A brief history of book theft in Seattle

by Jamie Lutton

Book theft has a curious history. It has been going on since the Middle Ages, when handwritten books were chained down to prevent it. But what I saw in my years working for others, then in my own store, was co-ordinateed efforts to steal wholesale and resell, often by addicts.

This was at it's worse, before Internet sales closed a lot of stores here. Addicts would steal from new bookstores (or stores that had books in them, new, like grocery stores) then try to sell them to used bookstores. This necessitated the installation of security systems of various kinds - tags in books, and checking bags.

Some few bookstores added to the problem.

A now deceased bookseller in our University District was an outright fence.

Starting 40 years ago, to the late 1990's, He gave lists of books he wanted to thieves. Most of them were hipster/homeless junkies who did not mind sticking it to ''the man'' to get heroin money. The thieves would go to bookstores only down the block, like Magus Books, the Twice Sold Tales that was in the University district, and the University bookstore, fill their bags, and dash out.

The long suffering owner of Magus, for example, would walk in, or send and employee down and ask for his books back, and the scoundrel would hand them over to avoid jail. If the bookstore that got ripped off didn't know about the theft, the man would happily sell them.

That bookseller is a tale unto himself. He - who will remain nameless here - chain smoked in his books store, and was frequently napping on an old brown ratty couch. He had REALLY young girlfriends hanging around him, even in his 50's. Had a deep smoky voice rather like Jack Nicholson, was tall and rangy, but a real Fagan as far as ethics go.. I shelved books for him in the early 1980's, for about two months, and saw this all going on around me.

Desperate for a job in Seattle, I hung on, until I was replaced by a very very young girl. The store had cute black and white cats and good books, so the public ignored the cigarette smoke and the other sketchy aspects of the place, and kept it going for decades.

Once I saw him get really lit and just start giving away stock; if someone liked the book, he would hand it over. He would also buy rounds for the house at his favorite bar. The party only ended when the feds found out he hadn't paid payroll taxes for a quarter century.

These professional shoplifters taught this method of living to other junkies, from that time to now, The theft was so outrageous in the 1990s that theft alone put small new bookstores out of business, and larger ones like mine put in elaborate security systems. Backpacks full of books were swiped, usually very popular fiction, and art books, and drug culture related books (surprise).

To this day, nearly every day someone still tries to sell me ''hot'' books.

One man, just a few years ago, who had given me his business card as a physical therapist (I had recently been hit by a car) came to me with a backpack full of graphic novels. I nearly bought them, but then looked at the date on the tags on the back, and they were all from last week or so from a store down the street. I politely turned them down.

One of the problems with turning down stolen books when offered is that junkies get angry with you. I have had death threats for not buying stolen books. I don't have a camera system yet, because of the Orwellian implications of that. Yet. I usually say now 'no I have copies of those' and then write down the titles after they leave, and put a report into the Stolen Book Network online.

The Stolen Book Network may be unique to Seattle; I called a few Denver bookstores, both new and used, and they said that they did not have a problem with systematic theft like we do here.

Over 20 years ago, in the face of a scourge of organized theft from bookstores, both new and used,

Seattle bookstores of all kinds developed a loose confederation which would exchange emails with descriptions of the books that had been stolen, offered, or photos of people caught stealing.

What The University bookstore does, is take is take pictures of shoplifters they catch and charge, and send them around to other stores so that they are on the lookout for that person,and don't let them in the store. Also used bookstores get photo ID and xerox it, to pass on if the books are found to be hot. These punks have no clue. One young man offered me his photo ID to be copied, and openly sold me a stack of textbooks that he had, as it turned out, just been swiped from the Seattle Central Community College campus bookstore a scant 2 blocks away. I returned the books, and the weary manager told me that theft was so bad, that they could only open that part of the store of one week of the year because they were being looted. .

Some of the larger chain bookstore rely on in house security to stop thieves, and cameras, but are still victimized regularly.

The trick is not to believe sob stories on where people say they got the books. This takes a gimlet eye, and a firm but polite no.

I can be fooled, when it is 4 books and the customer looks like he could have bought them.

It is when they come back with more of the same, and they are all shiny and new, that you know you have been had.

In the old days, before the Internet and the network, when I would catch a shoplifter, I would snap a picture of the thief blow it up with a color xerox, and post it in my plate glass window, instead of calling the cops, so that that person would know not to come in. yeah, and to shame them.  I would chase shoplifters too, as I was younger and stupid. My personal record is 8 blocks, but I think he was a smoker, which is why I could keep up with him.

