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The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting

The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting

2.2 9
by Rachel Shteir

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A history of shoplifting, revealing the roots of our modern dilemma.

Rachel Shteir's The Steal is the first serious study of shoplifting, tracking the fascinating history of this ancient crime. Dismissed by academia and the mainstream media and largely misunderstood, shoplifting has become the territory of moralists, mischievous teenagers, tabloid


A history of shoplifting, revealing the roots of our modern dilemma.

Rachel Shteir's The Steal is the first serious study of shoplifting, tracking the fascinating history of this ancient crime. Dismissed by academia and the mainstream media and largely misunderstood, shoplifting has become the territory of moralists, mischievous teenagers, tabloid television, and self-help gurus. But shoplifting incurs remarkable real-life costs for retailers and consumers. The "crime tax"-the amount every American family loses to shoplifting-related price inflation-is more than $400 a year. Shoplifting cost American retailers $11.7 billion in 2009. The theft of one $5.00 item from Whole Foods can require sales of hundreds of dollars to break even.

The Steal begins when shoplifting entered the modern record as urbanization and consumerism made London into Europe's busiest mercantile capital. Crossing the channel to nineteenth-century Paris, Shteir tracks the rise of the department store and the pathologizing of shoplifting as kleptomania. In 1960s America, shoplifting becomes a symbol of resistance when the publication of Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book popularizes shoplifting as an antiestablishment act. Some contemporary analysts see our current epidemic as a response to a culture of hyper-consumerism; others question whether its upticks can be tied to economic downturns at all. Few provide convincing theories about why it goes up or down.

Just as experts can't agree on why people shoplift, they can't agree on how to stop it. Shoplifting has been punished by death, discouraged by shame tactics, and protected against by high-tech surveillance. Shoplifters have been treated by psychoanalysis, medicated with pharmaceuticals, and enforced by law to attend rehabilitation groups. While a few individuals have abandoned their sticky-fingered habits, shoplifting shows no signs of slowing.

In The Steal, Shteir guides us through a remarkable tour of all things shoplifting-we visit the Woodbury Commons Outlet Mall, where boosters run rampant, watch the surveillance footage from Winona Ryder's famed shopping trip, and learn the history of antitheft technology. A groundbreaking study, The Steal shows us that shoplifting in its many guises-crime, disease, protest-is best understood as a reflection of our society, ourselves.

Editorial Reviews

"All money represents theft," wrote the yippie guru Jerry Rubin. "Shoplifting gets you high. Don't buy. Steal. If you act like it's yours, no one will ask you to pay for it." Like Abbie Hoffman, whose Steal This Book! argued that it was immoral not to steal from the privileged classes in America and who referred to shoplifting as "an act of revolutionary love," Rubin saw theft as an admirable strike against the status quo—until his own apartment was robbed. "In advocating stealing as a revolutionary act," he wrote after that, "I guess I didn't make clear the difference between stealing from General Motors and stealing from me."

As Rachel Shteir makes clear in The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, not everyone who steals consumer goods is as high-minded as Rubin and Hoffman. Some people—the so- called boosters—steal for money, intending to resell the items. Others steal because they want something they cannot afford. Many can afford the items they pocket but enjoy them more if they are stolen. Some feel entitled to the objects and feel that they should not have to pay, or crave the sense of achievement derived from having pulled off a successful heist. "How will I satisfy myself?" asks "Jane," a grandmother and repeat offender, at a shoplifting prevention session. "Cooking for [my husband]? My accomplishment is to shoplift."

Unfortunately, stories about shoplifters—be they ordinary citizens like Jane, or high-profile personages like Winona Ryder or Claude Allen—are not, on the whole, very interesting. The Steal is more enjoyable when recounting the odd and sometimes absurd ideas that people have held in connection with kleptomania and shoplifting. The Victorian era saw such publications as Henry Allen's "Prize Essay on Kleptomania, with a View to Determine Whether Kleptomaniacs Should Be Held Disqualified for Employments of Trust and Authority under the Crown," in which Allen claimed, "The personal appearance of kleptomaniacs is easily recognized.... [Their eyes] are of neutral colour, which frequently changes its predominant tint: green when dejected, red when furious."

