Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Thieves of Book Row

Travis McDade's Thieves of Book Row covers a remarkable number of years (much of the 1920s and 1930s) during which East Coast public and university libraries were systematically looted of their most precious books.  What makes the organized thievery so remarkable is that major New York book dealers (such as Harry Gold, Charles Romm, and Ben Harris) were not only eager to put the books on their bookstore shelves, they actively recruited the very thieves who were so good at stealing the books. 

This was all much easier than one imagines it would be today.  Most law enforcement officials, including judges responsible for determining the penalties for book theft, did not consider rare book theft to be a crime worthy of an extended prison sentence.  Even librarians, both public and university ones, were not overly concerned about loosing a few books - until the magnitude of their losses finally became impossible to ignore.  And rich, prominent Americans were so keen to build private libraries of their own (also recognizing that rare books were one of the better investments available to them) that stolen books quickly changed hands and were lost to their original owners forever.  One suspects, in fact, that some of the finest collections in the United States were greatly improved during this period.  Finally, one man decided that enough was enough.

Travis McDade
Thieves of Book Row is his story.  William Berquist, investigator for the New York Public Library, made it his life's mission to prosecute book thieves and recover stolen books.  He organized his fellow library detectives, librarians, and honest booksellers - and worked directly with law enforcement officials who took the crime seriously - to finally break the backs of the book theft rings.  Sadly, however, no one will ever know how many thousands of rare books were never recovered or were inadvertently destroyed by the thieves.

Bottom Line: Thieves of Book Row will most appeal to those who enjoy reading "books about books."  It belongs in the True Crime genre but, both in the author's style and in the nature of the crimes detailed, it makes for some rather dry reading.  Exciting, it is not - but book lovers and avid readers are likely to enjoy reading about a crime wave that forever changed the way public libraries handle rare books.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)


  1. I suspect I would enjoy this, dry or not. Thank you for an excellent review.
    Just knowing this happened makes me angry. I know I will be rooting for the guy who went after the thieves.

  2. It's really a tragedy that this went on for so long, Susan. I really wonder how many rare books were lost and/or partially destroyed by these lowlife thieves and booksellers.