I Stole This Book!

I grew up in an “Artsy” town along the beach in Southern California. Our bookstore was owned by an erudite couple, Mr. and Mrs. Dilley. They owned Dilley’s bookstore along Pacific Coast Hwy in the middle of town.

I was in 8th grade when boys my age began talking about a book that had stories about how to make love to women, the Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller.  I was told that it was about his exploits in Paris, France after World War II, and all the women he had sex with. – The rumor was that someone had seen it on a shelf in Dilley’s Bookstore. — Back then, America banned certain books for sale in the U.S. This book was one of those, making it all that more desirable to have. — After school, I walked down the street to find that book and to see for myself.

The Dilley’s were beyond middle age at that time. They looked like smart people. Mr. Dilley smoked a pipe. And his wife sat next to him, petting their dog at her side. The couple ran their store alone, along with their blind Collie. It was a narrow store with tall bookshelves on either side, jutting out at uniform angles, 6 rows lined both sides, full of their most cherished books that they had selected for our community to purchase and to read. A large wooden table was their sales counter at the back of the store, where they sat as I entered.

I was already an advanced reader for my age. I had just finished reading the historical novel Exodus, by Leon Uris, and his book Battle Cry, about the 1st Marines and their battles in the South Pacific where my father, uncles, and grandfather had fought. The Dilley’s had seen me many times before, but we had never really ever talked. – I acted as if I was just browsing, as I examined every shelf for the book. I found it at the top of a shelf, facing the street and a large window, where pedestrians passed and looked in. The Dilley’s could not see me.I was already an advanced reader for my age. I had just finished reading the historical novel Exodus, by Leon Uris, and his book Battle Cry, about the 1st Marines and their battles in the South Pacific where my father, uncles, and grandfather had fought. The Dilley’s had seen me many times before, but we had never really ever talked. – I acted as if I was just browsing, as I examined every shelf for the book. I found it at the top of a shelf, facing the street and a large window, where pedestrians passed and looked in. The Dilley’s could not see me.

I had never stolen anything. I was a good boy and a good student. But I was certain that if I tried to buy this book that the Dilley’s would refuse to sell it to me. It seemed at the time that I had no other option but to reach up, take the book down, stuff it down my pants, and walk casually out of the store, which I did.

I got all the way home, ran up the stairs to my room, locked the door, and immediately began turning the pages, looking for the “good stuff.” I underlined what passages I found that were explicit to show boys at school the next day. – But I never did take it there.

Despite my youthful budding passion to discover the mystery of girls and sex, I also had a conscience. – I actually did not enjoy reading Tropic of Cancer. It was rough and too adult for me to understand. Even the ‘juicy’ parts were not written to be seductive nor sexually stimulating. – I had stolen a book and committed a crime. And now, I regretted it.

The next day, I took the book back to Dilley’s bookstore, stuffed in my pants, with the intention of putting the book back on its shelf. – I entered their shop and acted as if I was just perusing the shelves, when suddenly, Mr. Dilley came up to me, just as I was reaching down my pants and pulling out his book!

Without any anger, in a kind and quiet voice, he simply asked, “How did you like reading Henry Miller?” – I was too frightened to respond. I just handed him the book and began to cry. But instead of calling my parents or the police, as I was certain would happen, he put an arm around my shoulders and slowly walked me to the back of his store where his wife was waiting, and his dog. “What is your name?” She asked me, in a kind voice. Then she took some tissue and dried my eyes, as I answered sobbing, repeatedly saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry!” 

They assured me that I was not in any trouble. They had seen me take the book. Instead, they required me to come to their store everyday after school for a month and sweep their floors. – The Dilley’s, became my mentors. They introduced me to many books. And we spent hours after I had swept discussing each. – And as a result of their understanding and kindness, later in life, I became a teacher of literature and an author of many books of my own.

The Dilley’s both died many years ago. But they live on in my heart and my memories. I hope that we see eachother and resume our friendship again in the next life after this one has concluded serving its purpose.

Mark Baird

Scroll to Top