A Word from a Pro:  Protecting your Store Against Book Thieves

By:   Guy Robertson

As a professional book thief, I've become well-acquainted with your store.  I know the layout and blind spots.  I've scrutinized the rear exit and your security camera system.  But what interests me most are the large-format hardcovers on display by the front door--fine arts items priced at over $100 each.  'Tis the season for high-quality merchandise.  Mind you, books of all kinds are constantly in season for a book thief. 

Who am I? The cops will tell you that I come from numerous backgrounds.  I'm a little boy in a bomber jacket and an elderly woman in a shabby raincoat.  I'm a promising undergraduate at a local university; sometimes I'm a senior professor.  I'm a street person, a housewife, and the Vice-President of a multinational firm.  I'm a politician, a priest, an addict, a lawyer.  I'm your best customer, an occasional browser, and somebody you've never seen before. 

I have different motivations.  I might need the money that I can get from reselling your stolen stock:  cash for heroin, food, rent, Christmas, debts.  Or I might need the books I steal for educational purposes.  As an undergraduate science student, I'm angry about the high prices I'm expected to pay for my chemistry and physics texts.  I need them to pass courses, graduate, and become a productive member of society.  By charging such high prices, you're standing in the way of social progress, so I'm justified in ripping you off.  At least that's what I believe as I walk out your door with those texts under my coat. 

Another motivation for book theft that booksellers will understand as quickly as they deplore it is intellectual compulsion.  I want that book by Kant or Hegel or Marshall McLuhan because it's worth studying.  I can probably afford it, but I have so many other expenses--Mastercard, the phone bill, my dry cleaning...and I want that book now.  It's so easy to drop it in my shopping bag. 

No matter who I am, no matter what my motivation, I'm a thief and I'm about to rob you.  How?  Pay attention. 

Successful theft depends on three steps.  First, I must target the items that I want to steal, what they are and where they are located in your store.  Secondly, I must conceal those items so that neither you nor a customer will suspect me of theft.  Thirdly, I must exit the store without being stopped, questioned, assaulted or arrested.  Once I'm outside and a short distance from the store, I'm safe.  It's difficult to prove anything against me when I'm down the street; moreover the cops have enough to occupy them without having to work up a case against some old guy who allegedly shoplifted a copy of The Medium Is The Massage.  What the police might be interested to learn about the old guy is that his apartment is crammed with one of the better private collections of media history, all of it stolen. 

I have various ways of concealing items that I intend to steal.  If the item is small-format and thin, I can pop it under my jacket or into the pocket of my overcoat.  I can drop it into my shopping bag.  Or I can slide it under my arm and, assuming a purposeful air, walk out the door.  Do I look like a thief to you? Surely you're joking. 

"In-store ownership" is a popular shoplifting technique among students.  While you're not looking, I remove the price tag from the book I want, then scribble my name on the fly-leaf.  Time permitting, I might use a highlighter on a page or two.  Perhaps I'll artificially age the book by cracking its spine and giving the cover dog-ears.  By the time I make my exit, the book appears well-used.  Was I supposed to leave it at the counter when I entered your store? Sorry, I didn't see the sign.  I'm distracted by exams.  I've lost my glasses.  I'm in love.  Anyway, this is obviously my book, as you can see from all the personal touches.  So long, sucker. 

I can work with a partner who will divert your attention while I walk out with a pile of your best stock.  I can switch price tags: does it surprise you that this recently-published folio atlas is on sale for $2.  99? I can sneak out your back door; if you catch me, I'll say that I was looking for a washroom.  And why am I carrying the latest Booker winner? Because I'd like to skim the first chapter sitting down.  Must you ask so many personal questions?

Remember that a professional thief is adept at feigning innocence and redirecting your attention.  You can demand that the old lady open her coat and shopping bag: she'll accuse you of sexual harrassment.  You can tell the kid with skateboard to stop switching price tags: he'll swear that he was merely replacing a tag that fell off.  If you physically restrain a street person before he can exit with a book concealed under his coat, he will accuse you of assault.  And there's always the risk that the thief you attempt to restrain is carrying a knife or other weapon.  No wonder booksellers often make little effort to prevent theft in their stores. 

I don't want this to get around, but there are effective ways to stop thieves like me.  You may already know about mechanical measures such as security cameras, mirrors, tattle-taping and door sensors, which can discourage amateurs.  But a professional thief knows that you haven't the patience to keep your eyes on the camera monitor and mirrors continuously.  Professionals know that you don't tattle-tape your paperback stock, and that a thief detected by a door sensor need only show that he's carrying a tattle-taped item from a public library to be permitted to exit. 

To frustrate a professional thief, you should try to give every customer in your store the impression that you're constantly present and prepared to answer questions and give advice.  I don't like bookstores that offer high levels of friendly, attentive service.  I don't know who's watching me, and in a store with an open layout featuring fewer nooks and crannies, I'll have a problem concealing the books I want to steal. 

I avoid stores that have counter beside the front door, angled in such a way that the counter clerk can see most of the shelf area in a single sweeping glance.  That clerk can also get a good look at me as I enter or exit, which makes me uncomfortable.  So do clerks who wander around the shelf area and offer assistance.  So do stores with securely-locked back doors, good lighting, and locked display cabinets for the most expensive stock.  ("Please ask the staff if you'd like to examine these rare editions."   Give me a break!)

Another tactic that annoys me is the placement of comfortable chairs in the shelf area.  Very clever:  you enhance the cosy atmosphere of your store while turning honest customers into unwitting guardians of your stock.  For you can be sure that I'm as uneasy near some character perusing Atwood in an armchair as I am of a cheerful circulating clerk.  They interfere with concealment, they get in the way, and I can't trust them.  Stores with a seated clientele are simply not worth the trouble. 

No matter what kind of security system you implement, you will never stop me altogether.  As a professional, I'm always finding new stores to hit.  But those of you who get smart can slow me down, reduce my take, and eventually drive me away.  That's not very neighbourly, but you won't miss my patronage. 

Guy Roberson guy_robertson@telus.net
Copyright © 1999, 2000

[BIO:] Guy Robertson is Senior Planner at SafetySmart Emergency Managment Inc.  in Vancouver, B.  C.  Canada.    He pays cash for his books, and saves all of the receipts. 

This article is republished with permission from the author, Guy Robertson, by PROVENANCE Web Magazine which is in part sponsored by Internet Gateway Corporation www.intergate.ca.  The publisher can be reached at publisher@provenance.ca


ISSN 1203-8954
Vol.3 no.1 2000-2001

400 year old copy of Homer's Ulysses