Book thefts – The literate burglar

Author Allison Hoover Bartlett on the curious psyche of a rare-book thief

By Matthew Battles  |  November 8, 2009

Rare books provoke passion in collectors, who expend untold time and treasure in their pursuit. Some surrender their scruples, too.

Take the case of John Charles Gilkey, who stole rare volumes, many worth thousands of dollars, from frustrated dealers around the country. In his compulsion and his scholarly commitment, Gilkey set himself apart from the other criminals with whom he shared time in jail. He took classes and visited libraries to better understand the authors and works he planned to find and steal. He built a veritable library of stolen books – first editions of children’s classics; autographed copies of great novels such as Thomas Hardy’s “Mayor of Casterbridge” and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” The extent of his thefts, and the whereabouts of many books, is still not fully known.

He might never have been caught but for the diligence of Ken Sanders. A ponytailed Utah bookseller whose shop was a countercultural hangout, Sanders found a new calling as an amateur detective when he volunteered to serve as security chair for the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. As Sanders uncovered the patterns of thievery that eventually led him to Gilkey, he became as absorbed in the the hunt for his nemesis as he would have been in pursuit of a rare 17th century withcraft tome, or a signed copy of “Finnegan’s Wake.”

His pursuit is recounted in “The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession” (Riverhead), by Allison Hoover Bartlett. Her book delves into a world in which books are objects of meditation and desire, touchstones of memory, and talismans with almost magical powers. It’s both curious and moving to witness the struggles of these bibliophiles in a time when the book itself is in its season of economic, cultural, and technological turmoil.

Bartlett will appear in Boston at the Antiquarian Book Fair at Hynes Convention Center on Nov. 15. She spoke with us by phone from her home in San Francisco.

IDEAS: You’ve said you love reading but don’t share the collecting impulse yourself. Why do people dedicate their lives to hunting down rare books?

BARTLETT: The collector has this very deep appreciation for the book as a physical object that’s mixed with that other love that the rest of us have. And it seems to be almost something you’re born with. With lots of the collectors I met, it seemed like it’s an unidentified genetic trait. Because a lot of them grew up around collectors, their parents were collectors or their uncle was, and it just seems to be almost innate, like a musical ear.

IDEAS: For many collectors, you write, the goal is “to stumble upon a book whose scarcity or beauty or history or provenance is even more seductive than the story printed between its covers.” Aren’t they losing sight of something crucial?

BARTLETT: I don’t think they lose it so much. I think it just runs parallel to a love of the content. Most of the collectors I met, while they didn’t read the books they collected because they wanted to preserve the physical bodies, they were avid readers.

IDEAS: Like legitimate collectors, Gilkey’s motivated by a passion for books. What drove him to steal?

BARTLETT: I think that in many ways Gilkey is a loner, an outsider… He wanted the world to see him as a cultured erudite gentleman who revered literature. But there’s a lot of anger alongside that also; I think he’s frustrated that he’s not yet seen that way. And he has gone to prison repeatedly, I think five or six times at least for this. And what happens when he gets caught and goes to prison is, he wants revenge…. like OK, now I’m getting even, now I’m getting the book collection I deserve.

IDEAS: You write that “for Gilkey . . . having not paid for books… adds even more to their allure.”

BARTLETT: He told me at one point that he kept the books that he had stolen on a separate shelf from the ones that he had not. Although I’m not aware of very many books that he did not steal; if they were under twenty dollars at a library sale he might buy them.

IDEAS: You see movies about jewel thieves and art thieves where they’re stylish and debonair. Here, the thief becomes almost a book-world version of these characters – kind of an outsider intellectual, or a parody of a scholar.

BARTLETT: He’s so amiable and thoughtful, so soft-spoken – and there he is in his orange prison garb behind a glass partition. And it was that juxtaposition of the bookish and the criminal that made me think of “To Catch a Thief” and “Catch Me If You Can” and all those other movies where you have this character who is able to pass in a well-to-do, rarefied world, and pass as one of them, and steal them blind.

IDEAS: What made Ken Sanders such a dogged pursuer?

BARTLETT: I think he just felt very protective over his colleagues. These are people for the most part that don’t make a lot of money. They’re in this business because they love books… He would just become furious when he would hear of a theft and he was determined to figure out who this was.

IDEAS: What happens to rare books in the age of the e-book? What does the future of bibliomania look like?

BARTLETT: You know, the collectors have said, “It all comes down to this: you’ve gotta be able to smell it.” And as funny as that sounds, they’re getting to something essential, which is that reading a physical book is a sensory, intimate experience. And a lot of us don’t want to lose that, because smell is connected to memory, and memory is, as I said earlier – a book collection is a kind of memoir.

IDEAS: If you were going to start stealing books, what book would you go after?

BARTLETT: There’s a manuscript I describe in the first chapter by Flaubert, a handwritten manuscript. And I recently also saw a typed manuscript, but marked up, by Flannery O’Connor. And those are what really grab me. That’s the first time when I was working on this book that I thought, oh, now I understand what a thief feels, because I really want that and I’m sure I can’t afford it… If I could get an early draft of “In Cold Blood” with Capote’s notes all over it, that would just be gold.

IDEAS: There you go. There’s a little thief in every one of us.

BARTLETT: Oh absolutely. I’ve had several authors secretly admit to me that they’ve stolen books.

Matthew Battles is a frequent contributor to Ideas.

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