Over the years, rare books have gone missing from libraries. Travis McDade is on their trail.
I have been eagerly waiting for the next grand tale of biblio-thievery and biblio-detectives from Travis McDade, rare book curator and author of The Book Thief, and I’m happy to report Thieves of Book Row: New York’s Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It (Oxford University Press, June 2013) is just out. McDade uncovers a thrilling true story about Manhattan’s fabled block of second-hand bookshops that has never been told before. Known as Book Row, it was packed with booksellers from the 1890s to the 1960s and stretched as long as six blocks up of Fourth Avenue. The bookshops and booksellers here have been justly celebrated in several accounts, the fullest to be found in Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial Account of the Antiquarian Book Trade. But we’ve heard little about the nefarious practices (ranging from the unethical to the criminal) that some book dealers resorted to on Book Row and McDade’s finely researched account — “pieced together from hundreds of parts” — tells the whole story here.
In particular, it concerns a rare book theft ring run by a crooked book dealer, a stolen copy of Edgar Alan Poe’s rarest book and the biblio-detective who determinedly pursued the book thieves and their rare book loot. The opening half of the book is a rich and detailed evocation of Book Row: the books were everywhere, from the disordered piles of volumes stacked up to the doorway and the windows (making passage inside impassable) to overflowing from rickety tables displayed on sidewalks, and “in the very air people breathed: the dusty tomes of old books exhaled from each open door.” Some of them were “notoriously scruffy book caves where occasional worthwhile first editions and elusive titles awaited searching and patient eyes”, while others were “specialised, antiquarian enterprises operated by highly knowledgeable bookmen.”
In those days, rare books in libraries were casually found on open stacks, giving any patron access to handling them, and even walking off with them. This trust that libraries showed began to be abused and exploited by several book theft rings, chief among them run by two men, Charles Romm and Harry Gold. They would recruit book thieves from among the homeless and unemployed in New York and Boston — the bums on Bowery, the homeless in Central Park sitting around fires in the winter nights, the drunks sprawled outside taverns. The training was simple: they had to memorise a list of the most wanted and desired rare books held in libraries, case the joint, and pull off the heist. The top men in the ring were trained for more intricate jobs post heist: removing all traces of library markings.
This was a fairly delicate, even sophisticated, operation and often Gold did not trust anyone else but himself with it, especially where a high spot item was concerned. They had to remove stamps, ink and embossing (or perforation), and the Romm and Gold biblio-klept gang found all sorts of ways to erase such markings, from using bleach, hot iron and a painstaking process of filling back the holes in perforations. Gold would then fence the books to various dealers and collectors. McDade points out that though many dealers on Book Row did not join the ring, they turned a blind eye to what was happening; some colluded by buying these copies even though they could spot faint traces of library markings.
Gold had his eye on a few highly desirable rare books from the New York Public Library, one of the few libraries that had wised up to the rare book ring and had started to hold rare books in supervised closed stacks. Gold now ropes in a new man, much younger than his old hands, to plan a heist at NYPL’s rare book room. Samuel Raynor Dupree is a desperate young man eager to impress Gold, and his first job is to make himself a familiar, trustworthy patron to the rare book librarians guarding these treasures so that they would leave him alone, even just for a few minutes, so he can dash off with Poe’s slim volume of poetry Al Aaraaf (1829), which had become scarcer than the anonymously published Tamerlane. Gold and his gang, after much planning, were now poised to pull off the job: on a “cold Saturday in January 1931” Dupree walked up to the librarian and requested the book.
How the rest of the tale unfolds, and how the library detective, William Bergquist, gave them chase should be discovered in McDade’s own intricate narrative as the item makes its way up and down Manhattan’s rare book world drawing in dealers, librarians and collectors. McDade’s primary interest in researching and writing up these cases of biblio thieves — whether in The Book Thief (Praeger, 2006) or his blog posts or in this new work — is to survey and record the security and legal aspects of rare book theft.
His first book spent considerable time on following the legal trial of a notorious book thief and his court sentencing, the first instance of a weighty and serious verdict handed to a book thief. In Thieves of Book Row, he devotes a large part of the book to tracing the various security measures libraries began devising after repeated rare book thefts. In the figure of the biblio-detective, Berquist, and the rare book librarians who aided him, he investigates the methods library detectives employ to outwit and nab the wiliest of book thieves. Travis McDade, an authority today on book crime, teaches a course titled “Rare Books, Crime and Punishment.”