The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting

The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting

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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

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

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)

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781594202971
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
06/30/2011
Pages:
272
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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