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Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Brought to book: the biggest book-stealing operation Britain has ever seen

Brought to book
Ronald Jordan has been described as a latter-day Fagin. He's the man behind the biggest book-stealing operation Britain has ever seen. But how did his very public criminal activities go unpunished for so many years?
By Robert Hanks
09 March 2004

Booksellers being, by and large, restrained, undemonstrative types, passers-by on London's Charing Cross Road may not have noticed a wave of euphoria passing down the street. But there almost certainly was one on the day that Ronald Jordan was sentenced at Southwark Crown Court to 30 months in prison for conspiracy to steal and handling stolen goods.

For more than five years, Jordan had made the lives of booksellers and publishers a misery. From his stalls at Dominion Street in the City, and under the arches between Waterloo station and the Royal Festival Hall, he had run the biggest book-stealing operation Britain has ever seen. He sold on average 100 books a day, seven days a week, all the year round. (Jordan is nothing if not a hard worker: during the week, he worked Dominion Street from noon till four, selling to City workers on their lunch break, before packing up and shifting to Waterloo, where he would keep going until the last of the commuters and South Bank audiences had gone home, at midnight.)

That's 35,000 books a year, mainly stolen from shops in central London, though the band of up to 15 thieves who supplied him also operated at Heathrow and Gatwick, and even as far afield as Tunbridge Wells. Inspector Andy Manning, who led the team from the City of London Police that finally put Jordan away, reckons the suppliers got about £1 for each book, which would then be resold for, on average, £10. The maths isn't hard: an annual profit of more than £300,000. When he was arrested in July 2002, and again in July 2003, police confiscated a total of 25,000 books.

The effect of this on booksellers and publishers is impossible to calculate. Jordan specialised in travel guides, particularly Lonely Planet and Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness series, alongside some children's picture books (Dr Seuss, Tintin, and Spot the dog). Barney Andrews, who, as field manager for Lonely Planet, is responsible for placing their books in central London shops, says "Ronnie Jordan's been the bane of my life for seven or eight years."

It got to the point where whole shelves of Lonely Planet books were being cleared within an hour or two of being stocked. Towards the end of Jordan's run, shops in central London had taken to keeping the most frequently nicked titles behind the counter, or in locked displays.

The other staggering aspect of Jordan's career is that he kept going for so long. He deserves some credit for this. His pitches were cunningly chosen, in not just commercial but jurisdictional terms - Dominion Street is actually just outside the City, on the very edge of the Metropolitan Police area, where Met officers rarely venture, and the arches at Waterloo fall under the aegis of British Transport Police. The problem landed in the laps of City police by default. His confidence and persistence were important factors: he was fined over and over again for illegal street trading, but simply refused to pay the fines, carrying on as if nothing had happened. In 2002, he was arrested and his stock confiscated. But he was back on his stalls and fully restocked within a couple of weeks, telling police that they were wasting his time.

It helped, too, that many people assumed that he was legitimate, an impression reinforced by the range and quality of his stock, and his relatively high prices. At his trial, Judge Rodney McKinnon suggested that this was a deliberate ploy to fool customers. Barney Andrews says that customers probably weren't getting any better a deal than they would have on the three-for-two offers regularly mounted by the bigger chains.

The booksellers took some time to cotton on to the fact that they had a common problem. Bookshops in central London lose around £30,000 annually in thefts: even a business the size of Jordan's didn't show up easily. At the same time, it seemed improbable that Jordan's business could be supplied purely by shoplifting.

The breakthrough was the setting up of the Booksellers Association Loss Prevention Consortium, a forum for bookshops to exchange information and ideas about stopping thieves. While the forum was founded with Jordan in mind, it also acted to persuade the authorities to take the problem seriously. One of the difficulties the consortium faced in bringing their man to book was in the number of agencies they had to get involved with - including the Met, City Police, and various London boroughs (mainly Islington and Southwark, in whose territory the stalls operated). As Andy Manning admitted, the police were more interested in terrorism, gun crime and drugs: one guy selling stolen books didn't seem like a big thing.

In the summer of 2002, Andy Manning and his team mounted Operation Masala. Over two weeks, officers secretly filmed Jordan at his Dominion Street patch, and followed his white van in an attempt to trace the lock-up where he kept his surplus stock. Meanwhile, shops in the Loss Prevention Consortium started marking their guidebooks in ultraviolet ink, with a date, the initials of the person marking, and the shop name. Operation Masala culminated on 10 July 2002, when police arrested Jordan and several associates, confiscated his stall, and raided his home and lock-up. They found 17,500 books. In the van were several ultraviolet lamps, and a number of books on which the markings had been overwritten in ultraviolet ink: he was on to their tricks.

Members of Inspector Manning's team spent a week cataloguing every single title. Nothing was left to chance. The fact that Jordan had, say, a guide to Peru known to come from a particular branch of Waterstone's was not proof enough - he could still claim that it had been sold on to him by legitimate customers who had changed their minds about that Andean backpacking holiday. Fortunately, Waterstone's was able to eliminate that loophole by getting in touch with everyone who had brought a particular title over a two-week period and getting them to swear that they still had the titles in their possession.

The first trial collapsed for legal reasons (and Jordan had kept on trading, even while he was on bail). The more slimline Operation Masala 2 took place over three days in July 2003, ending again in Jordan's arrest and the recovery of 7,500 books. This time around, the trial went smoothly, and Jordan was found guilty on 16 December; Inspector Manning and team at Bishopsgate police station were commended by Judge Rodney McKinnon.

