The Amazon review of The Thieves of Book Row by Travis McDade describes the book as a “griping tale” and “fast-paced, true-life thriller”. Even for Amazon this description is a bit of excessive hyperbola. Thieves is certainly not a Baldacci or Berry thriller in real-life.
More accurately McDade gives us a well research comprehensive look into an interesting period of book selling, libraries and book theft. Most of the activity takes place just prior and during the Depression years.
Thieves is a comprehensive description of the characters of the New York and Boston book trade and significant libraries on both sides of the law.
My biggest criticism of McDade’s writing is it’s scholarly style. McDade errors on the side of completeness rather than making a tightly written and edited text for the average reader. For example, numerous times in the book McDade explains for each book thief that they most often used large overcoats with multiple interior pockets to conceal books and remove them from libraries. It does get tiresome to read this refrain throughout the book.
However, this criticism aside, McDade does illustrate a fascinating time when valuable americana first editions were readily available on public library shelves. Given the dire economic times and lax judicial view of book theft it is completely understandable how criminals could be drawn in.
The reader is left with a lasting impression and nagging question at the completion of Thieves. How many of today’s very rare first editions of americana were at one time on public library shelves and stolen by book thieves? McDade regularly asserts that “many thousands” of books went through the hands of the theft rings and only a very small number were ever recovered.