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‘Authors’ spin a tall tale

Times Staff Writer

It’s not quite an epidemic, not yet a rash. But a recent outbreak of hoaxes on local bookstores has staffers a little, at least, annoyed.

“They’re like con men,” said Skylight Books manager Kerry Slattery. “They draw you in, and later you just feel so foolish.”

“It’s sort of creative,” conceded John Evans of Diesel, a Bookstore, which has shops in Malibu and Oakland; to Allison Reid, his partner, “It keeps life interesting.”

With the explosion of computer viruses, identity theft and Nigerian e-mail scams over the last few years, it may have been inevitable that bookstores got a part of the action. And slowly but surely, stores are being contacted by people claiming to be someone they’re not and trying to persuade the bookstore staff to send them money. It’s bewildering to a community that operates largely on trust and personal relationships.

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“It’s an annoyance,” said Jennifer Ramos, who handles the more than 300 author events a year at Pasadena’s Vroman’s Books. “It was funny at first, but it seems wrong now.”

This tale is typical: Slattery was heading out of the store, not long ago, to see a movie down the street when a staffer handed her the phone. The caller addressed her like an old friend: “Oh -- thank God I got you before you left,” he began.

The call came from someone who said he was the Los Angeles blogger and first novelist Mark Sarvas, who was reading at the store in a few days and seemed to be in a pinch. His car had been impounded, he needed money to get it back and he needed it right away.

“I thought, ‘Why isn’t he calling his wife?’ ” recalled Slattery. “But maybe he can’t reach anybody, maybe he had an extra drink. . . . It never occurred to me that it wasn’t him.

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“So even though I think it’s a little weird that he’s asking me to help him get his car out of impound, I’m also thinking, ‘Well, it’s Saturday night, maybe he couldn’t reach anybody, and you know, I’m going to see him on Tuesday. . . .’ And he didn’t say anything about money for a really long time.”

It was only when she was about to wire the money via Western Union, and having to give a password one too many times, that she began to have second thoughts. “I realized, ‘Oh, my God, I almost sent $200. . . .’ The guy was good.”

Then the author arrived

A similar trap almost caught Diesel’s Evans, who was holding an annual summit of cookbook authors at his store in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood. A few hours before the event, someone who said he was Eric Gower, author of “The Breakaway Cook,” called.

“If it was Eric Gower,” said Evans, “it was a highly altered Eric Gower. He was calling to say, ‘I can’t be there; my car was stolen. I left my keys in my car with my computer, and when I came back from getting something to open it with, there was nothing but broken glass. And the computer had all the pictures I have of my mother.”

Evans’ first response: That’s awful.

But the caller was inconsolable: “Then he very quickly changed gears to, ‘So I need you to send $150 by Western Union, and I can give you all of the information.’ He sounded freaked out, maybe he’s high strung -- you know how chefs can be.”

So as the bookseller considered the details, he realized they didn’t add up. “Now I’m just thinking, ‘Boy, this is too freaky.’ His thing was, ‘If you give me $150 today, I’ll give you $400 tomorrow -- for a hamburger today.’ Basically Eric Gower was dropping in estimation in my mind.”

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That is, until the real Eric Gower showed up a few hours later. “And he was freaked out by the story I told him.”

For the real Breakaway Cook, it was comforting to find out he was not the only one. “The multiplication of these stories took the heat off of him,” Evans said. At first, “it creeped him out; it made him nervous that it was personal.”

Not a new thing

These are not isolated incidents.

“This kind of crime is happening across the board. Individuals are targeted as well as businesses,” said Janet Pope Givens, a spokeswoman for the Pasadena Police Department. “So many times people don’t report them, especially if they haven’t been a victim, so it’s hard to say if it’s increasing or not. We give businesses the same advice we give any individual: Your heart may go out, and they may be very convincing. But you don’t give any money to anyone you don’t know.”

“It’s not new, unfortunately,” said Jennifer Bigelow, executive director of the Southern California Independent Booksellers Assn., who these days is hearing mostly about hoaxes involving bulk orders of textbooks on stolen or bogus credit cards.

The American Booksellers Assn. has recorded few author scams outside California.

But on the West Coast, author hoaxes have not gone away. In some cases, repetition has led booksellers to catch on. Evans has noticed how often “pictures of my mother” segues into a plea for cash.

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After getting a second call, in just a few days, from a writer needing money -- this one purportedly from English writer Nick Hornby -- Book Soup’s Tosh Berman didn’t hesitate to cut him off. “Almost exactly from the script he said, ‘I’m embarrassed to be calling you like this, but I’m at the airport. . . .’

“He really managed the accent,” Berman said of the Hornby impersonator. “I almost fell for it. But I didn’t take that trip.”

Berman speculated that this gang has several members -- one black man, one English guy, one woman -- to make impersonation easier. “It’s like the Mod Squad or something.”

Vroman’s has hung up on someone claiming to be Ray Bradbury and, in late February, Ramos said, Russell Banks.

One of the most unusual incidents took place at Skylight a few years back: Someone called claiming to be the assistant to outspoken liberal commentator Eric Alterman, whose upcoming store appearance was going to be filmed by C-SPAN.

“This is his assistant,” Slattery remembers the caller saying. “He’s not able to talk, he has terrible bronchitis, he’s not going to be able to be there tonight, and he feels terrible about it. We’ll try and see if we can reschedule.”

It was only when the manager called around -- starting with C-SPAN -- that she realized there was no reason to cancel the camera crews.

“It wasn’t about money,” Slattery speculated. “It was probably somebody who didn’t like his politics” trying to sabotage his event.

Why booksellers?

“When you tell people the story,” said Diesel’s Reid, “they don’t believe you didn’t realize it’s a hustle immediately.”

When Bigelow hears of a new scam, she sends out e-mails warning booksellers; she compares the process to warning friends of computer viruses. “Most of my booksellers have become pretty savvy.”

But as with computer viruses -- or a virus in the human body -- hoaxes mutate and evolve no matter what kind of opposition they encounter.

Could these hoaxes be aimed at bookstores out of a sense that they’re run by kind and perhaps gullible people?

“We all think that we’re smart about things,” said the maternal Slattery, who describes herself as “cynical about a lot of stuff.”

Still: “There is this sense that bookstores have this special relationship with authors, that they help them out. And if it had really been Mark Sarvas I definitely would have done it.”

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scott.timberg@latimes.com


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