Charles Cox and the book theft ring

It was no secret that Cox's bookshops mostly trafficked in stolen books.

Mike Selby

“No one cares when you steal from libraries.”

So thought Charles Cox, a rare book dealer who set up shop beside Columbia University in 1914. Prior to this, Cox ran a popular book shop on Manhattan’s 42nd Street for 30 years, until it and his house burned down simultaneously—providing Cox with a large insurance settlement.

Although he was not investigated for insurance fraud, most people who dealt with him knew Cox was as crooked as they come. It was no secret that his shops mostly trafficked in stolen books.

Unfortunately, Cox wasn’t alone. He was part of an organized criminal enterprise that stole books from libraries and sold them to used and rare bookstores, frequently in collusion with them. Cox and other dealers would provide book thieves with want lists of high-value items.  Books would be stolen, removed of their library markings, and then resold to customers—which often included other libraries.

While most thefts were discovered almost immediately by the victimized libraries, any measures taken were mostly inadequate. Closed stacks, security guards, and using a perforated ownership stamp instead of ink didn’t stop the flow of missing books. Sometimes just the opposite happened. In 1910 the director of the Astor Library sent out a flyer to all rare book dealers to be on the lookout for recently stolen books, which could be identified by a small mark on any page ending in 97. The poor librarian had innocently revealed exactly what ‘secret’ marks needed to be removed before resell.

And things were about to get much worse, as the New York Public Library would open it doors in 1911.  With it’s open stacks and open to anyone philosophy, it was going to be book theft heaven. This was why Cox was so flippant in his attitude.

He shouldn’t have been.

The New York Public Library was very much aware of the organized book ring run by Cox and his ilk, but the library’s newly appointed director had a secret weapon: Edwin White Gaillard.

The son of Czechoslovakian immigrants, Gaillard has spent most of his life working in libraries. He had spent his early adulthood creating lending libraries in immigrant neighbourhoods, as well as tirelessly lobbying for schools to have their own libraries. Currently a librarian at the New York Public, he had been using his spare time trying to make the library more secure. He was very much aware of what they were facing.

Years earlier, a thesaurus had been stolen from a Manhattan settlement house library he ran, and in investigating its disappearance, he had stumbled upon the organized book ring (common today, an English language thesaurus was a rare treasure for newly arrived immigrants at the time). Gaillard had tracked down a team of men who had removed the book, erased all library marks and stamps, and even destroyed the book’s card catalogue entry.

Yet even with a file full of evidence, no one was interested in prosecuting. But Gaillard had become somewhat of an expert on “the well-oiled library theft machine.”  That is why the New York Public Library director knew Gaillard was the right—possibly the only—person for the new position he was creating: The Library Policeman.

This was no mere title. Gaillard spent the next two years training with the New York Police Department. He had to learn penal law, search and seizure rules, arrest procedures, and physical training. He was then sworn in as a special patrolman for Manhattan’s 23rd Precinct.

The worst decades of organized library theft were about to come to a close. Those like Cox who felt no one cared about library theft were in for a rude awakening.

Next week!

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library