"Am I a thief?"
When someone asks if they're a thief, an instinctual response is: "Well, if you have to ask. . ." But gut instinct doesn't always yield the best answers. A reader poses the question because, well, her friend called her one.
The cause for the charge centers on a topic regularly raised by readers who write me: Is it wrong to make use of things at a bookstore cafe without paying for them?
Several years ago, I responded to a reader from a leafy suburb of Boston who thought the woman who sat and read a newspaper while drinking her coffee and then refolded the paper and returned it to the rack to be sold was wrong. That coffee shop had a sign that asked readers not to read newspapers before paying for them. I weighed in that the customer was indeed wrong to read without paying.
A reader in Southern California worried she was overstepping by holding small meetings at her local bookstore cafe without all meeting attendees always buying something to imbibe while there. Since some of the folks did always make purchases, I saw no fault in the group's actions.
Now, comes the alleged thief from Ohio.
"On a regular basis, I frequent a large nationally known bookstore to sit and relax," writes the perpetrator. "When I am there, I will read the current magazines that I find interesting. On very rare occasions, I will purchase one that I may find extra interesting. And most of the time I will purchase coffee to sip on when I am relaxing and reading the magazines."
Her friend believes she's a thief. "I have never thought of it that way," she writes. "Am I stealing?
Upon discussing the matter further with the suspect, I discover that there is no sign prohibiting customers from reading publications unless they purchase them, that she returns them to the shelf in pristine condition, and that she purchases coffee 99 percent of the time she sits to read a magazine. While she reads a wide variety of publications including those on home decor, outdoor recreation, health, knitting, crafts and photography, she only buys two or three magazines a year. Her friend tells her that what she's doing is no different from going to the grocery store and eating the food there without paying for it.
The friend's comparison doesn't hold since once you eat the food, it can't very well be returned to the shelf to be sold to a paying customer.
But a larger point is that the bookstore cafe has a right to set whatever policy it wants for its customers. If the management believes that allowing customers to browse magazines while drinking coffee drives up coffee sales, then that's its call. Unlike the suburban customer who broke store policy, the reader from Ohio is doing nothing wrong.
Granted, it would be nice if she and others purchased magazines more frequently to support the business, but the right thing is to honor the rules of the establishment. My reader does this and her friend should back off and perhaps turn her attention to the grocery-sampling thieves who may indeed be stealing.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
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(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.