Thieves, Shoplifters & Other Curses

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By Neal Coonerty

When my Irish-born grandfather got really mad -- I mean really, really mad -- he would curse the object of his ire by muttering in his Irish brogue, "The curse of the seven Protestant gods on ye, and may ye have the dribblin' shits for all eternity." Well, I never have figured out who the "seven Protestant gods" were, but one thing I know is that my grandfather's curse expresses precisely the way I feel about shoplifters at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

In my 30 years of bookselling, I've caught lots of thieves stealing -- young boys, older women, a street person stealing a Bible, a middle-class professional stealing for the sport of it, a paraplegic in a wheelchair, and a nun stealing while dressed in full habit. Each and every one of them was discouraging, annoying, and destructive to my business. But enough whining.

I have to admit that I was once seriously flattered by a shoplifter. This thief was caught and handcuffed for his short ride to county jail. We rarely hear anything more about a shoplifter after an arrest because the justice system seems to plea-bargain these small cases to a quick close. But, occasionally, shoplifters want their day in court, as did this young man. I soon got a call from the DA's office with a couple of questions and a court date.

On the appointed day, I ended up in a misdemeanor court where a local attorney serves as a temporary judge and the speed of the trial, judgment, and sentence easily beats any court show on TV. My shoplifter's defense was vague, at best, and he soon was declared guilty by the judge. Stunned, all he could do was insist that he wanted a trial. The bemused judge looked down from the bench and let him know that he had just had his trial and lost, and, now, he was about to be sentenced.

The judge offered the guilty miscreant a choice in his sentence: 90 days in county jail, or stay out of Bookshop Santa Cruz for a year. I was sitting on a bench in the courtroom pondering this unexpected choice when I realized that my shoplifter was silent, looking as though he was working very hard trying to think this one carefully through. The impatient judge, expecting that anyone with half a brain would want to avoid three months in county jail, told the shoplifter to quickly make a decision.

Sixty more seconds of silence followed, and, by this time, everyone in the busy courtroom was intently focused on this young man and his decision. The judge even stopped shuffling papers and seemed to realize that whatever came out of this guy's mouth next was going to be, at the least, entertaining. Finally, the shoplifter spoke: "This is a hard decision, judge. I don't know if I could go a year without going into Bookshop Santa Cruz."

I nearly fell off my bench. This was such a charming endorsement that in any other circumstance I might have used it in a newspaper ad. I was flattered that someone was willing to go to county jail for 90 days so that he could continue to shop (using the term "shop" loosely) at Bookshop. But the judge spoke kindly and slowly to the shoplifter and explained how unpleasant the county jail experience was. My shoplifter reluctantly accepted his year's probation, and I walked back to the Bookshop oddly feeling a little prouder of my business.

Catching the shoplifting nun was altogether a different experience. First, it should be known that I spent 12 long years in Catholic schools -- the first eight years taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph. The idea of catching a nun shoplifting was so unbelievable to me that it never even entered my fondest elementary school "revenge on a nun" fantasy. But a twist in this case made it even more unforgettable.

It happened one slow day in the old, pre-earthquake store when I was working the front cash register. Suddenly, the shoplifting alarm started beeping. I quickly glanced over my shoulder to spot the thief and was puzzled to see a middle-aged nun in her black habit slowly heading toward the door. My Catholic school-induced conditioning caused me to immediately start apologizing. "I'm so sorry, Sister, the alarm system must be acting up," I said, as I headed out around the counter to see her safely through the door.

Before I got to her, however, she stopped, bent over, picked up an issue of the Good Times and headed back into the Bookshop, setting off the alarm a second time. She then quickly walked around a tall fixture with me trailing 10 feet behind her, reciting a litany of apologies and hoping that she would be merciful and let me off with just a hard rap across my knuckles. She never stopped moving -- almost running around the fixture and out the door, without setting off the alarm this time.

I came to a dead stop, wondering which level of hell you end up in for falsely accusing a nun, God's own bride, of shoplifting. Then, I glanced down and noticed a Good Times wrapped around a book crammed hastily on the wrong bookshelf. I suddenly realized that this shoplifting, quick-thinking nun had ditched the incriminating evidence, leaving me in the lurch as I dumbly watched her scooting across the street and out of sight around the corner.

I picked up the paper to see what book she was stealing. Well, the book I found was most unexpected: Buck Naked: A Photographic Guide to Gay Men's Sex. The book was from our Gay Men's section and was filled with photos of young gay men in all their tumescent glory. I almost ran after my shoplifting nun with the book in hand shouting, "Sister, don't worry, your secret is safe with me -- here, the book is on me." Instead, I put the book away and happily spent the rest of the day contemplating the rich foibles and joys of the human condition -- even with the curse of the occasional shoplifter to spoil the day.

Neal Coonerty is the owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, in Santa Cruz, California, an ABA Board member, and the immediate past president of the association.