Who Believes Robbing an Independent Bookstore is Profitable?

By Diane Plumley

One would think no one. Apparently, however, two men didn’t get the memo– bookstores do not make money–because back in the early 1980s armed gunmen held up Lorry’s Book Company, not once, but twice.

I arrived in New York City as so many current inhabitants did–hoping to ignite a theatrical career the likes no one’s seen since Eleanora Duse. An income, however, is helpful, and I needed a job to support the never ending acting lessons and always looming rent.

I’d already learned my waitressing skills were slim, and recently left managing the handbag department of a chain of ‘hip’ clothing stores whose repetitive playing of a disco “Bridge Over Troubled Water” had scarred the area of my brain that once loved Paul Simon’s music.

The next step–interviewing for a university bookstore cashier position. They offered me the job. I misunderstood their salary quote, and accidently bargained my way into more money than originally offered. I love books, always thought it would be sublime to work in a place that had nothing but magnificent tomes.
The merchandise I was ringing up on the cash register–yes, youngsters, one had to ‘ring’ numbers by hand back in the dark ages–were not the gems I’d imagined. Textbooks somehow lack the atmosphere of pulpy pages or conversely, the crisp paper cuts of recent releases.

And there was the terror of the register’s bank not balancing when my shift was over. One could be accused of stealing, or worse, being incompetent.

Also, I wasn’t working with books, but tallying up armloads of mathematical monstrosities and scientific theories the weight of a medium dog. Not the dreamy picture of stuffedCornell Woolrich crime novelchairs surrounded by teetering piles filled with Chandler and Helen McCloy or Cornell Woolrich. With me blithely pointing out which title the customer *must* read or forever lack a soul. Remember, dramatics were my metaphorical bread and butter.

A few months inched by until I was suddenly promoted to cashier in the ‘real’ bookstore, the one around the corner across from City Hall. The one jumbled from front to back with all categories, forms, and condition of books. The Promised Land.
Now I would experience the thrill of conveying the written word to the public at large.
And I did, after months still ding dinging the cash register. What a splendiferous array of titles sped past me at lunch hour–the latest thrillers, a used book on toilet plumbing, an oversized Matisse art book, Dr. Seuss, lurid Gothics.
The store wasn’t large, although crammed full, and had a secret spiral stairway under the counter where an employee haunted mysterious tunnels overflowing with book laden shelves. Oh yes, this was a bookshop.

I worked the afternoon shift– 1p.m. to 9 p.m. Go ahead, ask it, ‘why on earth would a bookstore all the way down town near Wall Street and across from a by-then closed City Hall et al, need to stay open that late?’
We asked and asked the same question, since by 7p.m. you were pretty much rearranging the alphabet for something to occupy the meandering hours.

Having no clear response, we just worked and were happy for the pay check.
One of the colder, more deserted evenings, I was speaking on the phone to a then boyfriend who also worked for Lorry’s Book Company–down the street at what was loosely called The Annex. He was home, that store closed at a normal hour.
Two young men came in. I glanced up from behind the register, and my uncanny a-crime-is-about-to-be-committed tentacles rose. I’d already thwarted a shop lifter who once brazenly stuffed an entire pile of Golden Books down his pants. One of the men asked for The Old Man and the Sea–and I knew for sure we were about to be robbed. No way did either one of these guys want to read that book, they probably scanned a syllabus once and the title stuck. Or they did their research before the heist, spending fifteen minutes in their local library, or even better, had asked another bookstore what title would be good to ask for if you were going to rob them and wanted to act nonchalant about it.

gunman in bookstoreThis gut feeling, and when I say gut, I mean, ‘god, I may vomit if they really rob us’, made me tug my grandmother’s ring from my finger and surreptitiously stuff it into my sock. I was also trying my best to hint to the boyfriend on the line what I believed was about to occur. Meanwhile, the other employee was showing the one guy where to pull Hemmingway’s classic, while his pal scanned the store, the door, and me. My boyfriend hung up, without a clue, while the Old Man buyer revealed a gun, pointed it towards me, and did the routine one always sees on TV and in films. Open the register, don’t resist, give me the money, don’t do anything foolish. . . or maybe he didn’t speak any of those lines–my hearing had suddenly ceased to exist and my memory of the event recalls only a giant gun barrel.

He took the pro-offered cash–a whopping hundred and few twenties because the register’s morning and afternoon bank had been closed out and the money deposited. Left was change and the few sales made to winos and transit cops.

Before myself or Bob, the other bookstore employee, were able to blink again, the two banditos had scrammed. Bob grabbed a phone–I thought he was calling the cops, but no, the owner was on the line, Bob explaining the situation and nodding emphatically.
I spotted to my relief and glee, the aforementioned transit policeman outside and ran babbling for him to chase the two miscreants that just held us up. AT GUNPOINT, I stressed. I had seen them taking off in a particular direction and prodded the cop to follow.
Just a teensy roadblock–the suspects were not underground but on the streets, and our law enforcer only kept the tunnels and subway cars safe for the public. He would not move. I concluded policemen have fears too-he was clearly uninterested in chasing people who might put bullet holes through him. Especially for such a common occurrence as a stickup.
He did report the incident, then retreated to Blimpie’s sub shop, his home away from home.

