An epidemic of shoplifting is costing American retailers more than $11 billion annually, Rachel Shteir reports in “The Steal.”
Shteir has subtitled her book “A Cultural History of Shoplifting.” But history -- from the 18th-century invention of the loot-concealing pocket to the success of Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book” in 1971 -- takes up only the first quarter. The remainder wanders all over the map, though since crime is an interesting subject it’s always readable.
Shoplifting generally hasn’t been taken as seriously as other acts of lawbreaking because of a basic paradox: It’s small-time, even if the financial damage it visits on businesses is brutal. As the head of one surveillance company told the author, those in the field of “loss prevention” are, deep down, “ashamed of shoplifting ... because they recognize that their initial response -- outrage -- is too ferocious an emotion to feel for the loss of an object.”
It’s the very model of a petty crime, perfect fodder for a John Waters movie. (Waters himself, Shteir reports, financed his early shoplifting comedies at least in part via the real thing. “I had a special jacket for stealing LPs,” he told an audience in 2006. “I don’t feel bad because today I have to pay $25,000 to use some of these songs in my films, so it’s all worked out in the end.”)
Some of the most disturbing sections of Shteir’s book are her interviews with shoplifting “addicts” -- seriously messed-up people whose inability to control their sticky fingers owes more to pathology than to greed. “I got to the point where it was every day,” runs a typical confession. “I wanted to quit but I didn’t know how.”
Most readers will probably agree that the British Parliament’s Shoplifting Act of 1699, which imposed the death penalty on anyone caught stealing items of more than five shillings in value, was excessive. Yet in our own time the Supreme Court has upheld a life sentence (under California’s three-strikes law) for a hapless army veteran with burglary in his past who stole about $150 of videotapes from two Kmarts.
Then there are the celebrities -- Hedy Lamarr, Bess Myerson and, of course, Winona Ryder, who in December 2001 was nailed by security guards for trying to steal about $6,000 of designer clothing from a Beverly Hills Saks Fifth Avenue.
Shteir opens with a lurid description of the store video that captured Ryder’s inept foray into crime: She’s “between the hat boutique and the hose boutique of the accessories department when the amount of stuff she is carrying overpowers her. She drops something and squats on the floor to pick it up.”
Whatever her motives, it’s clear she wasn’t a professional thief.
Yet in the considerable space the author devotes later in the book to Ryder’s arrest and trial, she seems incensed at the restraint that was shown the star, who was sentenced to community service. No question about it: Poor nobodies get treated more harshly by our legal system than do rich celebrities.
But is that news -- and does it tell us anything about the cause or the prevention of shoplifting? If this entertaining but scattershot study has an argument to make, I never managed to pin it down.
“The Steal” is published by the Penguin Press (256 pages, $25.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)