Two American book distributors, Loompanics and Paladin, sell titles that ought to be mailed only in plain brown wrappers: to say it brutally, many of their books explain how to commit crimes. I have not seen any Canadian book other than the S(h)elf Help Guide that does this. Gabriel Caime and Gabriel Ghone, the two dark angels who researched and wrote this merrily shocking manual for shoplifters, present us with a text that has a vaguely American feel to it-one appendix concerns shoplifting penalties in twenty-eight states; the bibliography is mainly American-but there are Canadian details throughout the manual.
Our authors are consistently amoral, or so they think. Theft is property (the thief's), they say; get used to it. So it's wrong? So what. It was always thus. Shopkeepers who want to prevent the "smart lifter" (Caime and Ghone's favourite phrase) from stealing merchandise will simply treat their sales staff well, pay them as much as possible, and thereby gain loyalty. This is not an amoral observation.
Intelligent retailers will not rely on electronic traps, house dicks, or any other fancy means to avoid being victimized, because these are what ward off or catch the amateurs. The professional shoplifters (those who steal for resale) have figured out how to avoid these deterrents long ago (Caime and Ghone tell how). What they take does show up in shrinkage percentages. These are tiny, especially when contrasted to profits. This neat little observation partially explains why our criminal justice system doesn't treat shoplifting very seriously. And the two Gabes state without reservation that smart lifting does provide a living for those who choose to be effective at it (I almost said "good").
The most devastating species of retail theft (still not much, when retail's entire take is considered alongside) is committed by employees, according to statistics quoted in the Guide. Working shoplifters, those who lift alone or with partners-employees or other conventional lifters-justify their little naughtinesses in a variety of ways. Those are listed here, and they are all more or less ridiculous, given the generalizations that can be made about our quite civil society (it's rich, the laws are usually obeyed). Even Caime and Ghone do not absolve their informants (they do admit that the poor and hungry are "absolvable"), though they frequently admire their gall.
They themselves, during the writing of this book, claim to have been tempted to stray. They applied a risk-benefit calculus to the situation and decided to write about the Life instead of leading it. This is not surprising. The few small-time rounders I've met or have heard about, on unimpeachable authority-are boring, above all; except for the dubious rush that comes from cheating or robbing someone else, they do not lead fascinating existences. It takes all they've got just to organize those little crimes, week after week.
These really are the blunt instruments Caime and Ghone are writing about. They quote them, at length. Most do not sound particularly reflective, though they do tell funny stories-about hiding sausages in their socks; about diverting attention away from themselves by setting a rack of coats on fire; about being fat anyway and therefore not being caught when padded at the crotch with thieved articles. "I can put about 8-10 pounds of meat there, and it changes my shape very little.then when I come home it is an instant gratification to lose that extra 8 to 10 pounds."
Caime and Ghone are so thorough they verge on the tedious. Their text is constantly broken up by subheads and block quotes in boldface type; almost every paragraph is chorused upon by a snide comment in the margin. The style, though supple enough, is ceaselessly that of a self-improvement manual. They wish their readers, the wannabe smart lifters, perhaps, good luck, happy hunting; if they follow the useful advice given, how can they fail?
The authors love lists: the ten best species of stores from which to lift; the several preferred methods of concealment; the many shoplifting "scenarios"; the numerous means of disarming low- and high-tech deterrent devices. The ink tag for example, a deterrent to amateurs, is described in loving detail; ditto the means of foiling it (one could surreptitiously take the shirt or sweater with the tag attached, into a changing room-unfollowed, "unmade"-heat up a razor blade or other slim little knife with a cigarette lighter, cut off the knob at the top and pour out the contents, harmlessly). "Packing", perhaps by simply wearing the shirt, would be followed by a calm getaway.
The skills of pros and high-level amateurs are what most impress Caime and Ghone. Their admiration does not stop at the electronic gate of the store, however; it continues unto the fence, whose activities are also carefully described. I fully believe that this book is authentic, that the authors have done and reported their research carefully and honestly. They mention the various strategies of fencing, including the artful dodge of receiving and reselling stolen goods at neighbourhood garage sales. They claim a couple of times that they have either spoken to or know of a woman who does this. (The shock of recognition here; I think I also know the slimy old carp they are talking about, or someone else just like her.) Two cheers for the sporting life.
As the authors say in an epigraph on the title page (you can do this sort of thing if you publish your own book), "If you paid for this book, you might learn something! If you did not, take it back. You do not need it." They want to make as much money as they can from honest sales, but they likely would not object to being paid for a book that had been thieved. If the store was beat, tant pis. It should have followed their advice.
There is a use for this book beyond its provision of myriad checklists for the training of professional boosters. Caime and Ghone are no blinkered fans of consumer society; they like consumer goods as much as any of the rest of us, but they readily deconstruct the hype surrounding impulse buying (indeed, they, like their sources, see it as one of the prime conveniences for the smart lifter-that plethora of open shelves; all those milling sheep getting in the way of the floorwalker). Shopping for most things-especially things one simply does not want but merely needs-is one of the most banal ways imaginable to spend one's time. If, however, while getting stuff, one walks, armed with the information Caime and Ghone provide, through a department store or a mall just spotting the snoops, the "mystery shoppers", the means of deterrence, one can easily turn an excruciating afternoon into a delightful fantasy, committing soft crime in one's heart and realizing the truth of the smart lifter's turn on the merchandisers' nauseatingly moralizing cliché: "shoplifting is the crime everyone else pays for."
When he was eight, Ted Whittaker snitched from a department store a goldfish in a small bowl, but his mother made him take them back. He has not shoplifted since.