As we wandered out to dinner with friends last night, somebody walking down Flinders Lane tried to hand us a book. Oddly it didn't seem to be a religious tract, but we declined it nonetheless. It was at this point that Dennis thought to mention that when he had gone to the supermarket many hours previously, he had noticed that City Basement Books (at the end of Elizabeth Street) seemed to be closing, and had placed hundreds of books into a skip on Elizabeth street.

It hadn't really struck Dennis that I might be interested in a skip with hundreds of free books in it.

Apparently people had been crowded around the skip taking out books for for a good part of the afternoon and into the evening. So we stopped by it. And stopped by it again as we went home after dinner. Among many uninteresting books there were a number that struck me as interesting (for the price). Like a dozen or more other people at midnight, I helped myself to some books.

These included:

  • The Golden Band; Holland's fight against the sea (OK: it might not be of interest to everybody, but I've already discovered a few interesting factoids by leafing through this book.)
  • Security, Can we retrieve it? (Published 1938. Answer: "No. At least not without having the most widespread war the world has ever seen.")
  • Churchill's secret speeches (Which sounds a little like the Brits had something like Khrushchev's secret speech denouncing Stalin, but which really only involves some speeches by Churchill to secret sessions of Parliament held during the Second World War, which is something I hadn't previously known about.)
  • Prospects for Soviet Society (Published 1968. Should be good for a laugh. "The emergence of ... benevolent authoritarianism of great vitality and long range durability.)
  • and a couple of other histories, and a bunch of probably worthless science fiction novels

As I was stuffing books into a plastic bag that I had found in the skip, two police officers walked up, shined their torch into the books, and one said to the other "technically this is theft". My mind started ticking over the Crimes Act's requirements for theft. I was pretty sure I could mount an argument that he was wrong: but didn't want to push the point by openly disagreeing with him. That sort of smartness might end in tears. Fortunately they decided that dozens of people helping themselves to literature was not the greatest threat to law and order in Melbourne that night, and they left.

Since then, I've looked up the definition of theft to make sure I'm not a criminal:

Crimes Act 1958

72. Basic definition of theft

(1) A person steals if he dishonestly appropriates property belonging to
another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of it.

(2) A person who steals is guilty of theft; and "thief" shall be construed

s73(2) ...(2) A person's appropriation of property belonging to another is not to be
regarded as dishonest-

  (a)  if he appropriates the property in the belief that he has in law the
       right to deprive the other of it, on behalf of himself or of a third
       person; or

  (b)  if he appropriates the property in the belief that he would have the
       other's consent if the other knew of the appropriation and the

       circumstances of it
; or

  (c)  (except where the property came to him as trustee or personal
       representative) if he appropriates the property in the belief that the
       person to whom the property belongs cannot be discovered by taking
       reasonable steps.

I believe that the owner would have consented. The books weren't in a packing case: the skip had leaves and rubbish on the bottom. It was a skip for dumping rubbish. Dennis commented that there had been dozens of people at the skip during business hours (when City Basement Books was presumably still open), and they had topped up the skip: saying nothing and doing nothing to stop people taking books.  I believe, therefore, that they were consenting to people taking the books.

So, from the safety of my blogging desk, I respond to the officer: It's not "technically theft'. The books are, indeed, property. I did appropriate them. But I have a belief of consent (and I'd argue that it's a reasonable belief). (Should City Basement Books put up a sign asking for people to return their books, I wouldn't intend to permanently deprive... but I think my 'belief of consent' at the time of taking is the key point to undermine the officer's "technically it's theft" claim.)

The real sad part of this story is the closing of an interesting city bookstore, and the fact that the best they could do with a large part of their stock was to throw it away. The good side, however, is that although it was threatened with being thrown into landfill it looks like a good 90% of the stock found new homes.

Not connected with anything: this is a photo I took in the Fitzroy Gardens, given an 'otherworldly' colour treatment.

Comments (3)
Anthony Holmes May 2nd, 2010 05:59:03 PM

1) City Basement Books
Tim 9/06/2010 4:48:12 PM

I was lucky enough to be passed on a quaint copy of the HWC's "Safety in the Bush 6ed" by a law student who also made it to the dumpster. This particular edition was 1976 vintage, based off the first edition from 1962. It featured a shot by Olegas Truchanas of an unflooded Lake Pedder (both had passed on by 1976).

2) City Basement Books
Kerry 8/02/2011 10:40:23 AM

City Basement Books has now re-opened again, at 342 Flinders Street, Melbourne.

And the books in the skip were free to good homes!

3) City Basement Books
Anthony Holmes 8/02/2011 11:11:13 AM

Woo Hoo!

I'm happy to see that we only lost City Basement Books for six months. I'll have to head down Flinders Street to check out the stock.

(And thanks for confirming that the skip books were free to good homes. I've often leafed through "The Golden Band; Holland's fight against the sea", but I haven't yet got around to starting "Churchill's Secret Speeches"... but I'll do so soon!)

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