The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting
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Rachel Shteir’s The Steal is the first serious study of shoplifting, looking to history to reveal the roots of our modern dilemma. Dismissed by academia and the mainstream media and largely misunderstood, shoplifting has become the territory of moralists, mischievous teenagers, tabloid television, and self-help gurus. But shoplifting incurs remarkable real-life costs for retailers and consumers. The “crime tax”—the amount every American family loses to shoplifting-related price inflation—is more than $400 a year. Shoplifting cost American retailers $11.7 billion in 2009. The theft of one $5.00 item from Whole Foods can require sales of hundreds of dollars to break even.
The Steal begins when shoplifting entered the modern record as urbanization and consumerism made London into Europe’s busiest mercantile capital. Crossing the channel to nineteenth-century Paris, Shteir tracks the rise of the department store and the pathologizing of shoplifting as kleptomania. In 1960s America, shoplifting becomes a
symbol of resistance when the publication of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book popularizes shoplifting as an antiestablishment act. Some contemporary analysts see our current epidemic as a response to a culture of hyper-consumerism; others question
whether its upticks can be tied to economic downturns at all. Few provide convincing theories about why it goes up or down.
Just as experts can’t agree on why people shoplift, they can’t agree on how to stop it. Shoplifting has been punished by death, discouraged by shame tactics, and protected against by high-tech surveillance. Shoplifters have been treated by psychoanalysis, medicated with pharmaceuticals, and enforced by law to attend rehabilitation
groups. While a few individuals have abandoned their sticky-fingered habits, shoplifting shows no signs of slowing.
In The Steal, Shteir guides us through a remarkable tour of all things shoplifting—we visit the Woodbury Commons Outlet Mall, where boosters run rampant, watch the surveillance footage from Winona Ryder’s famed shopping trip, and learn the history of antitheft technology. A groundbreaking study, The Steal shows us that shoplifting in
its many guises—crime, disease, protest—is best understood as a reflection of our society, ourselves.
that’s not easily found elsewhere? The post inspired another debate on the Freegan.info listserv. “My concern is that if you need to eat or feed your children, and you do not have money to pay for the items, the only moral thing to do is get the food any way you can,” one poster wrote. Another exclaimed, “As far as I’m concerned there is no argument to be made that stealing from a bunch of murderers and con-artists is immoral . . . the WHOLE POINT is that they are stealing from us and we have
one-time head or “mother” of the house of Montana—shoplifted a $25,000 Versace bustier, Dixon told me. A 1997 photo at the Ebony Ball showed her in a full-length Versace gown. Some ball walkers still shoplift haute couture, although many others, Dixon said, have moved on to jeans. Like everything else, the pageants are less formal these days. First reported in newspapers in the 1880s, filching corsets and women’s underwear was for years snickeringly attributed to kleptomaniacs and erotomaniacs.
sure that the shoplifting charge could not be raised at the New York trial. The photo of Myerson taken at the crime scene in the Susquehanna River town that spring bears no resemblance to the elegant sophisticate once beloved in New York. She looks nothing like the vibrant young woman who won the Miss America pageant, the habitué of swank nightclubs and power restaurants, and friend of the glitterati. Her hair is flattened back across her head, her face wan. In July, after failing to delay her
Thanks to KGB Literary Reading Series and Suzanne Schneider for letting me read from the manuscript. Many librarians helped me track down obscure sources, including Lyonette Louis-Jacques, Allen Fisher at the National Archives, and the staff at the University of Chicago interlibrary loan department. But no one was as cheerful and responsive as Heather Jagman at DePaul University. Joe LaRocca, King Rogers, David Hill, Gail Caputo, the staff at the FMI, the staff at the National Association for
December 4, 1911, 9. p. 121 “manipulation of suckers . . .”: Sutherland, The Professional Thief, 3. 8. THE THRILL OF THE STEAL p. 125 “It’s knowing I’m . . .”: Author interview with shoplifter. p. 126 “You begin to . . .”: Author interview with “Donna,” December 28, 2006. p. 126 “[I shoplifted] . . .”: Author interview with “B,” February 2006. p. 126 “Sometimes I’ll . . .”: Author interview with “Christine,” April 9, 2006. p. 126 “I was caught . . .”: Author interview with Adam Stein,