Those new U.S. Postal Service retail shops, where you can buy not just stamps but also things like packing material, tape dispensers and Donald Duck neckties, seem to be a hit. But unfortunately, they’re popular with a somewhat different demographic than the Postal Service undoubtedly was targeting when it came up with the concept, if a spate of recent incidents at the Yorkville Post Office at 1619 Third Avenue is any indication.
Since the start of April, the store has been visited no fewer than six times by a thief who can’t resist the convenience of being able to help himself to stamps off the rack without having to submit to the traditional protocol of being waited on by a postal employee.
“It’s the new image of the post office, where you can pick out what you want,” Harlem Keyes, a post office worker who has been instrumental in trying to catch the thief, explained brightly.
And the perp has been doing just that. “In the beginning, he was going for the big numbers, for the 55′s and the 76′s, the second-ounce stamps,” Mr. Keyes continued, referring to 55- and 76-cent stamps. “We took the 55′s off the wall. Now he goes and takes whatever the amount on the rack.” Mr. Keyes doubts that the suspect is a philatelist gone over to the dark side. The bespectacled black man, who is around 35 years old, doesn’t seem to be attracted to the more picturesque stamps-say the gorgeous new, self-adhesive “American Illustrators” series featuring the works of such artists as N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell and Frederic Remington. Rather, his interest in stamp collecting appears entirely mercenary. “He must be up to $3,000 or $4,000 by now,” Mr. Keyes observed.
The most recent incident occurred on April 21, when the stamp thief visited the shop at 10:40 a.m. and helped himself to four books of Roy Wilkins stamps, two books of breast cancer stamps, three books of diabetes stamps and one book of Billy M. stamps-worth a grand total of $68.
As the perp fled eastbound on 91st Street, he was grabbed by building security, but managed to escape by sliding out of his coat. “We got very close to him,” said Mr. Keyes, who hollered “Thief!” “But he’s like a snake-he sheds his clothes.”
Using the same stripping technique, the crook had made another successful escape two days earlier on April 19. During that visit, at 11:39 a.m., he helped himself to 18 books of stamps valued at $122.40 before he got into a scuffle with several intrepid post office employees who recognized him from previous outings and hurtled the customer-service counter in an effort to catch him.
During the ensuing struggle, the crook dropped the stamps and several personal possessions, including a silver knife with a six-inch blade, a puffy vest and a piece of identification that offered his name, Bronx address and Social Security number. Once again, he managed to escape by shedding his garments and fleeing northbound on Third Avenue into the Ruppert Towers apartment complex.
One might have thought the fact that he’d left his I.D. behind would have persuaded him to lay low for a while, especially as store security had promptly reported their findings to the police. But perhaps enticed by the Postal Service’s new user-friendly image, he returned several hours later, apparently in search of his clothes. “He came that afternoon looking for his coat,” Mr. Keyes stated incredulously. “He must be mentally disturbed or something.”
Among the previous incidents was one on April 11 when the perp absconded with 132 packs of stamps valued at $100; one on April 9 when he made off with 50 assorted stamps; one on April 5, a banner visit, when he filched $680 worth of 34-cent stamps; and an incident on April 3 when he stole 20 packs of stamps valued at $136 and another 20 packs of stamps valued at $68.
Ominously, word is out that the store is easy pickings; the suspect’s friends have been dropping by and casing the joint, according to Mr. Keyes. And as dearly as the valiant employees of the Postal Service would love to catch this guy, they’ve put away their superhero capes and returned to the important but comparatively mundane task of weighing packages and selling stamps. The case is currently in the hands of the police, who are following up on the dropped identification and other leads. “We were told not to do anything anymore,” Mr. Keyes said. “We can’t afford to chase him and get hurt.”
There were rare-book bargains galore at the recent Sanford L. Smith & Associates show at the Seventh Regiment Armory. Unfortunately, the bargains to be had were without the consent of the consignors. On April 20, several books were stolen from the show, including a rare 1643 edition of Roger Williams’ A Key Into the Language of America valued at $45,000. “It was the first book on the languages of the native Americans, and Roger Williams is the founder of Rhode Island as well,” explained Robert Rulon-Miller, the St. Paul book dealer who owned the red morocco volume.
Mr. Rulon-Miller spotted the theft when he arrived at the Armory that morning. He said he had last seen his book during the final hour of the previous evening’s show and assumes it was stolen that evening or overnight. “When I walked by the case, I saw a glaring gap,” he recalled. “Not only did they take the book, the placard [describing the book] disappeared as well.
“I told all the people I thought would be likely people [to be approached] if the book was to be fenced,” he added, referring to his fellow rare-books dealers attending the show. “Within a half hour, it was up on the Internet alerting the members of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America.”
Mr. Rulon-Miller believes the book would be hard to sell. “If it was taken by someone who understood the book trade, it’s virtually an unfenceable book,” he explained. “It’s quite rare. As far as I know, mine was the only copy on the market.” It also had identifying ink splashes and pencil annotations and came from the famous Frank Siebert Collection. “Anybody who knows anything about the book knows this particular copy.”
While Mr. Rulon-Miller’s volume appears to be the most expensive book stolen at the show, it wasn’t the only one. Also on April 20, a Salt Lake City bookseller reported missing After the Flood (1911) by Gene Stratton-Porter, valued at $1,500. According to Mr. Rulon-Miller, a Boston dealer had some Rockwell Kent material stolen. A Maine bookseller also suffered a theft, though apparently of minor value.
The thefts were reported to 19th Precinct police. “That’s tough for us to prevent,” said an NYPD official of the Armory shows. “We don’t police it at all. It’s entirely up to the [sponsor]. By the time they take the inventory, it’s already done.”