Here's the story, in dramatic present tense:
I am looking, as I usually do when thrifting, at books. I have looked carefully at their shelves, even done a little tidying of them as I browse. I have a basket of books that I am going to take to the counter, when I see what appears to be a homeless guy shuffle into the section. He looks like he hasn't bathed or done laundry for quite awhile, and has the visual signifiers of being a heavy drinker: he has that quality to his skin, like a deeply tanned, dirty leather, that you associate with the sour smell of old alcohol and body odour, when someone in his condition sits next to you on the bus. I have no problem with him - I hope he finds a book he wants, and am not without charitable feelings - but I also don't want to inhale whatever smell might be coming off him, you know? Charity or no, I really, really do not care for the smell of weeks of accumulated body odour - maybe with an undercurrent of feces or urine or tobacco or booze, or sometimes all of them at once. I can find it stomach-churning, gag-inducing, really upsetting to breathe in, especially when I start to think about how smell is particulate and how this means it's actually bits of his filth that are going inside me. Does this seem offensive to anyone? Is it politically insensitive to not want to inhale the aroma of dirty people?
So - even without actually getting any sort of whiff off him - I step, pre-emptively, away: I'll go look at the CDs and give him space.
The CDs are the usual. Every now and then someone donates fun things at this store; though the vinyl and movies are generally useless, the CD section will occasionally throw me a gem, from Heart's Dreamboat Annie to the Replacements Let It Be. But today, it's all karaoke and Susan Boyle and Nickelback, real digital detritus, of the sort that gets washed up at every thrift store. I quickly count the books in my basket - because they have a buy four get one free deal - and see that I need three more books to make five. I often take a closer look, to see what I might have missed, when that's the case. Call me cheap, but I hate to let go of a deal.
When I turn back to the book area, maybe five minutes have passed. I see that the bum is completely gone, and that an entire row of books - the whole length of one shelf on the bookshelf - is emptied. It's an easy guess what happened: the homeless guy must have had a bag with him, whipped it out, packed it with books, and took off, without the staff noticing.
Or maybe he just stuffed his jacket. He was very thorough, in any case.
a) the staff might want to know about this
b) I don't want them to think it was me.
...So I go to the front counter. I tell the volunteer: "I think someone just swiped a whole bunch of books off you. Is anyone clearing books from the section right now?" (They do periodically purge books that haven't sold).
"I don't think so."
"Well, in that case..." I explain what I have already explained to you, above.
She wants to see the section. I show her. She brings another staff member, and I tell them what I've seen; another helpful customer nearby pitches in that she did see someone just now taking a lot of books off the shelf. They nod and thank me and go away.
Report filed - good dead done - I turn back to my browsing. Do I want to have a copy of William Gibson's Neuromancer for 75 cents? Hm, maybe I do.
"Excuse me?" I hear behind me. I turn. It's one of the staff, who, for whatever reason, has brought her manager to talk to me, a stout older woman whom I believe might fit the description of "battleaxe." (Is this term offensive? She looks like the sort of grandma who chops her own firewood - in short, not someone I want to get in a conflict with, but also not someone who is likely to be careful enough in her language to not give offense. I do not recall her manner being particularly charming on past visits to this store. I am already regretting having said anything, I should have just inwardly wished the bum luck and kept my mouth shut).
But here she is, so I explain for the third time - I think they just had a bunch of books stolen.
"Did he have a backpack?" she asks.
"I don't know - I wasn't watching him closely. I had gone over there to give him space." (And protect my sense of smell, but I don't mention that. I mean, it's kinda assholish of me, I know - when my first thought of the poor is not one of compassion, but fear of breathing their odour. But what can I say, as a Vancouver transit user, I've smelled some really smelly people in my day).
"Well, if he had a backpack, that's the first problem. We have a sign over there that says no backpacks allowed. So could you please take your backpack off and bring it to the front?"
Ah, for fucksake. I hate having this conversation at thrift stores, regardless of context. I am one of those people who does not care to be asked to leave their backpack at the counter of any store, but particularly not a store filled mostly with other people's junk. Plus as a transit user, and as a purseless male, I almost always have a backpack with me. It comes in handy for shopping, for carrying my headphones, and so forth.
And of course, I have never stolen from, nor would I ever steal from, a thrift store. I don't steal, period, actually, but were I to steal, I would probably choose to steal things that actually cost more money than I can afford. I mean, hell, I feel a bit self-conscious to shop in certain thrift stores at all; in the dirtier ones, I sometimes feel kind of embarrassed to be in them in the first place. If it feels like it's beneath me to even shop in them, it's that much further beneath me to steal from them, you know? Stealing from a thrift store is almost as low as robbing the homeless themselves, or boosting charity boxes from churches, or something like that. Wouldn't do it. Am offended at the implication that I might, just because I have a backpack...
...And here she's chosen, without thanking me for my helpful information in any way, to go straight from learning of someone else's theft - someone who might not have had a backpack at all when he came in, of course, who could easily have done what he did without one - to suggesting I check my bag: something I have never been asked to do in years of shopping at this store.
I think she expects me to comply, but instead I get irritated. "Don't turn this around on me! I'm telling you out of consideration for your store that someone just stole from you, and you're spinning this around, taking it out on ME, and telling me to check my backpack?"
"No, no - but we have a sign! It's policy!"
"Well, we've got a problem, then. I have a hundred dollar pair of headphones in my bag and I don't want to leave them with your staff, thank you, because" - I gesture at the entire empty shelf - "I don't think they're paying very close attention. So no, I am not going to leave my backpack in their trust. Instead of putting up a sign, why don't you try training your staff to be aware of dodgy-looking customers who come into the store?"
My voice grew fairly loud as I said this. (I am not proud of this; it's been awhile since I last lost my temper, but I do have one). It went on a bit longer - I capture the spirit of our interaction, if not the exact words. But she finally relented and apologized and thanked me for my information. I pointed out that she maybe should have LED with that, instead of leaping to telling me to check my bag. She countered by saying she had. I pointed out that she had gone straight from asking if the thief had a backpack to telling me to check mine, without a pause in between, let alone a thank you. It went back and forth a few times like that. We finally made it to a conciliatory note, and in that spirit, I admitted that I had gotten a bit touchy - and then, after we almost had arrived at peace, she returned to, "...but we have a sign."
At the moment, I can think of no deeper signifier of everyday human stupidity than trying to excuse yourself for offending someone with the words, "...but we have a sign." I left still angry, declaiming, "ah yes: you have a sign."
Human stupidity will be my undoing. I may not go back to this store. Grr.