If you’re like most Americans, you probably know shoplifting as a nervous tic of rich celebrities, something that was hip to do in the ’70s, or a friend’s bad habit—that is, if you’ve never pinched anything yourself. In The Steal, Rachel Shteir traces the surprisingly long history (and strong presence) of storefront theft’s place in our world, making the hushed tones and hazy statistics that often surround the deviant act seem like a crime.
The book begins, of course, with a starkly dramatized scene at Saks starring Winona Ryder, but the content of Shteir’s crisp prose ends its predictability there. Taking an approach no less versatile than her subject, the author traces shoplifting’s shape-shifting form as—to name just a few—a life-threatening addiction, a gesture of radical protest, a survival method, a postmodernist joke, a popular talking point for misogynists and racists, a $10 billion per year burden on the economy, and perhaps even an intrinsic part of human nature.
If that sounds more exhausting than an anxious raid down the aisles, there are plenty of bizarre and hysterical details peppered throughout The Steal to keep its pages popping. Some of the most memorable include characters like Adam Weissman, a live-off-the-land New Yorker who hasn’t bought anything but MetroCards in the past 15 years; he trawls a corner trashcan just moments after his conversation with Shteir concludes. Then there’s the bibliomaniac Stephen Carrie Blumberg, who stole 23,000 volumes of rare books for his personal collection while living off a family trust fund, and Claude Allen, the politician in George W. Bush’s White House who habitually committed refund fraud on $88 radios in between meetings with the President.
Shteir’s meticulous history of shoplifting’s evolution across the centuries is another big selling point, nicking info from the Bible (the world’s most stolen book), 18th-century authors like Henry Fielding, and conversations with cutthroat mall cops and addicts on the mend. With roots tracing back to the Garden of Eden, shoplifting began to really take off in the glass windows and tempting displays of Elizabethan London. Back then stealing was a sin that could earn you a one-way ticket to Tyburn Tree, the gallows in town that regularly drew a bigger crowd than the concert hall, but popular writer-thinkers soon recast the five-finger discount as something more. Fielding penned stories in which proto–Horatio Algers used shoplifting as a means to escape the lower rungs of the class system, while Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued for theft as a democratizing political act.
Rousseau’s ideas faded during the 19th-century movement to brand kleptomania a woman’s disease, but came back in full force two centuries later in America. As part of the 1970s’ cynical perversion of the previous decade’s idealistic counterculture, “liberating” goods from shop shelves became popular thanks to angry screeds like The Anarchist Cookbook and Steal This Book – until authors realized that books like these could cost them their dayjobs. Nowadays there’s the “ethical shoplifter,” young people who like to parody their parents’ idea of “sticking it to the man” (while making off with a pocket full of Slim Jims just the same), and may or may not dumpster-dive under the aegis of freeganism.
Though Shteir admits her book is largely focused on America, it’s also fun to see how shoplifting has been perceived in other climes. The French of a hundred years ago fancied it a symptom of sexual wantonness, while Barcelonans, historically radical and anti-authority in nature, have recently started groups like Yomango (slang for “I steal”), who are lauded in the Spanish press and loot wine shops while dancing the tango. Prevention measures around the globe have changed much over the years, with the advent of security cams and alarm tags; at one point, detectives were known to hide for hours on end in hollow pillars in department stores, while phalanxes of mannequins kept an eye out with pin-hole camera irises.
Perhaps most remarkable, though, is what hasn’t changed. Few still believe that shoplifting stems from “women’s organic inability to resist stealing,” as one bold essayist wrote in 1893. But the insight of a contemporary civil rights activist, Ida B. Wells—“Negroes are sent to the workhouse, jail, or penitentiary for stealing five cents of bread whereas white men are rewarded for stealing thousands”—barely needs a word change to fit modern times. Shteir proves, through a long menu of facts and figures, that “shopping while black” is still an unwritten misdemeanor in many police handbooks.
Shoplifting can also still raise your status rather than diminish it—so long as you’ve got more than enough cash to buy what you’re choosing to grift. Moll Flanders, the fairytale hero of Daniel Defoe’s 1772 novel, stole to support her poor children, and wound up being deported to a life of fame and riches in America. But back in reality, Mark Twain, German phrenologists, and Thomas Jefferson all lamented the easy breaks wealthy thieves were catching in court. In 1800, socialite Jane Leigh Parrot (aunt of Jane Austen) was acquitted to applause, despite having clearly stolen the pricey spool of lace in question; just a few years ago, actress Ryder was rewarded for her larcenous efforts with a guest spot on Saturday Night Live, a “Free Winona” T-shirt fashion fad, and a gig as a representative for Marc Jacobs, one of the labels she liked to rob. It seems our fascination for shoplifters who already have it all is something timeless.
It’s a bit jarring when Shteir inserts herself into the book a third of the way through (her eating a Cajun salad strikes me as irrelevant, unless she dined and dashed), and some of the shoplifting sob stories in the book’s latter acts are a bit of a drag. But on the whole, Shteir’s account shines a light on a central facet of modern life that has been left shadowed for too long. And she does it in a way that’s breezy enough to make for fine hammock reading during the summer months. The Steal is worth a read—no matter what you do to get a copy.