Literary Larceny: A Book Thief Meets His Match
Is it possible to love books too much? Writer Allison Hoover Bartlett thinks so, given the reaction she often gets to her new book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much.
"I can't tell you how many people have picked up the book and read the title and said, 'Huh! That's me,' " Bartlett says.
"Some people care so deeply about books," she adds, "they're willing to do just about anything to get their hands on the books that they love."
But even the most obsessive book lovers won't see much of themselves in Bartlett's title character. "The man," John Gilkey, is a convicted thief who covets a vast collection of rare books he sees as his ticket to social acceptance and regal bearing.
Bartlett interviewed Gilkey during a three-year period while he was both in and out of jail for passing bad checks and violating parole. Some interviews took place at the scenes of some of Gilkey's book-related crimes.
"He told me he wanted to have a fine gentlemen's library, and he'd have a big oak desk with a globe on it and he would wear a smoking jacket," Bartlett recalls. "People would look at his book collection and see that this was a man of culture, an erudite man, and that's really what drove him."
In 1997, when Gilkey was 29, he stole his first rare book with a bad check. Bartlett chronicles a binge of thefts from 2000 through 2003 fueled by kited checks and stolen credit card numbers. Focusing on the Modern Library's list of 100 best novels, Gilkey netted an estimated $200,000 in rare books, including first editions of Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and Kay Thompson's Eloise in Paris.
The victims of these thefts were rare-book dealers in the San Francisco Bay area and across the country. And they turned to one of their own to stop the plunder, antiquarian bookseller Ken Sanders of Salt Lake City.
"When people steal from anyone in the trade, Ken Sanders feels an almost personal attack on him and he wants to do anything he can to catch these guys," Bartlett explains. "He is as determined to catch book thieves as Gilkey was in stealing the books."
Sanders says most rare-book dealers "are very small mom and pop operations ... so losing a $5,000 book is a pretty serious adverse economic impact."
Sanders was named security chair of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America just as Gilkey kicked his book stealing spree into high gear. He became Gilkey's nemesis, a book detective or "bibliodick," as Bartlett calls him, tracking, identifying and exposing the prolific book thief, and sending him to jail.
"I would certainly be the last person to deny that I'm obsessed with books," Sanders says, stroking his long and scraggly gray and white beard. "If you want to say I'm obsessed with book thieves, as well, I probably wouldn't argue that point either."
In fact, Sanders once chased a thief from his downtown Salt Lake City store, smashing the window of the getaway car and getting bloodied in the process.
Gilkey's thefts were far more indirect. He used a job at Saks Fifth Avenue in San Francisco to steal credit card numbers and then used those numbers to order rare books. He'd have the books shipped to hotels for pickup or he'd send someone else to retrieve his "purchases." Gilkey would often make the pickups himself, knowing that the credit card fraud wouldn't be discovered until the card's owner received a bill weeks later.
Sanders was puzzled, at first, by the theft reports. There was a common modus operandi, so Sanders knew a single thief or gang was involved. But the stolen books vanished, which is not typical.
"These are iconic valuable books that everybody knows and they're very distinctive," Sanders recalls. "But I could never find any trace in the marketplace of them resurfacing or being sold."
That had Sanders thinking he wasn't after a typical thief in it for the money. "He's a collector," Sanders concluded. "He's a collector who's gone to the dark side."
Gilkey seems to believe he's entitled to the books he steals.
"He has absolutely no remorse for his crimes," Bartlett reports, after three years of interviews with Gilkey. "He told me the details of how he went about it, which I describe in the book, but he feels that it was his right to take [the books]."
In a 2005 telephone interview from prison, Gilkey told Bartlett he wasn't 100 percent wrong.
"It’s more like 60 percent I'm wrong and 40 percent I'm right," Gilkey said. But, he added, "Book dealers ... should make it more accessible to people that like books. I mean, that's the kind of warped thinking I had. How am I supposed to build my collection unless I'm like this multimillionaire?"
Sanders finds Gilkey's reasoning infuriating.
"He has this irrational belief that he deserves to have a fine library and since he can't afford it, we who are in the trade, who have all of these lovely books, deserve to just give them to him," Sanders complains, exasperated. "And since we won't, it's his ordained right to steal them from us."
The thefts also involved more than books. Gilkey used stolen credit card numbers to pay for hotel rooms and a trip to Europe.
Early in 2003, Sanders' obsessive detective work and a cooperative cop in California led to a sting involving a rare edition of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Gilkey was caught in the act, and a search warrant was issued for his apartment on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. Police recovered 26 stolen rare books. Gilkey managed to delay legal proceedings against him but eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy, grand theft, identity theft, credit card theft and possession of stolen property. Nearly a year after the sting, Gilkey went to San Quentin prison and served 18 months.
Gilkey's apartment was filled with other books believed to be stolen, but detectives didn't have the evidence to seize them.
Sanders had stopped Gilkey's obsessive spree, but it now appears he's back at it. Early in 2009, a Canadian bookseller told Sanders that she'd lost a $500 book to a buyer using a bad check carrying the name John Charles Gilkey.
"He's a dirty little book thief and there's nothing romantic about it. There's nothing noble about him," Sanders says. "He might have a passion for books but his passion is for thievery. As far as I'm concerned, he's the man who loved to steal books too much."
Gilkey declined to speak with NPR for this story but did give permission to use excerpts of his interviews with Bartlett, who says Gilkey certainly seems to derive pleasure from being the subject of a book. She doesn't know whether he has his own copy of The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, or how he might have obtained one.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.