Controlling book theft is no easy task. In medieval times, hand-lettered manuscripts were chained into place, but that didn't always work. Neither did curses such as this one found penned inside an early book: "He who steals this book/ may he die the death/ may he be frizzled in a pan."

Today's solutions—closed circuit televisions, cameras and EAS (electronic article surveillance) systems—haven't eradicated the problem, either. Based on anecdotal evidence, shoplifting in bookstores reduces profits by two to three percentage points. While some studies, such as the 2002 National Retail Security Survey, based on data from the year before, estimate far less theft (0.9% for bookstores and magazine stores, 1.7% for all retailers), total retail shrinkage accounted for $31.3 billion in losses in 2001.

To find out just how pervasive external book shoplifting really is, and what some stores are doing to bring it under control, PW spoke with booksellers who have suffered various types of loss, including that inflicted by book theft rings as well as by individual shoplifters. Some booksellers attempt to watch customers more closely, but this is rarely effective when a determined shoplifter is in a busy or understaffed store. Others have begun taking a more proactive approach to preventing unwanted thefts—from installing security devices to stocking handcuffs in their offices. For most booksellers, however, a middle ground that involves the use of new technology coupled with commonsense awareness may work best.

"Impulse Buying"

Almost every bookseller has a story about a customer who steals a book and tries to make a fast getaway, often with a child in tow, in a Porsche, Jaguar or BMW. This is no urban myth; many shoplifters do steal for the sheer adrenaline rush. Last fall, Roberta Rubin, owner of the Book Stall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, Ill., caught a woman with an expensive interior design book tucked under her bright yellow coat. "We glared her down," says Rubin, "and she put the book down before she left and got into her Mercedes. We caught her this time, but who knows how many times she's taken things?"

Since then, Rubin has moved her art section to the back of the store to prevent what she calls "impulse buying," when shoplifters take books from the front desk. Other book categories that tend to disappear from her store are inspiration and self-help, as well as books for author signings. Rubin is philosophical about the problem. "It's been ongoing probably forever," she said. "I'd like to add an [EAS] system, but it feels expensive." Instead, she tries to be more vigilant and to greet customers as they enter the store.

Unlike the Book Stall, which is in a pristine neighborhood, Posman Books at Grand Central is located in a busy train station in the heart of New York City. Because of tightened security in the wake of September 11, "there are a lot of guys with guns—National Guard and police—in Grand Central station," manager Eric Buscher told PW. Not that firepower or electromagnetic strips placed inside books can necessarily transform shoplifters into buyers. "It's a fact of life," said Buscher. "These guys will beat you more times than you will beat them. My people are booksellers, and I'm not going to put them at risk. Physical safety trumps John Grisham any day."

Instead, Buscher tries to make it difficult for thieves to operate by keeping bookselling staff in high-risk areas at all times and moving frequently stolen titles by Charles Bukowski, William S. Burroughs and Paul Auster behind the counter. He also asks people he suspects of stealing to leave. Still, says Buscher, "people are very afraid of lawsuits. If the shoplifter happens to be black or Latino, no one wants to be accused of racism."

For Jack Buckley, owner of Ninth Street Book Shop in Wilmington, Del., the problem of individual shoplifters, especially drug addicts, is "fairly epidemic. We're in an inner-city location. We have a lot of urban fiction and religious items we have to be careful with. Apparently, you can sell Bibles on the street for a dollar or two." His attitude, despite a Sensormatic EAS system and surveillance cameras on the street is: "You do what you can. You try to be alert and sometimes catching a shoplifter is just dumb luck." Buckley finds that using magnetic strips in books helps, but primarily to catch the "casual shoplifter. A lot of times the strips are torn out. Some people aren't smart enough to know about the magnetic strip, and they tear the bar code off the jacket. But it's a deterrent."

As a destination store, children's specialty shop A Likely Story in Alexandria, Va., has not had much shrinkage, according to manager Sheilah Egan. "We're perceived as a mom-and-pop kind of store, as opposed to a chain that can afford it," she opined. Much of A Likely Story's potential theft is addressed by customers, who frisk their little ones at the door to see what they have clutched in their hands. Whenever a customer does act suspicious, however, Egan or one of her staff will follow them. In one instance, a staff member noticed a T-shirt missing from a display and told the customer she'd like her T-shirt back. The woman pulled it out from under her clothes and screamed, "I don't want your T-shirt anyway," to which the staffer replied, "Then why did you steal it?"

