Book gangs of New York

The biggest, baddest literary crime boss on the mean streets of Manhattan declares war.

Published August 19, 2002 3:40PM (EDT)

"In recent years, there have even been several book-stealing gangs, led by bookstore owners."

-- From the New York Times, July 18

The other gangs had been moving in on us for years, but when they hit the Borders on the Upper East Side, we all knew they had gone too far. No way was Frankie going to allow them to make a hit like that right in our backyard. We met at the Starbucks on 78th and Lex. Frankie made us all order our lattes with skim. "Toughens you up," he liked to say. I had never seen Frankie so furious. His eyes were bulging behind his tortoiseshell frames.

"We are going to strike back and strike back hard," he said. I tried to calm him down. "Come on, Frankie," I said, "all they made off with was a bunch of paperback Chabons and a new shipment of Dr. Atkins diet books."

Frankie slammed his fist on the table causing our lattes to wobble and spill out through the holes in their sippy tops.

"A few Chabons?" he screamed. "Is that it?" The other customers started to stare. "And what if next time it's a few Philip Roths? Would that be all right with you too? Better yet, how about we just sit back and they clear out the whole of contemporary Jewish American fiction?"

Some of the customers got up and walked out. The barista brought over a frappuccino on the house. She knew how to handle Frankie when he got worked up.

"We're hitting the Strand on University Place tonight and we're not leaving one self-conscious ironist in the store. We're taking out all the Daves: Eggers, Foster Wallace, Sedaris. Hell, even Rakoff. We're taking out Hornby." Frankie was losing it. "This youngblood Safran Foer kid? He's gone. I'm talking hardcover and paperback. Christ, we're gonna even take the audiobooks. This is war, dammit."

I was nervous. I hadn't told Frankie I wanted out. He didn't even know that I had taken the GREs, let alone aced them. "Frankie, come on, you know we can't get all the Daves," I pleaded. "They got undercover security, Frankie. They got cameras. We can't afford to lose another man."

"Whoever doesn't have the guts to do the job can get up and leave right now," Frankie said, his voice now eerily calm.

We all looked at one another. We had never done a bookstore below 68th Street. Now Frankie was telling us to take on the biggest shop in the Village. Solid Edmund White territory. It was crazy and we all knew it. But could I turn my back on the man who had rescued me from a dreary future of card catalogs at the NYPL? The man who had kept me off the San Pellegrino and versed me in store cred?

I glanced around the circle -- we looked as glum as the murals in a Barnes and Noble cafe. Tommy "Pynch" Watson was fiddling with the packs of sugar-in-the-raw. Dr. O (as we had been calling Billy since he walked out of a store with a dozen copies of Cynthia Ozick's latest essay collection in his pants) was chewing his lips. Maurice, the moody theorist whom we picked out from the rubble of the Gotham Books racket, looked like he was about to cry.

And then there was Frankie. Frankie, who anticipated and practically invented the in-store book club. Frankie, who read the staff selections and made us realize we were family.

Every life, like a book, has a turning point, and I could feel the reader's eyes on me right then. Yeah, so the teachers said I had a bright future, but did they understand my past? You can't escape it. Grad school could wait -- maybe forever. This was turn-of-the-century New York and we were book gangsters. We were blood. I nodded at Frankie and zipped up my backpack. "Let's go," I said. "Let's do it."

By Sam Apple

Sam Apple is writing a book about a wandering shepherd.


By Rebecca Jacobs

Rebecca Jacobs is a copy editor at the Financial Times.

MORE FROM Rebecca Jacobs

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