Literary Larceny: A Book Thief Meets His Match In 2003, rare-book dealer and bibliodetective Ken Sanders tracked and caught a con artist with designs on first editions of some of the most cherished books in the world. Author Allison Bartlett tells the story in a new book called The Man Who Loved Books Too Much.
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Literary Larceny: A Book Thief Meets His Match

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Literary Larceny: A Book Thief Meets His Match

Literary Larceny: A Book Thief Meets His Match

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Here's a question for book lovers: Is it possible to love books too much? Writer Allison Hoover Bartlett says yes in her new book about book obsession. It's called "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much," and it tells the true story of two very different men who are both deeply obsessed with books. One is a prolific thief, the other is the persistent antiquarian book dealer who sent him to jail.

NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

HOWARD BERKES: The rare book section in Ken Sanders' brick storefront in downtown Salt Lake City feels reverent. Maybe it's the stained glass windows between the stacks. Maybe it's Sanders himself, a man with a long gray and white scraggly beard who tenderly pulls his personal favorite from the shelf.

Mr. KEN SANDERS (Antiquarian Bookseller): When I was 14 years old, our grandparents took my little brother and I on a trip to California. And I begged Pop to take me to Bertrand Smith's Acres of Books, 240 Long Beach Boulevard, Long Beach, California. And I bought, not this copy, but I bought this folio edition of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," with engravings by Gustave Dore.

BERKES: Sanders carefully and quietly turns the pages of a treasure, pausing for the lavish illustrations with each verse of Poe's poem. Books have been his passion and profession since that first rare book buy four decades ago.

Mr. SANDERS: I would certainly be the last person to deny that I'm obsessed with books. If you want to say I'm obsessed with book thieves, as well, I probably won't argue that point either.

BERKES: One book thief in particular attracted Sanders' laser focus, a polite solicitous, boyish-looking Californian named John Gilkey. He's the central character in "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much." And he admits he stole credit card numbers while working at Saks Fifth Avenue to help finance a book buying binge. Gilkey was 29 years old in 1997 when he stole his first rare books with bad checks. In her book, Allison Hoover Bartlett sums up Gilkey's obsession this way.

Ms. ALLISON HOOVER BARTLETT (Author, "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much"): If I had to reduce him to a sentence, I'd say that Gilkey is a man who believes that the ownership of a vast rare book collection would be the ultimate expression of his identity. That any means of getting it would be fair and right. And that once people could see his collection, they would appreciate the man who had built it.

BERKES: This was a central theme in three years of interviews conducted while Gilkey was in and out of prison for kiting checks, violating parole and stealing rare books.

Ms. BARTLETT: He told me he wanted to have a fine gentleman's library, and he'd have a big oak desk with a globe on it, and he would wear a smoking jacket. So there's this idea that the world would see him differently. That 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, it was building this identity for the world.

BERKES: In a 2005 interview from prison, Gilkey told Bartlett what it was like to first hold a newly acquired rare book. It's a very noisy recording, so listen carefully.

Mr. KEN GILKEY: It's been like a bottle of wine, I kind of smell the newness of the books and I just feel the crispness of it, make sure there's nothing wrong with it. I open it up very gently, �cause I'm thinking like, maybe 30 years later this book could be worth something. I don't want to make any mistakes -preserve the book.

.TEXT: BERKES: Preserve the book, that's what antiquarian booksellers also want. But Gilkey made that tough for some by using bad checks and stolen credit card numbers to steal their books - about $200,000 worth in three years. He focused first on his home territory, in the area around San Francisco Bay, and he was unstoppable until he met his obsessive match.

Ms. BARTLETT: So when people steal from anyone in the trade, Ken Sanders feels an almost personal attack. He's as determined to catch book thieves as Gilkey was in stealing the books.

BERKES: Sanders once chased a thief out of his own store, smashing the window of the getaway car and getting bloodied in the process.

As Gilkey's thefts grew, Sanders became security chair of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association and began chasing down theft reports across the country.

Mr. SANDERS: And I became convinced early on of two things: It was the same man or group, because the MOs were just too similar. The second epiphany was these are iconic, valuable books that everybody knows, and they're very distinctive. But I could never find any trace in the marketplace of them resurfacing or being sold. He's a collector. He's a collector that's gone to the dark side.

BERKES: Bartlett chronicles the cross-country chase as Sanders tracks, identifies and exposes Gilkey. She probes Gilkey's past for clues to a life steeped in books and crime, and she documents crime beyond books. But when it comes to books...

Ms. BARTLETT: He has absolutely no remorse for his crimes. 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 them.

BERKES: This is how Gilkey justified the thefts in that 2005 prison phone interview. Remember to listen carefully.

Mr. GILKEY: I mean, it's not like 100 percent I'm wrong. I'd say it's more like 60 percent I'm wrong and 40 percent I'm right. Sure, that's their business, book dealers, but, I mean, they 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?

BERKES: This sense of entitlement angers Ken Sanders, who suggests Gilkey isn't really obsessed with books and certainly isn't anything like him.

Mr. SANDERS: John Charles Gilkey is nothing but a thief. He's a dirty little book thief, and there's nothing romantic about it. There's nothing noble about him. 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.

BERKES: Those books include rare first editions of Jack Kerouac's "On The Road," Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire," Kay Thompson's "Eloise in Paris" and Mark Twain's "Life on the Mississippi," and Sanders believes Gilkey is still at it.

Mr. SANDERS: A poor woman bookseller in Canada lost a $500 book to a man, a John Charles Gilkey, who bounced the check he wrote her for it. I can't escape him.

BERKES: Even though Sanders is retired from the post of book detective for the Antiquarian Book Dealers. John Gilkey declined to speak with us for this story, but did give permission to use excerpts of his interviews with Allison Bartlett, who says Gilkey certainly enjoys 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. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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