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Thieves of Book Row: New York's Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It Hardcover – June 7, 2013

ISBN-13: 978-0199922666 ISBN-10: 0199922667 Edition: 1st

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1st edition (June 7, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199922667
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199922666
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 0.9 x 5.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (59 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #258,038 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review


"Thieves is an engaging cat-and-mouse account of porous libraries, scouts armed with 'gall, confidence, and oversized coats,' complicit salesmen and of G. William Bergquist, the dogged New York Public Library investigator who cracked the gang's most audacious caper: the theft in 1931 of first editions of The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick and a rare Edgar Allan Poe collection."--New York Times


"McDade does a superb job of drawing a complete picture of the environment in which the Romm Gang operated. McDade makes a smart choice to spin his tale around the mostly forgotten individuals who participated in a widespread scheme to steal library books." --Los Angeles Times


"McDade's account is a better-informed account of [thief Harry] Gold than those in other sometimes misty-eyed and less hard-nosed portraits of Book Row. By concentrating on just a few men, McDade not only avoids many pitfalls in writing about the trade more generally, but also manages to bring this tale chronologically to a conclusion. It is not a very satisfactory conclusion, for this book raises larger questions: pointing a moral as well as adorning a tale."--Times Literary Supplement


"Definitive history... a fantastically colorful cast of characters and rich period detail will hook book lovers and historians of N.Y.C"--Publishers Weekly


"A compelling history. Rich in characterization and vividly set, this tale of Manhattan's Fourth Avenue, known then as 'Book Row,' and its bookleggers makes for grand reading." --Library Journal


"With wit, erudition, and a nice sense of timing, McDade recreates the seamy side of the antiquarian book business in Depression-era New York and Boston. This immensely engaging story will appeal to cultural historians, literary scholars, bibliophiles, and true-crime lovers alike."--Joan Shelley Rubin, Professor of History, University of Rochester and author of Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America


"Thieves of Book Row chronicles a fascinating chapter in the history of the book trade, libraries, and organized crime. In a highly engaging narrative, McDade provides a wonderful portrait of books stolen and recovered and of many colorful characters ranging from rare book legends to petty thieves."--Thomas Hyry, Director of Special Collections, UCLA Library


About the Author


Travis McDade is the author of The Book Thief: The True Crimes of Daniel Spiegelman and the curator of rare books at the University of Illinois College of Law. He teaches a class at the University of Illinois called "Rare Books, Crime & Punishment."

Customer Reviews

The book is good, well written and well researched.
Janet Perry
Review of: "Thieves of Book Row - New York's Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It," by Travis McDade.
Guerrilla Reader
They put a 400 page book into a little over 200 pages...what a shame.
D. Launderville

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Steve Schwartz VINE VOICE on May 10, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
A page-turning book on an abstruse subject -- big-time library theft. From the early 1900s, thieves regularly plied their trade at various libraries, particularly in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and smaller libraries in their respective states. Public libraries, university libraries -- neither were immune. One thief alone stole thousands of volumes, including important items of Americana. First editions of Moby Dick, The Scarlett Letter, Poe's Al-Aaraaf, original author manuscripts, books of maps and exploration all went missing. However, as bad as that was, the situation became an order of magnitude worse in the 1920s, with the sale of songwriter Jerome Kern's library for the fabulous sum of 1.7 million bucks (a lot of first-edition Burns, Shelley, Swift, Dickens; manuscripts by Pope, Thomas Hardy -- including an personal note by the author to Kern -- etc.) and a rise in prices, particularly in Americana. Organized gangs of book thieves increased and became more organized. Many of them had to buy warehouses to store the loot. Sadly, often libraries didn't even know the books were missing.

How most of these felons were caught and the precautions that libraries began to take -- including the creation of Rare Book Rooms, special marking techniques, even thief-resistant architecture, and the rise of anti-theft specialists and the bare-bones beginnings of investigative techniques -- takes up a lot of the book. All of it fascinates. Librarians would invent some special marking method -- stamps, embossed seals -- only to have thieves come up with special eradication methods. Or they would simply rip out the incriminating pages.

