July 27, 2017

Is that a book in your pants or are you happy to see me?


According to the UK’s Office of National Statistics, crime is up ten percent this year. Let’s blame Brexit. It’s always good to blame Brexit.

Whilst you might not think the humble book would be the item of choice for your everyday thief, according to Alison Flood and Sian Cain at the Guardian, bookshops across the UK are experiencing ongoing pilfering. And there sure are some brazen thieves out there—with very specific tastes—as the following booksellers demonstrate in their comments to the journalists.

“Our most-stolen authors, in order, are Baudrillard, Freud, Nietzsche, Graham Greene, Lacan, Camus, and whoever puts together the Wisden Almanack,” reports John Clegg from the London Review Bookshop.

James Daunt, chief executive of Waterstones, also reports a penchant for philosophers. “You slightly wonder when it’s always books by the likes of Sartre and Kierkegaard — there must be an awful lot of people working their minds out so much that they don’t have any money,”

Thomas Darby at Stanfords in Bristol tells of “a gentleman who would always try to steal our French geological maps. Sure, no great story, right. Except we always knew him because of the bucket and mop he carried with him at all times.”

Drake the Bookshop in Stockton-on-Tees reports having had only one title stolen in its two years of operation: Patrick Rothfuss’s fantasy novel The Name of the Wind, “swiped by an 80-year-old woman with a Zimmer frame.” (That’s a walker, Yankees.)

And the Jarrold bookshop in Norwich got security footage of a thief who had tied a cardboard box beneath his coat to stash his haul. “He’d been doing it for months,” says buyer Chris Rushby. “He’d taken about 20 books. It shows a certain spirit of invention to have a cardboard box hanging by string from your neck. The police were called and he was arrested — I think he got a suspended sentence.”

“I had a woman steal the Andrew Morton Princess Diana biography and then burst into tears as soon as she was stopped, only able to say ‘she was the people’s princess’ over and over,” Matt Taylor, a former manager at London’s Books etc, said.

For Helen Stanton of Forum Books in Northumberland, it’s those pesky young’uns: “Our main problem is the under-fives who, once they’ve found a book, hug it and won’t let go or try to march straight out.”

“Our most-stolen book is Anton LeVey’s The Satanic Bible — maybe they are ashamed to bring it to the counter,” Scott Southey of Southcart Books in Walsall said.

In an article about book theft that she published last year in the SpectatorEmily Rhodes shares “the most outlandish story told to me by a bookseller who used to work in Birmingham. Again, it features a ‘scary-looking’ man who frequented the shop. My friend suspected this fellow of stealing lots of their books on the occult, but was faced with the same difficulty of proving it. That is until a local group of Satanists saved the day by reporting to the police someone who had tried to sell them cheap books on black magic.”

Rhodes also recalls one of her own memorable experiences as a bookseller:

Most dramatic was the Mr Men thief, who used to steal a whole shelf of these tiny children’s books every couple of months. One afternoon I emerged from the stockroom to find the shelf newly emptied. ‘The Mr Men thief!’ I called out to my colleague. ‘It must be her!’ he said, pointing to a woman in an unseasonably bulky coat, carrying a sizeable shopping bag, exiting the shop. ‘Stop!’ we shouted, running after her into the street. ‘Stop, thief!’ To our astonishment, she leapt into a waiting getaway car and was off. No doubt Mr Speedy was in the driver’s seat.

“I know of one Hampstead bookshop where Ottolenghi cookbooks are kept behind the till,” Rhodes also writes. “It seems certain food-obsessed customers have already forked out so much for pomegranates and za’atar that coughing up an additional £25 for the recipes seemed too great an expense to ensure their dinner parties remained de rigueur.”

It’s nice that thieves have such varying tastes in literature.



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.