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Literary Larceny: A Book Thief Meets His Match

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

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."

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

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.

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Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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