10 December 2009

Book Thieves 1

(From Robin Healey.) I’ve just come across Allison Hoover Bartlett’s recent study of bibliomania, or rather kleptomania, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much . I say kleptomania, because the main character in this series of pen portraits is John Gilkey, who unlike some of the other misfits Bartlett writes about, isn’t so much obsessed with books as beautiful objects or repositories of wisdom, but sees them more as meal tickets to a better life. Gilkey stole $100,000 worth of rare volumes using stolen credit card numbers to pay for luxury items. Earlier on in his career as a credit card thief he had acquired pizzas and foreign currency in the same way.

Two other figures in her books can more properly be classed as true bibliomaniacs, since one ( a Spanish monk ) was insane enough to justify his murder of ten collectors with the chilling apophthegm ‘ Every man must die, but good books must be conserved ‘, while the obsession of a professor in Nebraska led him to sleep on a cot in his kitchen to make room for his 90 tons of books.

Reading Bartlett I was reminded of the rebarbative Farhad Hakimzadeh (mugshot left) , not so much the Bookseller of Kabul but more the Book Destroyer of Knightsbridge. He it was who expertly removed pages out of scholarly works on the Middle East mainly to make up
defective copies in his own splendid collection –a crime for which he received two years in jail. He is now free and facing a hefty bill from the BL. It was Germaine Greer, sworn enemy of book thieves and book breakers, who enlightened me on the methods of such as Hakimzadeh. They, she was reliably informed, simply insert a fragment of Stanley knife blade under a nail and run their finger along the book’s inner spine. The leaves they remove are then hidden among their own papers.

Hakimzadeh was arrested a full two years after his crimes were committed, but how many others who despoil public collections have escaped detection ---their vandalism undiscovered ? The purloining of single leaves is easy enough to do in UK research libraries, mainly because the checking on exit is inadequate and also because white paper and other documents are allowed into the research areas. At the HRHRC in Austin only yellow paper is permitted and researchers are also obliged to deposit all their own documents in a locker before entering the research area. Hence thefts are exceptionally rare. Why UK libraries don’t follow suit is beyond me. Dimness, complacency, shortage of resources. Take your pick.

But there some beacons of light. At Manchester’s John Rylands Library and the BBC Written Archives in Caversham, before a collection is brought to a researcher an archivist will have listed exactly what items are contained in a seemingly ‘ loose ‘ collection of documents .And when that collection is returned the archivist compares what ought to be there with what is returned. And woe betide anyone who removes the most modest of documents from a file. They know where you live !

And if single leaves can disappear from printed books where at least rudimentary surveillance exists, how easy can it be for the ingenious and brazen thief to escape detection in the average antiquarian bookshop ? How is it that so few booksellers can apparently afford to install a magic beam or even a modest closed circuit camera system ? These would pay for themselves over a short period and presumably bring down the cost of insurance—presuming booksellers bother to get cover. In response most booksellers contend that stringent security measures undermine the pleasant relationships they need to retain with their customers—and thieves, of course, take advantage of this.

However, it’s good to know that some thieves are caught in flagrante. I like that reaction by the late Peter Jolliffe of Ulysses Bookshop, who when he caught a regular customer red handed shouted at him ‘Stop stealing my books !’. Upon which that thief burst into tears, fled the premises and was never seen again in that particular shop. On another occasion the unworldly bookseller only discovered that his copies of Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill and Golding’s Lord of the Flies ( worth a total of £4,000) had been stolen when he checked the shelf where he had last seen the books. The problem seems to be that certain clothing is ideal for hiding books in, and that books and newspapers are good places too. How easy it is to conceal a copy of A Quinzaine for this Yule** in a folded Daily Telegraph , Times or Guardian? It seems to me that booksellers could learn a lot from the HRHRC and its Yellow Paper Principle. All customers should remove overcoats ( Bob Cohen, who stole regularly from the Birmingham and Midland Institute, was a book-in-overcoat specialist ) when they enter the shop and request that if they are carrying books, newspapers and suchlike, that they leave these behind too. After all, bags are invariably barred from basements. Are these simple precautions beyond most booksellers ? Would most customers be offender by such requests? I don’t think so.

Thanks Robin. Sleeping in a cot in a kitchen with 90 tons of books? That's nothing! I have seen such severe bibliomania that the person could no longer reach his own kitchen for books and had to subsist on takeouts. Talking of stealing plates from libraries I was reminded of the scene in Polanski's 'Chinatown' where the Jack Nicholson character steals a page from a book in a public library covering the noise with a cough. It's Chinatown!

