etc.

Incidentally, I remember being told by a friend with a part-time job in a big retail chain that they once caught someone who came in with a big gym bag who had filled it up with books. Turned out he ran a small (not secondhand) bookstore and came in virtually every day to steal a new load to help keep his shop stocked. Didn’t hear how he managed to make his accounts look plausible whilst injecting so much stolen stock.

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