They slip into bookstores with magnets, hidden pockets, foil-lined baby buggies and other gimmicks that can be used to steal entire stacks of books.
Or they rely on bare hands and bravado.
At the Samuel French Bookshop in Hollywood, one thief wandered in and asked for a Disney animation title that didn't exist, then used an in-store pay phone to make an unusual call. As employees eavesdropped in amazement, the man dialed Information for the number of a used-book shop, then called the store and asked: "What was the name of that book again?"
With revised instructions, he found several copies, stuffed them under his shirt and headed for the door. Confronted, he dropped the goods and fled.
Other stores aren't so lucky. Merchants say organized rings of thieves -- allegedly working for a handful of secondhand book dealers or swap-meet vendors -- have blind-sided them in recent years.
"You put out a stack of 10 or 15 books and a few minutes later, it's gone," says Melissa Mytinger of the Northern California Booksellers Association. Used-book dealers deny involvement, but retailers' annual losses are so steep -- into the six figures at some stores -- that a few merchants on both coasts have resorted to keeping popular titles behind counters or under glass.
In New York, it's Kafka and Malcolm X that disappear. In Chicago, it's Bibles. Los Angeles-area merchants have trouble hanging onto Thomas Bros. map guides and photo collections.
"There are certain stores that we know are behind this and they literally send people out with shopping lists," says Gwen Feldman, past president of the Southern California Booksellers Association.
In New York City, the stolen-book peddlers operate even more brazenly. They sell from sidewalk stands set up outside the very stores that are pilfered. Yet police rarely take action, merchants say.
In some ways, the whole idea of organized book theft seems ridiculous. When Los Angeles Times reporters sold expensive new books to various secondhand shops in the area, profits were often paltry: Sidney Sheldon's latest best seller ($23 retail) and Roddy McDowall's new photo collection ($65) brought a combined $7. A $75 bird book fetched $23.
But it adds up, Ms. Feldman says, and books make easy targets: A shop owner will "miss a Nikon camera if it's stolen. You're not going to miss a copy of Dr. Seuss."
A few years back, criminals reached the same conclusion. Shoplifting went haywire.
Employees at a San Francisco Bay area store nabbed people trying to walk out with entire boxes of merchandise.
When stores switched to computer inventories, they found even more theft. "There were some owners who always knew they had a problem, but when they went on computer, they were just shocked," Ms. Feldman says. Smaller shops were losing $10,000 to $30,000 a year; at high-volume stores the tab was closer to $100,000.
"It went from petty pilferage to a serious situation," says Robert Contant, co-owner of St. Mark's Bookshop in New York City.
The phenomenon baffled booksellers. The rise in theft seemed to coincide with increases in unemployment, homelessness and drug abuse. Merchants say most of those caught are addicts or street people scrounging for cash to buy dope or food.
But not always. At one Southern California shopping center, for example, security officers nabbed a well-dressed, brother-sister team. The books were returned and no charges were pressed.
"They come in all shapes and sizes," says Joel Sheldon, president of Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, Calif. "You cannot necessarily eyeball it."
Electronic security systems don't necessarily help. If a thief passes through with more than one book, the sensor sometimes jams, retailers say. Magnets, foil-lined bags and other devices are believed also to confuse some systems. Many booknappers, however, skip the high-tech approach: They surreptitiously pile books up near the front of the store, grab the stack and bolt.
"Even if you're caught, so what?" says St. Mark's Contant. "There's no prosecution for it."
Most book retailers say they long ago gave up trying to take shoplifters to court, citing lack of interest from law-enforcement authorities: "If we catch someone," adds Chatterton's Tony Russo, "we just get the books back and that's it."
But the real culprits, booksellers say, are secondhand book shops that allegedly buy the merchandise. They, too, seem unstoppable.
San Francisco police, for example, ran a sting in which undercover officers sold "stolen" merchandise to a store and even had the shop's co-owner give them lists for other books, says Police Inspector Richard VanKoll.
Police busted a co-owner, won a conviction and revoked his license to sell secondhand goods. But when he applied for a new license, with his partner as president, the city's permit-appeals board -- which was chaired by a loyal store customer -- allowed him back in business, Mr. VanKoll says.
New York City authorities also give the problem low priority. Outside St. Mark's Bookshop in the East Village, for instance, sidewalk peddlers openly ply books -- many of them still bearing St. Mark's telltale stamp -- at half off the prices inside the store.
As the situation worsens, some stores won't display more than a single copy of certain titles -- and others post printed signs telling customers to ask for the book at the counter.
In Marin County north of San Francisco, a dishonest flea-market vendor operated so freely that he even took special orders, sent underlings to steal the books, then phoned customers when the merchandise came in.
Los Angeles book-theft rings also reportedly dispatch thieves to fill special orders. Book Soup owner Glenn Goldman says he was in one such store when a booknapper delivered a pricey art book and the proprietor snapped at the man for bungling the job: "Go back and get Volume One. We can't sell half a set."