Bible top of SA book thieves' best-stealer list

17 May 2015 - 02:02 By KHANYI NDABENI
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Thou shalt not steal, says the good book. But some major book stores have taken to stashing the Bible behind the sales counter just in case - because it is stolen more often than almost any other book in South Africa.

Store manager Michael Gumbi at Books Galore in Edenvale, Johannesburg, is among those who have had enough .

Anyone trying to make off with a Bible from now on will have to go through him: Gumbi has vowed to guard his copies like someone guarding "the gates of heaven".

The shop he manages in Greenstone Shopping Centre loses almost R250 000 a year to theft. All versions of the Bible are stolen, but English editions more than others, said Gumbi.

"I remember buying 10 copies of the King James Bible. They were all gone three days after I had put them on the shelf in the religious section," he said.

Thieves at his store also have a liking for Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom as well as books in the Diary of a Wimpy Kidseries and Africana collectibles by writers such as TV Bulpin and Lawrence Green.

Gumbi said he had caught a number of thieves in the act - and they came in all ages and both sexes.

He once confronted a woman in her 40s as she tried to leave the shop with four books by spiritual writer Diana Cooper hidden under her poncho. Her defence was, "Oops! I had forgotten I took them."

An Exclusive Books branch in northwestern Johannesburg has been hit by a shoplifting gang which appears to have a preference for self-help books, those on local politics, business titles, and of course the Bible.


A staff member who asked not to be identified said the group targeted the store when it was busy - and during author appearances in the store.

Frequently stolen books include Khaya Dlanga's To Quote Myself, Steve Biko's I Write What I Like, Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki and the King James Bible .

Titles by popular authors such as novelist Maya Angelou, US preacher Joel Osteen and motivational writer Robert Greene are among the books no longer displayed openly at the store. They are kept behind the till and have to be requested by customers.

"There was a stage when we ordered 20 copies of Triumphs and Heartaches by [former Azapo president] Mosibudi Mangena. We only sold two of those books - the other 18 were all stolen," said the staff member.

He said a customer recently wanted a copy of Things Fall Apart by Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe.

"I called 12 of our branches countrywide and they all said they had not sold their copies - but there were none left; they had been stolen."

Andrea Schmidt, owner of Ulrich Naumann Deutsche Buchhandlung , a German book specialist in Cape Town, recalled an incident in which someone stole a stack of South African history books translated into German - then tried to sell the books back to the store.

Schmidt said her store's biggest challenge was the theft of newspapers during winter. She suspects this may be down to vagrants looking for sheets of paper to use as a cover at night.

"Book theft in this country is a huge problem for everyone involved in this industry," said Annamarie Goosen, manager at the Library and Information Association of South Africa.

She said the organisation had also had complaints of book theft from libraries at universities, as well as those run by municipalities and provinces.

Gumbi, meanwhile, said some thieves were "regulars" - and others appeared to belong to syndicates.

"They operate mainly on busy days when the staff will be all over, helping customers."

Then there are the "free readers". These, said Gumbi, were customers who borrowed books as if they were using a library.

They take the book home, read it and quietly bring it back, leaving store staff surprised to find the missing book miraculously back on the shelf.

Bible theft a sign of 'spiritual need'

The non-profit Bible Society of South Africa said it printed and distributed more than 1.2million copies of the complete Bible to more than 1200 book shops and churches countrywide last year in all 11 official languages.

Top-selling versions included the Zulu and Afrikaans translations and the English Good News Bible .

Stephen Zondo, a senior pastor at the Rivers of Living Waters Ministries in Evaton, near Sebokeng, said the rise in Bible theft could be due to the fact that most churches are no longer able to dish out free copies.

"I'm against any kind of theft but if this means that there's a need, then spiritual leaders need to cater for that need," Zondo said.

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