Feeding the Appetites of Larcenous Literati

WASHINGTON — Washington.--African-American writers have made historic breakthroughs recently, but every silver lining does have its cloud.

The good news is in the breakthrough black authors have made as big sellers. Defying the conventional publishers' wisdom that black books don't sell, novels by Terri McMillan, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison all made the influential New York Times best-seller fiction list at the same time this summer, a historic first for black writers.


Further good news: A book of Morrison essays made the non-fiction list at the same time and "Lost in the City," a book of short stories by Washington's Edward P. Jones, 42, a first-time novelist, is one of five finalists for this year's National Book Award for fiction.

The message is clear: Publish something good and people will buy it.


Unfortunately, some people also will steal it. Ms. McMillan's "Waiting To Exhale," which topped the Times list, recently came out on top of another list, one I am sure its author would rather not be on. It is the "most-stolen" list as compiled from a survey of New York bookstores by Publishers' Weekly.

It was followed immediately by Ms. Morrison's "Jazz, Playing in the Dark." Alice Walker's "Possessing the Secret of Joy" was in sixth place.

Others among the top six included two hot books about race by white authors: Andrew Hacker's "Two Nations" and Studs Terkel's "Race."

It appears that today's steep book prices have inspired inner-city shoplifters to develop a taste for fine literature. Booksellers say today's literary Light-Fingered Louies are boosting books, sometimes by the armload, and selling them on the street for about half-price.

For a popular hardbound hit like Ms. McMillan's, which lists for $22 in the United States and $27.99 in Canada, that can be a substantial savings.

So, be careful where you buy your best sellers. They may be "hot" in more ways than one.

Of course, there's nothing new or uniquely black about book stealing. The No. 4 book on Publishers' Weekly's "most-stolen" list is Gail Sheehey's colorblind "Silent Passage: Menopause."

And the magazine's list of most-stolen authors includes only one black name: Malcolm X. The rest is dominated by such non-black classics as Franz Kafka, Jack Kerouac, Kathy Acker and Dr. Seuss.


Dr. Seuss? Well, why not? Perennially the most-stolen book is, yes, the King James Version of the Holy Bible. Bill Rickman, president of Chicago's Kroch's & Brentano's chain, said the chain's most-stolen titles are the Bible, the "Anarchist's Cookbook," which offers recipes for making bombs and "anything that can be sold easily on the subway."

Store managers are reluctant to talk about it on the record but, like any other merchants, big-city booksellers have developed their own profile for what a potential thief might look like and, unfortunately, the profile is quite often that of a young black male, particularly as black-community titles become more important.

So, if you're black like me, maybe you're not just being paranoid if you find yourself eyed suspiciously in bookstores these days.

One manager of a major chain bookstore in Washington described to Eric Jackson, a researcher for this column, how the store took Terry McMillan's hit book off the browsing shelves and put it on display behind the checkout counter, so the copies could be guarded more closely. The move resulted in a few complaints of racial discrimination, but the manager insisted: "It's not racist. It's just business."

So it is. Bookstores want to make money, not insult customers.

As one who loves a good bookstore as much as a fine meal, I am appalled by this invasion of my domain by literary larceny. As an African-American, I am doubly appalled that it would blemish the otherwise stellar achievements of black authors and create yet another arena for racial fear, suspicion and resentment.


It also is aggravating to imagine that, thanks to the decline in urban civility, I might face a future of being "tailed" in bookstores, just because my skin color and gender fit the profile of a potential thief.

I don't blame the booksellers. Most of them know you can't always judge a book by its cover or a crook by his color. Like other shopkeepers, they're just trying to cope with modern urban realities, even when it taxes race relations.

But, as a society, we should never tolerate these lapses in civility. We should do more than to simply try to cope. If the black community is to have any credibility, it must fight the cancer of crime by every means necessary.

But, just as it is not enough for black America to blame all its problems on white racism, it is also not enough for white Americans simply to install more high-tech anti-theft devices and think its obligations are fulfilled.

If we fail to offer American youngsters the motivational energy and educational tools that will enable them to exercise their entrepreneurial impulses in socially acceptable ways, we will only feed the underground market for books -- and worse.

It's time to take a tip from the book world: Turn over a new leaf.


Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.