Literary Larceny

Andrew Clayton stole rare books from the Jesuits. Now he's hoping they'll forgive him.

As soon as he was safely back in his dorm room, he erased the penciled call numbers and painstakingly removed the bookplates. It felt ... demonic, he says, remembering a sophomore-year theology class on evil. But there was a rush, too, that came with tasting the forbidden.

He went back several times.

Sometimes he chose well, selecting astronomy and physics texts from the 1700s and carefully avoiding the Jesuit theology that could have come from nowhere else. Other times, drawn by mellow leather and faded gold ornament, he stole too impulsively, picking, say, a single volume of a multivolume set.

When he'd filled his car's trunk with books, he opened the Yellow Pages to "Book Dealers -- Used and Rare." Afraid to return to the Hirschfeld Gallery, he picked Hughes Antiquarian Bookstore, 927 DeMun Ave.

The place felt right, musty and book-lined, guarded by an eccentric British-sounding dealer who talked passionately about "bringing books back from the dead." Clayton introduced himself as a SLU student from Texas, then folded in the necessary fiction: These were books he'd inherited from his uncle. He watched proprietor Eugene Hughes closely, wondering whether he believed the story. Hughes seemed impressed by the books and bought them readily, saying, "If you ever come across any more, let me know."

At Hughes' shop, Clayton also found a directory of booksellers, and he made a few more forays into their tight, idiosyncratic world, visiting, listening, watching. It was a world where some stroked the yellowed vellum the way a lover strokes skin yet others, jaded as Shylock, sold culture to the highest bidder. And in this world, his own haul was trivial: A single page from Leonardo da Vinci would have brought $30.8 million.

The da Vinci auction and a million other literary obsessions and crimes were neatly chronicled in a recent social history -- A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books -- sitting on a shelf two flights above the scene of his crime. It was seldom even checked out, let alone stolen.

Clayton did sell more books to Hughes, a few each time, and nobody came banging on the door to arrest him. By mid-autumn, the feather-tickle of conscience weighed a hundred stone. He wanted to return the rest of the books to the archives, he says, but was now afraid of getting caught. He withdrew from one of his fall classes barely in time, missed the deadline to withdraw from two others and failed the fourth. He started having "nightmare terrors," waking up clammy and shaking, convinced his life was going nowhere and he'd be alone forever.

In January 1998, his counselor referred him for a psychological assessment, and the battery of tests showed "a superior range of intellectual functioning" with a full-scale IQ score of 135, in the 99th percentile. The textbook "underachiever," he alternated assurance with naïveté and impulse with inhibition. "He tends to ruminate on negative aspects of himself and his life," the tester noted, "and often has feelings of worthlessness, inferiority, and hopelessness." The diagnosis identified a "mathematics disorder," anxiety and depression.

None of that was an excuse, and Clayton knew it. That spring, he pulled off one C-plus and either failed or withdrew from everything else. Then, on a Friday in early May, he says, he "just woke up with this strange feeling that something was wrong. I can't explain it -- I hadn't been back to the book dealer in weeks. I went back, just to confirm my suspicion, and he was really different. He stood at the door and didn't let me in, and he said, 'Here you are, this mystery person. What is your real name?'"

Clayton sweated out the weekend. His grandmother, a still-life painter he'd spent a lot of time with as a child, had just died, and another girlfriend had broken up with him. "If I'm going to hit rock bottom," he told himself, "I might as well hit it all the way." At 8:30 a.m. on Monday, he walked into the campus security office and said, "Look, I don't know if you guys know, but let's get this over with."

As it turned out, Hughes had gone to the University's public-safety office the week before, bringing the 20 or so stolen books still in his possession, copies of the checks he'd written and a list of the items he'd bought. "Messes have to be cleaned up," he says, "for karmic reasons, if nothing else." He'd wondered about Clayton all along, but "naturally there are degrees of suspicion. I'd set some of the books aside for restoration, and I kept trying to put two and two together. He'd mentioned he was a student at St. Louis University, so finally I went to the card catalog there. This title, that title, every single damned one of them was a match. The catalog also had little notations about things written on the endsheets, the sheets across from the paste-down on the inside of the back cover where people would put a bookplate, or write names of ownership."

Not all book dealers are so forthcoming, but Hughes disclaims any suggestion of noblesse. "I have no particular fondness for the university," he says crisply. "I was keeping my own nose clean. It's extremely untidy." He allows himself a brief rant on the damage done by peanut butter and jelly, stupid heirs, even libraries themselves, for marking books up or allowing them to be stolen. "Human beings last about 100 years," he says, "but a book should last a couple thousand."

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