That kid had asked for a book,then dashed out the door with it, and I was teed enough to go after him.

Another time this happened I grabbed some large male backup and went looking for the thief, and he made the sign of the ''evil eye'' when I fluently cussed him out for ripping me off. as he reluctantly handed the book back. .

The combination of casual theft for personal use, and theft to feed a drug habit has plagued my shop and others in town for 30 years.

This problem fortunately has sharply dropped off as used bookstores have vanished. So few of us pay cash nowadays, that addicts have branched out to stealing other retail objects to support their habit,

For example stealing expensive dry goods like batteries, and such and reselling them to unscrupulous small five and dime stores.

This is so bad locally a ring doing this was broken up just a few years ago that was fencing boxed diapers, batteries, and other must haves to a large independent shop that was , like that bookseller decades ago, was giving out lists.

I recently developed a cultural theory on this. As an cultural anthropology major, back in the day, I was curious what gave the masses mental permission to commit casual and addiction driven theft. I blame the book Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman for the origin of this pattern.

This book, published in 1970, was a handbook on how to steal anything you wanted, with techniques shown in crude drawings in the books. It blithely claimed that this was all ok, as business owners were ''the man."

Theft of all kinds from shops skyrocketed after that. Even to this day, when I remark to young customers about why I have to check bags, some calmly say oh ''people' would not steal from YOU only ''big stores''. Which exhibits a total ignorance of how profit margins work for all shops big and small, and where jobs come from.

This is part of the running gag I have with customers which ends ''and you wonder why all the shops have vanished and gone online."

The casual disrespect of private property, and the lust to get free stuff has ruined the contract between me and the public. I know that I will have a lot of shrinkage, and that is because what I am trying to do is not respected by some in the general public.

When people complain that there is no shops near them, it is not just the rents, it the heartbreak of knowing that well-fed prosperous young people have no compunction to just walk away with product.

This drives people to find other kinds of work, or just sell online.

Between Internet companies that drive prices down, to high rents, to theft, a lot of start up entrepreneurs look at the modern situation, and don't go into retail of any kind.


  1. OK This is great. Most used booksellers have stories about book-thieves, and I hafta say that this author was far more kind to them than I. I had lines I used to deal with them. For example, someone would walk in with an armful of brand new books and I would open one up, stick my nose into the binding, and say, "Sorry. Too new." One time I had a guy come in with an armload of fiction, all of whose authors had last names ending in 'H' through 'L'. "Quite a triumph", I said. "You must be wending your way through the alphabet.". Once, I had a guy come in with some seriously valuable used poetry books. I sighed as I looked them, trying to figure out how I was going to tell him to get lost. Just then, as if by Divine Intervention, I got a phone call. It was from the owner of the poetry bookstore a mile or so down the street. "I just got ripped off for about $1000 worth of poetry books", he said. "Reeaaly?", I asked, laying on the drawl for emphasis. "He's there, isn't he?", the seller inquired. "Yep, sure is.", I replied. "Can you keep him there for a few?". "No problem." I then proceeded to tell the book thief that I had to look up some of the values of his books, because I sure didn't want to underpay him; after all, these books were worth some serious dough. He salivated at the prospect, and glued himself to the chair until the police and poetry bookstore owner arrived. Book thieves. I hate em...

  2. Another great one, and this was truly beautiful. I was working with a 'certain' bookseller who has just opened shop down on 1st Avenue. We were standing behind the counter, when he saw a shoplifter make off with a copy of 'On The Road'. The second the thief left the store, the bookseller leapt over the counter and ran through the doors and down the street toward Cherry, chasing the guy.I ran after him, just in time to see something out of a movie: The thief, running accross the Cherry intersection, knowing that the store owner was in hot pursuit, threw the book up in the air behind him, and proceeded to run into the hood of a car waiting to make a right onto 1st Ave. The thief went spiraling over the hood, the book was in the air catapulted back, and the bookseller caught it, mid air, just as the thief landed, noggin first, onto the pavement. Said bookseller proudly took back his merchandise, walked triumphantly back into the store, and let me standing there, utterly dumbfounded.

  3. Thanks for the stories.

    Once Jamie and I were chasing a thief down the street, she yelling "Stop! Thief!" when a homeless guy grabbed the man and sat on him. It turned out the thief had stolen a $3 paperback, but he struggled mightily to escape. When the police put the cuffs on him he complained that they were to tight, and one of the cops said, "Aaaw."

    By the time they'd ID'd him, they didn't even feel a need to make sure we'd prosecute, apparently he had outstanding felony warrants.

    Some of these guys are really dumb.


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