Attempts to stem the rising tide of shoplifting, meanwhile, range from the silly to the sinister. Some retailers have tried subliminal messages:
Department stores across the country piped in sentences like "I am honest. I will not steal. If I do steal I will be caught and sent to jail" through teenybopper lyrics and Muzak. An academic named David Riccio tried to sell his version of a subliminal antishoplifting tool based on sounds. "Which is more impactful?the words ?a baby is crying? or 'a baby crying'?" he asked, adding, … la The Manchurian Candidate, that he aimed to turn a store into "an environment that people are apt to not have an immoral thought in," by interpolating church bell chimes and choirs.
Other counter-measures involve increasingly sophisticated (and increasingly invasive) surveillance techniques. The latest of these invites ordinary citizens to participate: "After paying a modest subscription fee, couch potatoes anywhere in the European Union can earn up to œ1200 a month by catching British shoplifters they see on live CCTV feeds streamed in from stores to their televisions." There are real concerns here about the right to privacy in the surveillance state, but they have little to do with shoplifting per se. And reading The Steal has an odd effect: the further into the book the reader gets, the less clear it is why its author thought shoplifting was a weighty enough subject to deserve an entire book. (The topic has been neglected by writers, Shteir notes near the beginning of her book?and by the end the reader is likely to add, "and rightly so!")

Admittedly, shoplifting costs retailers quite a bit of money, and those costs tend to get passed on to consumers. But given the range of problems facing citizens of developed nations in the 21st century, having to pay slightly higher prices for consumer goods seems fairly trivial. And if shoplifting has some sort of broader social, psychological, or metaphorical significance, Shteir fails to make clear what it might be.

As if sensing this, she sometimes resorts to hyperbole to convince us that her subject is worthy of attention after all: "In an era when speaking or writing openly about previously taboo subjects is an entrepreneurial frontier," she writes, "stealing household trinkets from stores remains too shameful for words. Shoplifting may be the last species of creepy conduct of which that is true." Really? That shoplifting is more shameful or creepier than, say, indulging in child pornography is highly doubtful. Worse still is the analogy proposed on the book's final page: "Maybe in the future," Shteir writes, "stores will make public the details of how they deal with shoplifters just as governments are publishing their secrets. But thus far, no Julian Assange has appeared to reveal the secrets of Bergdorf's, Loehmann's, and everything in between."

A generous reader might conclude that this was intended to be comical, but the analogy comes off as both outlandish and a bit desperate: the comparison of the secrets revealed by WikiLeaks with those guarded by the major retailers serves only to remind the reader of how little is at stake. Like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Shteir seems to want shoplifting to signify more than it does, to bear more metaphorical weight than it possibly can. Or perhaps she is simply taking a version of Rubin's advice: if you act like what you are writing about matters, no one will ask you to prove it. —Troy Jollimore

Troy Jollimore is Associate Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Chico. His book Love's Vision will be published next year.
Publishers Weekly
"Successful theft exhilarates," wrote Truman Capote in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Shteir's cultural history evinces that reading about it can be just as exhilarating. Shteir (Striptease) unravels the mystery of why 27 million Americans shoplift everything from condoms and Bibles to much more conspicuous items like kayaks and rugs. She interviews shoplifters who cross gender, ethnic, social, and economic lines—she is just as determined to learn why individuals are driven to do it as well as how the culture has understood it: "Is it a disease or a symbol of greed?" "What does it mean that more and more white-collar shoplifters are caught committing the crime?" Tracing the evolution of shoplifting through history (Eve, she quips, was the very first shoplifter when she swiped that apple), the responses of the police and of stores, Shteir examines its social significance and discovers that everyone from St. Augustine to Alfred Hitchcock have had an opinion on sticky-fingered shoppers. Shteir's fascination for the topic and sense of humor are infectious, and make her history of this curious, understudied crime compulsively readable. (June)
People Magazine
Murder, we get. In every culture it is bad- a crime against humanity, even if we sometimes understand why it happens. Shoplifting is more of a shape-shifter. It’s become the great American crime, and just about everyone has done it at least once. In this intelligent, sometimes startling book, Shteir looks at the history of lifting (from Eve- that apple- to Moll Flanders to Winona Ryder) and our manifold motivations, from raw need to sheer thrills; as Philip Roth memorably put it, “The not paying for things is intoxicating.” Is shoplifting a crime, a mental condition, a legitimate protest against modern materialism? Whatever it is, it’s interesting to consider how we can despise the petty thief at the mall, yet laud the Robin Hoods and Butch Cassidys of literature. And remember how Ryder’s cool-hipster stock rose after her troubles? As one scholar of thievery observed, “People secretly applaud those who do not play by the rules.”--(Judith Newman)

