Literary Larceny: A Book Thief Meets His Match

Ken Sanders i i

"Bibliodick" Ken Sanders tracked, identified and exposed book thief John Gilkey from his bookstore in Salt Lake City. Howard Berkes/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Howard Berkes/NPR
Ken Sanders

"Bibliodick" Ken Sanders tracked, identified and exposed book thief John Gilkey from his bookstore in Salt Lake City.

Howard Berkes/NPR
Allison Hoover Bartlett

Author Allison Hoover Bartlett followed the saga of Ken Sanders and John Gilkey in The Man Who Loved Books Too Much. Sonja Bartlett hide caption

itoggle caption Sonja Bartlett
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession
By Allison Hoover Bartlett
Hardcover, 288 pages
Riverhead Books
List Price: $24.95

Read An Excerpt

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."

John Gilkey 'Wanted' Poster i i

Book detective Ken Sanders sent this warning poster to rare-book dealers when convicted book thief John Gilkey was released from prison in 2005. Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America hide caption

itoggle caption Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America
John Gilkey 'Wanted' Poster

Book detective Ken Sanders sent this warning poster to rare-book dealers when convicted book thief John Gilkey was released from prison in 2005.

Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America

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."

'On The Road' i i

First edition of Jack Kerouac's On The Road recovered from Gilkey's apartment. Royal Books hide caption

itoggle caption Royal Books
'On The Road'

This first edition of Jack Kerouac's On the Road was "sold" to John Gilkey for $7500 and was recovered by police when they searched Gilkey's apartment in California in 2003.

Royal Books

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.

Excerpt: 'The Man Who Loved Books Too Much'

'The Man Who Loved Books Too Much'
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession
By Allison Hoover Bartlett
Hardcover, 288 pages
Riverhead Books
List Price: $24.95

Chapter 1: Like a Moth to a Flame

April 28, 2005, was bright and mild, the kind of spring day in New York City that seems full of promise, and on the corner of Park Avenue and East Sixty-sixth Street a queue of optimistic people was growing. It was opening day of the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, and they were waiting to begin the treasure hunt. The annual fair is held at the Park Avenue Armory, an anachronistic, castle-like building with towers and musket ports that one historian described as large enough to allow a four-abreast formation to march in and out of the building. There were no such formations when I arrived, but a steady stream of book-hungry people marching through the doors, eager to be among the first to see and touch the objects of their desire: modern first editions, illuminated texts, Americana, law books, cookbooks, children's books, World War II histories, incunabula (Latin for "in the cradle," books from printing's infancy, roughly 1450 to 15001), Pulitzer Prize winners, natural histories, erotica, and countless other temptations.

Inside, security guards had taken their positions and were prepared to explain, twice to the indignant, that all but the smallest purses would have to be left behind at the coat check. Overhead lights shone bright and hot, like spotlights aimed at a stage, and as I walked into the fair, I felt like an actor without a script. Ever since I was a teenager, I've been an inveterate flea market shopper, on the prowl for beautiful and interesting objects. Some of my favorite recent finds are an old doctor's bag I use as a purse, wooden forms for ships' gears, which now hang on a wall in my house, and an old watch repairman's kit with glass vials of minuscule parts. (When I was a teen, it was costume jewelry and bootleg eight-track tapes to play in my boyfriend's van.) This book fair was altogether different. A hybrid of museum and marketplace, it was filled with millions of dollars' worth of books and enough weathered leather spines to make a decorator swoon. Collectors strode with purpose toward specific booths, and dealers adjusted the displays of their wares on shelves while eyeing one another's latest and most valuable finds, perched in sparkling glass cases. They even set some of their goods on countertops, where anyone who pleased would be able to pick them up and leaf through them. Everyone but me seemed to know exactly what he was looking for. But what I sought was not as clear-cut as first editions or illuminated manuscripts. I love to read books and I appreciate their aesthetic charms, but I don't collect them; I had come to this fair to understand what makes others do so. I wanted a close-up view into the rare book world, a place where the customs were utterly foreign to me. With any luck — something I'm sure every person at this fair was wishing for — I also hoped to discover something about those whose craving leads them to steal the books they love.

