They looted a bookstore but didn't take any books

Mike Royko

June 19, 1992|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

The early rioting reports were encouraging. Maybe even a cause for civic pride. Yes, the barbarians were at it again, smashing, looting, burning. But it appeared that Chicago had a higher class of barbarian than other cities.

They had hit a bookstore. And not just any bookstore. Not some mass purveyor of lurid best sellers or self-help glop.

No, it was the venerable Stuart Brent Books, on glittering Michigan Avenue, where for years true book-lovers have sought the thoughtful, the rare, the profound. As bookstores go, it is a classy joint.

And that could be something Chicago could lord over Los Angeles, where the looters I saw on TV seemed to be obsessed with car batteries and other mundane auto parts.

So I asked Brent, an old friend, what literary gems the bookworm looters had selected after they caved in his window.

What a disappointment. It turns out that they didn't steal anything. All they did was mess the place up and fling a lot of fine books on the sidewalk.

Sounding very depressed, Brent said: "These fine books, all lying on the street, filled with bits of glass and dirt.

"Some of them were art books I had most carefully selected for the window display because Father's Day is coming.

"I wonder if the symbolism of throwing the books on the sidewalk was a defiant way of indicating how little they care for culture and how meaningless culture has become in a critical period in our history.

"Reading is supposed to be a pleasurable, fine act. It requires solitude, an act of imagination. These people weren't interested in any of that. It was violence against a book, which, in a way, is symbolic of the human spirit.

"That the Bulls won that glorious game was utterly incidental. It served only as an excuse for them to try to destroy something that is good so they can manifest the fact that they have life. It certainly wasn't greed or a search for power. It was an insult. An insult to Chicago, an insult to the human spirit.

"In only minutes, an hour, they took a bookstore which the mayor of Chicago three years ago declared a landmark because of its meaning to the citizens of Chicago. And they did this."

Or as Brent's daughter, Amy, neatly summed it up: "Why didn't they take anything? Because they can't read."

So it appears that the looters were just run-of-the-mill materialists. As has become common in urban rioting, they stayed with the familiar. They hauled everything they could carry out of nearby stores such as The Gap and The Limited, because even a looter knows enough to wear pants.

And on the West Side, they even burst into a sea food store and took frozen fish. Which shows that the pickings aren't as good on the seedy West Side. And in a way, that is kind of sad. A looter goes out looking for a color TV or a case of scotch. Or, if nothing else, a few pairs of shoes. Shoe stores have always been popular among looters. With shoes, even if you have to grab and run, you can always try to mix and match later.

But instead of a TV, some hooch or even shoes, a looter comes home with 10 pounds of frozen fish. What a downer. No wonder there's so much despair in the inner city.

Never having been a looter, I don't know if Brent is correct in seeing the book-tossing as some sort of social statement.

I suppose it is possible that the vandals were saying: "By taking this beautifully illustrated book and flinging it to the ground and emitting a jackal-like sound, I'm saying that I am outside the mainstream of this society, that I reject truth, beauty, the human spirit, and I declare myself to be a wolf among sheep and embrace the savage creed of the barbarian."

Nah. It's more likely they were simply saying: "Hey, my dope dealer won't give me even one touch of crack for no book. Where's the TV store?"

It might be that the looters' choice of booty was nothing more than a reflection of greater society's values. This might hurt Stuart Brent's feelings, but the fact is that The Gap or The Limited sell a lot more jeans than he sells fine books.

Or as a practical minded philosopher once said: "A book is just a book, but 10 pounds of fish is a fry."

You want the looter trade, Stuart, put some comic books in the window.

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