Chronicle of a Theft Foretold

It's shoplifting season, and book dealers know what thieves are after

Let's say you still need to finish your Christmas shopping, but you're pretty much broke. You're so strapped for cash that you're actually thinking of doing a little shopping with the five-finger discount. Maybe a simple gift, something like a book.

Before you start liberating a small library from the city's bookstores, think about this: The book dealers are way ahead of you. They already know what you're going to steal.

You're not going to snatch a novel by Amy Tan or Martin Cruz Smith. You're not reaching your sticky fingers for the latest tell-all New Media sensation by Michael Lewis or Po Bronson. In fact, you're not considering books by other Bay Area authors like Anne Lamott, Danielle Steel, or even the venerable Herb Caen.

No, the most-stolen author in San Francisco happens to be Charles Bukowski, the bottom-feeder poet and novelist who plumbed the depths of alcohol, drugs, horse tracks, and whores. Following close behind on the most-stolen list are beat writers -- Jack Kerouac, usually -- and fancy, shrink-wrapped art books that thieves can quickly resell to feed their various habits.

According to a recent column by critic Ron Rosenbaum in the New York Observer, Bukowski also tops Manhattan's list of most-stolen authors. At least one New York store, according to Rosenbaum, has even moved Bukowski books from the open shelves to a special Shoplift Lit section behind the counter, along with other most-stolen authors.

Shops here in our little hamlet have no such Shoplift Lit sections. But we do seem to share New York's strange obsession with this particular author, at least judging by the comments of local book purveyors:

"A lot of film books, a lot of Bukowski," says a clerk at City Lights in North Beach, when asked about local shoplifting tastes.

"I have, in the past, locked up Kerouac and Bukowski," says Jude Sales, manager of A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books.

"Always Bukowski," says Gary Frank, of the Booksmith in the Upper Haight.

"Bukowski!" exclaims a clerk at Modern Times in the Mission. "I just had to stop someone last week, who was taking the entire section!"

"I would have to say Bukowski," says a clerk at Green Apple Books in the Richmond.

Book merchants see two reasons for this Bukowski factor. First, it's Bukowski. Young gutter punks looking for his seedy scenarios of lowlife Los Angeles either don't want to pay for them, or can't afford them.

"I guess it's that beat mentality," ventures Jude Sales of A Clean Well-Lighted Place. "You get what you want."

And second, Bukowski boasts a high resale value. He's the author whose books sell well on the street, and which people will want to buy on the street.

"The drug addicts," says Gary Frank of the Booksmith. "They're the worst. They just want them to sell."

When Bukowski's books are stolen and resold, they occasionally figure into a larger scam. Bookstore clerks recall such operations from the past several years. In at least two separate cases, undercover police posed as street people and sold books to used-book stores suspected of trafficking in pilfered goods. One theft ring, working out of the Writer's Bookstore on Webster Street, ran for 10 years, and resold an estimated $6 million in stolen books before the thieves were arrested. Another similar scam (by one of the same thieves) operated through a Polk Street shop called Rooks and Becords, before police shut it down. In both cases, the stores supplied sticky-fingered shoplifters with wish lists of books the stores would buy.

Clerks believe another steal-and-resell scam may currently be running in the city, because certain used-book stores are stocking suspicious numbers of brand-new shrink-wrapped books.

But despite the occasional high-stakes investigations, most shoplifting cases end up going nowhere. Even with electronic detectors, theft remains a significant problem. If the thief is caught, the case is rarely worth prosecuting because the courts are so clogged. The store simply forbids the thief from ever coming back, and that's that.

Although major chain retailers share the problem of shoplifting, it's impossible to tell if they lose Bukowski books to thieves, because they don't want to talk about it.

"We don't want to be involved with that," sniffs a media contact from Borders on Union Square.

"I'm not comfortable talking about this," says the manager of Compass Books, located in SFO airport.

When told that Bukowski seems to be the city's most popular stolen author, the manager of Barnes & Noble at Fisherman's Wharf replies briskly, "I don't know that I know that to be true."

But all this discussion of theft economics and methods still doesn't explain the appeal of Charles Bukowski. What about this man and his writing would lead someone to sneak into a store and snatch only his books?

North of San Francisco lies Santa Rosa and the offices of Black Sparrow Press. This company has been the primary publisher of Charles Bukowski since 1966, and keeps over 30 of his titles in print. Black Sparrow proprietor John Martin is also Bukowski's editor. He's extremely busy, shipping a new Bukowski poetry collection titled What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire, but he has a few minutes to talk.

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