Neither size nor specialization have kept the shoplifters away from Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Mass. "Shoplifters think I'm an easy mark," said owner Louisa Solano, whose small-press and vanity publications are frequent targets. Last year, Solano estimates, shrinkage cost her $29,000. "The magnetic system is useless," she says. "It takes me 30 seconds to tear off the plastic tag; it takes a shoplifter two seconds. One woman had the gall to stick the tag on my jacket. The only thing that really works is a security camera and two people. One of the reasons I work alone is that at least I don't have to worry about my staff stealing. It destroys the soul."

While Solano may prefer working solo, many of her thieves don't. They come in pairs; one person moves books and sets them up for a partner to take later. "It's so labor-intensive they'd be better off working in soup kitchens," Solano told PW.

Double the size of the Grolier, but still small, the 800-sq.-ft. Storyteller Bookstore in the tourist town of Sedona, Ariz., has increased its staff. "My best solution for stopping thieves," said manager Scott Smith, "is to have one person watching the store and one person ringing up sales." He also moved less expensive remainder titles upstairs, where it's harder to see if anything is being stolen. "We're a regional store, so people take everything from CDs to software to coffee-table books to book lights," said Smith. He'd like an EAS system, but it's just too expensive. Instead, said Smith, "we take it out of our bottom line."

Group Sales

The seeming brazenness of individual book thieves pales in comparison to that of rings, which frequently steal specific titles to stock their own stores. One especially notorious gang on the other side of the Pond was led by a man the London papers dubbed "a modern-day Fagin." He apprehended earlier this year. He and his band of 10 thieves, mostly drug addicts, specialized in travel guides and children's books and allegedly stole as many as 100 books a day over a period of four years.

Although the theft problems at Toadstool Bookshop in Keene, Millford and Peterborough, N.H., aren't on the same Dickensian scale as those of their London counterparts, who had entire shelves of books stolen at a time, "last summer," says owner Willard Williams, "it was really bad. We were losing a lot of books to a shoplifter taking multiple copies of bestsellers. It began in our Milford store with Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and A. Scott Berg's Kate Remembered. In Keene, a stack of eight copies was lifted from a table right in front of our main counter." Williams installed an EAS system in the Peterborough store and that has helped. Williams might be wise to put systems in his other two stores. "Just last week," he says, "at our store in Keene, they lost 10 copies of The South Beach Diet. Most of the time we've been losing three or four [copies of the same book]. It makes us think it's a professional group."

The eBay Factor

Whereas the U.K. ring had two bookstore outlets in London, Williams suspects that the ring operating in his area is reselling its books online through eBay or "That's where they're selling them in quantities at half price. That's what frightened me. That's why we had to put in a security system," he says. To further tighten security, he would like to see publishers embrace source-tagging, so radio frequency or audiomagnetic strips could be installed in books before they reach his stores.

Nearby bookseller David Didriksen, owner of Willow Books & Cafe in Acton, Mass., was likely hit by the same ring and shares Williams's concerns about online fencing. "Shoplifters come in and grab seven or eight copies of a book at a time. Someone's not going to read seven copies of The South Beach Diet. It used to be you put out an $80 art book and it was taken. What's happened in the last few years that's really different is that they steal bestsellers. Used bookstores weren't that much into bestsellers. With eBay, there is now a ready market for resale."

Although the majority of eBay sellers (generally individual users and small business owners) do sell a lot of books—eBay's combined sales for books, movies and music last year came to $2 billion—very few, if any, of those books are stolen, according to spokesperson Hani Durzy. "No doubt some end up on eBay, but probably less than other places. Law enforcement has told us that eBay is a well-lit marketplace. There are no dark alleys. In order to list on eBay, you need to register your name, address and credit card number. If it's illegal off of eBay, it's illegal on eBay. We'll not only take it down—if it's stolen, we'll work closely with law enforcement," said Durzy.

Next week, in part two of this story, we'll look at bookstore owners who have fought back against thieves.