Thursday, October 18, 2018

Book Thieves

Zestful Blog Post #286

I bet some of you remember Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman, a counterculture guide that came out in 1971. I bought a copy, which tells you something about my ethics then. However, I did read it avidly and, being an impressionable youth, wished I had the guts to try some of Hoffman’s ideas for ‘sticking it to the man,’ like demanding my free buffalo from the federal government, or pretending I was hungry and broke to get food from trusting churches. Some of the stuff in it seemed just stupid to me, though, like pasting a postpaid piece of junk mail to a brick and dropping it in a mailbox so whatever corporation had to pay the postage due. Another uncomfortable one was going into a busy restaurant and eating leftover food before the tables get cleared. Ew. Not that I've led a shame-free life.

I worked in bookselling for ten years in the 1980s and 90s, first as a floor clerk (in a bookstore owned by two brothers named Tom and Louis Borders), then as a manager and regional executive. Lots of people would come in and steal books. We had a pretty good idea of how many books we lost to shrink (the retail euphemism) because once a year, we'd do a physical inventory count. You compare the stuff you have on hand with the list of stuff that's supposed to be in the store, and the difference is shrink, or shrinkage. We lost a lot of inventory.

It was rare to catch a thief in the act. We had no security staff or hidden cameras. Furthermore, it was assumed that staff would not steal, especially since everybody got $25 worth of store credit every month, plus a 25% discount on everything. What can I say? Borders, in those days, was a small company in the Midwest. And I think very few employees stole; giving stuff away to employees is a good way to create good will. When the company got big, financial experts came in and convinced top management to take away store credit, and the employee discount went down to 10%, if I remember right. (Members of the corporate board of directors got 25%, which as you might imagine went over great with the rank and file.) Stores also got primitive security systems, which at first were a joke, then got somewhat better.

 [A look at my home sports-and-leisure, nature, and reference sections.]

Scammers would try many tricks, from trying to return stolen books for cash, to paying with bad checks, to claiming to have lost a gift certificate to fire, pet digestion, or other imaginative mishap.

The vast majority of thieves got away. But once in a while, staff would spot somebody and realize they weren't a legitimate customer. There was one guy who focused on the computer book section. Pound for pound, computer books tended to be higher-priced, and they were easy to sell to used-bookstores. This fellow would appear to be browsing the low bookcases, taking a few books off the shelf, then he'd dip down into a squat where he was hidden from view. Then he'd rise up, empty-handed but bulkier around the middle, and hustle out the door to his car.

I didn't have the nerve to confront the guy (and by the time I could get the police there he'd have been long gone), but I did follow him to his car after I clearly saw him steal. I made sure he saw me, made sure he knew I knew, and watched him go, writing down his license plate number. Never saw him again.

More shocking to me were the employees who did steal. We caught one guy, who had worked out a system of hiding books behind empty boxes in the back receiving hall. Come time to clock out, he'd leave the store via the back way, collect his booty, and walk around to the parking lot from the alley. It was too cute, and another staffer figured out what he was doing and turned him in.

Come to think of it, I have a bunch of other stories about book thieves, and maybe I’ll write them down for a future post.

Although it's never right to steal, you can understand why a hungry person would steal or cheat for food. But books, you can take them home for free from the library, or you can sit and read them right in the store.

Then we come up to ‘today,’ meaning post-digital-publishing-revolution, and we have book pirates. That term makes them seem somehow romantic, like modern-day Robin Hoods. In fact, they are scum. I subscribe to an anti-pirate service called Blasty, which searches for and somehow removes from search engines websites claiming to have my books downloadable for free. It doesn’t take down the sites or send cease-and-desist letters, but I think what they do is just about as good.

I’ve found that most of these pirate sites are merely phishing holes. For instance, if you want a free copy of The Actress, click here and enter a bunch of your personal information: your contact info, and hey, if you keep clicking through they’ll ask for your credit card number, just as a precaution to secure your account, and hey, they won’t actually charge anything on it. I guess some people fall for all that. And of course they don’t have a digital copy of the book to give you anyway. Come back tomorrow. If Abbie Hoffman were alive today, I’ve no doubt he would learn code and try to be a hacker. But he committed suicide in 1989, partly because he was no longer under 30. Look it up if you don’t believe me.

I don’t worry too much about these pirate sites, because if somebody wants to download my book for free, that doesn’t necessarily mean they would have bought it otherwise. Lots of enraged authors miss this point. So somebody gets to read your book for free, and maybe they’d like more, and maybe they’ll eventually buy something. You can’t get too worked up about this stuff.

But in conclusion, book pirates are scum.

What do you think? Do you have a book theft/piracy story? To post, click below where it says, ‘No Comments,’ or ‘2 Comments,’ or whatever. If you’re having trouble leaving comments on this or other blogs, it’s probably because third-party cookies have been turned off in your browser. Go into your browser settings and see if that’s the case. Then turn them on again in order to leave comments.
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  1. I enjoyed your post. Yes, I remember AH. These days we're told to give a few books away as an incentive! I posted one of my mysteries as a give away hoping they may want to read (and buy) my other books. Funny thing is when you try to sell old book collections at a flea market, you can only get about 25 cents per book.

  2. I remember Borders book stores. They were great. Anyway, I’m with you. Book pirates are total scum.

  3. I remember a long ago Girlfriend working at Borders. They had a policy of NOT confronting any book thieves no matter how blatant. They didn't want to risk upsetting honest customers! (Dallas, Texas) Also they had a clever display promoting the top shrinkage books -- the books stolen most often.

    1. Yeah, it's tough if a store doesn't have a security officer to confront miscreants. Which is why tags and electronic gates get used / abused a lot. And right, there's the whole liability issue of confronting a person suspected of being a thief... Glad I'm not in retail anymore...


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