The art of book-stealing was raised to legendary proportions by Duncan Jevons, the former poultry factory worker. But bookshops say all classes of society are guilty of the crime.
"We've had academics, vicars and professional people, as well as students, stealing books," said a spokeswoman for Blackwell's, the Oxford bookshop, yesterday.
The most notorious example until now was the confession earlier this year by Richard Rayner, the novelist, that he had stolen books by Evelyn Waugh, PG Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler when at Cambridge. The admission, in his autobiography, prompted Heffers, the Cambridge bookshop, to threaten to demand their return.
Willie Anderson, president of the Booksellers' Association, said the problem is growing, with shops currently losing an average 2.5 per cent of turnover from stolen books. Many bookshops in Glasgow will not stock football books because they are so often stolen by fans.
Booksellers say many of those responsible are professional thieves who sell the books - as Mr Jevons attempted to do - in pubs or at car boot sales. However, the courts tend to regard book theft as petty crime and offenders can be fined as little as pounds 25.
The problem has forced Blackwell's to install security cameras and employ guards. Many of its shops use electronic tagging, favoured by libraries, although the serious thief can easily remove them.
As an extra security measure, Oxford students are forbidden to graduate if they have not paid their Blackwell's bill.
Susie Orbach, feminist author of Fat is a Feminist Issue, admits to stealing books as a student. "They would have been books on Russian history or women's studies, although I no longer have any of them on my shelves. Nowadays if I walked out of a bookshop without paying, I would dash back hysterically and demand to pay," she said.
Martyn Goff, who administered the Booker Prize for 25 years, once stole a book that a friend had borrowed and refused to return. "While he was out of the room I hid it under a cushion, then stuffed it into my raincoat sleeve. In one sense I stole a book, but there was no question in my mind that it was mine," he said.
Jill Paton Walsh, who won the Booker Prize last year for Knowledge of Angels, has never stolen a book but admits keeping those lent by friends. "When you lend someone a book within a circle of friends it is amazing how seldom it comes back," she said.Reuse content