Thieves of Book Row: New York's Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It

Thieves of Book Row: New York's Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It

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by Travis McDade
     
 

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No one had ever tried a caper like this before. The goods were kept in a secure room under constant scrutiny, deep inside a crowded building with guards at the exits. The team picked for the job included two old hands known only as Paul and Swede, but all depended on a fresh face, a kid from Pinetown, North Carolina. In the Depression, some fellows were willing to

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Overview

No one had ever tried a caper like this before. The goods were kept in a secure room under constant scrutiny, deep inside a crowded building with guards at the exits. The team picked for the job included two old hands known only as Paul and Swede, but all depended on a fresh face, a kid from Pinetown, North Carolina. In the Depression, some fellows were willing to try anything — even a heist in the rare book room of the New York Public Library.

In Thieves of Book Row, Travis McDade tells the gripping tale of the worst book-theft ring in American history, and the intrepid detective who brought it down. Author of The Book Thief and a curator of rare books, McDade transforms painstaking research into a rich portrait of Manhattan's Book Row in the 1920s and '30s, where organized crime met America's cultural treasures in dark and crowded shops along gritty Fourth Avenue. Dealers such as Harry Gold, a tough native of the Lower East Side, became experts in recognizing the value of books and recruiting a pool of thieves to steal them — many of them unemployed men who drifted up the Bowery or huddled around fires in Central Park's shantytowns. When Paul and Swede brought a new recruit into his shop, Gold trained him for the biggest score yet: a first edition of Edgar Allan Poe's Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems. Gold's recruit cased the rare-book room for weeks, searching for a weakness. When he found one, he struck, leading to a breathtaking game of wits between Gold and NYPL special investigator G. William Bergquist.

Both a fast-paced, true-life thriller, Thieves of Book Row provides a fascinating look at the history of crime and literary culture.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
McDade, a curator of rare books and author of a tome on notorious 1990s book bandit Daniel Spiegelman (The Book Thief), is well positioned to bring to life a forgotten part of New York City history. His tale begins in the 1930s, during the heyday of the city’s legendary Book Row on Fourth Avenue, a series of six blocks dominated by used book stores: “If it was printed, it could be found there, somewhere.” Sounds like a bibliophile’s heaven, but not all of the dealers took care to ensure the ethical provenance of what they proffered. “Bookleggers” or “Fourth Avenue pirates” actively colluded in cheating their customers, some going so far as to engage in the practice of “sophisticating,” a wonderfully self-serving portmanteau meaning to splice together damaged first printings with mint-condition later editions to create a “better” book. Still, those misdeeds paled in comparison with the organized theft rings whose predations on the New York Public Library make up the focus of this definitive history. McDade isn’t always able to capitalize on the story’s innate drama, but a fantastically colorful cast of characters and rich period detail will hook book lovers and historians of N.Y.C. 6 b&w halftones. (June)
Library Journal
McDade (curator of rare books, Univ. of Illinois Coll. of Law; The Book Thief) unfolds a saga styled as a whodunit. This is the tale of a book theft ring based in 1920s and 1930s New York City that plundered public and private libraries from Washington, DC to Boston. The recipients of this bibliographic wealth? The used-book dealers of Manhattan's storied "Book Row" (long gone) on 4th Avenue. The most infamous was Harry Gold, who recruited down-on-their-luck individuals to purloin literary treasures from libraries. He masterminded the most famous theft on January 10, 1931, of works by Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville, all taken from the New York Public Library's (NYPL's) supposedly impregnable rare-books room. McDade outlines how U.S. library materials had been vulnerable to theft largely owing to a policy of unrestricted access. The magnitude of these crimes, however, forced libraries to increase security, restrict access, and even hire private investigators such as NYPL's G. William Bergquist, who ultimately helped break this ring. VERDICT McDade has carried out exemplary research. Sadly, book theft continues today, though the author doesn't address that issue here. Highly recommended for rare-book specialists and true-crime enthusiasts.—Richard Drezen, Jersey City
Kirkus Reviews
Vivid account of an organized gang that victimized public and university libraries in the late 1920s and early '30s. Rare-book dealers on Manhattan's famed Book Row along lower Fourth Avenue almost inevitably were offered material of questionable provenance, writes McDade (The Book Thief: The True Crimes of Daniel Spiegelman, 2006), and they didn't always turn it down. But three booksellers--Charles Romm, Ben Harris and Harry Gold--actually recruited freelance thieves into their own crooked network. The Romm Gang became so adept at stealing rare volumes and scrubbing off the marks that identified their institutional owners that by 1930, it was sitting on a cache of thousands of books that had to be carefully moved into the market so as not to attract attention. The gang finally overstepped on January 10, 1931, when it hit the Reserve Book Room of the New York Public Library and boosted first editions of The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick and an exceedingly rare early collection by Edgar Allan Poe, Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane, and Minor Poems. NYPL special investigator G. William Bergquist tracked the Poe to Gold but wasn't able to prove the bookseller had it until he got a lucky break. In Boston, police nabbed two of its key suppliers, who gave Bergquist enough information to persuade New York's finest to raid Gold, Romm and Harris. The latter two were caught red-handed with stolen books and got jail sentences, but Gold apparently was tipped off in time to hide any incriminating evidence. It took a sting operation organized by Bergquist to retrieve the Poe volume and nail the slipperiest and most brazen member of the Romm Gang. McDade, a rare-books curator at the University of Illinois College of Law, does a nice job of capturing the colorful personalities involved, as well as the morally ambiguous nature of the rare-book trade. A treat for true-crime fans and bibliophiles alike.
From the Publisher
"Thieves is an engaging cat-and-mouse account of porous libraries, scouts armed with 'gall, confidence, and oversized coats,' complicit salesmen and of G. William Bergquist, the dogged New York Public Library investigator who cracked the gang's most audacious caper: the theft in 1931 of first editions of The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick and a rare Edgar Allan Poe collection." —New York Times

