Although the evidence is only anecdotal, recent post-stocktake murmurings at several independent bookstores around Australia suggest a recent spike in book thefts, confirming a suspicion already held by many.

“We started seeing new patterns not long after the local Borders shut down,” the manager at one inner-city bookstore in Melbourne told Crikey. “A lot more of maybe the stereotypical guy stuff that used to go missing has started disappearing again.”

She’s talking here about Bukowski, Kerouac, Ballard, Amis and all the other authors featured of the New York Times’Best-Stolen List“, infamous among booksellers.

So, is a sudden increase in theft at independent bookstores one unexpected consequence of the collapse of REDGroup Retail?

When the company that owned both Borders Australia and Angus & Robertson hit the wall early last year, it meant the end for more than 150 stores around Australia. Like rats swarming from a sinking ship, are book thieves now piling into the nearest vessels still afloat?

Borders certainly was a Mecca for book thieves, with former staff describing security at some stores as “a joke”. But it’s hard to know. There aren’t even firm statistics on the number of booksellers still operating, let alone tracking shrinkage. You have to rely on what the booksellers themselves will tell you, and when it comes to shoplifting they’re understandably reticent, not wanting to seem like a soft target. At several stores where casual staff indicated that there might have been an increase, management played down the suggestion. Those stores that did admit to seeing a spike preferred not to be named.

Some booksellers, like Mark Rubbo, managing director of Melbourne’s Readings group, actually suggest that there might have been a dip in thefts. “The second-hand trade is doing it tough,” he says. “Stealing books is not as lucrative as it once was.” It seems just as legitimate sellers are being forced out of the business, so too are many crooks.

And yet, isn’t there something different about book thieves? Aren’t at least some of them driven less by the financial motive than a constructed romance? I don’t mean the endearing klepto-biblophelia of Markus Zusak’s young Book Thief, from the novel of the same name, but more the would-be “visceral realist” poet-slacker Juan García Madero, hero of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, who turns his back on law school for a clique of roustabout book-thieving poseurs in Mexico City.

Is there something cultish about stealing books, such that, even as the bricks-and-motor book trade shrinks, the number of people looking for a five-fingered discount remains constant, meaning more thieves per store?

In addition to The Savage Detectives, Bolaño has also written a reflective essay about his career as a teenage poet-thief. Describing himself as a “book hijacker”, a phrase that suggests a politics of terroristic liberation rather than petty crime, Bolaño’s essay captures wonderfully the narcissistic self-riotousness of young book thieves. Reading Bolaño, one is easily seduced by the romance of stealing poetry. It is, however, only the most recent example of outlaw-chic in a long tradition of sophistic self-justification among book thieves.

Consider the Chinese proverb 窃书不算偷, which is in fact no true proverb at all. Literally it means “to steal a book is not considered theft,” but more often it is given the faux-Confucian gloss of “to steal a book is an elegant offence”. That gloss is entirely appropriate, because the proverb was originally penned by the great early-modernist writer Lu Xun as a satire on the moribund authority of classical Chinese literary traditions.

In a short story from 1919, Lu Xun is given the phrase by Kong Yiji, a decrepit old drunk who studied the classics in his youth but never passed the official examinations. In the story, Kong makes his pathetic way through life by stealing books that he then sells for wine. He shares a surname with Confucius, and he mixes his invented aphorisms with true quotes from the Analects; but “to steal a book is an elegant offence” is his own invention. As is often the way with these things, the proverb has since escaped its original context, and now passes, particularly in the West, as an authentic example of oriental wisdom.

Bogus self-justification, though, is exactly how booksellers view the myth of the poet-thief. Instead they lump them in with the rest of the degenerate opportunists that plague their stores.

“Professional thieves and junkies, well, you never like to see that,” said Rubbo, “but you can kind of understand it, because they’re responding to an urgent need, but you feel really bad about the opportunistic thefts. It’s horrible.”

The twenty-year-old would-be bohemian with Letters to a Young Poet crammed down his jeans is no different in kind from the smug young mother stacking books on parenting under her pram, the respectable-looking older woman with an invisibility complex slipping Fifty Shades of Grey into her tote bag, the middle-aged man in the bland suit striding toward the exit with a shrink-wrapped Moleskin in his hand and the twitchy dork with House of Leaves and The Sandman poking out of his backpack.

According to Rubbo, everyone of them is a “fuckwit and a thief”. They just don’t want to pay, and have manufactured an enabling sense of entitlement.

This is the other reason why book sellers don’t really like to talk about shoplifting: it’s depressing. Bad enough to have criminal gangs knocking off thousands of dollars of cookbooks à la carte for city chefs, or boosters nicking whole stacks of Dan Brown, but to think that there are otherwise respectable citizens ripping you off just because they can, even when they know the industry is struggling, is just too sad for words.

Peter Fray

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