The auto repair manuals, math books and Malcom X biographies are popular prey. So are books on the occult and homosexuality.
Every year, some 10,000 books and videos are taken out from Augusta-Richmond County libraries, never to be returned. So far this year, the library system has sent the Merchants collection agency to claim nearly $75,000 worth of disappeared items - one-third of which will be recovered at best.
Patricia Golgart, Augusta library chief of public services, has taken many a call from irate patrons who just learned they can't get a car loan or new credit card because of overdue books.
"One man said we were keeping him from getting his mortgage," she recalled. "I told him, `No, you owe us $144.' I got the check in the mail the next day."
Another woman sat on 10 books for a decade until the collection agency finally caught up with her. Sheepishly, she showed up with the lost goods at the library circulation desk immediately after.
One young woman insisted she didn't even have a library card - until the day her application for a car loan was turned down.
Those are the success stories.
The man who checked out everything the library had on homosexuality is nowhere to be found. Nor are the books he borrowed.
"We've often wondered if someone wanted them removed (for political reasons) for good from our shelves," Mrs. Golgart mused.
Then there are books people just seem to want to own. The attractive, out-of-print volume on covered bridges is gone, for example, probably decorating someone's coffee table now.
And medical books tend to disappear, especially on cancer and childbirth.
To have 1 percent to 2 percent of circulating books gone every year is bad news for a library that's already struggling financially.
"People complain we don't have the books they need on the shelves - well, a lot of them would be there if people just returned them," Mrs. Golgart said.
The Merchants Credit Bureau sits just up the street from the downtown Augusta library. Its staffers zealously get on the phones at 9 every morning, six days a week, trying to track down violators.
Using data bases, they can sometimes unearth individuals who moved cross-country and even changed their names. In most cases, nobody knows at that point where the lost book is and the culprit instead has to cough up money - the value of the publication, plus fines and a handling fee.
One of the best things about book thieves, Merchant President Leon Gentry said, is that they also tend to have other delinquent accounts. So when you catch them, you tend to kill two birds with one stone.
What's worrisome is not that people are getting worse about not returning their library books, library officials say, it's that books are becoming more expensive and therefore harder to replace.
"I've worked in libraries since 1947, and this has always been a problem," Mrs. Golgart sighed.
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