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the steal

11 january 2012

The Steal, by Rachel Shteir, is an uneven, sometimes frustrating, book that nevertheless has such a magnetic topic that you read through the rough bits, waiting for the next curious and (literally) arresting detail.

The topic is shoplifting. On reflection, I'm not sure why shoplifting should be so interesting. I have never stolen anything from a shop – truly, literally, never a single item. I don't think this is because I have a super-developed moral sense; I think it's because I am not that interested in stuff. I've been poor at several junctures in my life, but never poor enough to have to steal a pair of jeans. And being the proud owner of two pairs of legally-bought jeans, I am utterly uninterested in a third.

But some people just can't stop. Shteir is agnostic on whether they're sick or bad. Usually we try to figure out motive from circumstantial indications. My own great-grandfather stole a lot of stuff in his life. He was a clerk at Sears and Roebuck for many years, in the early 20th century. (And he's been dead for 65 years, so don't come looking for restitution now, Sears and Roebuck.) Every day, my great-grandpa would take home some hardware. Might have been a tool in his pocket; might have been a length of wire, wrapped around his waist and hidden under his coat. He hid the stuff in his garage, years' worth of superfluous Sears merchandise, unused, otiose. When Sears finally guessed something was wrong, my grandfather and his brothers buried the stuff in the yard. I bet it's still there. And no, I'm not telling you the address.

I didn't get the gene for kleptomania, but my great-grandfather's case suggests that there is one: why do some people take bunches of useless stuff they don't need or want? Value is often beside the point. My great-grandfather wasn't acquainted with any fences; he wasn't "boosting," in trade parlance, and a few scraps of wire wouldn't have brought him much profit. And even valuable swag often goes unredeemed. One of Shteir's informants knowingly asks, "If you have kleptomania, why are you taking jewelry?" (197) But you might as well ask that of a bluejay. The answer is obvious: because it's shiny.

"Shoplifting was my comfort food," says an informant on the other side of the law (207). People rip stuff off because they get a charge out of getting something for nothing: hoarding, thrifting, couponing, and the Antiques Roadshow are analogous experiences. The risk of getting caught only accentuates the thrill, a thrill that goes deeper than exhilaration to touch basic need.

But then, of course, there are lots and lots of people who steal professionally, or perhaps to supplement a bare living, or just to get the lowest possible price on the brands they trust. From the retailer's point of view, as Shteir notes, it's all the same thing; when items are walking off the shelf, motive is irrelevant. Vanishing merchandise is grouped by shopkeepers into the category of "shrink," which includes a phenomenon Shteir barely mentions: employee theft. (In an unavoidable irony, some of the "Loss Prevention" professionals hired to nab shoplifters are probably strolling out the back door loaded down with stuff in emulation of my great-grandfather.)

So it's clear we can be fascinated by shoplifting, even from a respectable distance. Unfortunately, that's one of the few things that becomes clear in The Steal. Shteir often just doesn't explain or describe things clearly. Her style is elliptical, allusive; her vocabulary is imprecise; her chapters are shapeless, and many of them read like transcriptions from a notebook. Fact-checking is at a premium: at one point, discussing celebrity shoplifter Hedy Lamarr, Shtier has Lamarr recalling "the assassination of the German chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss" (138), though I can't imagine that even a worse-for-wear Hedy Lamarr would forget that she was Austrian, and that Dollfuss had been chancellor of Austria; it was kind of an important point in the 1930s.

I'd like to say "no matter," but there is a certain point beyond which a book's rough surface can interfere with even the most interesting material, and The Steal lies somewhere on the bad side of that point. But it does say something when a topic is so interesting that you read to the end even then.

Shteir, Rachel. The Steal: A cultural history of shoplifting. New York: Penguin, 2011.