There are those who will tell you that selling books is no different from selling anything else: big chains such as Tesco have supposedly proved this, by applying their pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap philosophy to sure-fire bestsellers. But the fact is, books represent something far more than the physical object; for people who like books, they come with their own set of values, their own economics. For one thing, however possessive you are about books, you know that ownership is a little bit looser than it is with, say, bicycles or clothes. We lend them to our friends, knowing that we may well never see them again. And it cuts both ways - my own shelves contain more than one volume that I was going to give back, but somehow never got round to it. One friend to whom I tried to return a book wouldn't take it, maintaining that we had reached a point at which true ownership had passed to me - and I knew exactly what he meant.

It seems likely that when Jordan entered the books game, he looked on it as a purely financial proposition. His business model was impeccable: buy cheap; employ drug addicts who aren't going to haggle too hard as long as they get cash and get it now; sell to affluent middle-class people in a hurry; don't pay taxes; and ignore any legal difficulties until the other party gets bored and walks off. Frankly, it's hard to see why more people haven't had the same idea.

But this is to undermine Jordan's professionalism and accomplishments. He had been a market trader since the age of 16, and was descended from a long line of market traders. Back in the 1970s, long before Lonely Planet was a gleam in his eye, a series of prosecutions for illegal trading had earned him the nickname "the Umbrella Man". When police officers from Operation Marsala raided his home - a four-bedroomed house in Squires Road, Finchley - they found it stuffed to the gills with bits and pieces left over from his previous trading careers: umbrellas, soft toys, electric razors, batteries. It was so full, in fact, that Jordan had very restricted living space - little pathways carved between the boxes. Inspector Manning didn't visit the address himself, but said that officers who did were in fear for their own health and safety, and brought back tales of a kitchen "like a biological experiment". Curiously, Jordan wasn't spending his money on the high life; the closest he ever got to the Bahamas was selling guidebooks to it.

Presumably, Jordan first got into books for practical reasons: they are easily portable and, since the price is usually printed on the back, you can make it very clear just how much of a bargain people are getting. Also, people who like books will come back and buy more, in a way they don't with umbrellas. But, as Jordan told Andy Manning, "Books are funny things". In interviews, Inspector Manning had the impression that Jordan couldn't keep his eyes off the pile of books brought in as evidence, and he warned the police to look after them properly. He seems to have developed a real affection for and understanding of them. Barney Andrews told me, "There have been times I've looked at the selection on his stall, and I've thought, 'My God, I know about five buyers as good as you'. He had the right titles, and in quantity."

After Jordan's sentencing, the William Boot column in The Bookseller ran a skit, imagining the story as a Boulting Brothers comedy, with Peter Sellers as Jordan. It would be a particularly grim farce, though. Three of Jordan's suppliers were convicted alongside him: Derek Davis, his brother Raymond, and Pedro Pegado were found guilty of conspiracy to steal, the Davises receiving 15 months apiece, and Pegado a two-year community rehabilitation order. Inspector Manning says: "Both the Davises are drug addicts, and it has had some impact on their physical wellbeing. So they weren't the best shoplifters in the world."

Evidence of this emerged from a Dictaphone found by police in Jordan's van, on which he had recorded a number of conversations. Although most of the tape was inaudible, one conversation that could be made out was between Jordan and Derek Davis: Davis spoke of having to leave the Book Warehouse (a shop with a couple of branches in central London) and not being able to go back. Jordan talked about the differences between good thieves and bad thieves, making it clear that he regarded Davis and his brother as falling into the latter category. At the trial, the brothers showed animosity towards Pegado, who had actually answered some of the police's questions (he had admitted delivering books on one occasion to Jordan, on behalf of a friend); after sentencing, when Pegado got off comparatively lightly, Raymond Davis tried to attack him with his crutches. While the name "Fagin" has been much bandied about in the press with regard to Jordan, it's worth bearing in mind that we're not talking about sprightly urchins from the Italia Conti school cutting capers and singing "Consider Yourself".

Even if the threat of violence wasn't always effectually backed up, it was there. Jordan himself, while only about 5ft 4in, was a very bulky man with a belligerent manner. And Barney Andrews says that Jordan's response to enquiries about the provenance of his books was consistent: "He said, 'Why don't you fuck off?'." As a business strategy, this had a lot to commend it: people who might otherwise have interfered, quickly tired of being verbally abused.

Derek Davis seems to have played something of a minder's role, too, and while Raymond was not up to much, Inspector Manning says that Derek could be intimidating. On a more general note, Barney Andrews says: "For booksellers, there was danger involved, because I've known more than one having a dirty needle waved at him." And this was also, Andrews points out, the major flaw in Jordan's business model: "Dealing with cash with heroin addicts - there's only a certain sort of person would be prepared to deal with that every day of their lives."

Since Jordan was remanded, in January, thefts from central London bookshops have dropped dramatically. But not everybody is optimistic. Maya Catsanis of Lonely Planet told me: "I think there's some cynicism in the book industry, that somebody will fill his shoes fairly quickly." Even if they don't, past form suggests that Jordan will be looking for some way of resurrecting the business as soon as he gets out of jail.

In other respects, too, the happiness of the booksellers is not unalloyed: few of the books recovered by police could be resold - travel books date quickly, and the stolen copies had nearly all been superseded by new editions. Civil proceedings are in train to recover assets from Jordan: at his home, police found evidence of "20-plus" bank accounts, as well as other savings vehicles such as ISAs, which together contained £350,000. But publishers and bookshops will have to join the queue, alongside the Inland Revenue and the courts, to whom he owed tens of thousands of pounds in unpaid fines.

And others bear the scars. Andy Manning says: "I became quite fixated on it. I can't look at a travel book now without thinking about what edition it is."