The Chronicle Review

Book Gangs of New York

Photo Collection Alexander Alland, Sr., CORBIS

Men browse the tables outside a bookstore in New York City, circa 1938.
June 17, 2013

In the 1930s, the stretch of New York's Fourth Avenue running from Astor Place to Union Square was a mecca for bibliophiles. Racks of 10-cent books lined the sidewalks, mobs of men in starched collars and drab waistcoats shuffled along, flipping through pages under awnings and homemade signs. In the stores themselves, behind the bargain racks, booksellers haggled with customers over creaking, book-laden tables. This six-block area contained over a million books.

"Book Row was a kind of heaven. But for libraries, it was a kind of hell," writes Travis McDade in Thieves of Book Row: New York's Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It (Oxford University Press). McDade, curator of rare books at the University of Illinois College of Law, investigates the complex world of "bookleggers" and "Fourth Avenue pirates," the book thieves who pilfered valuable works from libraries and private collections to sell to often-complicit dealers on Book Row.

A line from a 1930s novel, Murder in the Bookshop, conveys a sense of the phenomenon: "The fact that the rare book trade is largely confined to scholars and literary men doesn't necessarily make it immune to tricks of the trade known to other lines of businesses." Fascinating, in Thieves of Book Row, is the sheer diversity of the characters who worked in and benefited from the black market in books.

Theodorus Olynthus Douglas—the half-Greek, half-English book thief—studied at Yale ("By the 1890s, Yale was practically a finishing school for book thieves," notes McDade), lived in opulence, and pulled an impressive long con on a Columbia College librarian. Harry Gold, in contrast, grew up as a street urchin on the Lower East Side. Blessed with an intuitive ability to read people, Gold made a handsome living by recruiting the right down-and-out young men as "book scouts," the eyes and ears of book rings.

The market for rare books was extremely volatile during the boom and bust 20s and 30s. Starting around the turn of the 20th century, early American literature, narratives of early explorers, and tales of Indian captivity—the genre known loosely as Americana—were taking off.

Charles Romm, leader of the notorious Romm Gang, developed an extensive network of scouts and thieves who stole from Harvard's libraries, which, rich with works by Longfellow, Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, were "like catnip for thieves." Works by Poe were exploding in value, especially the extremely rare Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems. The savvy bookman A.S.W. Rosenbach purchased a presentation copy of Al Aaraaf for $10,000 in 1928 and sold it for $33,000 the very next year.

Driven by the promise of such profits, book thieves pilfered from public libraries at a time when such theft was beginning to attract greater scrutiny. An 1891 newsletter for booksellers described book thieves as "lice in human form," and promoted their persecution: "Will an enterprising bookseller make an example of one, cut his ears off, or in some other manner denote his base perfidy?" In 1893 a practical guide advised that, "against the two-legged pest, the book thief, eternal vigilance is the only remedy."

The strategies behind the actual thefts usually involved canvassing a library's security apparatus, scouting for valuable books, stealing the books themselves, and scrubbing them clean of library marks for fencing. "It came down to gall, confidence, and oversized coats. And every once in a while, an ability to outrun a pursuer," writes McDade. Appalled at the routine success book thieves had in stealing from libraries, the author explains over the phone, "One of the things that so astounded me about doing all this research is that the same basic guy does the same basic thing and has success with it."

Gradually, libraries began to fight back. Edwin White Gaillard, special investigator at the New York Public Library, trained employees to recognize suspicious behavior, promoted prosecuting thieves with vigor, and published works to help other libraries mimic the NYPL's strategies. That increase in library security had consequences for thieves and unruly patrons alike. In December 1914, Gaillard expelled 149 men from the library, among whom 74 were kicked out for sleeping, 20 for "war discussion," seven for drunkenness, five for spitting, and two for boxing.

The hero of Thieves of Book Row is G. William Bergquist, who worked at the NYPL. A man who held menial jobs before serving as an engineer in World War I, Bergquist simply showed up one day at the NYPL and announced his desire to become a librarian. Despite his lack of formal education (a college degree wasn't a major criterion), he was accepted into the NYPL's library school after passing an examination in history, literature, general information, and French and German. He would become a legend in rare-book circles.

The page-turning true-crime case at the center of McDade's book has Bergquist on the tail of Harry Gold, whose gang had achieved the unthinkable: On January 10, 1931, three gang members pulled off a sophisticated heist, stealing a copy of Al Aaraaf, as well as first editions of The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick, from the NYPL's Rare Books Room.

McDade, who teaches a seminar titled "Rare Books, Crime & Punishment," says he became interested in libraries while in law school. He attended a conference at the U.S. Supreme Court and happened to meet the law librarian. "We had a tour of the law library of the Supreme Court. It was like walking into a cathedral," he says. After finishing his J.D., McDade went to library school.

The author has written a previous book on book theft (The Book Thief: The True Crimes of Daniel Spiegelman), but was inspired to look at New York's Book Row after finding an old book in a bookstore that was going out of business. "The 'Books About Books' section was on the top shelf," he says. "I was on my tiptoes on the top of a ladder." The book he located, a memoir by the NYPL librarian Keyes Metcalf, might have had some factual problems, but it piqued McDade's interest in Book Row.

He is passionate about both the importance of rare books and the legal framework we have for protecting them. Studying the history of rare-book theft has turned McDade into a scholar with a mission: "It's incumbent on us to convince others how important these items of cultural heritage are."