Thief lives in thrall to books; Dream of great personal library fuels mania
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 October 2009)

Sellers of rare books inevitably attract thieves anxious to make easy money. Those antiquarian bookstores still in business often provide dark corners where a book can be slipped into a coat pocket. Few stores can afford to hire clerks to watch the stock.

But thieves often make the mistake of offering their loot to other booksellers, who may know how to recognize stolen property. One way or another, through sweet persuasion or police help, books frequently return to their true owners, to wait for a legitimate buyer to appear (in the way of antiquarian book buyers) some months, years or even decades later.

But what if the thief has no interest in money? When that happens, booksellers and librarians are nearly helpless. A generation ago, Stephen ( "the Book Bandit") Blumberg provided the classic case. He stole thousands of books and manuscripts from scores of American and Canadian libraries over many years of successful breaking and entering.

He was no ordinary thief. He was a bibliokleptomaniac, a man with a taste for larceny married to a wildly exaggerated love of books. He was an expert locksmith and a careful researcher who studied the collections of libraries he planned to rob.

His motive was simple: He wanted to build a great collection for himself.

For a while, he did.

He kept his books in good order and often read them. A friend of his, who turned FBI informant, said: "It was his habit to read constantly through the night, cat-napping, waking, reading, dozing, waking, reading again, never fully sleeping." Librarians and detectives, after finally picking up his trail, had trouble finding out where in the world he kept his collection. (Ottumwa, Iowa, as it turned out.) In 1991 he was sentenced to five years in prison, reoffended after his release, and went back to prison.

John Gilkey, a bibliokleptomaniac several classes below Blumberg, sits at the centre of Allison Hoover Bartlett's new book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession (Viking). Her story moves back and forth between Gilkey and Ken Sanders, of Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City, who pursued Gilkey for years before getting him sent to jail. Bartlett stands in between the two men, asking questions about the power of books.

Books and bookishness are thought to be in decline and the importance of rare books may well be further diminished when (as seems inevitable) all the out-of-copyright literature ever printed becomes available online.

But in the milieu Bartlett defines, the world of book fairs and book collectors and book thieves, the book retains its old potency. It remains where it was decades ago, at the centre of civilization.

Sanders, acting as security manager for the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, plays the relentless Inspector Javert to Gilkey's Jean Valjean in this bibliophile's version of Les Misérables.

Sanders is a "bibliodick" (the term Bartlett uses). In 1998 he knew, as others did, that book thefts were unusually frequent in San Francisco and other cities in the West. But since no particular kind of book was targeted, no pattern appeared.

A fifteenth-century religious Book of Hours was as likely to disappear as a handsome edition of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge ( "with marbled sides, gilt decorated and lettered spine") or a rare copy of On the Road by Jack Kerouac. It was Sanders who guessed that a single thief was responsible for what amounted to a one-man crime wave in the antiquarian book business. He co-ordinated robbery reports from many stores and, with difficulty, persuaded several police forces to show some interest.

In telling her story, Bartlett pauses now and then to recall historic figures among book thieves, such as the nineteenth-century monk who stole from the library of his own Cistercian cloister in northeast Spain and other ancient monasteries. He became a bookseller in Barcelona, where (like many booksellers today) he bought more books than he sold and kept the choicest items for himself. Finally his bibliomania drove him quite mad: He murdered 10 men in pursuit of books. He was hanged in 1836 but left behind a notable remark: "Every man must die, sooner or later, but good books must be conserved." His case inspired a short story that Gustave Flaubert wrote in adolescence.

John Gilkey grew up in Modesto, Calif., the town that inspired American Graffiti, a famous movie by a local boy, George Lucas. His first collection consisted of Richie Rich comics, about a boy from a fabulously wealthy family who tries his best to act like one of the guys.

Gilkey was a reader but above all he was an admirer of readers. In his youth (as he told Bartlett during their prison visits), he fell in love with scenes in movies that showed impressive rows of book cases and, sometimes, a gentleman in a smoking jacket. "Watching these movies, that was when I first thought about getting books." He imagined he would sit at a nice desk and read or write, with a globe beside him. He came to believe that he deserved to have books, whether he could pay for them or not.

In San Francisco, working at the local branch of Saks Fifth Avenue, he stole the credit-card numbers of affluent customers. In the catalogue of a rare-book dealer he would locate something that sounded good and order it by phone, using one of the card numbers. He would ask to have it wrapped and ready for pick-up.

Until Sanders and the police ran him down, Gilkey dreamt of being admired for his library. That idea apparently whirled around in his imagination, unanchored to opinions, convictions or feelings about literature. What mattered was the idea of books rather than any actual books. He had some hazy idea of making friends to whom he could one day show these precious objects. Books, he told Bartlett, would give him a more elevated place in society.

He's a narcissist living several centuries too late, but his anachronism is touching. It's possible that somewhere he's found people his books impress. Out of jail now, he may still be pursuing his ancient dream of prestige acquired, just as in the Renaissance, through the possession of a gentleman's library.

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Columns

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image