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Tom Chaney: Crime and Punishment by the Quire

Of Writers And Their Books: Crime and Punishment by the Quire. Tom says Bartlett reflects on the sort of affection for books which can lead to a life of biblio-crime. This column first appeared 10 January 2010.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: The Developing Image of God

By Tom Chaney

Crime and Punishment by the Quire

Once in a great while I pick up a book from the true crime shelf here in the Bookstore. I have a certain fascination with the lives of those whose chief claim to fame is theft or murder. The fascination generally runs out long before the book is done.

However, I had a gift last birthday of a story of true crime perpetrated on booksellers. Allison Hoover Bartlett has written a story of book stealing that set me to thinking some. The book is The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession [Riverhead Books, 2009].

Many booksellers specialize in rare books. Many others of us wish we could but lack the experience, knowledge, where-with-all so to do. Nonetheless we all are on the lookout for that valuable tome buried in a box of so-so volumes which may be cheaply bought.

John Gilkey steals books -- rare, expensive titles from booksellers. Ken Sanders is a bookseller who is determined to run Gilkey to ground. Bartlett is a free-lance writer who tells the story of both, and becomes a little too much involved with the thief to convince us of her objectivity.

Gilkey is in and out of jail during Bartlett's gathering of her tale. Bartlett seems to risk becoming an accomplice in her push for understanding the mind of the thief.

Gilkey was able to steal some $100,000 worth of rare books in a period of six or so years using stolen credit card information, cold checks and a good deal of old fashioned lying. He seemed to have been enamored with the having of collectable books. Unlike the normal thief who steals for profit, Gilkey did not deal with fences or attempt to sell the fruit of his crime except when in dire need of funds to defend himself from the charges against him.

Gilkey worked over a Christmas holiday at an upscale department store from which he palmed credit card numbers and information from wealthy customers. He then would buy books by phone, using the stolen information.

Sanders is a book dealer who sets out to catch book thieves. He becomes a security specialist for the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA). He got his start in bookselling in 1975 when he and some friends took over a hippie head shop in Salt Lake City called the Cosmic Aeroplane. They relocated the shop to a larger building and began having experience with shoplifting.

In 1996 Sanders founded Ken Sanders Rare Books. Bartlett observes that Sanders was not tolerant of those who wished to leave without paying. "He has chased these guys down streets and alleys and parking lots. He has taken them to court. He has scared them half to death. He will do whatever possible to get his books back and prevent thieves from ever, ever thinking of stealing another book."

Sanders set up an e-mail system to alert booksellers to theft.

Bartlett reflects on the sort of affection for books which can lead to a life of biblio-crime. Handling books from her childhood she remembers "where they have been, who else has read them. It's like they have more than one story to tell." Thus physical artifacts carry "memory and meaning." This can be the foundation for the compulsion to steal books. "For this reason, I am sure that hardbound books will survive, even long after e-books have become popular."

The fascination of the bibliophile for the physical properties of the books they collect is different from the affection a usual reader has for books. On one end of the continuum -- opposite that of the collector -- is the fondness for the ideas, for the words, for the stories within the books. In fact, the collector of rare books may read a paperback or an e-book edition of the text, saving the collectable book for the locked shelf.

Bartlett's book is engaging -- she tells an interesting tale. But I fear she loses the necessary distance from Gilkey. She never involves herself and her reader in a similar fashion with Sanders.

In an epigram to the book she uses an anathema in a medieval manuscript from the Monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona -- an epigram which I am tempted to use in our shop.
"For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not,
this book from its owner . . .
let him be struck with palsy, & all his members blasted. . . .
Let bookworms gnaw in his entrails
in token of the Worm that dieth not,
& when at last he goeth to his final punishment,
let the flames of Hell consume him forever."
So there!

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney ->

This story was posted on 2015-01-11 04:19:11
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