When good booksellers break bad

Inside an organized crime enterprise dealing in books.

Mike Selby

The American First.

These three words were exactly what rare book dealer Harry Gold most desired. As the Depression swept across the United States, the rare book market began to fall.  All except for the modern first editions of American authors — these began to rise sharply in value. To earn the type of money he was used to earning, Harry Gold needed to deal in this type of book.  And he knew just where to get them: The New York Public Library.

Gold — who ran the Aberdeen Book Shop in New York’s Fourth Avenue — belonged to an organized criminal enterprise that stole books from libraries and sold them to collectors and other bookstores, frequently in collusion with them. Gold and other dealers would provide book thieves with want lists of high-value items.  Books would be stolen, removed of their library markings, and then resold to customers — which often included other libraries.

Charles Romm, Ben Harris, Charles Cox and Harry Gold all ran bookshops on Fourth Avenue, and all were crooked. From 1926 until 1931, these men launched a “five year tsunami of rare book thievery at Columbia University Library, Harvard Library, the New York Public Library, Boston Public Library, and almost every other public and private library in the Northeast.”

Only the New York Public Library had been effective in stopping their collection from flowing out the door by creating a special investigator position for one of their librarians, Edwin White Gaillard.  Being a sworn member of the New York City Police, Gaillard made stealing from the New York Public Library extremely unwise. One of the biggest deterrents was Gaillard’s 100 percent conviction rate, which sent all would-be thieves to Sing-Sing.

But Gaillard died suddenly in 1928, and his replacement—William Bergquist—wasn’t anything like him.

Bergquist didn’t come to library work until he was in his 40s. A teenage runaway with no schooling, Bergquist worked a series of menial labor jobs until he joined the army when he was 33. Being discharged at the end of the First World War, Bergquist again worked various jobs, one in sales which brought him to various libraries. After a lifetime of having little exposure to books, he was in awe of what he saw. When his work brought him to the New York Public Library, the 42-year old presented himself to the director and calmly stated “I want to be a librarian.”   Although he had no formal schooling, after speaking with him the director was more than happy to recommend him for Library School. He worked nights at the library while attending school, excelling at both.

After Gaillard’s untimely death, Bergquist became the second New York Public Library special investigator.  Warm, kind, and friendly, he was the antithesis of Gaillard’s hard-nosed take no prisoners attitude. Instead of kicking in their doors, Bergquist attempted to befriend the crooked booksellers, taking many of them out to lunch. He wasn’t trying to trick them, it was just who he was.

And this is when Harry Gold decided to strike at New York Public Library.  Its rare book room held three books he needed: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Edgar Allan Poe’s Al Aaraaf.  On the afternoon of January 10th, 1931, a team of three of men working for Gold entered the New York Public Library’s rare book room.

While two of the team browsed, one approached the desk, requesting to see these very books. John Elliot was behind the desk that day, an elderly retiree who worked weekends.  The rare book room always had two librarians on at the same time, one to retrieve books while the other can supervise the patrons. But Elliot was alone for a brief 15-minute window on Saturdays when the other librarian went for lunch; something the thieves were very much counting on.

Elliot handed the three books to the man, who—with his partners each grabbing a book, sprinted out the door. Not only was Elliot alone, but his advanced age preventing him from giving chase.

It did not prevent him from picking up a phone though, something the thieves hadn’t thought about. While everything else was going wrong for Elliot, the phone line to security was in use.

He was able to get through to the director, who—also finding the security line busy—could think of nothing to do but go outside his office and yell.  Although his shouting had brought the largest public library in North American to a halt, it was too late. Harry Gold’s thieves had already made it outside.

Gold was more than happy with the day’s events.  The Hawthorne and Melville books would get him a few thousand dollars. Poe’s Al Aaraaf, one of the rarest books in the world, would bring a small fortune. Not only that, he had beat the New York Public Library’s impenetrable security.

Unfortunately for him, Gold’s arrogance blinded him to two hard facts. The first was the nature of the Al Aaraaf book itself. The second was William Bergquist.  The good-natured and kindly investigator possessed something nobody in the library-theft ring had much of: patience.

To get Gold, Berquist would have to bring the entire organized book theft ring to its knees. Something he knew exactly how to do.  Next week.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library