Indie Bookstores Tell Us About Their Most Stolen Books
Which volumes walk out the door most often, and why?
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Unlike surreptitiously lifting gummy bears from Walmart, the act of stealing a book reveals a lot about the character, or at least the literary tastes, of the thief. I asked indie bookstores to tell us about their most stolen books, and based on their responses, I can say with authority that there are three types of book burglars. There are the counterculturals who think they are sticking it to the man (“the man,” in this case, being a small independent bookstore) by “liberating” books by anti-establishment writers like Kerouac, Vonnegut, and Bukowski. (Ironically, Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book did not make this list.) Then there are those too embarrassed to be seen with a self-help book so they hide Sex for Dummies in their shopping bags and scurry out of the store. Next are the cool kids who want a curated Instagram photo of them lounging by the pool with a margarita in hand and a Joan Didion book in the other. They have no real intention of reading their prop, so why pay for Slouching Towards Bethlehem?
P.S.A: Independent bookstores are magical, endangered places. Stealing from these small, often struggling establishments is a mortal sin and the Book Gods will smite you. If you must kidnap books (which you shouldn’t, because libraries exist) then steal from big box stores instead.
Astoria Bookshop, Queens, New York
“Probably Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, though [Patti Smith’s] Just Kids, all the Bukowski (of course), a lot of Italo Calvino, Roberto Bolano, and believe it or not Sontag’s On Photography are also in the running. I have basically had to stop carrying NYRB titles because they walk out the door. Melville House novellas are nearly as bad.
We’ve also lost a lot of Wimpy Kid at book fairs over the years, but that’s not the same kind of issue.
The conclusion we’ve come to is that people steal books that they think will make them seem smart but perhaps have no intention of reading (and hence don’t want to pay for?). The link seems to be a sense of pretentiousness, looking at the specific books that walk.” — Lexi Beach, Owner
Books Are Magic, Brooklyn, New York
“We have one kind of crazy story about a shoplifter earlier this summer that tried to lift something like 6 books. Among the titles were Haruki Murakami and Cormac McCarthy (all male writers if I remember correctly).
One night when Emma and Mike were home tending to their children, Mike looked at the store security cameras on his phone (as he is wont to do), and saw someone stealing. I picked up a phone call at the store from Mike asking me to call the police while he jumped on his bike and tore down to the store. He arrived panting and sweaty on his bike, in 5 minutes, just as the man was turning down the street. Without stopping, I pointed him in the right direction, and Mike was off.
Mike sees the guy a ways down, bikes up to him, tells him to give the books back, and he does! — a big stack. The guy tells him that he just wants to read, and doesn’t have any money. This is the part where Mike should have directed him to the library. But they had a nice conversation and shook hands.
Mike then came back to the store, where the police had arrived. They seemed to think he was crazy for chasing him down and not pressing charges. Just a day in the life of a small business, I guess.” — Colleen Callery, Marketing & Communications Manager
Book People, Austin, Texas
“We lose a lot of manga, but certainly odd is that we lose ethics books from our philosophy section.” — Steve Bercu, Owner
Community Bookstore, Brooklyn, New York
Electric Literature intern Natalee Cruz stopped by Community Bookstore and spotted this small sticky note urging people not to steal their Joan Didion books, with two eyeballs drawn on for emphasis. After speaking to the owner, she discovered that “the most stolen books in his store is Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and [books by] James Baldwin. His reasoning was because the shelf that holds those titles is being a barrier that makes it easier to steal and that those books have great resale value when they are taken to used bookstores.”
Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, Massachuettes
“I’d say [Jack Kerouac’s] On the Road and [Kurt Vonnegut’s] Slaughterhouse 5 are probably the titles we’ve noticed disappearing the most over the years.” — Alex W. Meriwether, Marketing & Events Manager
Haunted Bookshop, Iowa City, Iowa
“In the department of funny stories, someone stole a book about karma and how its philosophical implications differ so strongly from those of Western concepts of instant, divine retribution. I was laughing too hard to stop the kid. (Maybe he needed the book even more than he wanted it, you know?)” — Nialle Sylvan, Owner
Kramerbooks, Washington, D.C.
