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Originally published Sunday, October 3, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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Lit Life

Thief stole rare books for love, says author

Allison Hoover Bartlett, the author of "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much," appears at Elliott Bay Book Co. and at the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair this Saturday and Sunday. Bartlett's book tells the story of how famous rare-book thief John Charles Gilkey was caught.

Seattle Times book editor

Author appearance

Allison Hoover Bartlett

The author of "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much" will appear at these Seattle area locations:

• At 4 p.m. Saturday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6400 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

• At the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair with Ken Sanders at Booth 303, 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Sunday. The fair takes place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets, good for both days, are $5. For more information go to www.SeattleBookFair.com or call 206-323-3999.

Lit Life |

Have you ever wanted to steal something? I plead guilty. In the second grade it was Frankie Hanks' purple tennis shoes. More recently, a gorgeous landscape painting worth a year's college tuition. I couldn't have it, but oh, how I wanted it — as Tolkien's Gollum would say: Miiiiiiiiine.

So even though I condemn the behavior of John Charles Gilkey, who stole from $200,000 to $300,000 worth of books from rare-book dealers across the country, I can understand him. As author Allison Hoover Bartlett writes in "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective and a World of Literary Obsession" (Riverhead, $15), Gilkey "actually stole for love" — the love of fine books.

The San Francisco-based Bartlett is in town this weekend for two appearances, including one at Seattle's Antiquarian Book Fair with Ken Sanders, the Utah rare-book dealer whose vigilance resulted in Gilkey's arrest. I talked to Bartlett about what drew her to Gilkey's story.

Gilkey perpetrated a kind of crime that, though not much written about, is common: one Interpol agent told Bartlett that book theft is more widespread than fine-art theft. His methods were mundane. He stole credit- card numbers from wealthy customers of the Saks Fifth Avenue store in San Francisco where he worked, then used them to purchase rare books.

Gilkey wasn't an intellectual giant. He was not so much interested in reading the books as having the books.

What's that about? Most collectors are big readers, Bartlett said — though they may not read their fine first editions, "they fall in love with stories, and that leads to an appreciation of the book as an aesthetic object." Gilkey was different. He was "trying to build an identity for himself" — the man of wealth and sophistication, the man with a library full of beautiful first editions by authors like Thomas Hardy and Vladimir Nabokov.

I asked Bartlett what it says about books in the age of the Kindle that a man would crave them as someone might crave antique jewels (or landscape paintings). As she has listened in on some book-club discussions of her book, she's learned that "people feel like a book is a sacred object. They want to feel the physical object in their hands. It's the smell, the feel, the book's history." Some people love a book because it got them through a tough time, some because it recalls a sun-drenched, peaceful past when summer was endless, and so was time for reading

Gilkey's criminal career had a significant impact on the rare-book market, Bartlett says. What was a trusting business has become much less so; credit cards and IDs are carefully checked. Once rare-book dealers and librarians would have been loathe to report a theft, for fear of being thought careless in securing their inventory. Now they call the police.

You can't afford not to in a business most people get into out of love, not for the money. And that's the lesson Gilkey never chose to learn: If you steal something for love, chances are you're stealing from someone who loves it, too.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com. Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM's Arts Channel at www.king.org/pages/7598353

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