Synopses & Reviews
A history of shoplifting, revealing the roots of our modern dilemma.
Rachel Shteir's The Steal is the first serious study of shoplifting, tracking the fascinating history of this ancient crime. 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.
"'Successful theft exhilarates,' wrote Truman Capote in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Shteir's cultural history evinces that reading about it can be just as exhilarating. Shteir (Striptease) unravels the mystery of why 27 million Americans shoplift everything from condoms and Bibles to much more conspicuous items like kayaks and rugs. She interviews shoplifters who cross gender, ethnic, social, and economic lines she is just as determined to learn why individuals are driven to do it as well as how the culture has understood it: 'Is it a disease or a symbol of greed?' 'What does it mean that more and more white-collar shoplifters are caught committing the crime?' Tracing the evolution of shoplifting through history (Eve, she quips, was the very first shoplifter when she swiped that apple), the responses of the police and of stores, Shteir examines its social significance and discovers that everyone from St. Augustine to Alfred Hitchcock have had an opinion on sticky-fingered shoppers. Shteir's fascination for the topic and sense of humor are infectious, and make her history of this curious, understudied crime compulsively readable. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Rachel Shteir is the author of the awardwinning Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show and Gypsy: The Art of the Tease. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, Playboy, the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere. She is an associate professor and the head of the BFA program in criticism and dramaturgy at the Theatre School at DePaul University.