How to Catch a Book Thief

It’s time to come clean.  I live in Utah.  I don’t know why, but when I started this blog I felt compelled to keep that from you.  Call it a desire to be anonymous or a desire to avoid scrutiny.  I guess my motives don’t really matter, but my motive for telling you today does.  I tell you because I recently finished a book that features a rare book dealer from Salt Lake City, and I wanted to be able to say, I “know” that guy.  I have seen his store.

The book is The Man who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Bartlett Hoover.  It is a nonfiction account of the author’s attempts to make sense of John Gilkey’s book thefts.  She narrates the book chronologically, even recounting specific conversations and interviews with her subjects.  Her main subject is Gilkey, who served some time in prison and is guilty of stealing thousands of rare books.  He operated mostly in the Bay area of California (where I was born), and hearing accounts of his brushes with the San Jose police department reminded me of the times I visited there as a child, for my dad is retired from that very department.  The building is familiar to me, and it pleased me to know that a San Jose police detective was instrumental in catching this book thief.

Surprisingly, book thefts are not considered to be crimes worth investigating.  Because police take little interest in this issue, Ken Sanders, a rare book dealer from Salt Lake City, took on the job of security chair for the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA) and began working to catch Gilkey. Sanders is a major player in the action of the book and also in the capture and arrest of Gilkey.

Ken Sanders Rare Books (2012), photo by David N. Eckels, my obliging brother-in-law

Gilkey’s modus operandi would work like this.  He would research the book or books he wanted on the Internet. When he found a bookseller who carried the book(s), he would call in his order for it, very casually.  Over the phone, he would give the store owner stolen credit card information and then tell them that a friend would pick up the book.  He did not want to have to sign any receipts or prove to be a holder of the credit card, since he had stolen the numbers off of receipts from his job at Saks Fifth Avenue.  Then, he would go pick up the book, pretending to be the “friend.”

The most interesting part about Gilkey is his lack of remorse.  He had justified his stealing because he felt as if the world owed him these books.  He saw the world as unfair that he did not have enough money to purchase an expensive library himself.  He kept all of the books as well, not doing it for the profit.  Occasionally, he would try to sell books for lawyer’s fees, but Sanders had informed his network of rare book dealers of which books were stolen, so dealers would refuse to buy and be wary of anybody trying to sell rare books to them.

One of the most inspiring and interesting stories is from one of the dealers that Bartlett interviewed.  He told her of an auction in London, where he discovered two rare copies of William Blake’s work in the drawer of one of the dressers. He explained that they were each worth $25,000 or more and was tempted to put them under his coat, for nobody knew that they were in the dresser.  However, this man instead informed the auction house of their existence and they later sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.  I was so inspired by his honesty and integrity, especially against the backdrop of Gilkey’s many crimes and justifications for them.

I enjoyed this book because I listened to it on tape, and it accompanied me on my hour-long drive to classes for my Ph.D. program.  I appreciated being immersed in the world of rare books and learning more about their value and what to look for if I’m ever surrounded by old books.  However, Bartlett and Sanders warn that nobody gets rich dealing rare books.

As to the title, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, I could not decide if it referred to Gilkey, who stole for books, or if it refers to Salt Lake City’s own Ken Sanders.  He is as much a book lover as Gilkey but more so, for he worked so tirelessly to save the books from being stolen.