To that end, I was here in part to meet with Ken Sanders, the Salt Lake City rare book dealer and self-styled sleuth I had spoken with on the phone. Sanders has a reputation as a man who relishes catching book thieves, and like a cop who has been on the force for years without a partner, he also savors any opportunity to share a good story. I had called him a few weeks earlier, in preparation for our meeting, and during that first conversation, he had told me about the Red Jaguar Guy, who stole valuable copies of the Book of Mormon from him; the Yugoslavian Scammers, whom he helped the FBI track down one weekend; and the Irish Gas Station Gang, who routinely placed fraudulent orders with dealers through the Internet and had them shipped to a gas station in Northern Ireland. But these were preliminary stories, warm-ups for the big one: In 1999, Sanders had begun working as the volunteer security chair of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America. In short, the job was to alert fellow dealers whenever he got wind of a theft so that they could be on the lookout for the missing books. At first, the work was sporadic. Every few months he would receive an e-mail or telephone call about a theft and immediately forward the information to his colleagues. But as time passed, the number of thefts climbed. There seemed to be no one type of book stolen, nor any pattern, except that most had been snatched through credit card fraud. No one knew if this was the work of one thief or a gang of many. Sanders heard from a dealer in the Bay Area who had lost a nineteenth-century diary. The next week, a dealer in Los Angeles reported losing a first-edition War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. Sanders found himself spending less and less time attending to his store and more time trying to figure out what the hell was going on.

Sanders took a deep breath, then launched into a bizarre incident that had occurred at the California International Antiquarian Book Fair in 2003, held in San Francisco. The fair was at the Concourse Exhibition Center, a lackluster, warehouse-like building situated on the edge of the city's design center, just blocks from the county jail — between showcases for the domestic trappings of wealth and a holding pen for criminals. It was a location that would turn out to be fitting. With about 250 dealers and 10,000 attendees, the city's fair is the largest in the world. "That big ol' barn goes on forever," is how Sanders described it. On opening day, as usual, collectors and dealers were giddy with a sense of possibility. Sanders, however, warily paced his booth. He was surrounded by some of his finest offerings — The Strategy of Peace, inscribed by John F. Kennedy, and a first edition of the Book of Mormon — but his mind was not on his books. Several days before the fair, while sitting in his Salt Lake City office, surrounded by dusty piles of books and documents, he had received a phone call from a detective in San Jose, California. The detective said that the thief Sanders had spent three years trying to track down (and by then Sanders had a hunch it was one thief, not a gang) now had a name, John Gilkey, and that he was in San Francisco.

A couple of days before the fair, Sanders received a mug shot of Gilkey. He had imagined what the thief looked like, but this was not it.

"I can tell you one thing," he said. "He didn't look like Moriarty to me" — referring to the fictional character whom Sherlock Holmes called the "Napoleon of crime."

The photo showed a plain-looking man in his thirties with short dark hair parted on the side, a red T-shirt under a white buttoned shirt, and an expression that was more despondent than menacing. Sanders's friend Ken Lopez, a tall Massachusetts dealer with shoulder-length hair and an open pack of Camel cigarettes in his T-shirt pocket, was, as far as they knew, Gilkey's latest victim (he had ordered a first edition Grapes of Wrath). Shortly before the fair opened, Sanders and Lopez talked about handing out Gilkey's photo to all the dealers, even making a wanted poster for the doors of the fair. But Sanders reconsidered. Gilkey's victims, many of whom were at the fair, might one day be called to identify him in a lineup, and Sanders didn't want to risk contaminating the process. All he could do was remain vigilant and wonder if Gilkey would be brazen enough to show up at the fair.

"I was thinking that he would be attracted to a good fair like a moth to a flame," he said. "And he would be there to steal books."

The San Francisco fair had been open less than an hour when Sanders locked eyes with a man he didn't recognize. This was not so unusual. Sanders often forgets names, even faces. But this encounter was different.

"I looked at that guy, and he looked right back into my eyes," said Sanders, "and I got the weirdest goddamn feeling."

It was not the mug shot he was thinking of. That had already faded from his memory. Something else had snagged his attention, a strange, sure sense that flooded him in a slice of a second. Sanders's daughter, Melissa, was helping a customer at the other end of the booth, and Sanders turned to ask her to take a look at this dark-haired, ordinary-looking man he suspected was Gilkey. But when Sanders turned around to point out the man to Melissa, he had vanished.

Sanders rushed down the aisle, past four or five other booths, bumping into a couple of collectors along the way, to his friend John Crichton's booth. Still stunned, he paused to catch his breath. "I think I just saw Gilkey," Sanders told him.

"You've got to relax, old man," Crichton said, reaching out to pat him on the shoulder. "You're getting paranoid."

From The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession by Allison Hoover Bartlett. Copyright 2009 by Allison Hoover Bartlett. Published by Riverhead Books. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Books Featured In This Story

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

by Allison Hoover Bartlett

Hardcover, 274 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much
Subtitle
The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession
Author
Allison Hoover Bartlett

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.