I attended an official auction of a book thief's library thefts about 10 years ago in Suffolk and bought a few modest lots. He seemed to have stolen from libraries in the Northampton area and was currently banged up. The trouble was that this 'tealeaf' (sometimes 'booster') had trimmed and treated all the books to remove ex library evidence and they were hence unsightly, also he had poorish taste in literature. It seems that you don't get great minds going in to this field of crime. Curiously it was the last time I saw Charles Traylen. He must have been in his 90s and was wheeled in to view this sorry lot. I remember him laughing at the stuff. Oddly enough this was the man who practically invented the modern cult for collecting plate books...

** Ezra Pound's second book (1908) which would probably now retail at $20,000 especially the Pollock and Co., edition.


Anonymous said...

"I have seen such severe bibliomania that the person could no longer reach his own kitchen for books and had to subsist on takeouts." That's nothing, near us a man had so many books he could no longer get in his house from any entrance and had to stay at his sister's in the next village. Eventually he bought another house and filled that too. Look forward to more on this.

Roger said...

Sir Thomas Phillips, a candidate as the ultimate bibliomaniac, having spent all his own money and his dead wife's filling his mansion with books started looking for another- wealthy- wife and mansion. His family lived off the proceeds of his mania for over a hundred years, though.

Anonymous said...

the story of the crying book thief is really sad. it suggests he is conscious of his wrongdoing yet can't stop himself.

one thing must be said. bookshop staff always seem preposterously paranoid. on book browsing excursions i am regularly eyed and sometimes accused of stealing, but i would do no such thing! this is because no woman will marry me, and since i am over the hill now i have decided to give up on 'smartening oneself up' and hygiene. but bookshop staff of all people should know not to judge a book by its cover!!

as for libraries... well... since i’ve been banned from selling the big issue near campus libraries and the british library i have no real ill-will toward library thieves. tragic and foul as it is that knowledge may be lost, i take comfort in the thought that library staff might get a taste of something familiar to me: that indescribable toxic frustration so conducive to cardiac arrests. yes, i am a terrible old curmudgeon.

Anonymous said...

The only way,i have found to stop the book thelfs is to not put any books worth more more than a tenner on the shelfs,but keep them in a locked stock room.
Even with bags,coats left at reception,thiefs still find a way,the worse are the under 16's - as they know you can't search them.
Thankly,you soon get to know who is stealing,because they offer your own books back a week later,for a small fee.
CCTV is too expensive for large bookshops and you still have to call the police,prove the books are yours in first place - you can't deface the book with a security tag ! When we have caught a tealeaf the police said we should have not called them and then want add our DNA to their database !
What about students who stand about scanning in pictures from books - does this consitute thelf ?

Anonymous said...

I was only going to say how i still get annoyed about the Spanish Civil War pamphlet that was stolen from my stand only half an hour after i bought it at the York bookfair. It still annoys me because i know who stole it but short of searching the person i just had to bite the bullet. But then i remembered selling a copy of Struwwelhitler to that nice employee of your's at The National. She had it stolen later on in the fair and i felt very sorry for her.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Gilkey is not only a lunatic, but also an amoral person. His jibberish throughout,"The Man Who Loved Books Too Much," is nothing short of despicable. Mr. Chrichton of Brick Row Bookshop was way too polite when the thief strolled back into his shop after serving time. I would have, in self-defense, shown the fool his head to my knee, his hands to my bookpress, and perhaps a little indigo ink down the throat.

Post Mortem Books said...

In the days when I was mad enough (no aspertions Nigel) to have a bookshop I was very proud to have a copy of "The Return of Sherlock Holmes" on the "collectable" shelf. It was a nice copy and was, if I remember aright, priced at £900. One day I saw someone I knew - the husband of an editor in publishing - browsing that section. A few minutes later, he was gone and so was the book. My fault for not having it behind glass I suppose but it still rankles to this day - 15 years later - and whenever I come up against that editor, on the infrequent occasion, my hackles rise.

Reggie said...

In reponse to Mr. Anonymous above branding Mr. Gilkey an amoral lunatic, I suggest he takes a look at himself. The book trade is just a bunch of vultures picking over dead peoples' effects. The other anonymous poster who said book store staff are "preposterously paranoic" is quite right. I am black, therefore glared at by staff as soon as I enter any book store or book fair. Sometimes they ask to see inside my coat, which makes me think these unfriendly, pompous death-loving vultures deserve to have their stock pinched, especially if it can be given a loving home!

Fnarf said...

Some of my best friends are death-loving vultures, I'll have you know.

Anonymous said...

"One day I saw someone I knew - the husband of an editor in publishing - browsing that section. A few minutes later, he was gone and so was the book. My fault for not having it behind glass I suppose but it still rankles to this day - 15 years later - and whenever I come up against that editor, on the infrequent occasion, my hackles rise."

THEN DO SOMETHING about it you moron!