"McDade does a superb job of drawing a complete picture of the environment in which the Romm Gang operated. McDade makes a smart choice to spin his tale around the mostly forgotten individuals who participated in a widespread scheme to steal library books." —Los Angeles Times

"McDade's account is a better-informed account of [thief Harry] Gold than those in other sometimes misty-eyed and less hard-nosed portraits of Book Row. By concentrating on just a few men, McDade not only avoids many pitfalls in writing about the trade more generally, but also manages to bring this tale chronologically to a conclusion. It is not a very satisfactory conclusion, for this book raises larger questions: pointing a moral as well as adorning a tale." —Times Literary Supplement

"Definitive history.... a fantastically colorful cast of characters and rich period detail will hook book lovers and historians of N.Y.C." —Publishers Weekly

"A compelling history. Rich in characterization and vividly set, this tale of Manhattan's Fourth Avenue, known then as 'Book Row,' and its bookleggers makes for grand reading." —Library Journal

"With wit, erudition, and a nice sense of timing, McDade recreates the seamy side of the antiquarian book business in Depression-era New York and Boston. This immensely engaging story will appeal to cultural historians, literary scholars, bibliophiles, and true-crime lovers alike." —Joan Shelley Rubin, Professor of History, University of Rochester and author of Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America

"Thieves of Book Row chronicles a fascinating chapter in the history of the book trade, libraries, and organized crime. In a highly engaging narrative, McDade provides a wonderful portrait of books stolen and recovered and of many colorful characters ranging from rare book legends to petty thieves." —Thomas Hyry, Director of Special Collections, UCLA Library

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780199922666
Publisher:
Oxford University Press, USA
Publication date:
06/07/2013
Pages:
240
Sales rank:
519,602
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

Meet the Author

Travis McDade is the author of The Book Thief: The True Crimes of Daniel Spiegelman and the curator of rare books at the University of Illinois College of Law. He teaches a class at the University of Illinois called "Rare Books, Crime & Punishment."

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