What is a librarian’s worst nightmare? No, it is not the loud patrons, not the damaged books, and not even the romantic rendezvous that take place at their libraries. It is, in fact, the book thieves.

Historically, libraries tried not to release information about the theft and mutilation of very rare and precious books, due to the fear of attracting more criminals to the practice. But nowadays such wrongdoings are no longer tolerated and the culprits are being pursued regardless of their status. Throughout history, there have been several highly publicized book heists made by some unthinkable characters; respectable academics, teachers, collectors and even librarians themselves. Buckle up, and get ready to be immersed in the literary world’s obsession with one eccentric book thief, and an equally passionate detective.

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Books make the world go round?

They say ‘money makes the world go round,’ however that’s not always the case. When it comes to the book thieves, perhaps their incentives are completely unrelated to the gain of monetary assets.  An example of such is John Charles Gilkey, the man who stole precious books and manuscripts worth 200,000 dollars. Despite that, money was not the catalyst, but the love he nurtured for extraordinary books. That’s why, none of the stollen items have ever resurfaced on the market, they just vanished without a trace.

It all started when multiple rare book dealers from the San Francisco Bay area were reporting various cases of theft, each having a very similar modus operandi (M.O.) with the others. Back in 2001, John Crichton—owner of the Brick Row Book Shop—received a call from a man, saying that he wanted to purchase the first edition of “The Mayor of Casterbridge” by Thomas Hardy. The seller agreed to process the credit card over the phone and was told that the buyer’s father will drop by to pick up the book. Later that day, an older gentleman came into the shop, picked up the book, and left without even checking it, as if he were in a rush.

One month later, Crichton receives another call, from a person with the same name as the card holder who purchased Hardy’s book. The man was complaining about being charged, about a month ago, 2500 dollars, plus the sales tax, by the Brick Row bookshop. Also, the man claimed that he has never been associated with the shop and did not purchase the book himself. And that’s when Crichton knew what had happened was credit card fraud.

John C. Gilkey was using the exact same scam over and over again: a phone call, a credit card number and then a rushed pick-up, often by someone who claimed to be caller’s father. It turned out that he was using bad checks and stolen bank card numbers, gained through his employment at Saks Fifth Avenue in San Francisco, to “purchase” the items he was looking for.

Over time, more and more book dealers became aware of Gilkey’s crimes. This was all thanks to Ken Sanders – a rare book collector and the self-appointed watch dog of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, who chased down reports of book theft  across the country and spread the word about those crimes amongst his colleagues. The books sellers are mad, not because of the books lost, but because of the thief who was continuously outsmarting them, and he seemed to be enjoying himself.

Target acquired

Later on, it was uncovered that Gilkey was planning his thefts according to the Modern Library List of 100 Best Novels. In 2003, after a sting operation orchestrated by Mr. Sanders, Gilkey was arrested and sentenced to 18 months in prison. While serving the jail time, he was visited by the writer Allison Hoover Bartlett, who wanted to get at the heart of why Gilkey kept on stealing books so she could write a chronicle of his theft operations. When he was released on parole, they met at a restaurant in San Francisco, where she interviewed him and uncovered the mystery of the crimes he committed. Over a period of three years, they had dozens of meetings, some of them were even at the scene of his crimes. Eventually, Bartlett wrote “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much” which quickly became a bestseller.

When speaking about John Gilkey on the Criminal podcast, Bartlett says that “every meeting was more surprising than the last, it was fascinating how a person could think that way”. She mentions that “he has a love of books, but he also has a love of what the ownership of books says about him. (…) Just like collectors talk about their books on the shelves as a kind of memoir that reflects on who they are and what their interests are, Gilkey was no different this way”. He also felt absolutely no remorse for the crimes he committed, as he had this irrational belief that he deserved to own those stolen books. As Sanders called Gilkey “a collector gone to the dark side”.

Mysterious man

John Charles Gilkey’s imagined version of himself was as if he were an English gentleman with a grant library. By building a collection of impressive books, he was carving himself, an image of a man who he thought would be respected for his taste and erudition. Some people may romanticize Gilkey’s motives, while others will see him as a self-absorbed man, completely obsessed with the acquisition of his beloved books. Either way, his reasons were always abstract, which makes him one of the most mysterious criminals from the world of literature.

Books that he stole:
1787, 18000 dollars, – Junipero Serra: Founder of the California Missions
Rare first editions of Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road,”
Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,”
Kay Thompson’s “Eloise in Paris”
Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi,”

We will be back next week with another interesting article from the library world!

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