“Historically, the number one title stolen is Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. I have no idea what that says about the thieves. Although the only other work of fiction in the top 10 is Dave Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, so the five finger discount appeals to hipster millennials. Perhaps more illuminating, five of the top ten titles stolen would be categorized as Psychology/Self-Help. Two titles of which are by Robert Greene (48 Laws of Power and Art of Seduction). My thinking here is either the thieves are self-starting or have missed the point completely.” — Lynn Schwartz, General Manager
Magers & Quinn, Minneapolis, Minnesota
“In the past couple decades, we had a long-standing rule of keeping Charles Bukowski behind the register — his books seem to be stolen more than most other authors. (I’ve heard this is the case for other stores too.) But, within the past couple years we have returned him to the shelf with the rest of the literature or poetry, and so far it seems to be going well.
Vonnegut also seems to ‘walk out the door’ quite a bit.
Lately, we’ve seen an uptick of missing items from the philosophy section — things like Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance [by Robert M. Pirsig] and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.
We also frequently have Bibles stolen. Many Bibles come in a slipcase or box, so it’s a fairly common thing to find the tell-tale empty box hidden among the Bible shelves.
Of course, we don’t know who is doing the stealing. Besides the Bibles, the common theme of a lot of our missing items seems to be stuff that questions established values, morals, or systems. Frankly, it’s a really weird phenomenon because it seems like people want to ‘shop’ at an indie bookstore for their hip reading material, but don’t want to contribute to keeping that indie in business by purchasing the book.” — Annie Metcalf, Assistant Retail and Marketing Manager
McNally Jackson, New York, New York
“We keep all of our Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Paulo Coelho, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita behind the counter. Books from our philosophy and metaphysics sections also often get stolen, as well as DVDs and of course, expensive coffee table books.” — Nora Kipnis, Bookseller
Subtext Books, Downtown St. Paul, Minnesota
“Among our most stolen books are: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, 1984 by George Orwell, and anything by Charles Bukowski. We also recently had a copy of [Atul Gawande’s] Being Mortal stolen, which we thought was a bit odd, but maybe they just really needed it? But one of my worst experience of bookstore theft that I’ve had in my 4 1/2 years happened just over a month ago. These two younger women were in the store browsing the shop. I saw them look at our favorites section, and specifically our favorite current poetry books. Now, I never pass up a chance to tell someone about my favorite poetry books, so I recommended them a few titles. And these were some kick-ass poetry books. The best of the year in my opinion. And sure enough, I head back to the register to help another customer check out, and the two ladies walked out without saying a word and took three of my favorite poetry titles with them. Retail can be hell some days. This was one of them.” — Matt Keliher, Head Buyer and Manager
The Writer’s Block, Las Vegas, Nevada
“Without question, Bukowski is our single-most stolen author. For reasons that are probably obvious. A Google search for the phrase “lowlife literature” brings up the headline, “Bukowski: The Godfather of Lowlife Literature” as its first result. Of course, I don’t mean this to denigrate Bukowski’s merit as an author. But his misfit aesthetic definitely appeals to the sort of non-conformist character who believes that stealing their books is appropriate and/or exhilarating. I can’t hate them for it, but I do wish they wouldn’t steal from small, pop-and-pop bookstores with rent and utility bills to pay. Also: (Paulo Coelho’s) The Alchemist. Frequently lifted. Here, I will be snotty and say that there’s connection between cheap, pseudo-spiritual novels and moral unscrupulousness.
As for who steals: teenagers. No surprise there. Hopefully they’ll all grow up to repent and become literary patrons with fat wallets.” — Drew Cohen, Co-owner and Buyer