One of the more unbelievable things I found was the difficulty libraries had of getting the criminal justice system to care.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Michael J. Edelman TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on June 27, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
There are two sorts of true crime books. One, which is more popular today, stresses the crime itself, with the emphasis on violence, shock, and horror. The other type looks at the problem of solving crimes, and tends to be slower paced, and more cerebral than action oriented. I favor the latter sort of book, especially when it deals with clever criminals and the theft of out-of-the-ordinary items.

All those factors are well represented in the book, which tells the story of a clever Depression-era criminal who came to the realizations that (1) there were thousands of rare and valuable books being kept in public and university libraries with no security whatsoever, and (2) there was a large market of book dealers and collectors, neither of whom asked too many questions when a desirable volume came their way. Best of all, in those days before computerized cataloging and high speed electronic communication, it would take a very long time before these libraries realized that large scale thievery was going on all around them- if they noticed at all.

Eventually some libraries did take notice, and the job of recovering the stolen books was given to the New York Library's first special investigator, G. William Bergquist. Trained by the NYPD and given police powers, Bergquist began what became a mission to stop the thieves, and to eventually recover the missing books, including what was, at the time, the most valuable book in America: A first edition of Edgar Allen Poe's "Al Araaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems."

This is of course a must-read for all librarians, but it's also a treat for those who enjoy a good story of deduction or historical crime studies.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Lauryn Angel VINE VOICE on August 8, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
As other reviewers have observed, the print in this book is tiny! Even with my reading glasses, I had to read this in shorter bursts than usual to prevent a headache. Which is a shame, because this book is engrossing. McDade explains the minutiae of the book trade, and why book theft was such a big problem in the early part of the twentieth century. It seems strange in this day and age to think of organized gangs of book thieves stealing from public libraries and selling the books to collectors, but these book rings were notorious, and the New York Public Library in particular was constantly trying to figure out ways to thwart them.

The tone is dry enough to discourage the casual reader looking for a historical thriller in the vein of Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, but it is definitely a worthwhile read for anyone who loves books and is interested in collecting them. I learned a lot more about what makes a book valuable from reading about how the thieves would take pieces of various copies of the same book to create one fine edition that they would pass off as a first edition. The section about library markings alone made me think about creating my own unique stamp for my books.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By S. McGee TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on August 15, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The late 1920s wasn't just the era of Gatsby and speakeasies, jazz and G-men. It was also a high point in the battle between libraries to hang on to their increasingly valuable collections of books and the even more determined efforts of book thieves to relieve them of some of their crown jewels. And the bibliocriminals that are the focus of this intriguing and very readable book managed to remove some extraordinarily valuable items from collections as notable as the Library of Congress, Harvard's Widener Library and the New York Public Library (scowls on the faces of the stone lions out front being no more of a deterrent than a solitary guard, it seems).

Travis McDade chose to write about this period as one in which the economics of the book trade and the values of the books were changing rapidly, in a way that gave thieves and booksellers alike a tremendous advantage to go chasing after rare Americana. He chronicles the sale of Jerome Kern's collection only months before the crash of 1929, which saw valuations hit astronomic levels -- leaving dealers stuck with costly books that they couldn't resell at anything close to what they had paid. Already, the less honorable members of that group (many of whom had their shops on the Thieves' Row of the title, on Fourth Avenue a stone's throw from where Strand bookstore still does business today) were actively dealing in books stolen from libraries across the country: it was a cheap way to pick up titles that were increasingly in demand by collectors with money to throw around. The sudden evaporation of a lot of that wealth just made finding low- or no-cost prime books even more tempting. Besides, as McDade notes one bookseller scoffing, what good were libraries?
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Thieves of Book Row: New York's Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It
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