Library Journal
"Shoplifting has been a sin, a crime, a confession of sexual repression, a howl of grief, a political yelp, a sign of depression, a badge of identity, and a backdoor to the American Dream," writes Shteir (criticism & dramaturgy, DePaul Univ. Theater Sch.; Gypsy: The Art of the Tease) in her introduction to this fascinating and accessible study. In tracing the cultural history of shoplifting, she lays out three main themes in society's understanding of it: as a crime, an illness, or a political act. She traces society's response to shoplifting in Western history and literature, from Plato and St. Augustine, through over 400 years of laws and punishment for petty crimes. From there she surveys the idea of kleptomania, Freudian explanations for stealing, and political justifications for shoplifting by everyone from Emma Goldman to Abby Hoffman. The second part of the book is a more contemporary history of the crime and efforts to stop it. Shteir suggests that shoplifting and society's response have more to do with our ideas of consumption and desire than they do with crime. VERDICT A well-written and notable book on an under-studied topic. Highly recommended.—Jessica Moran, California State Archives, Sacramento
From the Publisher
“Author Rachel Shteir…[presents] a complex view of shoplifting in her richly researched, dry-witted book.” — THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

"Tantalizing enough that you'll not to want to put the book down — especially if you're inclined to lift it.” — NPR

Intelligent…[Shteir] captures her subject from every angle.” — NEW YORK TIMES

Eye-opening and unnerving.” — THE DAILY BEAST

“A serious study of shoplifting…Shteir is an expert at exploring cultural phenomena previously ignored by academia…” — CHICAGO Magazine

 “Shteir’s fascination for the topic and sense of humor are infectious, and make her history of this curious, understudied crime compulsively readable.” — PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (starred)

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.30(w) x 6.30(h) x 0.93(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Rachel Shteir is the author of the award-winning Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show and Gypsy: The Art of the Tease. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, Playboy, the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. She is an associate professor and the head of the BFA program in criticism and dramaturgy at the Theatre School at DePaul University.

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The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting 2.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While it has a lot of sources, overall this come off as a thesis rather than a consumer book. Some of the assertions seem shaky. And there are a few inaccuraces about medication treatments. I remember frim my research that medications are indeed recommended for reducing compulsive shoplifting. Also, the book focused very heavily on individuals with compulsive shoplifting issues. I was hoping for more information on the gangs and street crime side of things.
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AnOutragedReader More than 1 year ago
I have read Ms. Shteir's book "The Steal" and am very disappointed with it from a number of angles--factual and and breadth. First, I am a subject in her book and she she has made no less than 15 errors by my count, including stating that I was in jail--when I was not; that I operate a non-profit business--which I don't; that I am trademarking a therpeutic method--which I'm not; that I had a counseling client who was dissatisfied with me and went to another particular therapist--which didn't happen, she wasn't a client; that the details of a lawsuit were condensed and one-sided and distorted; and that this author doesn't reveal her obvious biases against me and a few others in the book. With this said, I believe the rest of the book's facts and accuracies are in doubt and this author has enjoyed the same negative reviews and shared accuracy concerns in her previous books on strippers. As for the scope and breadth of the book itself, it is all head an no heart; even the chapter on shoplifting as pathology and addictive disorder are written about in a snarky, skeptical, condascending tone. This author does nothing to help others heal from this challenging, shameful problem. There is nothing in this book that gives a clue what the author's true interest is in shoplifting as a topic other than my theory that it is pure opportunism: so little is written about this subject and she hopes to capitalize on this. What a shame!