Within the half hour someone arrived on the scene. The police? No. The accountant for Lorry’s Book Company.
Why? Because besides the regular register, there were another two for excess text book sales, situated near the back, which the gunmen either didn’t see or didn’t bother with. OK, but why the accountant? The owner sent him to ring up as many sales on those two registers as possible without the totals looking too too false. Why do that? Because the more sales, the more money supposedly stolen, the more insurance could be collected.

Just one of the quirky lessons learned working at this particular bookstore.
I was not surprised by the actions of the owner. He frequently strolled the shady side of Moral Land.
But I was taken aback by the swiftness of action on the owner’s part. Who thinks of these nefarious things so quickly?

Gradually the experience drifted off my radar, as things do when one lives in a world such as New York. But Bob and I continued to theorize about the oddity of the encounter. Therefore when my tentacles arose once more about 6 months later during a new semester’s text book sale, and another handgun became visible, this time the culprits lacking any pretense of book interest, we were pretty convinced these holdups were not a coincidence.

The second time a gun had me in its sights, rattled me, and after, I called the same boyfriend crying I was sick of worrying about dying on a dirty floor for overstock Dianetics paperbacks.

Again, the sales miraculously climbed in the two textbook specific cash registers, while Bob and I shared the same thought–these guys were hired to hold up the store–hired to terrorize the workers with pistols, at that late hour when the area was bleak and absent of bustle. No smart robber steals from a small store–twice–when the first time they scored barely anything. Of course, we were assuming they were the same guys–neither of us could remember what they looked like first or second time, really, that darn gun commands all focus and attention. But they had the feel of familiarity–they knew the store, and we knew them, and we basically did everything in rote to make it as easy as possible.

I continued working there, in total two years, more or less, but after the second holdup, either the robbers retired, the insurance company got hip, or the owner decided not to push his luck because we were stuck up no more.

Obviously, we’d no proof of a conspiracy involving the bandits and upper management. Not a thing was whispered to the owner, of our suspicions. After all, if he could hire gunmen to fake rob his store, he could hire gunmen to actually rob his store, and who knows where that may lead.

Albeit full of shenanigans and semi-crime, and despite my image of selling books missing the mark, the time consumed among the aisles smothered in words and glue and paper remain for me some of the most wondrous and satisfying of memories.

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  • Thanks for an excellent story Dianne. Hope we get to hear more from you. Quite a humourous tale you wove for us. I think it was wise of your to keep silent with your suspicions. After all, you had no proof and if it was truly an ‘inside job’ those with a hand in it would not be locked away but would be able to walk the streets. Right behind you as you look for another job.

    Your line, “And there was the terror of the register’s bank not balancing when my shift was over. One could be accused of stealing, or worse, being incompetent.” reminded me of a line by Ronald Weasley regarding Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter Series.

    “She needs to sort out her priorities!”

    Also the accountant showing up prior to the police was a real hoot.

    Thanks again for writing this and sharing it with us. Wonderful work and, as said, please give us more.

    Paul – prying1 –

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    • Hello Paul,
      I have a feeling the company is now long gone – so the hint shouldn’t offend anyone.

      As for hearing more from Diane – well, you’ll be hearing a lot more from her. She has just agreed to be the new Host of The Bookshop Blog. We’ll have a much steadier stream of news and commentary together with an occasional story from Diane’s long history in the book selling business. I hope all our regular readers will welcome her warmly.

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      • Thanks, Bruce, for the nice intro! I’m having great fun so far. Despite my losing a picture and responding in the wrong spot, lol. Practice practice!
        Diane

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    • Paul, Hello! Thanks for the nice words about the article, and I was happy to see you noticed my reversal, lol, because at the time I was more afraid of doing a poor job than being accused of thievery.

      Oh, yes, it was much better I didn’t discuss my suspicions–I have lots of other nefarious tales to tell about that place and its owners. But it is long gone, and so are they.

      And thanks for asking for more–although you may regret the wish–I really have tons and tons flying around in my brain and if I write them all you’d get sick of them!
      Diane

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  • Hey,

    Can someone tell me who is the artist of the cover pictures?

    Greets: Carte Blanche

    Sorry for my english 🙂

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    • Hello! I can try to find out–I have some friends who know all the pulp fiction artists–the cover of the book is the one I would be able to locate–I have that book also somewhere and it should have the artist listed.
      I’ll try to get back to you within a couple of days.
      Thanks for reading the article!
      Diane

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  • Great story Diane. I never knew you were robbed at gun point. It must have been terrifying. Not really sure I would have stayed on after the first time. But I think you are right in assuming that it was an “inside job”. At least the story would lead us to think that.
    I will be sure to keep this site in mind and follow your postings.
    Eva

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    • Eva, I was part of another robbery at gunpoint when I worked at a revival movie house later in the 80s. That one was scary.

      Thanks for reading the article, hope you come back often and see what else I never told you, lol.
      Diane

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  • Dear Diane,

    So glad you lived to tell the tale! I don’t want you to be the subject of a crime story “based on a true incident”!

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    • Roberta, LOL. Honestly, these things go so quickly, that you don’t have time to be frightened, although *waiting* for the holdup was very tense. Of course, my friend and fellow employee didn’t believe me afterwards that I felt they were about to rob the store.
      But I too am happy I didn’t become a headline in The Post for a day!

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