"If he did steal it," cried the bookseller, "I'm perfectly delighted. It shows that my contention is right: people do really care for good books . . . Usually the only books any one wants to steal are sheer piffle . . . I don't mind a man stealing books if he steals good ones!"--Christopher Morley, The Haunted Bookshop
Here's a bookseller pop quiz for you in three questions:
- How bad was shoplifting in your bookshop before the economy tanked?
- Has it gotten worse?
- What are you doing about it?
I started mulling over lit-thievery and biblio-skullduggery after Boswell Book Company owner Daniel Goldin blogged earlier this week about his new bookstore's first official shoplifted title:
We gave up the nooks and crannies of the classic bookshop for a more open feel. We've positioned our bookcases for better sightlines. But there are still things to be done. My friends at other bookstores have mirrors, and cameras, and security tags. And of course, every bookseller talks about the importance of regular greeting and acknowledgement. But that's not going to stop that person who looks you in the eye, says thank you, and then slaps you in the face.
If you meet and greet people every day, including people who steal from you, getting robbed, even just one item at a time, can feel like betrayal. You try to be practical. You retain your sense of humor. You rationalize about normal, predictable shrinkage numbers. You take steps to improve security.
As you watch your patrons come and go, you can't help but be aware that some small percentage of them are taking advantage of your shop's unofficial five-finger discount plan.
And somewhere deep inside, you get a little hurt every time you find the "bones," including those shelf voids while checking inventory sheets; the empty DVD or CD cases shoved behind books; or the orphaned cardboard backing and cellophane left in the wake of missing sideline items.
Goldin wrote that he has been thinking about shoplifting for years, and asked a question I will add, for extra credit, to the three above: "How do you balance a comfortable space with one that doesn't become an easy target?"
Expensive security systems? The theory is that ubiquitous buzzing gates near POS "keep honest people honest," but the bad guys are almost always a step ahead and will get their share.
Alert staff? I have to admit that, for all my skills as a bookseller, I make a lousy cop. Although I've worked with colleagues who were really great at the "Excuse me, did you forget to pay for something?" conversation, the majority have been less adept at this particularly toxic retail ceremony.
When I was going to college, I worked part-time for a supermarket where the manager's primary focus was apprehending shoplifters. His name was Ray, but we called him Dirty Harry behind his back. He spent substantial parts of each workday perched on a narrow catwalk above the butchers' room, watching his customers with binoculars through two-way mirrors.
He caught a lot of shoplifters, but I suspect the majority of booksellers can't be that guy. The most aggressive booksellers I've ever met couldn’t be that guy.
So what do you do? Bookstore crime scenes have no chalk outlines or yellow caution tape. I suppose you could try insulting them. Put up signs suggesting that bookstore shoplifters are underachievers, since they often take pointless chances to snatch property they could purchase on eBay for a penny. Shame them into honesty, or at least drive them off to stalk bigger game elsewhere.
Another warning sign possibility is a "curse of uncertain origin." I found it in "People who steal books," a 2001 article by E.C. Abbott in the Canadian Medical Association Journal:
For him that stealeth a book from this library, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck by palsy and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain, crying aloud for mercy and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sink to dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not and when at last he goeth to his Final Punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever and aye.
Shoplifting 101. You have your questions. Please answer in the form of anecdotes and strategies.
There. I made it all the way through this column without mentioning Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book.