I had an interesting exchange with a woman from Waterstones recently. I’d gone into the Kensington branch to buy a collection of Samuel Beckett short stories. I need them fast, I told her. I was willing to travel anywhere in London, bar Enfield, perhaps.
She turned to her computer. “We have two copies in our King’s Road store,” she said. But when she phoned them, the books had gone. She phoned another branch and it happened again, and then again. What was going on? Had all of London decided to spend the same gloomy Friday reading early-era Beckett?
I scratched my head until another shop assistant approached us, and the women began nodding knowingly. Beckett, apparently, is a favourite among book thieves. There are , famously, certain authors and titles that are prone to getting stolen – William S. Burroughs, Italo Calvino, Raymond Chandler, Jack Kerouac, et al. Terry Pratchett, a refreshing departure from the usual, über-trendy suspects above, has joked about being the most stolen author in Britain. I knew Charles Bukowski always featured highly on America’s most pilfered – but I didn’t know he was a big-hitter here too. Yeah, the women at Waterstones said, there was a time when they couldn’t put him on the shelves. He’d have to be sold behind the counter, like contraband. It sounded outlandish, like something from a Woody Allen film.
Who were these well-read thieves who nicked poetry? Students? Teenagers? I vaguely remembered a time when stealing something was an activity shared by my wayward North London peer group (I’m drawing back to misspent Saturday afternoons at Brent Cross, decades ago, when my loot may have included the odd Jackie Collins), but would teenagers nowadays spend precious YouTube time robbing bookshops? It couldn’t be put down to poverty either because we can all buy books for next to nothing on Amazon and in Asda. Or go to the library (let’s not start on books stolen there).
The women at Waterstones didn’t think it had anything to do with price. They reckoned that certain authors were cooler to steal than to buy. Perhaps the removal of Beckett and Bukowski equated to an Eng Lit or drama student’s protest against the “system” rather like Abi Hoffman’s anti-Capitalist Steal This Book campaign of the 1970s. To steal was to “liberate” and unpin the corporate behemoth. And for those who feel sorry for the writer’s loss in book sales, there is the handy Karl Marx quote that separates the job of the writer from the “grubby” incentive of doing it to make money: “The writer must earn money in order to be able to live and write, but he must by no means live and write for the purpose of making money.” He certainly won’t if his books are swiped from Waterstones, so all is good in Marx’s world.
With booksellers’ wars as they are –the giant chain retailer against the tiny independent bookseller – book thieves might fancy themselves Robin Hood warriors, taking from the rich, to give to the... oh, never mind that bit. Matt Hubbard, owner of Halcyon Books in Greenwich, reports that stolen books are indeed more a thing of the past in his shop. “We used to get lots of philosophy books stolen. We’d joke that they’d come back and steal the psychology books to find out why they did it. These days, we don’t lose too much. The odd person dashes out of the shop with a £1 sale book.” Either way, it’s more good news for online booksellers. It’s hard to steal from the internet. Which brings me back to the Beckett collection, for which I broke my own rule when the book dropped on my doormat just as Amazon had promised it would the very next morning.
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